Saturday, 17 June 2017

A Needless Tragedy

According to Wikipedia Leonardo De Vinci designed a sprinkler system in the 15th century. Da Vinci automated his patron's kitchen with a super-oven and a system of conveyor belts. In a comedy of errors, everything went wrong during a huge banquet, and a fire broke out. "The sprinkler system worked all too well, causing a flood that washed away all the food and a good part of the kitchen."

The Americans then reinvented the idea in the 1870s and started installing sprinklers in their public buildings.

The first tower blocks were built in Britain in 1951.

Why then was it not both possible and a mandatory requirement to install sprinkler systems in all blocks from the very first? It must have been crystal clear that a fire in one flat posed a risk to all other flats in such a building and a risk to the entire structure itself. In addition fire retardant materials were in their infancy in the 1950s and fire alarms, at best, rudimentary.

Aside from the risk of tragedy, there would also be the likelihood of scores of survivors who would need immediate re-housing, as is now the case following what is being described as 'the greatest loss of civilian life in Britain during peace time since WWII'  (70 fatalities confirmed so far with many more individuals still missing). Even before we had a 'national housing crisis', this would have been a real challenge, let alone managing to re-house all the survivors in the same area.

The lack of a sprinkler system in Grenfell Tower was only the start of the horror though. The block did not even have a working fire alarm and nor did the residents seem to ever have known a fire drill. There was also no Fire Certificate. Perhaps worst of all, once the fire was underway, the emergency services started giving out the standard large building advice to 'Stay where you are and await rescue' (advice I have always found profoundly stupid in my career in buildings management). Sadly many residents obeyed and stayed in their flats, only to perish. People who could have lived had they got out the moment they were aware the block was on fire. How in reality would they have been rescued anyway? The PVC windows were fusing in the heat on many flats, there were no balconies and the heat of the fire prohibited helicopters going anywhere near enough to rescue anyone. However many residents (if awoken) would have been unable to see the scale of the fire until it actually reached them, so it is not their fault that they decided to stay dutifully put, assuming it was an isolated flat fire which would be dealt with. The lucky ones were those who listened to their instincts and were in a position to be able to escape from the lower floors just in time, much as there were some horror stories of the single stairwell being blocked by people trying to hump suitcases down with them.

To compound everything, it now emerges that this whole tragedy could have been the result of an aggressive carbon reduction initiative requiring all old blocks to be refurbished at great expense with new boilers, windows and exterior cladding, cladding which far from being fire retardant, appears on film to be acting as an accelerant and combining with the vents underneath to create a 'chimney effect' spreading the fire at a horrifying rate. Indeed these panels have already been banned in the US and Germany, not just owing to their fire weakness, but to the toxic fumes they give off when burning, which can also cause injury and death.

Strange how Green Issues were considered more of a priority than basic fire safety provision and coroner recommendations regarding sprinkler systems following the deadly Lakanal block fire in 2009 had been sat on since 2013. There is also no requirement to retrofit the older blocks with sprinkler systems as all blocks erected post-2007 are required to have. Allegedly fewer than 1% of council and former-council blocks possess a sprinkler system and there are many thousands of such blocks throughout the country, at least 50% of which have now had similar cladding fitted to help meet local authority green targets. To retrofit sprinklers to all is said to be 'impractical' and 'economically unviable', even though the money was found to refurbish the buildings to meet green standards without evacuating the tenants (a friend in Coventry has just been subjected to such inconvenience which took nearly two years and left a lot of shoddy snagging works to be dealt with after).

The Grenfell Action Group residents had repeatedly tried to raise issues about fire safety in the block with their benevolent-sounding management company Kensington and Chelsea Tenant's Management Organisation (KCTMO), but their concerns fell on deaf ears. They also took up their fears with their local MP and the Fire Brigade and were desperately trying to get an enforcement order placed on the building.

Having worked in buildings management for some years, I am entirely on the side of the tenants. I once administered a historic wood-framed former hotel in the middle of Oxford which dated from 1474. It was a huge rabbit warren of a building comprising around 100 rooms with many floors and roofs at crazy angles. Our Surveyor had his work cut out to install a fully-addressable fire alarm system throughout the winding corridors and landings and work out complicated maps of fire escape from each room. On the plus side it was only 4 storeys tall and had at least half a dozen fire exits into internal courtyards and onto the roof. For many years there was a live link to the local fire station so that if the fire alarm went off, it would automatically summon the fire brigade owing to the nature of the building.  I remember how horrified we were when the Fire Brigade cut this link saying we now had to take full responsibility for our own Fire Risk Assessments and for calling out the Brigade ourselves in the event of fire. As a result of this the College had to provide a 24-hour Porter's Lodge as we couldn't afford to take any risks and our insurance wouldn't insure the building otherwise.

