Grenfell Tower, my mother and King Charles II

Source: Grenfell Tower Fire: Mindless Deregulation, Senseless Harm – The New York Times

Source: Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety – The New York Times

Like most of you, I read these articles in intense anger and pain. I’ve been a loud proponent (and explicator) of the saving and protective graces of government regulations.

I learned about them sort of viscerally before I absorbed the lesson intellectually. It all started with my mother.

Not conventional in most ways, there was one conventional mother thing she worried about. Whenever we were in a store, theater or other building with a tangle of aisles or staircases and no obvious egress, my mom would narrow her eyes, murmur, “This place is a fire trap,” and immediately visually locate the nearest fire exit. Just in case.

Although I tended to make mockery of her uneasiness–what can I say? I was a miserable teenager–it was apparently osmotic: whenever I shopped in the old Pearl River Emporium, or the original version of Century 21, I swear I’d hear my late mother’s voice murmuring, “This place is a fire trap.”

I never thought to ask my mom the cause of her uncharacteristic nervousness but I now believe it’s because she was born around the time of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed over 100 young women factory workers who couldn’t escape the building because most of the exits had been locked by the owners.

Adding to my mother’s particular ontological anxiety, I myself happened to emerge from her womb on the very night 300 screaming people died in a fire that consumed a huge Boston nightclub, the Coconut Grove–which didn’t have adequate fire exits. Obviously, the concatenation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Coconut Grove fires had a serious impact upon my mom’s psyche.

Of course those fires had an even greater impact upon the people who heard about them, who lost friends and relatives, were horrified, furious and who insisted that their cities develop building codes and vigilant inspection systems that could prevent future similar disasters.

We, the people. This is why we have laws and regulations. At painful points in our history, we the people have demanded them.

England does not have that We The People sort of attitude; instead it has monarchs. Let us sneer. Except…Charles II, restored to the throne after the British ended their populist Cromwellian romance, worried out loud about the flimsy wood structures of much of London and went out in the streets with his people on a bucket brigade to quench the Great London Fire of 1666.

After viewing the devastation, Charles persuaded Parliament to develop strict new building codes.

I thought about my mom and Charles II when I renovated my current apartment.

Built long before computers, it did not have enough electrical outlets to accommodate my various devices. I asked the electrician I retained to put in more. He inspected what was behind those old outlets and pulled out a bit of wiring. This is what I saw: wiring so old it was covered with muck and the protective insulation had rotted away. The genes of my mother shuddered in horror; I joined in. I envisioned a spark, a fire, a conflagration…

At considerable extra expense I had the electrician rip out and replace all the old wiring and after he told me the tiny fuse box in my kitchen was not up to code, I OK’d a brand new circuit box. We passed the electrical inspection.

I am a cheerleader for rules, regulations on industries, and required inspections. What happened in London was not only sickening. It was a joint venture of British government negligence and rotten (American) product. The Brits are so proud of their history. Why did they forget the lesson of Charles II?

I just read that British law permits criminal prosecution of corporations. Although it’s repulsively ex post facto, I trust Alcoa (and Whirlpool, who made the fridge that exploded and started the fire) will be criminally charged for the junk they sold to the British developer who used it for those buildings.

And I also trust Alcoa, the developer and the British government will be sued by the poor people who lived in those tinderboxes.

Both King Charles II and my mother will applaud, after they’ve wiped each other’s tears.


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