They’ve built a new block of flats near where I live, you might know them as apartments. As blocks of flats go it’s much like any other, it has plenty of parking, it’s within walking distance to some shops and an Indian restaurant. These are all the sort of things that are important in life, if you don’t think in terms of views of the countryside or chocolate box cottages with duck ponds, cricket, and clocks set at ten to three.
We’ve been driving past the flats over the last year or so as they’ve been building them. I say we I mean C-3PO, myself and our mate the wookie, on our way to our regular Friday lunch that’s become known as Friday Fry-up. We’ll have a late breakfast, or at least C-3PO will as he’s not an early riser having become almost nocturnal over recent years what with not having to go to work and staying up all night. C-3PO will usually have a breakfast having just surfaced, the wookie favours the club sandwich and I’ll often have a roast dinner, having been up for a few hours and already worked half the day, so breakfast doesn’t seem appropriate for me.
Those of you who are in the know, and you know who you are, will know that C-3PO is the name of a friend who shares my house. He became known as C-3PO after I started writing a series of blogs about my model of R2D2 whom I take to see all the new Star Wars films as they come out. It’s an interesting household but I’ll let you figure out the details for yourselves.
The location of our Friday Fry-up, or Roast Dinner Club Brunch as it, perhaps, might be better known is the Riverside Café not far from where C-3PO and I live. It’s called the Riverside Café because of the complete lack or a river, the closest being something like two miles away, so it makes perfect sense. I suppose giving the place a name like that is better than calling it the carpark café which would be more accurate, but that would also mean that all the romance had finally drained out of the world. Still, the food is good and plentiful; they do a damn fine steak and kidney pudding and, in the summer, their ploughman’s lunch is too much to eat at one sitting.
All of life visits the Riverside Café at one point or another. On a lunchtime the place throngs with a healthy mix of builders and electricians on their lunch break, retired folk for whom the café is a social hub and parents with children that would be better off left to wait outside in the cold instead of ruining everyone’s lunch. Even a club sandwich can be spoiled by a child screaming out of control at the next table.
Then there’s always the old guy who sits alone, every Friday, and possibly every other day for all I know, at the same table for six people with a cup of tea and his newspaper. He could sit at a table for two people, but he insists on sitting at the same table causing large groups, as we sometimes are if we have guests, to find another table, which there often isn’t.
I think we might have to kill him.
So, as the year rolled by, we watched the block of flats being built. Week by week they went up, but so slowly that you just didn’t notice the progress. At the start there was a plywood panel fence around the plot, then some scaffolding appeared beyond the fence, then a structure developed and slowly it grew but we didn’t see the change. We’d drive past each week to pick up the wookie from work, what with it being a bit too far for him to walk and we’d get a longer lunch if we didn’t have to leave in time for him to walk back to the office. I could be flexible with my hours and, C-3PO, well… the only other thing he’d be doing would be sleeping. What with the frequent fry-up nature of our lunches we should probably walk to the café; we could probably all do with the exercise but we were never going to do that!
At one point the block of flats began to look finished but with these projects you just can’t tell. What looks finished on the outside might hide a hive of electricians and plumbers on the inside, probably looking forward to their lunch at the Riverside Café a few streets away. So that’s where they all come from!
Eventually the plywood panel fence was removed. One Friday it had just disappeared to reveal this block of flats, compete with nice parking spaces, a barrier to stop ne’er-do-wells stealing their parking, and all sorts of appealing features.
But there was something wrong with the building. The whole structure, perhaps six or eight stories, had been clad on the outside as blocks of flats are known for; I suppose after the Grenfell Tower disaster you could say they are notorious for. This particular building has been cunningly designed with various vertical surfaces, so that the sides are not completely flat. The building has a sort of stepped design which is quite nice instead of being a plain, flat, unimaginative, wall. So, hats off to the architect for that. Furthermore, the architect has clad some of the steps in black cladding and some in white to further break up the look of the building. But what we didn’t understand, what seemed wrong with the building, was that there was a third finish along with the black and white cladding that seemed like plain steel plates. And to top that the steel plates were rusty.
“Surely they aren’t going to leave it like that,” I said to C-3PO as we drove past one Friday.
“No, that’s just waiting for the final layer,” responded C-3PO. “There’ll be a top coat or some special finish to cover up the rust.”
“I’m not convinced,” I replied. “I think they’ve done that because it’s cheap.”
On the return journey the wookie also believed that there was a further finish to be added. But I’m more cynical.
This block of flats was built about a year after the terror of Grenfell Tower, but with planning permissions, design schedules, materials supplies and general lead times, you can imagine that the developers were planning the building before Grenfell Tower hit the news. My muse and I were on holiday in Turkey when we heard about the disaster. We switched on the TV one day to catch the 24-hour news channel only to see the horror of the fire and be stunned to discover that this could happen in Britain. Suddenly, overnight (quite literally), what was allowed, or should I say what they could get away with, changed completely.
Poor people have long been warehoused in big cities as property values have increased around them, for poor people are needed to provide for the needs of those who can really afford to live there. Call me a cynic but otherwise the poor, minorities, those without the wherewithal to afford anything better are tolerated, but barely. So, we learned that a blind eye had been turned to building regulations with the idea of, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Well actually people suffering and dying horribly is the worst that can happen but since when has that mattered?
So, we might imagine, conceivably, that developers building some flats miles away, perhaps developers all across the country, were suddenly faced with the stark fact that they couldn’t get away with cutting corners and hoping that the only inspection would be a blind eye. That cheap cladding that they planned to use would no longer be go unnoticed. They might upgrade some of the panels with the proper fire resistance but to cover the whole building would take the project way over budget. What fire proof material might be used that doesn’t cost a fortune?
“Let’s cover the building with plain steel and call it a design feature!” said someone.
* * *
One Friday we were passing and the wookie commented, “You know, I think that’s the final finish.” Well actually he said, “Wroarrrhhh, uurrgghhh-rrraaahhhggh,” but I’m sure you get the picture.
“But eventually the rust is going to start to drip and run down the side of the building. It’ll start to discolour all of the fixtures and fittings,” replied C-3PO. “Look, it’s already beginning to discolour there!”
“I’m not sure, I might even like it,” I responded as we turned at the traffic lights. “I think we should coin the name Rusty Towers and see if it catches on.”
* * *
In the weeks that followed a home-made flyer came through the door attempting to raise a residents’ action group in response to another, much taller, block of flats a few streets away. It turns out that the government plan to build more houses, the plan that we keep hearing about, is likely to result in lots of blocks of flats. This other block is going to overlook houses that back onto the plot; It’ll cut out light, create noise, not provide enough parking, and generally be horrible for anyone who lives nearby. Now, of course, people have to live somewhere and building more homes will benefit us all as it’ll help with the spiralling cost of housing and the general situation of money laundering that surrounds us all. But there’s a right and a wrong place for everything, and a 13-floor block cheek by jowl with normal two-story houses seems a bit extreme. Take a look, from a distance, at any US city, where they know about tower blocks, and the skyline is largely pyramidal, the tallest buildings in the centre becoming lower towards the periphery. So, perhaps, you don’t go from two stories to 13 stories in one go?
In response to the leaflet the residents got together to discuss our plan of action, a friendly town councillor showed up and was very helpful. During the meeting there was a mention of other developments nearby, the adjacent traffic lights, other local landmarks, etc. Realising that they were talking about the new, more proportional, block of flats that C-3PO, the wookie and I had watched, I chipped in, “You mean down by Rusty Towers?”
There was a pause as people processed the question…
“Yes, that’s it,” said someone.
And I knew the seed was sown.