While it is suspected the Grenfell fire was originally started by a faulty fridge in a flat on the fourth floor, it will take time for a Public Enquiry to get underway and possibly several years for a full investigation of the entire sequence of events and factors to be completed and the results to be known, let alone for the appropriate heads to roll over this tragedy, preferably with corporate manslaughter sentences ensuing. 

Meanwhile anger is building and it looks increasingly likely this could result in a riot in the richest area of London. Wealthy 21st Century philanthropists; now is your moment if you want to show you care, to open your mansions, wallets and hearts, offer your spare rooms and you could potentially avert the start of a great civil unrest in the capital. A 'war' between rich and poor to put it crudely. Do you really want another Brixton riots in Kensington?

On a final note let's have no more tower blocks in the future as they will never be 100% safe to live in, never mind the enablers of social cohesion, equality, good health and upward mobility their utopian socialist devisors once dreamed in the days when the first residents were only too happy to enjoy the luxury of an indoor bathroom for the first time, after being re-housed from insanitary slums.

Let's have mansion blocks for all -  a proven model of safe, healthy, high density urban living. And with an average lifespan of 200 years, these dwellings are about as sustainable in their carbon construction footprint (a factor conveniently overlooked in this throwaway world) as buildings get. 60% of high rise blocks built pre-1975 have now demolished and few even made it to the 50 year mark before being deemed 'unfit for purpose' and condemned. 

*Edinburgh is a good example of a historically high density city. Granite being so hard to cut in olden times that they had to make the most of every block by building tenement style dwellings from the outset. Another advantage of Granite is that it is one of the best natural fire retardant building materials there is and good at containing fires.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Stop Gaslighting Me!

A few days ago I was walking past a campus bus stop when I heard a young American couple arguing. I slowed my pace in case the girl needed assistance as she was quite a bit smaller than the guy and heard her yell 'Quit gaslighting me! We're done!' before stomping off. The boyfriend looked shocked and eventually walked slowly in the opposite direction.

Impressed by the female student's assertiveness I found myself intrigued to know what 'gaslighting' meant and looked it up (well you've got to keep up with the lingo when you work with students!). Were these two part of some obscure Victorian re-enactment society or something?

I was astonished to find that 'gaslighting' means psychological abuse and takes its name from a period drama film called Gaslight above (1944) in which a man tries to make his new wife think she is going mad by constantly interfering with the gas lighting, among other devices, and then causing her to question her own sanity by denying he has altered anything.

Which reminds me of how Lord Lucan apparently terrorised Lady Lucan in similar vein, trying to get her to accept that any odd incidents were all in her mind as part of his campaign to get her committed as an alternative to an expensive divorce and her being awarded custody of their children. We know the rest of the story from there when that didn't work.

The Yellow Wallpaper was a famous Victorian short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which illustrated the syndrome long before it had a name and in the novel Jane Eyre, we are surely left with many unanswered questions about the crazy wife locked in the attic and what manner of man Mr Rochester truly is, not least since his wife would have to die before he could marry Jane (divorce being considered scandalous and therefore virtually unheard of in those days). As literary scholar John Sutherland so insightfully poses the question in his famous essay on the novel: 'Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?'

In days of yore, many a man on the make would marry a wealthy widow for her money (both the woman and all her worldly goods becoming his goods and chattels upon marriage) and then seek to have her committed, (divorce being scandalous and ruinously expensive and murder being a capital crime). It was only post-WWII that divorce became possible and available for the majority.

So what exactly IS gaslighting and how does one recognise it? The first thing I read is that it's far more common than we think  The second is that you can be gaslighted (or should that be 'gaslit'?) by anyone - a parent, a friend, a boss, a partner, a business associate. It may occasionally be accidental such as a parent snapping 'Now look what you've made me do!' to a child who interrupts them at an inopportune moment, but usually there is an intent to undermine or manipulate someone at the heart of it. It always starts slowly and gently builds up, usually over a long period of time so it will be someone who knows you well and knows what your buttons are.

