TUNNEL VISION

Considering all the cynical baggage accumulated on life’s journey, retaining a little lingering magic in relation to a specific source of childhood fascination doesn’t do any harm; even if utterly illogical, it serves a purpose as a welcome interlude from the grown-up grind. I’ve often found that magic via the London Underground. Yes, we’re all aware of its numerous faults and no sane person would use it during the rush hour unless work made doing so an unavoidable necessity; but for me it’s the nearest non-Time Lords can get to owning a Tardis. You arrive in one station, jump on the train, you arrive at another station that looks like the one you just left, you travel up the steps and you’re in a completely different corner of the capital without having witnessed the route from A to B as one would over-ground. I’m well aware of the science, but it’s still magical to me.

However, from its innovative inception in 1863, the London Underground has regularly inspired as much dread in some as it has magic in others. A train service that could travel below the surface of the great metropolis naturally provoked shivers; perhaps it was the thought of people being ferried about in a neighbourhood previously reserved for the dead. These kinds of associations have continued to exert an influence over popular culture’s view of the Tube, something the numerous abandoned lines and ‘ghost stations’ have aided and abetted.

The 1967 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Web of Fear’, played on these old superstitions by taking Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and his companions deep underground, where the alien Yeti were plotting world domination; and anyone who has seen the 1972 horror movie, ‘Death Line’, will never have heard the familiar Tube phrase ‘Mind the Gap’ in quite the same way since. But there have also been occasions in which genuine horrors have visited these subterranean departure lounges; and while they remain amongst the most used suicide sites in London (643 were attempted across the network in the decade from 2000-10), death has often struck without premeditation.

Bethnal Green 1943, Moorgate 1975 and King’s Cross 1987 – three stations and three dates that marked a trio of disasters. The first was an awful accident, a stampede to Bethnal Green Tube Station’s wartime use as a makeshift air-raid shelter when the crowd mistakenly believed an air-raid was taking place; 173 were crushed in the panic, mostly women and children. It’s believed to be the largest single loss of civilian life during WWII on the home-front. The cause of the Moorgate tragedy of 1975 remains disputed, though many have accepted the driver drove into the tunnel end beyond the platform, killing himself and 43 passengers in an act of suicide. The King’s Cross fire of 1987 killed 31 and was thought to have begun when a lit match or cigarette ignited debris beneath the wooden escalators that were subsequently replaced; the incident also marked the start of a more rigorous enforcement of the Tube’s smoking ban.

There have also been more deliberate attempts at slaughter below street level. The IRA had a crack as far back as 1939, during a mainland bombing campaign that tends to be overshadowed by other events of that year; their more well-known assault on the city from 1973-76 saw various stations targeted, though the intended roll-call of casualties was mercifully small. It wasn’t until the 7/7 attacks of 2005 that the London Underground was the scene of a successful terrorist outrage, with an overall death-toll of 52. For many, the carnage of 7 July 2005 served as a good reason to avoid the Tube altogether, though as we have come to belatedly realise this year, any location in which crowds of people are liable to gather will suffice. Perhaps it’s the instinctive fear of being trapped underground that imbues this particular method of transport with such horrific resonance for many.

Today’s events at Parsons Green seem to have been the work of an amateur or maybe the mechanism simply cocked-up at the crucial moment. The home-made device was planted in a bucket inside a carrier bag in a carriage travelling along the District Line from Wimbledon and was detonated as the train was pulling into the station; its detonation appeared to cause what has been described as a ‘wall of fire’ that left 22 commuters with burns. Taking place at the height of the rush hour (around 8.20am), the device was obviously designed to provoke greater damage than it turned out to and police have already claimed to have identified a suspect via CCTV footage.

I think we can all probably write the script of what follows next, though the surname of the suspect and the mosque he frequented will remain a mystery until all is eventually revealed as the event continues to play out on rolling news channels for the next 24 hours. The well-oiled counter-terrorist machine rattled into action minutes after panicked passengers exited Parsons Green and the obligatory COBRA summit was arranged in record time. But will any of that mean we can sleep easy in our beds? Well, I reckon those of us who don’t suffer from insomnia probably do so regardless of whatever lunacy is currently gripping the waking world. The real concern surrounds public, rather than private, places.

For some it’s simply a convenient means to get from one part of London to another; for others it’s an unnatural incursion into a netherworld that should never have been disturbed; for some it’s a nightmarish, claustrophobic approximation of life as a sardine; and for others it’s one of the greatest engineering achievements those ingenious Victorians left behind for us. It’s all of these things and more, both good and bad. All that life can afford, as Dr Johnson might have said.

© The Editor

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WHAT A WASTE

The convenient aspects of plastic, at least from the corporate perspective, have facilitated its compulsory usage in all manner of household goods over the last half-century, though the belief that plastic goods have easy disposability when compared to the wood, glass or tin objects that preceded them is something of a fallacy when it comes to their actual disposal. The substance in its myriad forms possesses a notoriously slow rate of decomposition, and one that has served to inflict long-term damage on our oceans as well as even the world beyond our earthbound atmosphere. Any manned spacecraft launching into space has to contend with the proliferation of plastic-based junk jettisoned by earlier missions and the perennial dangers of discarded plastic trash on undersea life-forms is one that the creatures we share our planet with have to contend with on a daily basis.

