A Postcard from Grenfell
A long conversation with a friend on the topic of recent tragedies and the gaping inequalities revealed therein inspired — or maybe required — me to cycle home from work via Grenfell Tower (Grenfell, she was right about the resonance of the name: Greenfield, Grendel, profoundly anglo-saxon, stuffed with immigrants and refugees — a metonym for England?). Google maps sent me from King's Cross, where I work, up to Camden town, round the top of Regent's park, along Regent's canal to Ladbroke Grove, a route I've never travelled before. I was struck, as I always am in London, by how quickly the neighbourhoods undulate from rich to poor — mansions overlook the canal; so do plain-Jane brick houses and grim tower blocks. Even the canal boats range from floating pleasure pads to broken down barges. And the people, their clothes, voices, skin colour, choice of pastime, vocabulary, facial expressions, propensity for spitting in the street, all follow the gradient of cash. If you plotted the topography of wealth, this flat city would look like the Dolomites. I finally stopped checking my phone for directions when I saw the charred slab looming over the houses.
Ben Okri, my friend informed me, wrote a poem describing what was left of the tower as a burnt matchbox. My first thought was that his metaphor was misleading: the shape of a matchbox, more or less, but a different kind of burning. I expected parts of it to have vanished into ash, others to be almost undamaged — like embers in a grate. But everything I could see was uniformly, hideously, scorched. The concrete bones were blackened but intact; the skin, eyes and innards of the building were completely gone. Less a matchbox than a giant urban being, burned alive as some sort of punishment, skeleton left as a warning. And I had this sense from the local people, of a ghastly thing they couldn't ignore but didn't want to look at any more; also that they could immediately discern — however purposeful I tried to look — that I was an interloper, a voyeur.
The tower's in the middle of a kind of nest of low-lying housing estates. All the roads in were closed and guarded by police. So I could only circle on my bicycle, getting progressively sadder, feeling more than ever like an emotional vulture. The streets are dotted with bouquets and messages — demands of justice for Grenfell, a schoolboy's poem about wanting to be a fireman penned on a tee-shirt, letters of support, a picture of a Chihuahua who survived the fire but got lost in the aftermath, but mostly the faces of loved ones with 'Missing', or 'RIP', or both, written on them.
I thought of an argument I’d had the other morning with my 8 year old daughter — already as hotheaded as her father. I lost my temper so badly I threw her schoolbag at her and the water bottle inside it bruised her chest. I thought of that, and all the times I’ve shouted at my kids, and I hated myself so much. It could be her, instead of the little Indian girl, posted on that phone box. It could be my kids writing 'Miss U DAD' on a picture of me. Except we're rich and white, and they're poor and dark. I hung around a while longer, listening to the murmurs of passers-by — 'so sad, so sad', 'may the Lord God protect them'. Two teenage boys discussed whether a Moroccan guy they used to play football with had died in the fire. I took surreptitious photographs (tasteless, I know: at least they weren't selfies).
Then I cycled off down to Shepherd's Bush, over Hammersmith Bridge, into well-heeled South West London (and even there, in the fiscal uplands, the odd sink estate lurks). Hooray Henrys and Henriettas quaffed pints and laughed by the Thames. I passed The Priory, convent of celebrity rehab, rolled into Richmond Park where a few last Middle Aged Men In Lycra (MAMILs - like me) were working off the stress of their demanding roles in corporate management by pedalling hard on expensive bikes. Through the woods of Wimbledon common, my bike light carving a fascinating, faceted cone out of the gathering dark. Back home, to my safe house and breathing children.