Or: Why it’s been a bit quiet around here.
Or even: How I know I’m a rubbish photojournalist.
I haven’t titled this like I do most of my other pictures, mostly because I’m not sure what it conveys to me yet. I was possibly the toughest picture I’ve ever taken.
So how’d it come to be taken? Well…
A few hours after I tweeted
I’d gone to bed and was awoken by someone pounding the living daylights out of my front door. I had no clue what was going on, so threw on a dressing-gown and flip-flops then went downstairs to find out what the hell was so important in the middle of the night. I opened the front door – it was my neighbour screaming at me. It took a few seconds to register that it was because next door was on fire. In a big way.
I reached back into the house and grabbed a bag which I knew had a pair of glasses in them, and legged it with my wife, the AD, right behind me. As we got away from the house one of next door’s windows blew out, showering glass behind us. I’d find out much later this happened at about 3am.
It felt like forever, but it could only have been a couple of minutes, before the fire brigade arrived and leapt into action. Hoses were unrolled, and brave people in breathing apparatus ran into next door to fight the fire. More firefighters kept arriving – at one point there were (I was told) 30 on the scene, with six engines and an APL (this it the one that looks like a giant cherry picker armed with a water cannon).
Because we adjoined next door mid-terrace, hoses were run through our house to the rear to help fight the fire. At this point the fire was at its most visually intense – a deep, dirty, sooty mix of red and orange flames slicing and jabbing into the night sky. Smoke was pouring out from under the roof tiles of the entire row of houses, and billowing from the roof of next door. With sod all else to do, the AD and I stood and watched.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”. That shout came from a firefighter coming out our front door. I held my wife close. Fuck. I remember a hose – narrower than the others – being rolled out and pulled into our house … and then my memory gets a bit vague. I was still functioning – I just don’t have any recall.
I found myself sitting in the back seat of a fire engine still wearing my ever so dashing dressing gown and flip-flops, with my wife, and wrapped in a blanket. I could see the fire-fighting efforts from the front of the house. The fire brigade seemed to still be concentrating on next door, and I couldn’t see any flames in my house – but that extra hose hadn’t left the building yet either.
The fire eventually got put out and the firefighters moved seamlessly from fighting a blaze to damping down. The door of the fire engine opened, and there stood a fire fighter. She was holding a bag full of clothes for the AD and me, wallets and phones. She even went back to get my wife’s engagement and wedding rings. I got dressed where I sat, which wasn’t surreal in the slightest.
Somehow, tea appeared. It was scalding, stewed, and still had the teabag in the plastic cup; but right then, it was the nectar of the gods. This will shock those who know me, but the finest single malt would have paled in comparison. Feeling vaguely human, we stepped from our little island of calm (or, more accurately, numbness) to see if we could find out what needed to happen now.
As we wandered about the guys who had fought the fire reassured us that the damage “wasn’t that bad” and “was not too severe”. By this point, the couple next door had been taken to hospital for a checkup and treatment for smoke inhalation (he’d gone back into the house to try and rescue two of his dogs – they were too scared to come out). Various other neighbours were standing about, mostly chatting amongst themselves and staying out of the way of the fire crews. Number 11 insisted we come in for a while – at least whilst our house remained within the cordon.
Some of our other neighbours were already ensconced, as was an evacuated tortoise, and a giant refugee rabbit. The rabbit was huge – as in 3 feet long from nose to tail – and did not appear to be overly enamoured with the situation. The resident cats had clearly decided that it was simply all too much and excused themselves. One of the cats deigned to honour us with its presence once the rabbit had been granted leave to remain elsewhere; it then spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out why there was a rock in its living room, and how the gibbering heck said rock was moving.
You’ll notice there are no photos accompanying any of the narrative – this is how I know I’m a rubbish photojournalist. I didn’t even think of taking photos, even though the bag I had contained my always-on-me p+s. Maybe if I’d stumbled on the situation happening to someone else it might have been different ….
Well after dawn – I think it was about 0730 – we were allowed back into kobatan HQ. “Not too severe” turned out to mean a big hole burnt in the roof, fire damage to structural timbers, and water water everywhere. I could have done with a a drop to drink. Actually, that’s not fair: the fire brigade went out of their way to minimise water damage especially when damping down, and if they’d been less than the amazing team that they were I might have been taking pictures of a burnt out shell matching next door. To get an idea of the damage to the roof, the picture at the top of the post is lit with natural light, in a space with no windows. I took it, along with many others for insurance purposes – this one just happened to look relatively ‘good’ and not entirely utilitarian.
Luckily, we have insurance cover: subjectively, it took forever for that machine to get to operating speed; objectively, they were probably moving with all reasonable haste. Although there were an intermittent few weeks in b&bs (as lovely as they were, it gets old – fast) we’ve moved our stuff out (the un-singed majority at least), and are in a lease while the roof gets rebuilt.
Oh, and the title of the post? Months ago, I’d booked a pair of tickets for a ‘Late’ at the Churchill War Rooms on the 4th October (I forgot all about it until my calendar reminded me). The talks and articles about what people went through during WW2 really brought it home that, regardless of how much of a pain in the neck this seems to have been, in the grand scheme of things it’s nothing. Nothing at all. Hell, I was even able to take time out to go to #GPPLondon. I couldn’t do that if I had just parachuted into occupied France. I’ve lost little, and gained friends. All I’ve had to do is follow Churchill’s advice and KBO.
Anyway, must dash. I’m behind on my printing.
PS: That bag I took with my glasses in it? Normally it, with its load-out of leatherman, torch, gaffers tape, color-checker passport, spare batteries, memory cards, assorted cables, first aid kit, corkscrew, pens, phone charger, business cards and whatnot, is very useful – a regular old bag-o-tricks. What it needed that night was insurance docs, a spare credit card, a charged phone with lots of relevant numbers (and cards with that number on it), a change of clothes, and maybe a toothbrush. Hindsight is wonderful, but I’ll be prepared for the last war and hope that there isn’t a next.