No More Us and Them?

Image: Steve Hanson

Thursday 9th February, 2017

Steve Hanson

The house I was renting in Manchester was a tiny damp end terrace. I had viewed the place in summer and it seemed fine. It had been the home of an elderly lady until she was unable to cope. The ancient storage heaters stopped working just as the cold kicked in, mid-November, 2014, and black damp patches appeared on the walls. Since then I had been in dispute with the estate agent over the mould that had spread all over my possessions and clothes.

Finally, the estate agent had agreed there was a problem and I arranged for their electrician to come round to change the fuses in the heaters and the radiators started working.

I went to bed early. I had a long day in front of me, teaching at two different sites, followed by meetings until late. I slept until about 1am, when I was woken by a noise. It sounded like something had slid out of place onto the floor.

The walls in the house were thin. I went back to sleep. I heard another noise, this time louder, a pop, then a muted bang. I sat upright: Animated by that rare sick panic that tells you that this time, something really bad is happening.

I ran to the top of the stairs and looked down, the panic spiked into dizzy nausea, at the bottom of the stairs, the wall was waving with weird orange light and shadows from... smoke.

I ran down the stairs and looked around the corner into the living room. The fuse box was ablaze and smoke was pouring out of it, filling the ceiling space. It was crackling and bursting with electrical reactions. Occasionally, a minor explosion would cough what looked like ash and sparks onto the carpet.

I ran to the front door, which was right next to the burning fuse box to grab my keys. I dropped them. I got on my knees, but despite the flickering light from the fire, I couldn't find them. The smoke was filling up. Without the keys I couldn’t get out.

I shouted 'NO, NO, NO' at the blazing fuse box. This seems bizarre now, but I had only just managed to get a place of my own again after a relationship break-up: The wider housing crisis was present right at the heart of the immediate emergency.

Luckily, the knowledge from all the boring health and safety courses I had ever attended kicked in: with an electrical fire I knew I needed to get out. I ran up the stairs. I got my phone. I went back into the bedroom and opened the window. In this room, the double-glazing didn't open at the bottom. There was just a thin, top-opening section. I got up on a chair and managed to shuffle myself halfway through this narrow space. I rang 999.

'Which service please?' I was screaming the answers frantically as I was trying to get out of the window. I was told to calm down. I dropped the phone. It landed on top of the kitchen roof, which was a flat extension out the back of the house. Shit.

I had thought about jumping down from the second floor window onto this first floor roof. But now, as I looked down at my phone, lying flat on the tarpaulin, the roof seemed too flimsy. I could see the smoke thickening in the kitchen. The window was cutting painfully into my belly. I needed to do something, but if I slid forward onto the roof it might collapse. Then I would be back in the fire, potentially injured, or unconscious.

I pulled myself out, falling backwards onto the floor. The smoke was rolling in fat, greasy amorphous sacks across the ceiling and filling up, getting lower. I shut my eyes and inched through it, using my hands on the walls to guide me. I got to the window at the front of the house.

I pushed it open and climbed onto the ledge above the bay window. The fire was right underneath and the living room window cracked in two with a loud bang. I started shouting for help, repeatedly. Nobody came. I started to worry about the fire below. I was trapped between the end of the terrace, with a fall beneath onto spiked railings, and the other end of the bay window above the blazing fuse box.

I started to edge barefoot along the tiling of the bay window roof. Suddenly, someone was shouting at me from the street not to go any further: 'THE ROOF COULD COLLAPSE'. I ignored her and carried on, inching until I reached the next bay window. I still couldn't jump from here because of the spiked railings below, so I kept inching further away.

The fire engine screamed into the street. A ladder came up and I carefully got onto it. By now I felt totally calm. What turned out to be my neighbour from two doors down gave me a towel to wrap around my lower half. I was undignified in just a t-shirt. She was the only person to come out onto the street that night.

The fire brigade urgently asked me questions about the building, who was in there? Anyone else? What sort of fire? Any flammable material? I answered the questions efficiently. It was the weirdest feeling: I felt calmer than I'd ever felt and was feeling calmer by the second. It felt as if I was reaching levels of calmness I had never experienced before, like a drug high of some sort. I can still faintly access this feeling now, writing about it.

The fire crew smashed the door down and began to extinguish the fire. An ambulance arrived and a medic checked me over. I had cut my hands and arm, bruised my shoulder and inhaled some smoke. They wanted to take me to hospital, but I refused to go. I had to sign my own release form.

I waited in the fire engine until the crew gave the all clear, then I pottered around in the house, in the ash and grease, putting things in boxes. The fire engine left, but two men stayed, as they had to dig up the road to neutralize the electricity supply.

There was apparently something dodgy about the way the electricity to the house was connected to the mains. The fuse box exploded one last time, but it took much longer to neutralize the connection under the street.