There are occasions, however, when we are confronted by the realities of plastic’s ‘convenience’ – or at least those whose job it is to deal with the ramifications of our dependence on it are. The revolutionary and intricate London sewer system, devised by the visionary Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s, arose from decades of open sewers and indoor cesspits in the capital that gave rise to regular outbreaks of cholera amongst the poor, not to mention the notorious Great Stink of 1858, when the accumulated combination of human effluence and animal carcasses that flooded into the Thames doused London in a noxious odour that, once it breached the barriers of Parliament, prompted belated action.

Londoners had become begrudgingly accustomed to the nauseous aromas that infected the city every summer by the middle of the nineteenth century; but advances in medical science and a growing awareness that the traditional theory of disease being transmitted on the air was little more than a glorified old wives’ tale led to demands for something to be done. It’s also worth noting that the establishment of cemeteries in this country came about due to the increasingly limited burial space in churchyards; when bodies were being piled so high that they were barely a few feet from the surface, any serious flooding could cause recently-interred cadavers to be uprooted and swept away, usually finding their final resting place in the river, a major source of London’s drinking water. Hygiene was certainly in short supply at the time, but have we advanced much since?

150 years later, though the sewer network Bazalgette mapped-out remains an effective barrier to outbreaks of diseases that were once commonplace in this country, it is nevertheless struggling to cope with a factor Bazalgette couldn’t have foreseen – the legacy of the contemporary dependency on plastics. In 2013, the London sewer system was faced with a new phenomenon called a ‘fatberg’. For those not in the know, a fatberg is perhaps the most apt physical manifestation of the consumer society and the inbuilt obsolescence of its produce: a hideous greasy ball of wet wipes, used nappies, condoms and other undesirable articles that hundreds of idiots flushed down the toilet rather than chuck in the bin – all assembling into one repugnant juggernaut of garbage that was out of sight and out of mind to those free from the job of dealing with it.

This particular congealed turd weighed 15 tonnes and was the size of a Routemaster bus, blocking a tunnel in Kingston-upon-Thames and presenting sewer staff with quite a challenge. Four years on, another colossal accumulation of Londoners’ carelessness has clogged-up one more corner of Bazalgette’s network, this time in Whitechapel. The latest fatberg is estimated at 250 metres long and is reckoned to weigh the best part of 130 tonnes. To put that into perspective, this fatberg is the equivalent weight of 520,000 packets of lard or 11 double-decker buses; it measures 6 metres longer than Tower Bridge.

Matt Rimmer, one of the lucky souls entrusted with removing the vile discharge of twenty-first century acquisitiveness, describes it as ‘a total monster’, adding ‘It’s basically like trying to break up concrete.’ The unenviable task of dislodging the oily carbuncle is in the hands of eight men charged with the responsibility. To do so, they need to call upon high-pressure hoses they hope will suck it bit-by-bit into tankers that they then intend to drive to a Stratford recycling site. Recruitment ads for their particular profession wouldn’t be the easiest sell imaginable.

The London sewer system proved to be a blueprint for the provincial metropolises that sprouted in the wake of the Industrial Revolution; a growing population naturally required a greater emphasis on waste disposal, though this initially centred on the waste emanating from the human body. Few could have anticipated a system superbly tailored for this kind of waste would eventually have to cope with disposable goods, for disposable goods on the scale we’re used to today were largely unknown at the time of its design. The convenience of these goods only covers the period in which we make use of them; once they need replacing, we want rid of them ASAP. What becomes of them thereafter is someone else’s problem. That’s the theory, anyway; the reality is considerably more gruesome.

© The Editor

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GARDENERS’ QUESTION TIME

Maybe a glorified paddling pool was the most fitting tribute to our ‘Queen of Hearts’; the Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, which opened to an underwhelming fanfare in 2004, was, like the public image of the woman it was supposed to be a tribute to, an impressive triumph of style over substance. In the years immediately following the premature death of the former Princess of Wales, many such fanciful schemes were suggested, some considerably abstract and bearing little obvious relation to the woman herself. Perhaps the unintentionally hilarious statue of Diana and Dodi in Harrods was at the forefront of the minds concocting these prospective memorials.

Joanna Lumley, an actress who doesn’t seem to act very much anymore, suggested a ‘floating paradise’ as one more bizarre tribute to Diana barely a year after events in Paris; this somewhat vague concept eventually morphed into the notion of a bridge that also doubled up as a garden – with or without the Diana brand attached to it. Following her successful campaign to gain Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK, Lumley suddenly had a public platform that proved immensely attractive to politicians hoping some of Purdey’s star quality would rub off on them. One such politician was the ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson. Riding high on the PR victory of the 2012 London Olympics, Bo-Jo gave the green light to what became the London Garden Bridge project.

Ah, yes – the Garden Bridge. It is now officially an ex-bridge, bereft of life and all that. The ambitious (if rather impractical) idea of another shortcut across the Thames that would serve as a novel rural facsimile in the heart of the capital looked good on paper, yes; but the proposed location wasn’t a part of London in desperate need of another bridge and the locals whose lives would be disrupted by its protracted construction weren’t even consulted as Boris took it upon himself to be the project’s salesman; when he gained planning permission in 2014, Johnson’s record in facilitating the ongoing despoiling of the capital’s skyline by constantly ruling in favour of developers over opposition didn’t give cause for optimism.

Initially, the public were told the bridge would be financed by private investors, but the struggle to raise the required funds necessitated the diverting of taxpayers’ money into the project – a total that now stands at around an estimated £46.4m. As Chancellor, George Osborne promised Boris £30m from the public purse, and a chunk of that squandered cash found its way into the black hole of the Garden Bridge courtesy of David Cameron; Dave ignored the advice of his civil servants by throwing more taxpayer’s money at it when the failure of recruiting enough private investors revealed a £56m shortfall in the accounts of the trust set up to handle the lucre.

