Life in a Bradford tower block: It’s about citizens, not cladding.

Two weeks on from the horrific fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, I feel angrier and more depressed than ever. Not only for the obvious reasons — the appalling and completely avoidable deaths of at least 79 residents, young and old — but also now because the public discussion seems to have descended into petty, buck-passing arguments over combustible insulation cladding. Central government blames local councils for not inspecting their housing stocks fast enough, while local councils blame building contractors for supplying substandard materials. And meanwhile, in those UK cities such as Bradford where there has so far been no sign of suspect cladding, we get to act like it’s somebody else’s problem entirely. Earlier this week, a report by the Telegraph and Argus confirmed the early reassurances from the city’s largest social housing provider, InCommunities, that “our high-rise blocks” use “non-combustible rock wool insulation which is not the same as that used in London.” Nothing to see here. Move along please…

And yet there is absolutely something to see here. Because while Grenfell tower’s flammable cladding seems to have been the immediate cause of this fire spreading so rapidly and lethally, there had long been concerns that any number of problems with that building were potentially life-threatening. The residents of Grenfell Tower had been well aware of this for years, but found that their concerns were repeatedly “brushed away” by the relevant authorities. So let’s not confuse the symptoms with the disease. This is not a story about cladding, it’s a story about ordinary people not being listened to. It’s a nationwide pathology, and one that is only perpetuated by the cat-fighting at governance level about who did (or didn’t) do what when. When you’re shouting, you’re not listening.

“Residents feel abandoned by those with the power,” London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has said of Grenfell tower: “They didn’t know where to go or what to do. Residents feel that they are neglected because they are poor.” That experience is certainly not unique to London. Khan’s comments immediately reminded me of the Crosley Wood estate in Bingley — three tower blocks troubled by a multitude of problems, where the residents I’ve encountered feel largely abandoned by both InCommunities and by Bradford Council (who seem powerless to enforce any accountability on the housing association). Last year, I made a short film, High Rise Damp, which tried to look at these issues through the eyes of one family living on the estate. Here it is:

This is Jenni Mynard. She and her family live on the eighth floor of ten in Peel House, one of the three Crosley Wood tower blocks. It stands right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which is why our Multi-Story Water project – working alongside Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre – became involved in a community engagement process there. The canal, we’ve found, is experienced by residents as one of the few upsides to living on this estate. But residents at Crosley Wood also experience water in their lives in much more immediate and troublesome ways – in the form of persistent damp problems throughout the buildings, often manifesting as black mould. This poses serious health risks: as Jenni explains in the film, her son Dylan suffers from chronic asthma which is likely a consequence of the damp. Yet all her attempts to have the problem addressed or even taken seriously by InCommunities haveseemingly fallen on deaf ears. Making this film was my attempt to have her tell her story, for anyone who might be willing to listen, as simply and directly as possible.

There is, unfortunately, nothing unusual or exceptional about Jenni’s story. That’s sort of the point. As Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea MP (whose constituency includes Grenfell Tower) remarked during her maiden speech to Parliament in the wake of the fire disaster, “I’ve seen housing conditions that are shocking… Homes growing toxic black mould… Chronic health problems such as asthma, with children being carted off to hospital at night.” Dent Coad has accused Kensington council of presiding over the “deterioration and perhaps even deliberate managed decline of social housing” in that borough. Making a similar point, another London MP, David Lammy (who personally knew one of the victims of the Grenfell fire, the acclaimed photographer Khadija Saye) has gone so far as to call it a case of “corporate manslaughter” – avoidable deaths caused by neglect and a lack of care.

Now, I’m not going to accuse anyone in Bradford of doing anything criminal, but we only need to look as far as the comments thread on InCommunities’ own Facebook pages to see that a great many of the housing association’s residents have faced comparable difficulties with run-down, substandard housing stock — and with a perceived lack of concern from those responsible. At the time of writing this post, the most recent comment is one from June 21st, from a resident whose “house was a disgrace” from the day she moved in, with unsafe wiring: but when she “rang incommunities [they] were rude and arrogant”. “Some people that work here are dishonest”, writes another complainant: “they just lied they do what suits them”. And another: “Absolutely fed up! I moved into one of your houses 2 years ago and spent every bit of my savings on doing up the whole house as it was an absolute disaster.” I have not cherry-picked these quotes – they’re among the first things that come up on the feed, and are completely typical of what follows. In fact this thread is such a litany of horror that my colleague Lyze Dudley recently decided to run the entire comments chain through a software programme to identify the most insistent complaints. This is what she found, represented as a “word-cloud” visual:

