Post September 11th World Trade Center attack, memorials and photos of missing loved ones, New York City. (Photo by: Joan Slatkin/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A successful account of the disastrous

When the Dust Settles is a record of an achingly human response to chaos and emergency

One of the biggest problems for disaster responders at the scene of a bomb is pigeons. This is because they collect the smallest human bones, the phalanges, to build their nests. British disaster responders are especially diligent about the long and difficult task of recovering all human remains. This is for the obvious purpose of identification, but also to effect as complete an interment of the deceased as possible. And so it is that Professor Lucy Easthope, author of the new book about disasters When the Dust Settles, has a passion for finding and protecting tiny bones and a wariness for pigeons.

When the Dust Settles, Lucy Easthope (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

After the London bus bombing, animal rights campaigners complained about the hawk deployed to keep the pigeons away. The identification manager had to leave the scene to reassure the London mayor’s office the hawk was only scaring the pigeons, not eating them.

This pigeon anecdote is fair warning of the many descriptions of bodily remains and death you would expect to find in a book about disasters ranging from bombs and tsunamis to floods and fires. Our relationship with death is as perpetually troubling as the woke demonstrations against the falconer are tiresomely relevant. But the fascinating, grisly ease with which Easthope writes about death is matched by her compassion, experience and wisdom.

She says no Bond movie would cast her. The fact is, this book has “film option” written all over it. Someone needs to make a film about this northern woman who describes herself as rounded by years of trying (and failing) to make babies, with a rolling arthritic gait, who has nonetheless bravely swaggered her way behind the male-dominated chevroned cordons of every major disaster in recent years. She gives of herself in this book in the same way she clearly gives of herself in disasters and the subsequent recoveries. She is the stoic hero we all need straight off the back of a global pandemic.

When the Dust Settles offers a unique take on famous, terrible events such as 9/11, the London bus bomb, Fukishama, the Bali bomb, Grenfell and, of course, Covid-19. Easthope tells us that the word “disaster” is formed from the Latin dis and astro, meaning bad stars. Her career must also have been written in the stars, because even when she is not called upon to attend the scenes of disaster, she finds herself there by chance, such as her family outing to Alton Towers on the day the Smiler ride crashed.

While always respectful towards people, their loves, losses, lives and deaths, she also has a macabre humorous tone. She describes being pranked by colleagues in a morgue, although she turned the post-mortem table (so to speak) on the chap pretending to be dead by whispering “boo” in his ear. She handles death surely, which is invitingly refreshing during an arguably death phobic era.

Once the cleaning is done, you can’t get life’s patina back

One area where I wanted much more from the book was on the UK government’s management of Covid. I should say at this point that I interviewed Easthope for my own book, A State of Fear, so I was already familiar with her general views. She is well-connected and has walked the corridors of powers, but does not offer enough details and names to satisfy this reader. She avoids disclosing the saddest parts of her job with her mother, and even her husband, and she is as controlled and careful in her writing as she is in her personal life. This is a woman with a career and a reputation. And there is the Official Secrets Act, no doubt.

Nonetheless she unflinchingly accuses the government of weaponising “hefty doses of fear” and an “anti-human response” during Covid-19. She is also scathing about the use of behavioural insights, nudge and the focus on public optics rather than public resilience.

People who have been unsure whether such a monumentally awful pandemic management response is due to cock up or conspiracy will be reassured (or horrified?) by various accounts of British ineptitude. For instance, British soldiers were sent to Iraq without desert boots. Easthope discovered this because the feet of the fallen were blistered and bleeding in boots too small, with other men’s names sharpied into the leather: the soldiers had bought boots from their better kitted-out American peers.

This book rewrites your perceptions of the disasters and wars of our lifetime with vivid details and vignettes. Yes, some of these are dark, but there is often humour, and the book is laced with humanity and decency.

Easthope has trained detectives never to clean jewellery before returning it to the family of the deceased without asking. Once the cleaning is done, you can’t get life’s patina back. People want mementos to be real and “as is”. They want the truth, the light and dark. When The Dust Settles is a literary memento which honours the messy truth of life, complete with patina.

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