The Garden Bridge had its critics from day one; they viewed it as an expensive vanity project that could be to Cameron’s Government what the Millennium Dome was to Blair’s. Its proponents, such as chairman of the trust, Lord Davies, claimed the Bridge would be a ‘beautiful new green space in the heart of London’; but it’s not as though Central London, for all its traffic bottlenecks and overcrowded pavements, doesn’t already have an abundance of spacious parks and green squares to breathe in – most of which have been part of the London landscape for well over a century.

The Garden Bridge could well have gone ahead as a felicitous white elephant for Japanese tourists if enough private investors had been prepared to pay for its construction as well as the projected £3m a year needed for maintenance once open; but for so much public money to have been squandered on ‘a public space’ without public consultation is outrageous, especially now the whole thing has been abandoned.

A review into the project chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge was severely critical of the methods of raising money for it and also of Boris Johnson for his inability to justify the public expense; Hodge’s conclusion was that it would be better to call time on the Garden Bridge before any further costs were unwittingly incurred by taxpayers. Johnson’s successor as London Mayor Sadiq Khan has finally pulled the plug on it following the findings of the review, though some say he could have spared even more expense had he done so earlier; his predecessor claims Khan has killed the Bridge out of spite, saying ‘The Garden Bridge was a beautiful project and could have been easily financed’, though his own failure to finance it without regular recourse to the public purse hardly backs up his response to the Mayor’s belated decision.

As another cheerleader for the Garden Bridge, even Lord Davies admitted earlier this year that the project was not currently ‘a going concern’. The trust still hadn’t purchased the land on the South Bank of the Thames that would serve as the bridge’s southern landing and no private investors have been persuaded to part with their pennies for a full twelve months. The total provided by private investors is alleged to be around £70m, though how much of the public money wasted on the project was spent on courting potential private investors is unknown.

Ultimately, the London Garden Bridge can join a list of other intended attractions for the capital that never made it beyond the drawing board, though some came closer to succeeding. Watkin’s Tower, London’s planned answer to the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s which, had it been completed, would still be taller than the Shard, made it as far as 154ft before being abandoned and then demolished, eventually making way for Wembley Stadium. But it’s interesting to note that one of the proposed ideas for the Wembley site prior to the partial construction of the Tower was a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, in which food would be grown in hanging gardens. Perhaps the committee responsible for the Garden Bridge should have studied their London history books beforehand.

© The Editor

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THIS CORROSION

A notorious scene in the cult crime serial from the late 60s, ‘Big Breadwinner Hog’, jammed ITV switchboards at the time of its original broadcast; in it, a gangster throws acid in the face of a rival. The scene is unusually violent for 1969 and still seems pretty horrific today; indeed, the relative rarity of such a vile crime gives it added shock value. Unfortunately, the stringent gun laws in this country and the heavy sentences for knife crime have now forced real-life villains into utilising what was an unusual weapon in a make-believe drama fifty years ago, making it a grim and gruesome reality.

It doesn’t really do much for one’s diminishing faith in human nature when human beings are so inventive at devising new and unpleasant means of inflicting pain upon their fellow man. The news that two teenagers (aged just 15 and 16 respectively) have been arrested in the unlovely London borough of Hackney following five separate and unimaginably awful acid-throwing sprees from a moped last night is the latest in an increasing series of robberies and attacks involving corrosive substances in the capital; while some are believed to be gang-related, others appear callously random, done without either knowledge of or, (more likely) an absolute disregard of, the serious disfiguring damage acid can cause.

Throwing acid is not a specific crime in itself; most arrested for it have been charged with GBH, whereas knife attacks are regarded as attempted murder. The easy availability of corrosive substances and the fact sentencing isn’t in line with knife crime combine with relative ignorance of the long-term effects acid can have on victims of it. In a week in which some brain-dead chavvy dimwit hit the headlines by subjecting her baby to utterly unnecessary and unbelievably cruel cosmetic surgery in the shape of ear-piercing, it’s worth realising surgery of a different nature is the usual aftermath of an acid attack; the most serious injuries can require upwards of 20 painful plastic surgery operations, and even then the legacy of the damage done is usually evident somewhere on the body.

There is also understandable psychological damage caused by acid attacks, something partially dealt with by a charity called Acid Survivors Trust International. Although there have been a small handful of well-publicised acid attacks in recent years, many have been on pretty girls whose jilted lovers or spurned stalkers have sought to ruin the looks of. The current rise of such attacks in London has largely been reserved for men, and the increase now means, according to the Acid Survivors Trust International, the UK is the shameful world leader in them.

In this country, there are no age restrictions on purchasing household cleaning products that contain acid; some of the few restrictions are related to bulk-buying of such goods for businesses, something that falls under ‘explosives, precursors and poisons’ rules; another restriction is on the sale of sulphuric acid, though mainly due to its status as a potential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. Otherwise, anyone can buy a bottle that can easily become a dangerous weapon, though why would anyone be carrying a bottle in their jacket pocket unless intending a premeditated attack? Only last month, two men were seriously maimed when acid was thrown at them through their car window; and there was an equally appalling attack at a Hackney nightclub in April that left 20 people with severe burns and two blinded in one eye.