This image sort of speaks for itself. The word “thanks” does come up, but so too do “disgusting” and “joke”. And notice just how prominent that word “water” is in the mix. Whether it be issues of damp or problems with water supplies, InCommunities tenants experience water as one of the big negatives of their living conditions. Thankfully, the word “fire” does not appear. Yet.

I should stress that I am not trying to say InCommunities does nothing right. Indeed early last week, a few days after the Grenfell fire, its Chief Executive Geraldine Howley (left) was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, “in recognition of her services to housing, young people and the local community.” To earn this accolade, I’ve no doubt that Ms. Howley has done things at governance level that have made positive differences in people’s lives. And yet there is also, clearly, a serious disconnect between the management perspective and the perspectives of residents. So there’s an urgent need — in Bradford as well as in London — for constructive, respectful dialogue between authorities and tenants.

Perhaps that is just what InCommunities have been attempting this spring/summer, through a series of events and “walkabouts” they’ve set up on Bradford estates. At Crosley Wood, they laid on a well-attended “Fun Day” for residents on June 1st, which featured lots of music and bunting, free food and drink for residents (up to a point – when you’d had your allocation you had to pay for any more), as well as a caving bus, face painting and other family activities. There was also an information marquee offering advice on debt management, ways to save on household energy bills, and so on. There seemed to be a real effort to engage with residents, particularly by the new housing officer Joanne, and lots of people clearly had a really enjoyable time.

I asked Jenni Mynard (pictured below) what she made of the Fun Day. She was very grateful for it, she said, and suggested that a lot of the credit for the event and its positivity should go to Joanne — who is friendly, personable, enthusiastic and clearly concerned for residents’ welfare. Even so, Jenni sounded a note of caution about whether a single housing officer could ultimately make any real difference in terms of the wider problems faced by residents. “We’ve had good officers before,” she told me, “and they all seem to get beaten down in the end.”

That rather bleak assessment, reflecting a wariness borne of experience, was echoed by others who attended the Fun Day. Lyze Dudley, who also took these photographs, spoke to numerous residents on the day, and while most were appreciative of what had been laid on, some of them also remarked that they didn’t understand what this event was for: were InCommunities really going to address their concerns, or was this just a PR exercise? “The feeling was”, Lyze wrote in her notes, “that this has happened in the past. There’s a nice event where free food and drink is given out, residents are asked for their opinions and then nothing changes. One resident informed me that she would rather they spent the money on repairs to the flats rather than a party.” Of course, repairs would cost a lot more than a party – and that’s exactly the problem. Social housing in this country has been chronically under-funded for decades.

Another resident reported to Lyze his fears for the future of Crosley Woods’ portacabin community centre (rather peculiarly referred to as “the Kabin” in publicity for this event): “Joanne has informed him that they plan to change the locks on the cabin, essentially putting a stop to any of the sessions that currently run from here and taking ownership away from the residents who are taking responsibility for the cabin and have done for the past two years. Unfortunately he cannot tell me why or when this may happen.” It may be that this fear proves unfounded – let’s hope so. But unfortunately, the experience of Crosley Woods residents has in the past been of things being taken away from them, rather than provided to them.

This was underlined most chillingly by Jenni, when I phoned her recently to see if she was concerned about fire safety, following the Grenfell disaster. “We used to have a really good fire safety system”, she told me: “We had heat detectors, smoke alarms, and a common alarm system for the entire block. So if a fire started somewhere, we all knew about it.” That system also sent an automatic alert to the fire brigade, who would then respond swiftly. However, after the building was renovated a few years ago (Jenni doesn’t recall the exact year, but the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition were in power), the alarm system was not replaced. Now, fire safety has simply become a private matter of residents’ individual responsibility. If your smoke alarm goes off, Jenni says, you have to decide for yourself whether to inform your neighbours or call the fire brigade. It’s all down to you. 