Signs to look out for:

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself and making 'silly' mistakes if you don't double-check everything.
  2. You feel continually wrong-footed or that you are being dealt curve balls. 
  3. There may be a dim awareness that someone in your life always has to have the upper hand or the last word, as if to keep you in your place, but if it's trivial stuff or the rest of them seems to be 'a good person' you let it pass as it's not worth mentioning.
  4. You start to question if you are too sensitive and emotional. Or not sensitive enough.
  5. You often feel confused and demotivated and have a hard time making simple decisions.
  6. You find yourself apologising far too often.
  7. You can’t understand why you’re unhappy or having feelings of nerves or dread you can't quite put your finger on, or for no apparent reason.
  8. You often make excuses for your partner’s behaviour (if it's your partner).
  9. You feel like you can’t do anything right or that anything wrong that happens is all your fault, even if it isn't.
  10. You often feel like you aren’t good enough
  11. Your abuser will use phrases like 'I am only doing/saying this for your own good' and convince you that everything they say/do is with your best interests at heart. They are often paternalistic in attitude towards you so beware the 'father figure' - unless you are in genuine need of one.
  12. You have the sense that you used to be a more confident, relaxed and happy person
  13. Your run down state may result in health issues such as repeated digestive problems, colds or throat infections - usually signs you are having trouble digesting what is happening to you or speaking up for yourself. A bad back may indicate feeling a lack of support. Physical symptoms are often directly related to your feelings.
  14. You withhold information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain things
  15. You may start to become socially isolated as your confidence evaporates or your abuser may encourage you to distance yourself from people, particularly loved ones, who might notice you've changed and attempt to rescue you or de-program you.
  16. Your abuser will encourage your dependence on them, typically with the belief that they are the only one you can trust.
  17. Worst case scenario: You will question your entire sanity, giving the other party complete power over you.
Some examples.

  • A parent promises their child an ice cream if they wash the car and then later that day when the child has washed the car and asks if they can have the ice cream, the parent denies ever promising it.
  • A woman kicks or punches her partner in his sleep on a regular basis but claims it is an accident or he imagined it.
  • A man has a row with his girlfriend over a trivial matter, but half an hour later denies it ever happened.
  • A woman pretends to like her partner's family and then comes up with all manner of trivial excuses for cancelling visits until much time has gone by and the partner suddenly realises they no longer see their birth family.
  • A boss promises a promotion and then keeps adding new caveats and conditions which have to be met before the employee gets it.
  • A friend does you a favour and then regularly reminds you of the fact indefinitely, conveniently forgetting you have also done plenty for them.
  • A parent withholds love and approval and only grants it when a child does their bidding (ie it's conditional love)
  • A friend says 'You're so pretty (name). If it weren't for that ski slope nose, you'd be perfect.' (beware the back-handed compliment/the compliment with the sting in the tail.)

So if you've experienced any or all of these signs/types of scenario in someone's orbit, ask yourself if you are being gaslighted. I know I have been at various times in my life and I now realise by who and what pattern to look out for.

Finally serious gaslighting is apparently almost exclusively the preserve of the narcissist, so it is most informative to familiarise oneself with this personality type.

We hear a lot about Health and Safety and its unquestionable importance but in this modern world of skyrocketing mental health issues, I think we need to pay a lot more attention to emotional health and safety, both our own and that of those around us. And we need to do this for 'our own good' as well as theirs. We all know the rudiments of bullying, but seldom the subtleties of this dark art and what motives may lie behind it.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Lady Lucan - her story

Lord and Lady Lucan. They look like an iconic 60s British couple, possibly even minor Royalty, with their photogenic looks and well-styled clothes. At one point Lord Lucan was offered a screen test for James Bond. 

Perhaps that is why Lady Lucan clearly finds it hard to let complete go of the glamorous dream which became a nightmare, just as some people struggle to accept that the apparent fairy tale of Charles and Diana should never have happened, and may even still sup from their Royal Wedding commemorative cup.

Yet Veronica Lucan alone emerges from this tragic tale of financial ruin, madness and murder like a 20th Century Victorian heroine, against all the odds, her voice finally heard, to tell her story in full, 43 years after that fateful night.

Some have passed judgement on her, saying she has 'just done it for the money'. I disagree. She has had 43 years in which to cash in on one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century if that were the case. Why wait until she is an old lady and live so frugally and privately all this time when she could have been in clover? It seems more likely that she wants the world to know her side of the story before she dies. Plus she probably could do with a few quid for her twilight years. She may live in a small mews house in Belgravia, but you can't eat bricks and mortar, and she is apparently wholly reliant on her state pension. 

