Grenfell, London and me

It appears suddenly from behind a tree as you walk down Lancaster Road. Such is London’s pan-generational clutter of architecture and its asymmetric geography that the imposing black scar against a clear autumn sky — once home to 350 people — makes itself known only when you are almost beneath it.

Last weekend, I saw Grenfell Tower for the first time since the fire. I was here — along with hundreds of others — to join a silent walk through the streets of North Kensington in memory of those who died. Here, in place of the sound of a crowd, was all the anger, defiance, love and hurt of a community that has been brought close to breaking point by an entirely avoidable disaster.

I was struck by the dignity of the evening. Not only of those who walked at a snail’s pace up Ladbroke Grove and under the Westway, carrying candles or with arms around one another’s shoulder, but of the people who watched us go by: The four men, stood stock still on the side of the road, as if frozen in time; the Saturday night passengers on overlit busses, forced into an unscheduled stop by the solemn procession; the girl leaning out of her first-floor bedroom window on Cambridge Gardens. It was at these moments of unspoken solidarity that I noticed tears in my eyes.

And above us throughout was the tower.

Before and during the walk, my gaze kept finding its way to that monolithic tomb, first standing out as a grotesque thumbprint in the evening sunshine, and later as an absence of light amid the artificial orange glow of neighbouring blocks. It is difficult to understand the enormity of what took place in that building, or the devastation it has wrought on those who continue to live here, until you are confronted with the physical object itself.

I had avoided making the journey across London before now, suspicious of my own motives, wary of intruding on the private trauma of grieving families (especially given the understandable animosity directed towards some of my fellow journalists). But I was wrong to have stayed away. Survivors, relatives and friends of the dead are confronted daily with a reminder that nothing will again be the same for them, so why should the rest of us forget? As one campaigner explained to me when we met at a previous event, the sight of the tower has become an everyday fact of life but will never feel normal. Nor should it.

A white sheet will soon cover much of Grenfell Tower, as the powers that be belatedly recognise the mental health implications its brooding presence is having on those left to restart their lives in its shadow. Correct as that decision is, I am glad I saw it before the nightmarish vision becomes sanitised.

The remains of the tower brought to my mind the piercing eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, passing judgment on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘valley of ashes’ — a vision of a divided, deluded America. Except for me, this is a judgment on London and on my own flawed understanding of a city that I have called home my whole life.

Because Grenfell is not only a tragedy on a horrific scale; it is not only the lives of the still uncounted children, snuffed out in one midsummer morning. It is a final damning verdict on the inequity baked in to the self-styled ‘greatest city in the world’, and on the lies some of us have to tell ourselves to live in it.

I am a proud Londoner. I love my city and I am grateful that I grew up here. I like knowing its quirks and eccentricities, its myriad secrets, the cheat codes for how to get by. I like the sense of belonging it has given me as the son and grandson of immigrants. I wouldn’t swap my city for anywhere else.

But I am white. I am middle-class. I have a good education. I come from a position of enormous privilege. And, after Grenfell, privilege is no longer something any Londoner can choose to ignore.

It is well documented that Kensington and Chelsea is home to some of the most uneven distribution of wealth in the country. Yet the obvious inequalities are not confined to this corner of London. At one point, Saturday’s walk went along a row of beautiful detached Georgian townhouses, reminiscent of the tree-lined street where I spent my childhood, four miles away in north London. Near there, too, were social housing estates. I have always taken pride in living in this contradiction, spouting the usual casual clichés about melting pots and multiculturalism.

But this is the delusion of privilege. As JG Ballard observes in High Rise, his dark comedic vision of atomised city dwellers, occupation of the same physical space does not imply shared experience.

London’s broiling mix of the haves and have-nots allows the former to indulge in a kind of cultural tourism in their own city. Whether it’s the co-opting of black urban music into the relatively safe spaces of central London clubs in the 1990s and 2000s, or the reimagining of Trellick Tower — another famous North Kensington social housing block — as an image to adorn coffee cups, the process of sanitisation is everywhere.

The capital’s deliberate cheek by jowl post-war town planning — with subsidised council housing blocks pepper-potted among the most lavish and expensive parts of town — is in contrast to the way much of the rest of the world has been designed. We do not have the sprawling banlieues of Paris or the housing projects that became a symbol of urban decay in cities across America.

However, the utopian 1960s vision of cities in the sky has been snuffed out by decades of divisive social and economic policy. Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy, which inculcated a rift between leaseholders and renters, was a catalyst for the erosion of tenants’ rights.

That erosion reached its apogee at Grenfell Tower. After years of being ignored and dehumanised, even the right to sleep safely through the night was taken away.

The black outline of Grenfell Tower is a stain on London’s glorified self-image. The fire was the product of an unfair system from which I have undoubtedly benefited. That is not an easy sentence to write, but it is true and it is why this tragedy should resonate deeply with everyone who — like me — calls London home.

Silent walks for the victims of the Grenfell fire will continue to be held on the 14th of every month. The organisers say they want people from outside the immediate community to join them in their quiet, dignified protest. It’s a chance for London to live up to the promise of its diversity and show that, amid its divisions, there can be togetherness.