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? It’s an endemic problem in modern Britain that people are too often just left to fend for themselves. We are expected to be personally “resilient” in the face of crisis, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect any help from the authorities. The Grenfell fire exposed the murderous reality of what that means in practice, but it was — as the tower’s residents were well aware — an accident waiting to happen. As for Bradford, well… cladding problem or no cladding problem, attention must be paid. 

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My thanks to Ruth Bartlett and Lyze Dudley for assistance with this post.

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.

When is a flood not a flood? (Two tales of wet flats)

This Tuesday I was treated to stories of “water inundation” at opposite ends of the housing spectrum. I’ll explain why I’ve used that term in a moment, but first let me introduce you to Andrew Mason, an old friend of the Multi-Story Water project (we had an actor playing him back in 2012) who kindly spared me some time to discuss flood damage…

IMG_1551Andrew, who grew up in Shipley, is the property developer behind the Victoria Mills apartment complex on the south bank of the Aire, between Saltaire and Baildon Bridge. He built the place about a decade ago — converting existing mill buildings and also constructing from scratch three distinctive, curved apartment blocks: Northern Lights, to the left in the image above; and VM1 and VM2, in the background of the shot below, which stand on the bank of the river itself.

IMG_1540Victoria Mills was badly hit by the Boxing Day floods last year, and eight months on, the site is still in the process of rebuild and recovery. Actually, the first six months were occupied largely by endless debates with the insurance company, due to the extent and complexity of the damage, so the repair work only really began in the last couple of months. In these images you can see work continuing on the site’s bar, VM Lounge. As is apparent from the watermark on the windows in the shot below, the place was under 1.8 metres of water on Boxing Day.

IMG_1547VM Lounge has been completely redesigned following the flood, and like other businesses and homes in the area, there’s been something of a learning curve… The refit will be consciously more “flood resilient” than the bar’s previous incarnation, in terms of its fixtures and fittings: the pillars below, for example, will be left as exposed (albeit coated) masonry in the new design, partly as “post-industrial chic” and partly because this will avoid the need ever to repeat the process of stripping away flood-soaked plaster from the brickwork.

IMG_1548Despite this new eye to resilience, though, it’s important to note that VM Lounge and the grassy courtyard area it fronts onto were always designed and expected to flood in the development’s original plans. The rationale for putting the bar at this lower level was that, well, at least nobody lives there. If this gets wrecked, it’s less serious than someone’s home being impacted.

Indeed, the courtyard is specifically designed as a “compensatory flood storage” area — meaning that, in order to get planning permission for the development, Andrew and his colleagues had to provide a contained area on site for high water to flow into (in order that the defended buildings don’t just displace all the water downstream). In short, the courtyard is designed to become a temporary lake, while the actual living spaces are higher up, safely out of harm’s way. At least in theory…. Yet at 4pm on Boxing Day, while away at the coast in Whitby, Andrew received a call from a resident informing him that apartments were under water…

IMG_1541What went wrong? Well, this picture above tells something of the story. The wall to the right (which supports the walkway from which I took the first shot above of VM Lounge) is a flood wall. It’s designed to store displaced water away on the other side, where the bar is, while keeping this grassy tennis court area safe and dry. So it was thought safe to install apartments at ground level in the block you see here (Masons Mill) and in the one facing it (Old Mill). It was these apartments that were hit on Boxing Day.

Interestingly, though, the insurance company insists that these apartments (unlike the bar), were not “flooded”. Rather, they were affected by “a water inundation event”. The technical difference, Andrew tells me, is that flooding is what happens when the river flows into your property… whereas in this area the water came up through the ground. “Like something out of a science fiction movie”, Andrew remarks.

Basically, the land in this area was so completely waterlogged during the flood that pressure from the swollen river pushed water up through the ground itself. The irony is that Andrew’s tennis courtyard was particularly vulnerable, because — in line with the best current design thinking — it was created to provide “sustainable urban drainage”; i.e. to let water sink down into the ground rather than it simply draining off impermeable surfaces and being channeled away elsewhere (back into the river). So for instance, the tennis court itself is made of “tenniscrete”, a form of porous hard surface that allows water down through it. Yet the twist here, of course, is that what goes down can also come up. The ground’s porosity also allowed water to rise through it. It’s an issue that, Andrew notes, nobody thought to raise when the Victoria Mills complex was being designed — not the architects, not the engineers, not the Environment Agency. And now it’s too late to do remedial work to solve the problem. All that can be done is to make those ground floor flats, like the bar, more resilient to future “inundation”.