Some have accused her of being 'cold'. Again, I disagree. Not only is she a product of her class and times when the stiff upper lip and farming your children out to nannies was the norm for posh people, but she has necessarily had to build a high wall around her emotions over the years for the sake of her sanity and survival. Her devastation is evidenced in the fact she still lives in her husband's former bolt hole, a stone's throw from the murder house, has never remarried or recommenced a career. She has battled brain injury from her husband's attack and entirely understandable depression from his psychological and physical abuse of her, even before his attempt to murder her. As if all this weren't bad enough, she was subsequently ganged up on by his friends and family who blamed her for 'driving him to it', (if they admitted he had anything to do with it at all - some tried to insist the crime was committed by an unknown intruder), by contesting him for custody of the children following their separation. She then saw her children eventually turned against her by the wealthy relations who offered to look after them for a while as Lady Lucan tried to come off her medications so that she has now not seen them for 35 years, never mind meeting her five grandchildren. 

As for being 'a bad mother' - was she ever given a chance and the right support following the tragedy to become a good one? And let's not forget this is a woman whose husband repeatedly tried to get her declared insane and committed to a mental institution as part of his psychological abuse of her in the years leading up to the crime, with the compromise that she at least agree to take the heavy medication prescribed by his doctor friends to regulate her anxiety and depression for her 'own good' and despite crippling side effects. Certainly she was a financially impoverished mother following the crime and not able to keep her three children in the style to which they had become accustomed, unlike her relations, who were.

And every day. Every day she is haunted by the murder of her nanny, Sandra Rivett, a good and decent woman, who shouldn't have even been in the house on that fateful November night in 1974 were it not for the fact she had asked to switch evenings off in order to spend time with her new boyfriend and Lady Lucan had agreed.  Lord Lucan, having watched the house for some weeks to observe the pattern of comings and goings had been floored by this and assumed the woman making tea in the kitchen - of similar height and build to his estranged wife in the gloom - was his wife. However his horror at realising his mistake once he had bludgeoned the nanny to death did not stop him trying to murder Lady Lucan in the same manner, and it is only by dint of her quick-wittedness, that she managed to distract his attention long enough to flee the house and summon help at the nearest pub, despite severe injuries. However, prior to her escape, he was confident enough of the fact she wouldn't live to tell the tale to admit to her that he had killed the nanny.

I didn't know what to expect when I watched the ITV television interview with Lady Lucan last night but I found myself transfixed by her elegance, her grace, her unflinching honesty and her unfashionable lack of self-pity. There was even a little flash of humour here and there, hints of the sparkling woman she could have been. Even more impressive was her absence of hatred towards all those who had conspired to control her, badmouth her, kill her and finally desert her during her adult life. Ultimately as she admitted, all she had wanted was to have a family who loved her and whom she loved. 

Yet, this simple wish shared by so many, turned out to be an impossible dream which eluded her.  She is a woman who was unlucky in love, and all the other bad things in her life emanated from that simple fact. But like many abused wives, presumably she always lived in hope that Lord Lucan would change, just as he undoubtedly always hoped for that 'big win' which would set him up for life. 'Lucky' Lucan, it turned out, was an ironic nickname as he was never that lucky after his beginner's luck ran out and he subsequently fell under the thrall of John Aspinall and the Claremont Club

Aspinall is said to be the key to the whole mystery of what happened to Lord Lucan, but Aspinall died in 2000 taking any secrets to the grave.

And though Lady Lucan knew Lord Lucan (aka John Bingham) best of all, her theory of what happened to her fugitive husband (she believes he committed suicide by throwing himself onto the propellors of a cross-channel ferry from Newhaven, shortly after the attack) is not even in the top three.

What seems remarkable is that there are still people out there who continue to avow Lord Lucan's innocence of the crime or make excuses for him. As if a blue-blood can do no wrong or should not be expected to live by the same rules as everyone else. Many individuals face financial ruin through gambling addictions and other ill luck, but they don't go around killing people.  Nor had Lady Lucan obstructed his access to the children following their separation to offer any justification for his unconscionable rage. If anything she still loved the idiot and hoped for an eventual reconciliation.

Lady Lucan may not be perfect (she freely admitted she often verbally retaliated quite cruelly herself when her husband provoked her or stayed in bed all day when she was depressed) but what she gave in her television interview was a masterclass in human dignity and survival against the odds. So let's hear no more of this 'victim blaming'. If it's not acceptable to blame any other victim of domestic violence for their fate, why should it be acceptable in Lady Lucan's case, just because she is well spoken?