Police figures released earlier this year showed acid attacks had risen from 261 in 2015 to 458 in 2016; a third of them took place in the east London borough of Newham, with few making it to trial. 74% of cases from 2014 onwards were abandoned due to the reluctance of many victims to press charges, which would certainly support the theory that corrosive substances have become key weapons in gang-related violence. Still, since 2010, there have been 1,800 reported cases, which make for pretty depressing reading.

Gang culture itself is a side-effect of poverty and urban depravation, when those who feel they have nothing will grab at anything that provides them with the status and importance that cleaning tables wearing a paper hat probably doesn’t. Not much gang-related crime in Chipping Norton, one imagines. And, of course, gang culture as a product of poverty is nothing new; some of the worst poverty-stricken areas of the UK have had gang violence as part of their makeup for centuries; one could go back to the infamous Gorbals tenements of Glasgow in the 1930s or even to Fagin’s den of thieves in ‘Oliver Twist’ for evidence of that. The weapons of choice have depended on how far gangs have progressed to professional organised crime ala the Krays or the Richardsons, from razors to knives to guns and now to corrosive liquids.

Even if one takes gang culture into account where the current upsurge in acid attacks is concerned, however, the likelihood of someone who has no connection with gangs being targeted just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time seems extremely high. When gang members are busy killing each other or their rivals, it’s easy to step back and leave them to it; when members of the public are added to the hit-list, as appeared to be the case in the barbaric series of assaults in Hackney last night, then it becomes particularly scary for everyone. And that’s when action is usually taken. We can only hope that this time it is.

© The Editor

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES

‘They thought they could snub the conventions of decent society when they seized the sixty-room mansion and transformed it into hippie house!’ No, not a Daily Mail leader, but the booming tones of the British Pathé News reporter covering the end of the celebrated squat at 144 Piccadilly in 1969. The film clip covering the Met’s raid on the property after it had been taken over by the London Street Commune, a loose collective of ‘hippies’ formed to highlight homelessness in the capital, is unsurprisingly one-sided in its perspective as what the narrator describes as ‘the spongers who call themselves hippies’ are evicted from the residence they’d occupied for a week. The commentary goes onto say ‘by their shameless actions, (they) disparage the plight of decent people who cannot find homes’. Decent as in those who regularly visit a barber, one wonders?

There’s no doubt what began as an admittedly ‘radical’ (in the jargon of the time) attempt to bring homelessness to the public’s attention worked as a PR campaign, and whilst there would have been deserving cases taking advantage of the operation, there would also have been a fair few rich kids slumming it and bumming around from one squat to another as they indulged in a bit of counter-cultural backpacking; the additional infiltration of Hell’s Angels and drug-dealers then made its dramatic ending inevitable. But the roots of many homeless charities we take for granted today were in such stunts and in that respect they served a purpose, even if the media coverage was more or less entirely from the viewpoint of the short-back-and-sides generation.

It’s interesting when watching the Pathé report to notice that virtually all of those being herded out of 144 Piccadilly look to be under 30. A good half-decade of Swinging London propaganda had attracted young people to the capital from across the globe, like monochrome moths drawn to a psychedelic flame, even though many of those arriving soon found themselves in a similar situation to the one that befell the lead character in Ken Loach’s landmark BBC TV play ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966. Today, London retains its attractiveness to the overseas eye, though there’s a glaring divide between those imported as a cheap labour force (with employers recycling the hackneyed excuse that ‘British workers won’t do these jobs’) and those with the big bucks to buy up huge chunks of the capital.

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the early hours of Wednesday morning has already been politicised, though not necessarily by politicians themselves. Whilst the cause of the appalling event would appear to have been an accident, the shoddy corner-cutting workmanship and lacklustre fire safety precautions that enabled the inferno to take hold of the tower block with such frightening speed seems to be symbolic of a vast chasm between rich and poor, not just in the capital as a whole, but in one specific corner of it, where the haves and have-nots sit cheek-by-jowl. London Mayor Sadiq Khan received a rough ride from residents when he attempted to give a media statement at the site, whereas Theresa May’s decision to avoid residents and speak to fire-fighters away from cameras and microphones was the latest PR own-goal of a PM giving Gordon Brown a run for his money in the ‘most unsuitable candidate for the job ever’ stakes.

Far be it from me to imply there’s any political mileage to be got out of this terrible disaster, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to have captured the mood of the moment in a completely natural manner that contrasts sharply with his awkward opposite number in Westminster. His ease with the general public has been demonstrated yet again in the wake of Wednesday’s events; of course it won’t do him any harm with the electorate, though it really would be churlish to suggest his visit to North Kensington and to the church where many of the survivors have congregated was some sort of points-scoring exercise. If it was, then he once again trounced Mrs May, who doesn’t seem capable of doing anything right at the moment.

During an emergency session of Parliament, briefly recalled to respond to the tragedy, Corbyn made a salient point about the housing crisis in London. ‘It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said, and then added: ‘Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally.’

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is (lest we forget) Labour, though it has emerged she was actually on the board of the discredited quango running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the one that gave the green light to the fatal refurbishment of the block last year. That naturally doesn’t look good, though this fact has been overshadowed by the predictably hysterical headlines from the likes of the Mail claiming Jezza has called for private property to be ‘seized’ for the benefit of those made homeless by what happened at Grenfell Tower. This isn’t another example of his so-called ‘Robin Hood’ policies, but seems to me a genuine attempt to once more underline the social inequalities of life in the capital.