Now meet my other interviewees from Tuesday. Jenni Mynard and her son Dylan…

IMG_1555They’re pictured here on the bench at Dowley Gap locks, on the canal, which is just a five minute walk from their home in the Crosley Wood housing estate (at the east end of Bingley – close to Baildon and Shipley). If Victoria Mills styles itself as luxury apartment living, Crosley Wood is the polar opposite — a council estate, now run by Bradford’s social housing quango In Communities, which nobody who lives there has a good word for. The three concrete tower blocks that make up the estate were built back in the 1960s, and should probably have been demolished long ago…

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Although the setting for the estate is beautifully green and wooded, and right next to the canal, the buildings themselves are in a terrible state. Jenni and family had a “water inundation event” of their own only a few weeks ago, when the badly plumbed piping under the kitchen sink sprang a leak and deluged the floor, leaving them paddling around in several centimetres of water. Jenni knows of almost identical incidents that have occurred in neighbours’ flats — and she has also had water pouring through her bathroom ceiling from a leak in the flat above. (Her own leak, of course, flowed down to the flat below… so there’s a kind of cascade effect – like an indoor waterfall!) But the real problem in terms of “living with water” in these buildings is the persistent damp from condensation in the external walls and in the walls around ventilation shafts. Dylan has lived his entire life at Crosley Wood, and has an asthmatic condition that his parents are convinced is related to the black mould spots on his bedroom wall. Yet every attempt that the Mynards have made to get In Communities to pay serious attention to the condition of the flat — or to relocate them to alternative accommodation — has fallen on deaf ears.

Despite these struggles, though, Jenni and her family remain the most positive and community-minded people you could wish to come across. For instance, she and Dylan were active in the flood clear-up attempts organised by Bingley Flood Support in the aftermath of the Boxing Day deluge. They could see that other people needed help, and — as Jenni says — that is what community is for. Her approach is perhaps summed up by a phrase that’s been quoted to me by several other volunteer flood responders this year: “Do as you would be done by.” (These words are, of course, from Charles Kingsley’s Victorian children’s novel, The Water Babies — which is itself set in West Yorkshire, in Airedale and Wharfedale.)

I got to know Jenni and Dylan a little during recent visits to Crosley Wood’s regular Wednesday afternoon community meal (in the prefab hut that passes as a centre for residents). My colleague Lyze, and Paul Barrett of Kirkgate Centre, have been engaging with that group for some time now. I’ve been wanting, somehow, to reflect creatively on the circumstances that residents find themselves living in, and it occurred to me that Jenni’s story might make a good one focus for a short documentary film. She’s so passionate and articulate about their circumstances – and Dylan so sly and funny –  that the film will require no editorialising commentary from me. We spent two days this week shooting footage in and around Bingley, at Crosley Wood, and inside their flat — working from a rough outline plan that uses water as a connecting thread (from the Bingley Five Rise to the Crosley Wood ten-rise…). Maybe, just maybe, it will make somebody pay attention to their situation?

IMG_1561The final scene of the film will be a playfully imagined escape from the flats, as Jenni and Dylan disappear off into the sunset towards Saltaire, along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. My colleague Trevor Roberts had one of his Canal Connections boats, the Out and About, coming through Dowley Gap locks on Tuesday evening, so we hitched a little ride… (That’s skipper Katrina at the tiller – she let Dylan have a go too.)

