The day my country left me. Reflections on Ladbroke Grove, Grenfell, Covid and Brexit

In the UK, the life of ordinary citizens is cheap, taking second place to short-term economy and profit.

I remember the scene vividly. We were in a supermarket car park, and before us, about 500 yards below a slight incline, lay the mangled wreckage of the trains that had collided at Ladbroke Grove, a few miles outside Paddington Station, on 5 October 1999, leaving 31 dead and 523 injured.

I witnessed this gruesome sight after being invited, as a member of the choir of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Kensington, to sing in an inter-denominational memorial service near the scene of the crash. Several other choirs took part, and we sang not only for the souls of the dead, but for the injured as well, and for the bereaved, some of whom stood in a row next to us, grieving and sobbing. The mournful chants of the Orthodox memorial rite (known as a Panikhida) were moving enough, but when one of the choirs started singing “Abide with me”, I broke down.           

My emotions that day were a complex mix. As an Orthodox Christian I believe praying for the dead is important; it is doubly so if the dead die suddenly, unprepared. Prolonged illness is painful, but at least it has the virtue of preparing the dying and those left behind for what is to come. This pointless, avoidable train crash left its victims and their loved ones with no chance to prepare.

Other, more personal, factors coloured my emotions. Up to November 1998 I had been living in the Netherlands. Following the collapse of the classical music industry I had lost my job with a Dutch recording company and decided to give the UK another chance after being offered temporary work on a musical encyclopedia. I was still traumatised by the events leading up to my dismissal (politics as well as economic factors had played a role), and unsure about whether I wanted to work for a company ever again, or whether I could pursue a professional life in the UK. (I was born in England but left the UK after the university cuts implemented by Thatcher put paid to my prospects of an academic career there; I subsequently lived in the United States and Canada before settling in the Netherlands.) As I stood staring at the wreckage, I seemed to be contemplating the ruin of my life at that time.

While I stood singing (or attempting to do so) for the dead and bereaved, the utter dismalness of the scene caused something to give way within me. Before that moment I had had vague hopes for the future, including plans to gain more secure employment and perhaps one day to marry and have a family. I knew I wanted to live in an environment where safety corners were not cut and the government acted for the many, not the few. In short, as I stood before the train wreck I came to the definitive realisation that I had been right to leave the UK all those years ago, and that I should leave it again as soon as an opportunity presented itself. This realisation was a relief, a sense of liberation that resolved my sense of uncertainty about my relations with my native country, and which eventually found expression when I returned to the Netherlands about six months later to take up a new job. Later I visited France, where I met the Frenchwoman who would become my wife. Together, we lived the European dream. She came to live with me in the Netherlands, learnt Dutch and took a part-time job; later we moved to France. At no time were we troubled by bureaucracy or any uncertainty as to our status.

Not until Brexit came along, that is. Like millions of others, I was plunged into uncertainty after the vote of 23 June 2016 and my life was disrupted. I was more fortunate than others, being able to obtain French citizenship after a long bureaucratic process. But I found it annoying that, having decided to leave the UK, the chronic stupidity of the British state had caught up with me once again.   

Commemorative plaque for the victims of the Ladbroke Grove Train Disaster. Photo by Ross Corben

Ladbroke Grove and Grenfell: the problems were known

Ladbroke Grove was the second of two accidents on the Great Western Line, the first having occurred at Southall in 1997: both could have been prevented by using an automatic train protection (ATP) system, installation of which had been rejected on cost grounds. In the case of Ladbroke, the immediate cause of the accident seems to have been that one of the drivers (who was killed) had passed a red signal. The driver was new to the job and his training had been defective. He had not been warned that the signal was one of several that had been causing problems: there had been several cases of “signals passed at danger” (SPADs) on the lines into Paddington in the preceding years. The signal was poorly sited, and it is thought that low, bright sunlight could have confused the driver’s vision. The important point is that the problems were known about, but management, over a number of years, had failed to act.

The scene of the Ladbroke Grove crash is not far from the Grenfell tower block that burnt down on 14 June 2017. The immediate cause of the fire, which cost the lives of 72 people and injured 70 others, was a malfunctioning fridge-freezer, but the speed with which the fire spread was due to the fact that inflammable cladding and insulation had been used to save money. As one former resident put it, “the cladding went up like a matchstick”. A gap between the cladding and the insulation produced a chimney effect that helped spread the fire. Horrifically, many residents died after being trapped in their flats.

The disaster happened after similar fires had occurred world-wide, and it was already known that this type of cladding was hazardous. After the Grenfell fire it emerged that a planned renovation of the tower block had been severely curtailed because of Government-imposed limits on the amount councils can borrow.

Complacency and cost-cutting

The reasons for both Ladbroke Grove and Grenfell are similar: complacency, cost-cutting to achieve false economies for the sake of short-term profit, a defective safety culture, poor communication, and warnings that went unheeded. Are these not typical of a mentality that puts at risk the lives of ordinary people just so that landlords, operators and shareholders can make higher profits? Looking back now, I feel fortunate in having lived in European countries where public safety is a higher priority than in the UK.

We may cite more recent examples, still fresh in the public mind, which show that government myopia, ideology and false economies are costing British lives. The most notorious of these is the tardy response to the Covid-19 pandemic which caused thousands to die needlessly, and the dubious contracts offered to cronies and Tory party donors.

And still the lessons have not been learnt: the recent decision to relax  regulations for HGV drivers’ hours, in response to the shortage of drivers, is asking for trouble. How long before we see a motorway pile-up involving an HGV, with multiple deaths and injuries?

As the famous song goes: “When will they ever learn?” I can only concur with a remark attributed to the American investigative journalist Greg Palast: “I don’t have to leave my country. My country left me.” However, it turns out that I was one of the lucky ones; I got out while I could, whereas millions have been stranded in a country that has left them.  I was able to move on from the trauma and indecision of 1997-9 and live a happy life in the Netherlands from 2000 to 2008.

I take comfort in the fact that the bad as well as the good things in this life pass. I believe this is also true of the UK, that eventually it will dawn on enough people that short-termism and false economies are a dead end, and that the UK not only needs better decisions, but a better way of making them. How long this will take, and how many lives will be destroyed in the meantime, no one can say.