A broken-hearted Londoner’s view of Grenfell Tower
I know I’m near the area because the loud and bustling London streets suddenly fall away to deep silence. The beaming faces of a young couple looking out of a colour printout are strapped to a railing. There are more photos, hastily put up profile pictures, on bus stops (which are no longer in service), on railings, walls, and poles. A little girl smiling, the big eyes of a little boy, black and white photos of older people , family groups captured in time.
People are huddled together, whispering, talking in low voices. A terrible quiet, a tragic heavy weight in the air, thickening in intensity with each step closer.
We come to a church railing where there are more pictures of the missing. They are feared dead due to the fire that rapidly ravaged the 24-storey residential tower around the corner, just 3 days earlier, on the 14 June 2017. People are concerned it went up in flames because a cheaper, flammable, version of cladding was used to cover what was considered an eyesore in a super-deluxe part of London.
There is a car parked right in front of the church, kind of in the way. It shouldn’t matter, but it seems wrong for a polished black Porsche 911 Turbo S with nice wheels to be parked up right here at this particular time. Perhaps I am guilty of bringing my own preconceptions to this place, which is as famous for its extreme wealth as for its diversity of people.
But it’s not just that there are rich people living alongside the not so rich here. We are talking the difference between multi-millionaires and people who maybe won’t ever get on the property ladder. In this part of London the idea of a ladder is a sick joke, to be honest. This is the visible difference between multi-millionaires and those with not much money to spare for expensive belongings, holidays and treats, who don’t appear to have a lot in terms of financial wealth. I am not used to hearing this collective word to describe groups of extremely diverse individuals living in London, but they are now lumped together as “the poor”.
Whatever words being used, these streets are full of grieving people living in sight of the deadly tower. They evidently have a great richness of values, cultures, friends, families, and faiths, and they are trying to support each other through this tragedy.
It is also clear that they have a certain expectation of humanity. They have come out onto the streets to cope. To be with each other. But here there’s this Porsche, carrying a hard cold symbolism on its shiny performance bonnet. The fancy wheels can spirit the owner out of here at any time, while other residents don’t have such easy escape routes or housing options.
My steps get heavier, I round a corner and hear raised voices cutting across the calm. There’s a man with a big lens camera apparently trying to get where he shouldn’t be, in that direction where everyone’s shock is facing. One of a group of young men, seemingly from the community, is asking him where he is going with his camera, and finally shouting at him to get out. A policeman soon quietly appears. The photographer has caused tension, but apparently no cause for alarm.
Onwards in silence again. Should I be here? Is it disrespectful? I am not a tourist. I’m a horrified Londoner. I have come to quietly pay my respects. Then there it is.
That black monstrosity of twisted window frames. Burnt charred horror. It is so big. It is so much bigger than the pictures and social media videos. It is tall and it is wide. There is no sound coming from it. There is no smell. There is darkness, unnatural rough and deformed blackness in the space of what used to be a building full of homes. I have seen it online. The inferno, straight out of hell, the screaming, the diabolical noises of fire. But this is the remains of that now, silently looming over us.
You just think immediately of all the people. The wide gaping spaces where little faces will never again try to peep out over the window sill. The families sleeping inside. The people told to stay put. And they stay put. They can’t move.
30 degrees celsius today, unusual heat on a sunny summer day in London. There are so many enjoying this glorious weather. But here, here there is this looming black awful tower. Those who can’t see it —well, they just don’t see it, I guess.
But the people here can’t get away from it, can they? When will they? It can be seen from many angles, from up and down the hill. It can be seen from other tower blocks just like that one. I’m immediately thinking that it must come down, but how awful, this is not right, they are still in there. This should not be covered over and forgotten.
It can be directly seen from a community of estates, groups of housing that supposedly don’t cost that much, which I understand are supposed to be taken care of by the Council. It can be seen from the houses up the hill, whose communal areas are also taken care of by the same Council. Presumably the same bin men and women clean the waste, the same electricity and internet services operate, and every building is subject to fire regulations designed to stop the kind of raging infernos London has repeatedly experienced across its history.
At this point I have to clarify what I mean when I say houses. I mean actual houses, not houses divided into 10 flats including one in the basement as many of us Londoners are used to seeing. I mean multi-million pound homes with rooftop windows where, if they were in, the residents could easily see the death-trap tower fully and squarely in their field of vision, burning all night and into the next day.
We arrive at the next local church. It is covered in flowers and messages of love, loss and grief. There are people gathered, murmuring in hushed tones. And there are signs to keep the press out of the grieving space. Bottles of water available for the thirsty, signs encouraging people to help themselves.
There is an A4 piece of laminated paper strapped to a pole covered in small font text in the makeshift press scrum area. It’s a press release. I’ve never seen this list of demands — not actually published or discussed. It‘s a list of people who you can reasonably assume had direct responsibility for what just happened to every person living in that haunting disaster in front of us.
