I seem to be one of those people fated to have strange things happen to them, more often than they generally happen to people.
I haven’t been blogging because at 11 pm on Wednesday there was a tremendous hammering at the door of our flat. When I opened it a fireman burst in, wearing full breathing gear, and yelled “Get out! Get out, now!” So we did.
Nadira was particularly disappointed as she had hoped at first it was a stripogram.
An underground gas main was ruptured, and our flats had been slowly filling with gas which had reached explosive levels. Our neighbour Sonia had been in her hall when the gas there exploded and brought the hall crashing down around her. Sonia is an improbably beautiful young Spanish film director, and she emerged from a cloud of plaster dust not only unscathed, but without a speck of dust having settled on her. She is one of those kind of people.
The whole of Sinclair Gardens was evacuated and the residents herded up the street, some in their pyjamas, some clutching pets. I had that afternoon received a large bundle of documents couriered from a third country for safekeeping from an Uzbek claiming asylum. I picked this up as I left. As the hours were to pass, I was to have some difficulty persuading my family that it was a good thing that their father’s first thought was for a poor refugee, rather than something more practical like picking up my wallet and credit cards.
We immediately took refuge in the foyer of the K West hotel. This is a very unlikely but very popular celebrity haunt. You are more likely to run into Noel Gallagher or Girls Aloud there than at Nobu Berkeley St. Which is why, despite living just round the corner, I never go in.
Sinclair Gardens is a street best described as Bohemian. The residents are strongly multi-cultural with distinct artistic and eccentric tendencies. Even so, and in their nightwear, they looked much better dressed than the average denizen of the K-West hotel. I should say that the staff were perfectly charming and helpful, as exploited East Europeans generally are, but the management were most upset at this irruption of the real world into their celebrity spot and started to pressurise the police to kick us out. As we had pretty well all by this stage bought drinks at the bar, this gave the police (of whom there were now scores) something of a headache.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s emergency plan was swung into action and three double decker buses arrived, on which we were ordered to sit and register. But nobody wanted to. We had a bar, and the great fun of annoying the hotel management. Besides which, I rather suspect that many of the inhabitants of the street are not conscientious Council Tax payers, and were disinclined to register.
About 2am it was announced we were definitely not going to be allowed back in to our homes, and we were being chucked out of the hotel. Of the inhabitants of about 200 evacuated flats, some 80 people went on the buses to Hammersmith Town Hall, where about sixty single inflatable mattresses were provided between them. We used up the money I chanced to have in my pocket on a taxi to my brother’s flat in Leyton, and slept on the floor.
After an uncomfortable night, and re-dressing in dirty clothes, we started to get a bit grumpy. We phoned the Council who said they could not predict if the evacuation would last several hours or several days.
I had a few months ago taken out home contents insurance from Tesco (after the trauma of splitting up with my wife, I had given her the house and not got round to organising that sort of thing for my little flat). I seemed to recall something on alternative accommodation, so I looked up the policy on the internet. Indeed there it was – up to 20% of the value of Contents cover for alternative accommodation.
So I phoned to make a claim. After being put on hold for an age, I was told I was not covered because this event was not one of the insured risks, which were fire, theft, vandalism, explosion…
Hang on, I interrupted. This was an explosion. It is insured. Back on hold, more silly music. Then I was told that I was not insured because the explosion had not taken place in my own flat. I was getting angry by now and pointed out that I had been forced by the police and fire services to leave my home because of an explosion. Nowhere in the policy did it specify the explosion had to be in your own home. I was put on hold again.
This time I was put through to the Technical department. A patronising young man told me that this was a contents policy, and therefore the alternative accommodation provision only came in to force if it was needed because of damage to the contents of my home.
As it happens, the first “proper” job I ever had was as an underwriting clerk at Guardian Royal Exchange insurance in Edinburgh. I pointed out to him that very plainly the policy was not written that way. Damage to contents and alternative accommodation were separate and equal sections. He replied that they were not accepting the claim, and I could write and complain if I wished. He refused to put me through to anybody senior to him.
I am furious about this. I have no doubt that Tesco were simply refusing a claim without good cause. In the event, we got back into our home late that evening, many hours after the rest of the street, as ours and the house next door were the worst affected. So I did not incur further accommodation costs. But this offhand system of refusing claims is a disgrace. I strongly suggest, if you are insured with Tesco, you change now before you have to make a claim.
Which brings another thought. The old national grid for gas distribution is now privatised. Transco is a profit making company with shareholders, dividends, and fat executive bonuses. In the old days when it was a service provided to the public by the government, I would take this kind of incident as just one of those things. But I can see no reason why, having disrupted my life, caused great discomfort to my family and I, and caused me to lose a day’s work, Transco should not pay compensation. I shall pursue this, but strongly suspect that we will find that in privatisation the government granted them protection from liability for the consequences of their cash-reaping activities.