It goes without saying that these social inequalities have been part of London life for centuries; after all, what better chronicler of the capital than Dickens, who documented the disparity between rich and poor in fictional form over 150 years ago? Yet, the nightmarish scenario in North Kensington now looks like something that was a long time coming, just as the collapse of the Savar sweatshop in Bangladesh was in 2013. Jeremy Corbyn has managed to articulate the anger arising from Grenfell Tower better than any other politician, but people are angry. And they’ve every bloody right to be. That’s why they stormed Kensington Town Hall today. This could prove to be a crucial turning point in the way this country is run as much as Hillsborough was for the way our national sport is run. Time will tell.

© The Editor

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CLAD IN BLACK

I suppose there’s a genuinely valid point to be made about the manner in which Central London has descended into a shameless, superficial whore exclusively opening her legs for every disgustingly wealthy, greedy, grasping Oligarch and Arab to buy her favours and own her outright. Maybe. The appalling inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the wee small hours has led to a loss of life that we’ve yet to be told the extent of; but the suggestion that the spread of the fire may have been caused by the cladding recently installed around the tower’s exterior in order to make a characteristically ugly 70s council block more aesthetically easy on the eyes of the building’s luxury apartment neighbours could be summarised as the story of our capital city over the last twenty-five years in a nutshell.

The shocking extent of the blaze, engulfing what appeared to be the entire building, was reminiscent of a similarly horrific fire that destroyed the Summerland entertainment centre on the Isle of Man in 1973. Summerland had been opened for just two years, boasting swimming pools, games rooms, restaurants and dance halls all under one roof; it was intended to increase tourism by appealing to families, but the untested modern materials used in the building’s design proved to be fatal for those trapped inside when a fire broke out on 2 August 1973. The fact the fire exits were locked and bolted to prevent people sneaking-in without paying exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded, one that eventually claimed up to 53 lives – at the time, the worst loss of life via fire since the Blitz.

Images of the gruesome Summerland carcass were echoed in North Kensington today; the charred remains of Grenfell Tower even resemble a hideous evocation of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, whilst the horror of a tower block going so badly wrong is reminiscent of the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London, in 1968. And if the insulation wrapped around the building was indeed to blame for the speed with which flames swamped the building, there’s a hell of a lot of questions requiring answers.

Part of a social housing complex of the kind we will probably never see erected again – certainly not in Central London – Grenfell Tower has stood for 43 years. It was only last year that an £8.6 million refurbishment under the guise of ‘regeneration’ came to that corner of the capital, motivated in part by a desire to upgrade the appearance of the building, surrounded as it is by the architectural hallmarks of the mega-rich that have indulged in a ghastly game of Monopoly in recent decades. Planning documents for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower claimed the changes, little more than cheap cladding suggesting ‘gentrification’ of the shallowest order, was clearly intended to improve the view seen from apartments of a different nature in the nearby neighbourhoods.

It’s emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that residents had repeatedly aired fears of the block’s safety relating to fire, and it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the materials used to insulate the tower were not necessarily the expensive variety proven to be non-flammable; such cladding is apparently commonplace when it comes to representatives of an unfashionable architectural era and corners are undeniably cut, especially when the residents of such residences are amongst the poorest in London. Fires have broken out in other London tower blocks in the last few years, few of which actually contain sprinklers; but it would seem potential dangers have been overlooked and ignored. And look at where that has got us.

An early and somewhat unlikely story of the fire starting via a tenant’s exploding fridge appeared to be one of those that are usually circulated, especially in the 24/7 news age, before facts have been established. But it’s seeming more and more likely that the materials used for the cladding of the building played a large part in the terrible disaster that has reduced what was home to hundreds of people to a charcoal skeleton akin to those we’re familiar with seeing in archive film of the Blitz. An outsourced private company running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council had been criticised by residents associations online long before what happened last night, but ears have been deaf to such protests until now. And now it’s too late.

ANITA PALLENBERG (1944-2017)

A Swinging 60s It Girl and one of many women whose immersion in the unhealthy circle of The Rolling Stones both made her and came close to claiming her, Anita Pallenberg was one of her era’s most exotic and alluring butterflies. Of Italian and German descent, she’d been amongst the hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory until leaving New York for London; she then became the woman on the arm of the Stones’ most stylish member, Brian Jones, with the couple morphing into the stunning Siamese Twins of what Twiggy’s mentor and manager Justin de Villeneuve referred to as ‘the new social aristocracy’.

However, Jones was a troubled soul and it would seem the pair weren’t exactly well-suited; an ill-fated trip to Morocco with Brian and Keith in 1968 saw Pallenberg swap partners; she and Keith were partners in both the romantic and narcotic sense for the best part of a decade, though she bore him three children. Early on in their relationship, she played one of Mick Jagger’s two female companions in the sublimely dark ‘Performance’, a part that Keith remains convinced wasn’t entirely acted.

Anita Pallenberg had a few more notable movie roles, including a deliciously sexy villainess in Roger Vadim’s ‘Barbarella’, but her reputation as a Swinging 60s survivor in the decades thereafter was largely based on ‘Performance’. I pen this brief obituary because that film, as disturbing as it occasionally is, remains one of the most unforgettable and irresistible cinematic temptations I’ve ever been seduced by. Part of me still wants to be Turner Purple and still wants to inhabit that malevolently erotic household; Anita Pallenberg sold a dream that was also a nightmare, but I can’t see anyone today opening such a lascivious portal to such a divinely decadent world; and our world is all the blander for it.

