Sunday 30 November 2014

Crystal Palace fire + 78

On this day……………….78 years ago, London’s Crystal Palace burned down. It was an extraordinary place – more than 600 yards long and more than 120 feet high, containing more glass than had ever before been seen in a single building. Originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was then moved to Penge Common.

The fire began in a ladies’ lavatory while the general manager, Sir Henry Buckland, was walking in the grounds with his daughter named (what else?) Chrystal. Encouraged by a fierce wind and the acres of timber flooring, the flames took hold in no time, and when the fire brigade arrived, the cause was already lost, and the efforts of more than 400 firemen came to nothing.

An estimated 100,000 people turned out to watch one of the most spectacular fires in London’s history. It could be seen from 8 counties. In Streatham, they hired out binoculars at 2d a look, while the better heeled chartered aeroplanes from Croydon Aerodrome.

Controversy now surrounds a plan to rebuild the landmark as part of a major redevelopment of the area, with complaints that local people are being kept in the dark.  For the full story of the fire, see my book London’s Disasters.

Friday 28 November 2014

'Flood: Nature and Culture" - new reviews

Two new reviews of my latest book: Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books)

Friday 21 November 2014

Birmingham pub bombings + 40. Who were the killers?

Forty years ago today, I was a reporter at ATV (the forerunner of Central Television covering the English Midlands) covering the Birmingham pub bombings. Two pubs in the city centre were blown up by the IRA, killing 21 people and injuring more than 180 others in what was then the worst terrorist attack in British history.

Today we still do not know who was responsible. The ‘Birmingham Six’ were wrongly convicted of the crime, and were released in 1991. Devon and Cornwall Police later conducted an inquiry into the West Midlands Police investigation. The authorities have decreed its contents must remain secret for another 55 years.

Julie Hambleton, whose sister was killed in the bombings, has been highly critical of this decision. The current Chief Constable for the West Midlands, Chris Sims, has maintained the investigation remains open, but Ms Hambleton has accused the police of lack of commitment to investigating Britain’s ‘largest unsolved mass murder,’ saying they seemed to be waiting for evidence to ‘drop on their desks’.

Another blow to those wanting to bring the killers to justice was the revelation that 35 pieces of evidence had gone missing, including a bomb that failed to explode. Mr Sims said it seems the items had been disposed of in the 1980’s, and that this was ‘not unusual at the time.’ 

Thursday 13 November 2014

Korean ferry disaster trial - villains and heros

The captain of the South Korean ferry, Sewol, that sank in April with the loss of more than 300 lives (a memorial is pictured above) is now starting a 36 year gaol sentence (see my blog of April 20). Lee Joon-seok, on trial with 14 crew members, was convicted of gross negligence. He was cleared of homicide.

The chief engineer got a 30 year sentence, and the other 13 got gaol terms of up to 20 years. A separate trial is taking place for employees of the firm that operated the ferry, but the billionaire chairman fled after the disaster and was later found dead.

The sinking was blamed on a number of factors - illegal redesigns of the vessel, overloading, failure to secure cargo and the inexperience of the crew member steering. They led to her overturning as she made a tight turn. Lee was filmed leaving while many passengers were still inside the ship.

At least 3 crew members, though, perished trying to save those on board, including an engaged couple, and the youngest, who gave her lifejacket to a passenger. The Korean government was heavily criticised over the rescue effort, and the coast guard is due to be disbanded and replaced.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Typhoon Haiyan: How (not) to commemorate a disaster

How do you commemorate a disaster that killed thousands, and raise some money for survivors? Not with a dance party, seems to be the answer ringing out from the Philippines.

A year ago, Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda locally) left about 7,000 dead or missing, and millions homeless. A survivor organised a ‘dance party’ to be held tomorrow in Tacloban, the worst hit area, with the slogan: ‘Party like it never happened, remember because it did.’ The proceeds were meant to help set up educational scholarships.

But the announcement of the event brought protests that it was insensitive, to which the organisers bowed, cancelling it, and apologising to those who had ‘misinterpreted’ the reasons for holding it. They said it was meant to be a celebration of survival, and that they would go on selling a tee shirt reading: ‘not even the strongest typhoon could bend the strongest people.’

With gusts hitting nearly 200 miles an hour, some consider Haiyan the strongest storm ever to make landfall. President Aquino declared it a ‘national calamity’.

Monday 3 November 2014

Remembering World War One

Went to the Tower of London yesterday to see the 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the moat - each one representing a British military death in World War One. Although I arrived early, there were already hundreds of people there.

In spite of the precision on British losses implied by the number of poppies at the Tower, there is much less certainty about overall casualties in the Great War, partly because of the immense social dislocation the conflict brought, with four of the combatants facing revolutions around its end.

Estimates put the total number of military deaths at more than 8 and a half million, with Germany and Russia each suffering about one and three quarter million, and Austria-Hungary and France each losing well over a million.

Coming up with an authoritative figure for the civilians who perished through massacre, accident, disease, hunger, exposure and hardship is even more difficult, but some estimates put the number even higher than that for military casualties, at around 13 million.