Grenfell Tower Thoughts
Thoughts, walking through this national tragedy
It stands there. The charred remains of life and the sombre and haunting thoughts for the families, friends, young lives that witnessed this within and in the proximity — and through the media too.
The inferno we’ve become privy to on our television reveals close up a tragic haecceity, a kinaesthetically tensing of the muscles. Simply?
Grenfell, a community columned by its structural edifice but more so in reality through shared backgrounds and neighbourly qualities. A commune where neighbours would nod, exchange words, hold the block’s main door open for others, or jar the lift for a few more seconds for someone to enter, where, selflessness — a hand reaching out to next door, or floors above — would have been commonplace, evokes a cascade of shaken heads.
I took another route home from work yesterday to look, listen and pay respect — sometimes you need not say anything. Silence and presence speak for themselves. Railings double as public boards. People crane their necks to read the many eulogies. The photos — families, couples, men and women, young folk and old — capture beauty, indelibly.
A woman from East London and her daughter had travelled to the area perplexed, like many, that this could happen. Her teenager, like others, takes photos. What annotation would she be providing on her Instagram or snapchat page?
In the far distance a group of burly men find a strategic spot to pose with puffed chests and the building as backdrop as if it were a trophy. It appeared crass and rank. I cannot see the expression on the policeman’s face, but I’d wager he is not amused.
One man was strident in delivering a heightened monologue, phone fixed on flowers, before turning to one of the pockets of people talking and sharing. A shirtless young man was holding court telling the group how the lives of the people here differed from residents a couple of streets away. A woman weighed in with her bit, then another.
‘Bruv just keep talking yeh. I’m filming you’, monologue man said, as if somehow his camera alone was singularly catching truisms. For the last days many have spoken, hurting. Monologue man provoked a momentarily awkward silence.
At one point during the day, a friend I meet there tells me, as each speaker charged with fulfilling a need for Grenfell spoke, a sea of cameras would pierce through the bobble of heads.
You sense, everyone is trying to make sense of it, and doing so in their own way. I too took photos, but was acutely aware of my ambivalence. I did not want to. On the ground you feel this is intensely private. There are makeshift shrines upon shrines. People still live where we are congregated. The tower, like many flats built in the 60s and 7os, sits cheek by jowl with other flats and homes.
Where I find myself standing, where I took the top photo, residents have windows and balcony doors open. It is one of the hottest days in the London, 32c/ 89.6 degrees fahrenheit. Their homes have become fixtures in what looks like a surreal movie set. You can pick up the acrid smell of burning, when the odd breeze wafts by.
What photos I did take were snatched, a tension between my conditioning still adhering to broadcaster guidelines, balanced against the want to illustrate, yet aware of the need to show empathy and respect.
Private grief can be private even when people are ironically moving, or seated in public, which is why when one photographer wanted to take a photo of my friend, she says she firmly said, ‘No!’ I would do the same, yet I find myself taking photos of other people.
Which is why when I surreptitiously grab this photo, I’m aware I did not seek the permission of the subjects so must blur their identities.
The intensity of scrutiny has led even those who would be very tolerant to take action. A sign on the ground next to a church says firmly, ‘No Press in this Area. Thank you!’
Approaching Grenfell from Ladbroke Grove’s station end, my friend draws my attention to this. The man on the left fidgets with something. His sound equipment, perhaps, before saying his piece to camera. No not this. A gaggle of people stand behind a police cordon peering at Grenfell to the right. Not this either.
This. Those green tiling patterns on the bottom right building, underneath the shadow of Grenfell, is, my friend tells me, a school. The tragedy did not happen when the school was open, but memories and legacies thereafter? One thought begets another.
Swing the camera around : where the reporter has situated himself is a block of flats. A woman curiously approaches. Out of shot, and perhaps by now forced to get used to this spectacle, residents lean over their balconies watching. I wonder how long they will be tolerant of this?
There are so many different narratives in their air that my friend and I ponder respectfully how they might be told. I remember 26 years ago. I was fairly new to journalism, had worked on BBC 2 Reportage and BBC Newsnight. I would watch TV News about South Africa’s apartheid religiously.
Why I would think this way I can’t recall, but I yearned to be in Soweto, witnessing. Two months later I was and what struck me was this, in spite of the wall to wall coverage of TV news, I found myself quizzing elemental assumptions.
Soweto was not some far off place from the cities. Soweto sat on the cleft of Johannesburg and its affluent regions. Google maps does us that favour today to see for ourselves, but how could that be missed? The rich tapestry of people, the coping of everyday, the unsung and the many selfless, the stories and life long friendships I nurtured remain with me — from essentially first just listening.
This is in no way to suggest, no, that Grenfell is Soweto, for those who might make that leap. It is simply me pulling on fragments of memories.
I think. I wonder what stories will become part of our collective memories of Grenfell with the passage of time, in an era of social media, and how that will shape the narrative of future generations?
That each person connected in some way to this mind gnawing event, will have their voice, their presence preserved, accessible for the here and now and generations, to remind us what was once so grotesquely intolerable, that it took something unimaginably intolerable for our human gyroscope to become centrally aligned for the good of all.
Perhaps it requires something beyond the communicative powers of the present media? A thing we have not conceived yet, but we should. My friend and I are thinking. But that line is cast for the future. In the meantime there was, and is, a tragedy of wrenching consequences continuing to unfold.
Its stands there! Right there!
Named one of the top writers in journalism on medium’s platform, David, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster, leads the digital interactive storytelling lab. He’s an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, whose doctorate investigates the boundaries of journalism and art. He publishes award winning site www.viewmagazine.tv