© The Editor

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A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Viewed now almost as an appendage to Parliament, Westminster Bridge was once a tourist attraction for all the right reasons. During the construction of the original in the 1740s, the fact it was only the second major bridge erected in central London since Roman times provoked both excitement and opposition. The latter came from the Thames watermen, whose taxi service ferrying people from one side of the river to the other was perceived to be under threat; for centuries, old London Bridge, that marvellous medieval bottleneck crammed with houses and shops and permanently congested with traffic, had been the sole man-made edifice enabling the Thames to be crossed without the need for hailing a boat.

The sudden appearance of a new bridge was so novel a sight that during one of the periodical winters when the Thames froze over and a frost-fair was held on the river, the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge served as part of the entertainment as visitors paid to stand atop them for a unique view of the city. This version of Westminster Bridge survived for just over a century before the current model replaced it, but it remains the oldest working bridge still in use in the capital.

Moving on, say the words Westminster Bridge to TV viewers of a certain age and chances are they’ll think of that iconic shot of the Daleks from the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; the Time Lord’s arch-enemies gliding along the bridge with Big Ben behind them seemed to enhance their menace. A Surrey quarry masquerading as an alien landscape was one thing, but the natives of Skaro intruding on home territory convinced children they could turn a corner and run into a Dalek on their own high-street.

Of course, Westminster Bridge has now been added to the annals of infamous London locations on account of events that took place there yesterday, effectively erasing all past associations from the popular imagination. The Daleks are the kind of fantasy embodiment of evil we can understand and be excited by, just as we can Dracula or Darth Vader; but the greatest evil, as always, is harboured within man himself, not the creatures he creates. Patrick McGoohan got that when he revealed Number One in the controversial climax of ‘The Prisoner’ as being Number Six all along.

Any individual who can deliberately drive a car into a random selection of pedestrians and then stab a man to death either because he was wearing a particular uniform or simply because he got in the way inhabits a different league altogether, one that provokes repulsion and bewilderment because it bears so little relation to the evil of fiction that we’ve been familiar with ever since being told the story of the Big Bad Wolf’s encounter with Little Red Riding Hood as children. The real bogeyman isn’t a comfortable caricature, but too close to the realities of the dark side in all of us. Just make sure you get his name right.

Yes, it seems apt, considering the topic of the previous post, that the rush to be first with the facts following yesterday’s incident resulted in a catastrophic faux-pas on the part of ‘cool’ Channel 4 News, which tries so hard to be the ‘Magpie’ to Newsnight’s ‘Blue Peter’. With veteran host Jon Snow at the helm, a man who seeks to combine the broadcasting gravitas of David Dimbleby with the wacky tie wardrobe of Richard Whiteley, ably assisted by both Cathy Newman (a woman whose serious news presenter credentials have often been undermined by the occasional glimpse of stocking-top – check YouTube for evidence) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (a man whose fat neck seems in constant danger of absorbing his entire head), the programme was caught out as it jumped the gun far too early in the aftermath of the afternoon’s confusion by naming the assailant.

Unfortunately, the man they named – Trevor Brooks AKA Abu Izadeen, a disciple of fellow jail-bird Anjem Choudary – happens to be serving a prison sentence at the moment and therefore couldn’t have been behind the wheel on Westminster Bridge. But he’s a fat ‘coloured’ bloke with a big beard, so the cock-up is understandable, eh? Sacrificing fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to be first off the blocks in the perennial battle with Sky and the Beeb, Channel 4 News blew it big time and became a Twitter laughing-stock last night, even removing the offending section from the sixty-minute delay of the Channel 4 +1 service so their glaring error couldn’t be watched again. But the damage was already done.

As expected, the trickle of misinformation that occupied the hours following yesterday’s events was eventually superseded by a clearer picture of what happened and who was actually involved. The dead have been named, as has the perpetrator of the incident, and his name isn’t either Trevor Brooks or Abu Izadeen, surprisingly. It should serve as a warning to rolling news channels and all media outlets that deal with the news to make sure they get their facts right before broadcasting them, though I doubt they’ll take heed of the warning; the competition is too intense and the self-inflicted pressure to get a scoop to the public before the competitors do so precludes any old-school attention to detail.

© The Editor

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SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor

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MR. GREEDY

When newspapers were king, it was only natural the country’s capital had two competing titles. The Evening News was London’s long-standing rival to the Evening Standard for decades; many might still recall its memorable masthead, a red sun setting over a silhouetted skyline of prominent London landmarks (including the dome of St Paul’s); but the rivalry ended in 1980 when the Evening News was forced to merge with the paper it had comprehensively outsold during the 60s. Since then, short-lived rivals, such as Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated London Daily News, have failed to challenge the supremacy of the Standard.

A sign of changing times in the capital came in 2009 when ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny (who already owned The Independent) purchased the paper and within a matter of months relaunched it as a freebie. Previously, free newspapers had been cheap rags along the lines of Metro; that a paper with as long a history as the Standard could join the ranks of the giveaway titles seemed to suggest a demise was imminent, though the combined wealth of Lebedev and son could afford to keep the Standard as a non-profit making venture without any initial noticeable decline in journalistic content.

The Standard’s blatant cheerleading for the Conservative Party has certainly increased during the reign of Lebedev Junior (or ‘Two Beards’ as Private Eye is fond of calling him), culminating in far-from balanced coverage of last year’s London Mayoral Election; granted, it’s fairly customary for a paper to nail its political colours to the mast, but with the capital only boasting the one local paper, Londoners were presented with a rather lopsided view of the contest between Khan and Goldsmith. Lebedev also has a distinct appetite for advertising his famous friends, and his capacity for self-promotion has extended to endless plugs in the Standard for his vanity project, the London Live TV channel.

