Thursday, 8 December 2011

My sister-in-law and her husband have lost everything in a fire

One of my four sisters-in-law, Vinny Hamer, lives with her husband, Bill, in a lovely listed 18th Century terraced house in Harwich. They’re both artists – they were both art teachers – so it’s crammed with their own work, and that of others. They've lavished a lot of care and attention on the place since buying it fiteen years ago. As Bill told the BBC today, ""It had a lovely feeling of history and we'd done our best to bring it back to the kind of historical house we felt it should have been."

Yesterday, just before midday, while they were both out, a fire started in one of the neighbouring houses. Within a short while, despite the fire brigade’s efforts (see below), five houses were completely gutted. High winds driving flames across the rooftops  rendered the blaze uncontainable.

Vinny and Bill - they spent last night in a hotel and we're not sure where they'll be tonight - don't own any other property. Tendring District Council is holding a special meeting tomorrow to decide how it can best help  the homeless families. Harwich isn’t very big and my in-laws are active and popular members of the community, so I’m hoping local people will respond generously - according to this BBC Online article, many people have already chipped in.

I simply can’t imagine what it’s like to leave your house in the morning and return to discover that every personal object that meant something to you - in other words, your real treasures - no longer exist: books, letters, paintings, diaries, notebooks, furniture, photographs, clothes, LPs... absolutely everything. Even their car was destroyed. All they have left are the clothes they were wearing. As Vinny told the BBC: "I've lost my studio, lost all my work, my sketchbooks going back 40 years that I was going to pass to my children which are like a record of our lives together." (They're called Lavinia and Roger in the article, but they're Vinny and Bill to everyone who knows them.)

There are some small crumbs of comfort in all this awfulness. The couple have two grown-up children who don’t live too far away. No one died in the fire. Given their place in the community, they won’t have to rely on the comfort of strangers. Vinny has six brothers and sisters to call on for support.

They’re a terribly nice, lively, intelligent, talented, positive couple. If anyone can get over this shock, they can. Typically, Bill told the BBC: "Next year we've got what we've called the Phoenix Project... we're going to rise from the ashes and make a new life for ourselves."

And they will.

I don't really know why I've told you about this dreadful event - but it's hard to think about anything else at the moment. It sort of puts one's own petty problems into context.


  1. They must feel absolutely gutted. It's even worse than being burgled and no amount of insurance payout can make up for the loss of treasured possessions. Even though I don't know them personally, they have my sincerest well wishes. But at least it sounds like they're trying to look on the positive side with the Project Phoenix.

    Of course, this is how earthquake and tsunami victims must feel too. Imagine how all those Japanese victims earlier this year must have felt.

    A famous victim of a fire was actually Richard Branson, who had his home on his island in the Caribbean burnt down.

  2. Thanks for your sympathetic comments, TropicalRob. I'm sure they're appreciated.

    Kate Winslet carried Richard Branson's aged mother from the house to safety - and then the ungrateful old bag suggested it was a pointless thing to do! Gee, thanks, lady!

    I'm delighted to report that Vinny and Bill's children are - as expected - playing a blinder, that locals keep coming up to them in the street and hugging them, that the insurance company are paying for nearby temporary accomodation, they've got a replacement car on loan, and a local French restaurant has offered to feed them for free! Nice to see that this can still be a terribly nice country when the chips are down. Being a small, close-knit community obviously helps as well.

    Once everything's been made safe, they'll be escorted back in to see if anything is salvageable. Typically, they had literally just finished completing all of the refurbishing they'd planned on doing - including new carpets.

    As I said - they're a very resilient couple, who've helped many others in times of misfortune, so they reallly deserve everything to go right for them from now on.