Trawling over the internet these past few days I didn’t see it. But what I did see was the headline from the Telegraph today. That headline is on every street corner, in every shop I went in to buy water, it’s all over the internet, it’s being read by millions. It referred to some from this cowed and shocked community as “militants”. Other papers painted them as full of “rage”, storming the town hall.
They were just normal people living in that tower, you know. They are not “the poor”. The ones who are not normal, in the sense that they only represent a tiny percentage of our society, are the mega-rich, not those living in rented accommodation.
Those words of nasty intent, they hurt me so much. That someone could want to spread such viciousness baffles me. I have lost loved ones and I have seen huge building fires up close, but never have I experienced those two at the same time, never thinking the same could happen to me, and never while being hated on by the powerful channels of the British press. What must that be like? No-one should experience this under any circumstances, I am so sorry this is done in my name.
Now I am no longer afraid that taking pictures with my phone is disrespectful, now I know it is necessary. Now I feel I have to remember every detail to tell my friends, my family, tell them what it is really like here. Just in case they believe even a tiny bit of the cruel pictures and stereotypes, slander and bile, being put across through powerful words and images by powerful people.
The people here, they are living under this terrible shadow, this dire reminder of the brief treasure of life, and the speed at which a balmy night can turn to abject horror. They are not raging or storming anything. They are talking to each other, looking for answers.
What I heard was that they want to know how many are dead. Is that unreasonable? They just want to know if their friends and families are dead or alive, and until they know that they cannot rest. I have experienced this, I do know how it feels to not know if you’re loved one is safe, to issue a missing persons notice to the police. I know exactly what that feels like. The not knowing means you cannot sleep. You cannot breathe, not until you know. But in my case, there were cups of tea, concerned calm and respectful phrases. Our worries were heard, we were given answers and potential solutions in the relative comfort of our living room. Imagine going through that without any support.
I know why they have pinned up missing person pictures, right below the remains of the towering inferno in front of them. Even while we all fear it is futile, even while we all look up at where those people probably are right now. But it’s too awful to bear the thought of it while you stand below it. Until there are numbers, there is still hope.
And the numbers have been so hopeful, so low. For such an enormous building to be gutted like this, there are so far very few reported dead, so few reported in hospital. Maybe the hundreds of people all got out and they are in different community centres? Maybe the people around here took them into their homes to help them. Maybe they have no identity documents on them? Maybe, just maybe, they are ok somewhere with no phone battery, or they lost their memory in their distress. I heard one man wondering if the people of Grenfell had been kidnapped.
No matter how much we cling to hope when fearful, it is clear the numbers released don’t make any sense to this community, and they are wondering why this is happening. Too many times those who should know the facts have over-played and down-played numbers for their own gains. It’s a post-truth, alternative game being played with people living in estates with ironic names like “Verity Close”.
I can’t help remembering the Hillsborough disaster, which killed 96 people, and saw the victims and their families repeatedly have their characters dragged through the dirt and back. I can’t help knowing that it took place nearly 30 years ago and the wounds are still wide open because of the disgusting treatment the victims were subjected to. I understand why questioning the numbers is so painful and why there is such a fear of a cover-up of an event which may haunt these people forever. So far the signs from leaders who could do so much to provide comfort, they are not good. They are causing more distress instead, and then they are admitting it, as if that’s ok.
On the streets, they don’t want any talk, not one word, to stray from this disaster, from the facts here, right now. They are saying about 640 people lived in Grenfell Tower. I feel like they should have a good idea. They counted the windows, they shared what they know of how many flats per floor and how many bedrooms. And they said that some flats contained many more people than bedrooms because, as any Londoner knows, for many the exorbitant rent, and rules that favour agencies and landlords, make it hard to live in dignity here, so some are crowded in. They should not be blamed for that.
They are worried when there is talk of never identifying the bodies, they think some of them may not have been registered here. They are worried that some of the victims will simply disappear, unheard of, and this community wants every one of them to be remembered and counted. To be given that one last minimal honour of recognition.
Here it is real. It is raw. And we’ve seen how people in despair are treated. How can anyone compete with the frightening power of the bellowing press and guffawing politicians? Why should these people have to defend themselves right now? Why are they under attack? I can only imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of that, after what they’ve seen, and what they are reeling from.
I keep walking and the different angles seem endless, at every viewpoint there are messages on the railings. At this point there’s a group and a kid with her head down sat out of sight of it, refusing to look. But her mother wants her to see it. What will that mean to this child, this terrible spectacle? There are other children here. There are many women. There are men.