Thanks so much to Jenni and Dylan for a memorable and enjoyable couple of days filming. I really hope they’ll be proud of the results when we’ve finished editing the footage. Thanks to Andrew Mason, too, and of course to Canal Connections. Out on a boat, on a gorgeous summer’s evening like Tuesday’s, it was possible – at least temporarily – to forget the problems with wet flats…

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New beginnings? (Crosley Woods, Shipley Connected, etc)

This week felt like “new beginnings” in all sorts of ways. For a start, it was a week of (mostly) gorgeous spring sunshine, so bright that it almost bleached out some of the snapshots pasted below — such a wonderful pleasure and relief after the relentless battering of rain that we all got during what was “the wettest winter since records began”… In a previous blog posted just over a year ago, reflecting on “the wettest year on record” (2012) I made the point that it’s been tricky to ascribe any individual weather event or phenonenon to “man-made climate change”, but this winter’s events have been so extreme that the argument is now extremely difficult to refute. Just take a look at this:

The footage in this video of the Aberystwyth glaciologist was shot by my friend and colleague Sara Penrhyn Jones, who is based at Aberystwyth University (where students were repeatedly evacuated from sea-front halls of residence during January). She also took this rather extraordinary shot of a wave hitting the town’s promenade during the storms:

massive waveI mention Sara in part because she’s now also a project partner. This year we’ll be beginning a new period of AHRC-funded research as part of a 3-year project titled “Towards Hydro-Citizenship”, with four case study areas: Shipley is one (carrying on where we left off last year), the area north of Aberystywith (Borth and Tal y Bont) is another, as are the Brislington area of Bristol and the Lee Valley in East London. More on all this another time – suffice for now to say that in Shipley, we’ll be keeping the Multi-Story Water (MSW) name going because it has some local recognition.

Anyway, getting back to the spring sunshine! This last Monday, March 3rd, I went for a little walk along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, crossing the imaginary jurisdictional boundary between Shipley ward and Bingley ward in order to get to this spot just east of the Dowley Gap “Seven Arches” aqueduct…

ireland to crosley woods 203Just visible in this shot, competing a bit with the sunshine, is the easternmost tower of the Crosley Woods social housing development. Crosley Woods is right next to the canal, but on the “wrong side” for access to the towpath. To access the canal, residents have to walk down through a muddy field (there’s no footpath, but two – er – bathtubs) and exit through a gate with a sign explicitly reminding everyone that this isn’t a public right of way and that permission even to walk through the field could be withdrawn at any time by our friends at Bradford Council… Here are Maya Williams and Paul Barrett, of Kirkgate Community Centre, about to go through said gate (Paul is helpfully pointing our way up through the field to the estate).

ireland to crosley woods 204I was on a wee scouting trip with Paul and Maya, because Kirkgate Centre have been doing some community development work at Crosley Woods over the last year or so (although it’s technically in Bingley, not Shipley, it falls within the parliamentary constituency and thus falls within their remit). Initial survey work indicated that very few people had anything good to say about living in Crosley Woods, since (like many high-rise estates of this type across the country) there are significant problems with social deprivation, drug abuse, and so on.  However, the one good thing that people highlighted was the proximity of the canal – a fact which prompted Paul to ask whether the definition of “Shipley” might be stretched to include Crosley Woods as we plan the next stage of our water-focused activities. The MSW project will be working directly in collaboration with Kirkgate Centre over the next 3 years, so we’re looking at points of common interest and concern… hence this week’s visit.

ireland to crosley woods 207Here are the three towers of Crosley Woods, looking not unpleasant in the sunshine, even if there are no trees in leaf yet. You can see how the almost rural location has some benefits for residents. (Here we’re looking west, with the canal off down to the left.) But in this next shot, taken looking back at the estate from the Bingley side, it’s also clear how the canal (now on the right) is inaccessible from the estate itself, because of a steep drop heavily planted with trees…

ireland to crosley woods 210The situation is even clearer in this next shot, a little further on towards Bingley…

ireland to crosley woods 211And a little further on again, we cross a bridge over the canal and suddenly the water and the landscape become beautifully visible…

ireland to crosley woods 214Some immediate questions arise, that we don’t yet have any simple answers for… Residents here at Crosley Woods value the canal, but how might a community engagement process or event best utilise its presence to help build community (as per Kirkgate’s brief), given that its accessibility is such an issue? Initial thoughts involve boats, but we’re at the very early stages with this as yet…

Meanwhile, back at Kirkgate Centre, this hand-drawn map of Shipley ward (no Crosley Woods…) is hanging on the wall. It’s the most prominent visual record of the “Shipley Connected” community planning day that Paul, Maya and co ran on January 25th at the Exhibition Building of Shipley College…