However, Lebedev’s latest move where the Evening Standard is concerned has surprised even his staunchest critics – the appointment of a serving Tory MP as editor of the paper, a man who up until last summer was Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Gideon’s appointment has raised several issues. Whilst it’s not unusual for MPs to pen columns for Fleet Street titles or to have been editors of papers or magazines prior to ascending to the Cabinet, it is fairly unprecedented to have such a prominent politician at the helm of a paper, especially one whose demotion to the backbenches hasn’t exactly dented his income.

Osborne has earned £771,000 from public speaking since leaving the Cabinet – including £85,396 for just one speech last November; it lasted three hours, but I suppose anyone forced to sit and listen to it would probably have gladly trebled the fee to shorten the speech to three minutes. He has an annual salary of £650,000 as an adviser to Black Rock Investments – working one day a week (nice work if you can get it). He also receives £120,000 from being a ‘Kissinger Fellow’ at the McCain Institute, a think-tank based in Washington; that’s on top of his MP’s salary of £74,000 and whatever it is he’ll be paid for ‘editing’ the Evening Standard, a job Gideon seems to believe he can tackle first thing on a morning before breezing off to the Commons in the afternoon.

Losing one’s seat in Parliament, whether voluntarily or being voted out by the electorate, isn’t exactly the end of the world for most MPs. Labour’s Tristram Hunt recently stepped down from his Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency and walked straight into a lucrative job as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many MPs already have extremely well-paid directorships of numerous companies long before they exit Westminster for good. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to discover George Osborne has managed to supplement his Parliamentary income with various sideline projects for a long time.

When it comes to a conflict of interests with his new appointment, the imagined impartiality of a newspaper editor is perhaps more wishful thinking on the part of the public when one considers how biased in favour of one particular political party most papers are, though Gideon’s Remainer stance when it comes to Brexit doesn’t suggest he’ll give the woman who sacked him last year an easy ride.

I would presume many journalists feel Osborne has been parachuted in by Lebedev as a celebrity editor – another of his well-publicised famous friends – over the heads of more qualified candidates, and their grievances are understandable. Fellow MPs are worried that Gideon’s greed in accepting payment for so many different jobs intensifies the public’s perception that most Parliamentarians aren’t necessarily committed to their roles as public servants and are more concerned with making as much as possible from their outside interests. Osborne’s constituents in Tatton, Cheshire probably wonder how much time he can devote to them and their town when his heart (or whatever stone-based object circulates the cold blood around his body) is so clearly in the capital. And with Osborne’s contemptuous attitude towards the sick and the poor in society from his time as Chancellor still fresh in the memory, this latest promotion paints him even more as a self-centred archangel of avarice.

A free newspaper with a serving MP as its editor – one with zero experience of what he’s been hired to do – might seem like a storm in a teacup, and in some respects it is; rich people handing posts to other rich people for the benefit of nobody but rich people. Why should we even care? But I suppose it’s hard not to get wound-up when confronted by another nauseating example of how the other half live and how we’re all in it together, with the exception of Evgeny Lebedev and his famous friends.

© The Editor

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DUBAI-BY-THE THAMES

UntitledPoet he may have been by trade, but John Betjeman’s other passion was for architecture; in post-war London, it was handy having someone with the kind of clout Betjeman possessed as the capital was consumed by a mania for finishing off a job the Luftwaffe had begun. Ironically, many of the historic buildings that survived the Blitz were obliterated from the London landscape within twenty years of VE Day and not a single German bomb was to blame. Horrified by the prevalence of the compulsory purchase order, Betjeman even penned a play in which Westminster Abbey was to be demolished by developers and replaced with a hideous shopping centre.

The disappearance of such notable landmarks as the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange were condemned by Betjeman and the nascent Victorian Society in the media and the public were eventually brought on board when their own homes began to be swept away and replaced by Brutalist redevelopment schemes such as that in the Elephant and Castle. St Pancras was saved from the wrecking ball thanks to Betjeman’s passionate persistence, hence the statue of him that now stands inside the station, and the intended plans for Covent Garden that followed were scuppered by a movement that emanated from the residents themselves.

However, if the unpopular town planning facelifts of the 60s and 70s are looked back on with a shudder, the fact remains that the merciless march of the developers has continued to this day, albeit free from the negative publicity that plagued each successive scheme of forty and fifty years ago. Concrete is an especially unlovable building material, but concrete was not to blame for past mistakes; today’s redevelopers have learnt from the errors of their predecessors and prefer to coat their constructions in glass – glass, glass, endless bloody glass. When rules were laid down to prevent the vanishing view of St Paul’s dome from the skyline, the luxury of being able to see one of the capital’s great sites from various locations was not applied to similar historical edifices. The commercial pressure upon London Corporation to relax tough planning regulations that were instigated for good reasons has resulted in the dramatic aesthetic transformation of the city when seen from a distance.

According to the ‘Nooks and Corners’ section of ‘Private Eye’ (a column originally written by Betjeman), London Mayor Boris Johnson has used his position to intervene in disputes between developers and local authorities no less than 13 times, with each occasion seeing Bo-Jo favour the developers. While the first flowering of skyscrapers in the capital were congregated in the City of London and Canary Wharf, Johnson and his predecessor Red Ken consistently gave the green light to the erection of several glass hard-ons along the river that have sprung up with worrying regularity over the past decade, usually appearing quickly without much in the way of prior public consultation, and have altered the visual character of the city as a consequence.