There are teenagers. The noise levels rise gently as the streets wind a bit further away from the tower. They are busy writing messages of peace and love on even bigger pinned-up sheets of cardboard on the endless railings. When here comes a grey-haired older man confidently wearing a t-shirt with the words “Jeremy Corbyn” emblazoned across his chest in super-hero font.
This does not feel like a kick in the stomach, it feels like a hard cold slap in the face. The teenagers notice straight away and their young faces tense up, nervous jitters slip through the group. What must they be thinking about this man? They hold their tongues. This is how he chooses to pay his respects, proclaiming his allegiance irrespective of the residents. Ready with a pen to write on the cardboard. At his feet candles have been lined up to spell RIP, Rest In Peace.
Many Londoners are following Ramadan right now, and friends have told me that it also means trying not to have unkind thoughts. What a test that is, looking at this man, with his hard face and his loud t-shirt seeming to shout something obscene and irrelevant in this hushed place of mourning and death. I feel like I am failing the test, and have to walk away. I feel ashamed for him and because of him. It’s the wrong time and place for that. Why does he not see the distaste?
The final view point was the most peaceful, and also the most disheartening. A group of houses arranged in a square as quaint as any English village green on Downton Abbey. Trees and grass and parked cars. What a contrast to the outpouring of grief next door. Not a soul, not a single picture, not one flower, not a single clue of what is happening in the neighbouring blocks. Except for the monstrosity in one corner of the skyline — that shadow of death hanging there, totally out of place. If it wasn’t for that eerie charred shell in the background, you’d honestly think nothing had happened here. Nothing. There’s a young couple with a camera, looking a bit nervous, whispering to each other. They seem worried to take a picture here, of this scene of tranquility. Why?
We keep walking and get to the bustle and noise of Portobello Road and Notting Hill station. And the newsagents. You see those proudly displayed caustic headlines spewing out disrespectful words about people living in the shadow of that building. People I have now seen for myself, with my own eyes.
The writers of those headlines, they are going on with their lives just as before. All those in positions of power saying all the things on the TV to push their own limited agendas. Perhaps they just don’t have time or the means to come here. In just three words, “rage”, “storm” and “militant”, they can say all they need to say, so efficient.
Meanwhile, those people they speak of and about, I have just seen them gather themselves together, hugging, crying, talking quietly and occasionally soothing themselves with the chant, “United in anger, divided by hate.”
I am just so sorry. We are all guilty of these crimes. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who took a direct part in the chain of events that led to this preventable and heartless carelessness towards the people who died, towards those now grieving, and to those living in fear of the same fate.
It wasn’t an unknown problem, it was a known problem. A known risk of catastrophic loss of life. We are guilty of ignoring them again. Not going there to pay our respects because we are even made to believe that we should fear them. The twisted irony of that. What do “we” have to fear of “them” compared to what “they” have to fear of “us”?
There are hundreds of thousands of readers ingesting and believing what’s written about these people, re-confirming their own stereotypes. There are so few listening to what these people have to say and what they actually need from those of us who really want to help.
The public apathy is a collective effort of denial. If they can’t see it. It doesn’t exist for them. If it’s in the paper, on TV, it must be true, or partly true at least. Next week it will all be gone, replaced by even more divisive headlines.
I can unfortunately only too well imagine the readership of those vile words, those viewers watching interviews of powerful people dishing out responsibility to anyone but themselves. I’m sorry for their ignorance about this. I’m sorry they are incapable of just imagining for one second the fears of people who’ve no reason to believe they will be treated with even a shred of respect.
Maybe you are reading this and think you know better now, but I’m just another person writing about them. I am not one of them, no matter how much I feel for them, how much I identify with them, I am not a part of that distraught community. I did not experience it. I feel their pain but I don’t carry that same pain.
I feel the anger, but I don’t feel the same anger, mine is mixed with so many other issues, issues that I have no right to impose right now. Issues that may have slipped through into my expression here, or may be misinterpreted, no matter my good intentions.
This community should not be demonised, vilified, labeled and insulted right now or ever. They need answers, we all do. They need help as the shock turns to disbelief, anger and regret. We all do, but they need it urgently, now.
Please get out and hear them directly.
It’s not really a lot to ask. To ask you to have some respect.
You are responsible, I am responsible, we are responsible. That is what democracy means. It means we are all in this together. We all failed. We all have a hand in creating, and now fueling, this deepening despair.
This is not the time to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. This is the time to Stop what you’re doing, right now, and help. Do something to make sure it never happens again.
As a minimum, please, respectfully listen to those in pain and quietly pay your respects to a community in mourning. Please don’t ignore them or think someone else is taking care of it.
We know that there are many who have great power to help who simply will not, or do not. At the same time there are many helpers with so little who give all they’ve got.
Repeatedly questioning those who are directly responsible, that helps.
There is no need for you to attack those who were killed or those deeply affected by their deaths. They don’t have the power to fix this unless you listen to them.