2014-02-17 14.04.31Shipley Connected was a successful event, attracting around 100 local residents who engaged in some quite animated debate around ways to improve and develop the area and community relations. I chaired an hour-long discussion about the local waterways, and also prepared the hand-drawn map as a way for people to playfully engage with the discussion by sticking on post-it notes about places they felt strongly about…

2014-01-25 14.25.19Here’s the map on the day, on the floor in a corner of the Exhibition hall… it had people crawling all over it on hands and knees to stick their post-its down, which was great to see! (As a theatre-maker, I always see it as a form of participatory theatre when you get people crawling around on the floor… 😉

Although Shipley Connected was conceived and run by Kirkgate with no directly intended link to the MSW project, it was great to get involved by way of further developing an emerging relationship that we all hope will be productive in the coming years. As Paul notes, many of the neighbourhoods in Shipley that need particular attention in terms of community development are also proximal to the river or canal, so it’s a natural fit to think in terms of using water as a kind of creative theme to hinge future work around.

For the record, the issues highlighted by the Shipley Connected “waterways” discussion were as follows (in no particular order):

Possibilities for improving riverside footpath access. The recent work to improve the stretch between Saltaire and Baildon Bridge (including the addition of the Aire Sculpture Trail), but there was discussion of opening up more of a continuous riverside “corridor” for walking… not least because the number of bikes on the canal path can sometimes make it perilous for pedestrians!  e.g. a better path from Roberts Park towards Hirst Wood (already mooted by residents on the Higher Coach Road estate); e.g. the public riverside footpath east of Baildon Bridge (linking to Denso Marston’s Nature Reserve) is in a very poor state of repair and needs improvement. The issue of responsibility for footpath maintenance was also raised…

Litter is an ongoing issue – not least the kind of stuff that gets wrapped around trees after high water and is left looking very unsightly. This is something that would take concerted effort from local volunteers to take care of, if the Council doesn’t take responsibility.

Future of local weirs. The argument about the potential Saltaire Hydro was referenced but nobody really wanted to get into it (old news?). There was discussion though about the costs or benefits of weir removal… One person raised concerns about the silting up of the river at Roberts Park, and wondered whether the presence of the weir was in part to blame for this (sediment building up on the upstream side). There was also some discussion of taking out the weir by Baildon Bridge (see this blog for fuller discussion).  It probably wouldn’t greatly improve the health of the river or access upstream for fish (since there are two more weirs just upstream), but there is also the flood risk argument.

Boats on river? There was discussion by some of those with longer memories about the days when boats could be hired at the Boathouse and rowed recreationally between the two weirs at Saltaire and Hirst Wood. Is there value in campaigning to get this back up and running?

Develop Bradford Beck recreationally. This is of course very much a priority for the Friends of Bradford Beck (whose chairman Barney Lerner was present for the discussion), and everyone agreed on the value of trying to make the Beck more accessible… development of cycle path and footpath, clean-up, etc.

Japanese Knotweed and other non-native plant species. These troublesome riverside invaders were raised by one participant, and Barney spoke very encouragingly about FoBB’s plans to train up some volunteers in the art of injecting weedkiller into the roots of invasives… The plan is to tackle this problem along the open-air sections of Bradford Beck, but also at trouble spots on the Aire (such as the area upstream of Baildon Bridge).

I think those were the main points people raised. (Interestingly, nobody really had any issues with the canal.) It was great to have Barney and other BB “friends” present, and I’m hoping MSW will also be able to work in an active, complementary way with them in the next few years. They’re doing great work!

And finally, an anecdotal aside looping us back to where I began this post… One of those present for the Shipley Connected discussion was Rosa Foster, a local resident, member of FoBB, and (in her day job) Environment Agency employee. She brought along her mum, Georgina Winkley, who was visiting from her home in Aberystwyth. When Georgina saw an item about the new “Hydro-Citizenship” project in her local paper the following week, she dropped an email to introduce herself to Sara (mentioned in the paper as the local contact name) and ask if there was any connection to the Shipley Connected event she’d attended… Sara said she didn’t think so, but copied me in… I said yes there was. Meanwhile, it turns out Georgina and Sara live on the same street. It is indeed a very small world…

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