Thursday, 22 July 2021

Fires: 1981 and 1991

 439 New Cross Road, January 1981

Steve McQueen and James Rogan's mini-series Uprising chronicles dramatic events in South London sparked by a fire which killed 13 young people, and whose origins remain unexplained and disputed.
Full marks to the BBC for showing it on three successive nights in peak time on its main channel. It cannot have been easy to do so, given the Corporation's uneasy relationship with the Johnson administration which gives the impression of being on the side of racists. One wonders if only the award-winning status of the two film-makers enabled it to be made, let alone broadcast. Its painstaking examination of the disaster in New Cross was long overdue, and surely some valuable witnesses must have been lost to the ravages of time. On the other hand, given the rise in resistance to assimilation and civil rights given respectability by the current government and the people behind GB News, it is timely.

As I understand the thesis of the series, McQueen and Rogan see a clear chain of events linking the fire to the Brixton Riots, and possibly "race" riots in other parts of the country (I have not yet seen the concluding part of the series). I can attest to the under-current of racism in the population of 1960s South London and even in the civil service - though not in the newly-joined generation of which I was part, I hasten to add. Among the older generations, then as now, the more highly-educated the person, the less likely they were to be prejudiced. The degree of distrust of the police on the part of Afro-Caribbeans revealed by Uprising was not obvious at the time. It was this mutual lack of faith in the other community which led to two different explanations for the cause of the fire being held by the police and by the local community and the wider black activist movement.

Something else I had not realised was the youth of all the victims. The party was to celebrate the birthday of a teenager. So the image of a riotous assembly by West Indian muggers conjured up by the tabloids could not have been further from the truth. Even the BBC showed prejudice in reporting the deaths of West Indians, whereas all those who died were British, born and brought up here.  The only note of friction seems to have been an argument - not a physical fight - between two lads over a girl. 

In the aftermath, resentment of media treatment increased when the story was swept off the front pages by speculation about Prince Charles' interest in Diana Spencer and the return of the Iran hostages. To that was added disbelief and disappointment when the Queen sent a message of sympathy to the president of Ireland over the Valentine's Day Stardust fire, but nothing to the New Cross community. Prime Minister Thatcher did send condolences, but not to the individual bereaved families, only to a representative of the black community.

So the police line that the fire was started deliberately as a result of a dispute within the community has no basis in evidence. Lack of physical evidence casts doubt on the conclusion by the survivors that an incendiary device had been thrown in to the house. This supposition was based on the deliberate destruction by fire not long before the New Cross Road conflagration of two popular meeting-places in the area, and on the National Front targeting the area for their provocative marches. 

The contribution by a man who was then a young fire investigation officer was valuable. He regretted that the science of arson investigation was then not as sophisticated as it is now. Today, he is not convinced that the conclusion they reached as to the source of the fire was definitely correct. A small tube of an inflammable substance had been found outside the house, but since it had no signs of fire damage, it clearly not have been used to start the fire. Its origin remains unexplained.

In all the painstaking reconstruction by the makers of the series, I believe one line of inquiry was missed. There is a possibility that the physical remains of a petrol bomb or the like were on the site but were removed before it was declared safe for the investigation team to enter. The only person or persons able to do that were firemen. It is not possible that the fire service was untouched by racism, though maybe not to the extent of the Met. I am not accusing the fire crew of the day of covering up evidence, but it is a line of enquiry which does not seem to have been followed if only for elimination purposes.

Knowsley Heights, Huyton, 5th April 1991

Discovered by Inside Housing magazine and reported by both the Liverpool Echo and Private Eye, a fire at an experimental cladding installation in Liverpool was played down by the government. 

the new cladding system on the tower had been recently installed with £915,000 of government grant to test the efficacy of cladding systems for high rises around the country. But in April 1991, shortly after it was installed, a fire started outside the building and ripped up through the cavity between the cladding panels and insulation affecting all 11 floors. This prompted the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to produce a briefing for secretary of state Michael Heseltine about the fire. However, a handwritten note contained in the archives of government documents relating to the fire says: “We have received via [Housing Management Estates Action – the government team administering the funding] a request from M St Press Office to play down the issue of the fire. “Our briefing to the secretary of state is purely factual and as far as I am aware, Knowsley [Council] will not be making an issue of the fire.” 

 The note is signed only with a first name and does not identify the organisation that produced it. M St Press Office is believed to be a reference to Marsham Street, where the press office of the Department of the Environment (which provided funding to the project) is located.

Policy papers and politically sensitive materials are traditionally locked away by the civil service at the time of general elections. Presumably an "electronic lock" is put on the equivalent digital material these days. They are released when a government of the same stripe is installed. Thus the Blair/Brown administrations would not have been made privy to all the policy discussions of Thatcher and Major. But it would have been available to David Cameron in 2010, before the fad for external insulation of high-rise buildings took off. He and Nick Clegg also had the opportunity to review the Thatcher policy of removing the requirement for fire service approval of new buildings. Grenfell could have been prevented.

Labour and the coalition did go some way towards opening up government, making it more transparent to the people who put them in power. The Johnson administration's clear intent to reverse this is dangerous.

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