The day after the fire there was a lot of waiting around for the estate agency to send someone to secure the building. I insisted the agency put me up somewhere and they booked a hotel. Then one of the partners of the estate agency came round, at exactly the same time as the Manchester Evening News reporter. He grew nervous. I told the newspaper to include my name in the article. The estate agency partner asked me to think of his 'business reputation'. I then gave him a sustained verbal assault.

All that morning, insurance middle-men walked straight into the house and tried to pick up the business of the claim. I met some of the persistent requests with unrepeatable sentences, but one man still came back three times, asking me to reconsider taking him on, to deal with the insurance claim on my behalf.

I once said that the book I would take out of a burning building would be Adorno's Minima Moralia. As it happened, I did. There's an aphorism in the book that ends:

People who belong together ought not to keep silent about their material interests, nor to sink to their level, but to assimilate them by reflection into their relationships and surpass them.

We are always told that privatisation and competition creates cornucopias for the service user. But it also often denies the user the full responsibility they are due, in favour of increased profits for company directors and shareholders.

For every member of what the right might label the 'loony left', from now back to the 1970s, there is currently an army of liars and snake-oil salesmen. From company strategists to the men and women on the doorstep who are told what to peddle, who are wired into these nasty circuits, getting unpleasant reactions at every door.

This includes these freelance insurance workers at my door. How do we 'assimilate our material interests by reflection into our relationships and surpass them' when for that to happen, those whose lives are woven into these everyday, routine deceits - estate agents, insurance parasites – need to reconnect with their fellows in a different way?

Direct intervention from Mars tomorrow morning is more likely: Adorno would not be able to breathe the early 21st century air.

Eventually, with the help of my father and friends, we packed up and left the burned-out house. I checked into a hotel in the city centre with Minima Moralia in my bag, still covered in soot. I left a black greasy smear on the white, pristine counter. People were staring. In my room I cleaned up as best I could, whilst drinking a bottle of red wine I had picked up. I emailed the agency asking what they would do next and then I passed out.

When I woke I checked my email to see the agency had refused me any more time in the hotel. This was a ‘courtesy’, a ‘one-off’. I emailed back saying that as their business was letting couldn't they just re-house me? I made my way to my parents' place in Yorkshire. By the time I got there the agent had replied, coldly stating that of course I could apply to view properties, but only via the usual procedures.

I spent a couple of days recovering at my parents. Then I presented myself to Manchester City Council, at the town hall. I waited around all day and was eventually told I could go into a hostel if I really needed to. I decided that was for others. The streets were filled with people in sleeping bags, in doorways, in tents, without somewhere to stay. The hostels were for them. I went back to my folks' place.

Then came a long, tedious attempt to get some sort of justice: The fire service diagnosed the cause as faulty wiring, probably triggered by a fuse that was too big. They reported, but nobody, from Council to Insurance Underwriter to Ombudsman would pursue the estate agent or landlord; they all said that the housing market was so deregulated it would be impossible.

The Ombudsman, the last stop in this process, said they would not take on cases they couldn’t win and they had decided this one was unwinnable, despite the clear evidence from the fire crew. It was nearly impossible to get a solicitor to take it on, most of them refused to say why, some said that it was not their usual line of work, and when I did find one who would take it they were way beyond my financial means.

During this period the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) went on strike. They were fighting closures and therefore reduced response times. This made me reflect: What if the fire brigade hadn't been so quick and I had been left on the roof? What if I had been elderly, disabled, unable to get downstairs, let alone out of a window? The elderly lady who lived in the house before me would almost certainly have died. What if I had never been on a health and safety course because of education cuts? What if I had nowhere to go after the fire?

My account is from someone who, although getting by on temporary work, has a relatively decent earning power. Yet that dump of a place was all I could afford. I had been subject to completely feckless estate agents behavior and had to get somewhere fast.

I suffered some post-traumatic stress. One of the symptoms of this was photographing my storage unit padlock so that I could check I had locked it later. This then spread to photographing every door I locked. The PTS didn't last long, but I sometimes wonder what longer term trauma was buried under the sheer expediency of getting through: the cuts to mental health services are also significant.

All of these issues came together in December 2016, in the horrifying fire in Manchester's Chinatown, which resulted in the deaths of two rough sleepers nicknamed Uncle Albert and Popeye. But we need to connect all this up fully: To all the cuts people have to endure, to the greed that drives the rental housing market, to Capital's sickening, obscene bailout after 2008; then more cuts; the housing crisis; the homeless crisis; the NHS and mental health; then cuts to the fire service.

But the final connection is this: Those people you read about, lying face down dead, they are us; they do not exist in a separate universe, with a different logic to the one we inhabit; they are us and we are them, we are the ones who will burn to death, I nearly did. It is time to do something about that.

Steve Hanson works as a lecturer, writer and researcher. His first book Small Towns, Austere Times, was published by Zero in 2014. His second volume, A Book of the Broken Middle, is currently being finished.

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