The latest proposed carbuncle, coming in the wake of the Shard, is intended to tower 72 storeys above Paddington, even though buildings in the relatively low-level borough of the City of Westminster are supposedly limited to just 20 storeys. No prizes for guessing the identity of the exterior material or the additional features to what will apparently be a residential block – shops, cafes, restaurants, the odd cinema, anyone? London is a city suffering from a chronic housing crisis, though I suspect the product of a hotel-owning firm from Singapore will probably not be intended as social housing. It seems a consumerist society can cope with the constant defacing of its capital city as long as money can be spent. Most discredited buildings in the 60s were office blocks or housing schemes – another lesson learnt.

The common assumption today is that listing a building spares it from redevelopment, but sometimes the tactic is exploited; because a building is listed, nobody can touch it unless it is deliberately allowed to slide into dereliction. Then it becomes regarded as a threat to public safety, a fire often breaks out that does enough damage to leave demolition the cheaper option to renovation, and before you know it a brand new glass erection is earmarked for the site – one containing numerous chain-store retail outlets, naturally.

The world-famous Smithfield Market in Farringdon is not only the oldest surviving wholesale market site in the capital (having being in operation from the 10th century), but since the relocation of Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields, it remains the last in central London. This vast Victorian complex has been threatened with redevelopment over the last couple of decades, mainly the General Market and Red House buildings, which have been empty for several years.

As things stand, the future of Smithfield remains in the balance as competing interests jostle for the attention of London Corporation; one scheme proposed in 2012 involved the replacement of the vacant buildings with a predictable package boasting all the usual leisure facilities, whereas an alternative use for the General Market building was put forward by the Museum of London, vacating their site at the Barbican if they can raise the funds by 2021.

While the more famous London locations facing an uncertain future understandably grab the headlines, there are dozens of less celebrated sites that are poised to vanish as the go-ahead is quietly given with the minimum amount of pre-publicity – neglected Georgian and Victorian leftovers alike, situated in unfashionable neighbourhoods and discreetly off the beaten path. It is such odd, cockeyed constructions that have always helped give London its distinctive character, something it has retained against all odds. The Blitz not only saw the loss of thousands of homes, but several notable public buildings; yet, the battle that has raged since 1945, one of commerce Vs heritage, big bucks Vs beauty, The Man Vs the public, has changed the capital in ways even Goering could never have imagined. Our unique and eccentric little London could well be indistinguishable from Brasilia before we know it.


OF MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS

TrumpTrump fails to turn hype into votes during US Presidential nominations! Cameron hails EU negotiations as major success! English football’s transfer deadline day sees no major signings by Premier League clubs! Google pays its taxes – or does it? Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann (who?) hit on male interviewer in a way that two male Hollywood ‘stars’ hitting on female interviewer would lead to online assassination and public apology! The big question is do you give a shit?

Unless you’re an American citizen, the tedious marathon of a Presidential circus that makes a UK General Election resemble a one-minute mile means bugger all at this moment in time. You have no say, no vote, no influence; it’s the political equivalent of a prick-teasing lap-dancer and you’re the hapless punter who can look but not touch. Not that coverage over here makes that clear, however. It may have escaped your attention, but there was recently an election in Canada, where the son of a former celebrated Canadian Prime Minister was elected as the country’s leader for the first time; yes, America’s neighbours actually voted a new man into office rather than choosing which candidate is going to run for office at the end of the year. Not that the historical triumph of Justin Trudeau received much notice in Blighty, despite Canada’s Commonwealth connection to the Mother Country, something America severed 240 years ago.

Naturally, it goes without saying that the USA’s superpower status ensures its every political move will generate international headlines; but there does seem to be an obsession with US politics on this side of the pond that far outweighs the significance they have here. The ludicrous campaign to ban Donald Trump from setting foot on British soil attributed an importance to the loutish egomaniac with the silly hair that he really doesn’t deserve when he hasn’t even been nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate; those who launched the initial online petition to ban him were simply unknowing participants in his own PR machine. But we have a full year of similar headlines to look forward to as all of Britain’s media outlets allocate their political coverage to every twist and turn of a race that the British public can only watch from afar.

The non-event of the US Presidential saga, along with the non-event of Cameron’s EU ‘victory’, the non-event of football transfer deadline day, the non-event of the tax-avoiding juggling of a mega-corporation and the non-event of every showbiz story involving people few under 25 have even heard of perhaps demonstrates why this year’s remarkable run of famous deaths has dominated front pages and bulletins. The opportunity to wallow in a little nostalgia for past eras in which colossal figures bestrode a cultural landscape that was crowded with heavyweights whose impact still resonate serves as a welcome distraction from the here today/gone tomorrow teacups gently rattling courtesy of Storm Henry.

The need to sensationalise by elevating minor incidents to major events and thus engineering interest in them is a tactic that the newsprint media in particular has excelled at in recent years. Online competition has also led to TV news adopting similar hysteria when it isn’t warranted by using the methods of the advertising industry; just as the Mad Men can apply psychological trickery to persuade the people they desperately need something they actually don’t, news agencies now sell us stories that our lives would apparently be empty without knowledge of. I don’t know about you, but God knows how I would’ve got through the last 24 hours without them…

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