Most of the world will probably have heard or seen something about a catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, which has so far claimed 17 lives, but with 100+ missing and the authorities telling us that the death toll will inevitably rise.
As far as I’m aware I don’t know anyone directly affected, but despite being a huge metropolis London is essentially a collection of villages, and in that sense it’s ‘the next village’ to where I grew up. The Electric Cinema, the O2 music venue (previously the Shepherd’s Bush Empire), the Notting Hill carnival and more were a core part of my growing up. I would have known numerous people who grew up in the streets in and around Grenfell Tower. One of my friends from school ran a corner shop in the shadow of the building and the diversity of London could be demonstrated in the bus ride we took. Me, a white Briton, Anita (whose Dad ran the corner shop), a British-Asian, Mariam, a British-Asian and Muslim, and Tia, whose family came from Jamaica. The Gang of Four. I’ve lost touch with Anita in the years that have passed since we left school, but I’m still in contact with Mariam and Tia, both of whom live not too far away from our ‘old manor’.
While the media does its best to divide us, all I’ve seen in the aftermath of this tragedy is the very best of multi-cultural Britain. Story after story about black, white, brown, Christian, Jew, Muslim from the area pulling together. Our people, my people, have moved heaven and earth to be there for those who thankfully escaped alive from the tower, but with nothing other than the clothes on their backs, organising what’s needed for them. Churches of all denominations have flung open their doors.
Ah, but wait. There is a divide. Grenfell Tower sits in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which I think I’m right in saying is the richest part of the richest city in of one of the richest countries in the world. It’s where social housing has been torn down to make way for billionaire property speculators, and while Grenfell Tower was home to some of the poorest people in London, half a mile away will sit empty luxury apartments owned by million and billionaires.
I’m reading stories about ordinary folk, the Caribbean lady turning up to help with relief organisation next to the white London builder, often derided as racist and right-wing in outlook. These are the people with not an extraordinary amount of money, providing the relief effort. Little has been seen or heard from the multi-millionaires or mega-rich, lip service only paid by politicians totally divorced from the life experiences of the people they rule, rather than serve.
If there’s a monument to be built to the dead of Grenfell Tower, perhaps it should be that we, the people of Britain, rose up against the mega-rich, put the homeless in their empty, wealth-gathering empty properties, that come complete with elaborate sprinkler systems that seem to be absent in so much of Britain’s social housing. It’s that Grenfell Tower never happens again and the sharp rich/poor, privileged/underclass divide so keenly seen in Kensington is never repeated. It’s that we, the ordinary people of Britain have had enough of people living lives so utterly at odds with those we’ve taken in, in the past from our former Empire, and more recently as refugees. Ethiopians fleeing famine in the past and Syrians fleeing war more recently appear to be among the victims of this tragic event.
‘It will have to be pulled down’, say some. No. Perhaps it should stand as a monument to greed, shortcuts, poor building practice and more greed practiced by the rich in British society at the expense of the lives of the poor.