Thirty Four Storeys, A Million Stories

A few weeks ago if you said “Kensington” what came to mind might be leafy garden squares with elegant colonnaded terraced houses, estate agents displaying extra-wide cards to accommodate all the noughts, paper-thin housewives, crocodiles of absurdly uniformed prep school kids, Middle Eastern princelets gunning gold Lamborghinis, or maybe Notting Hill, Hugh Grant, Portobello Market, The Record and Tape Exchange or resident bays packed with automotive real-estate worth more than most streets, houses and cars, anywhere in the country.

In one week all that changed. Now Kensington itself has become an international meme. For decades it’s been a national symbol for all that is excessive in house pricing and the poverty in the borough treated as an anomaly; “Aren’t they lucky living in such a lovely borough near all those sweet smelling rich people?” But now, with the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the blackened towerblock standing starkly against a bright sea of low-rise des-res, the borough is becoming a byword for a, quite literal, flashpoint in the conflict between rich and poor; the tinderbox of the economic divisions in the West. This borough has become the focus of our extreme political tides; between the purveyors of globalised austerity and advocates for liberal social welfare.

Just six days before the fire, the constituency that had voted over 70% to Remain in the Brexit Referendum kicked out their incumbent Brexit supporting Conservative MP with perhaps one of the narrowest margins imaginable. Just 20 votes. I got a call from a jubilant Labour supporter asking if Kensington had ever been Labour? I had to point out that Kensington as a constituency has only existed for seven years and since the 70s the area has been ceaselessly carved up into different shapes to try to maximise the, generally, left-wing poverty in the north of the borough and the tax wary right-wing south.

Then one warm summer evening, a fire broke out in a tower block in one of the country’s poorest social housing estates which happens to be in one of its richest areas. The fire quickly spread upwards fed by the flammable cladding that had been attached to the block for mostly cosmetic reasons making the drama of the inferno intensely dramatic for those outside and filling the more fireproof parts of the block with deadly fumes.

The apparent symbolism was too evident to miss. The poor dying because the rich who surround them don’t want to look at the ugly face of social housing. A constituency politically divided.

Certainly these issues had some role in the tragedy but in a world where deeper meaning is becoming increasingly fractured by social networking and wall to wall distraction, the need to impose a meaning on the Grenfell Tower tragedy has seemed irresistible.

In the 24-hour news coverage that continued long after, very few actual resident survivors made the news feed. Neighbours, representatives of all sorts, commentators,  politicians, everybody happy to see the ‘big picture’: the failures of government, the Council, building experts. The poet Ben Okri immediately penned a beautiful eulogy which has the chorus:

“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.

See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Residents of the area call it the crematorium.

It has revealed the undercurrents of our age.

The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them.”

Ben Okri Grenfell Tower June 2017

Just saying “The Poor” is an exercise in objectification and everyone in that building was so much more than that. I’m a little surprised how readily the term has been grabbed by so many. It just seems the potency and the clarity of the symbolism was so great few have been able to put the “big picture” down and see the little pictures. Clearly some media outlets preferred to stay away from the personal stories of victims because so many wore hijabs and were everything they see as wrong with the country, others may have been disappointed by some survivors’ lack of articulacy, English not being a first language. There isn’t just one big story here but millions of stories, of immigrants fleeing to this country, heroes risking their lives to effect rescues, those who face constant disbelief and sanction by the dole and, let’s face it, up until the fateful night the residents of Grenfell Tower were, relatively, the lucky ones who had actually found housing, in a country where so many fail to even get that far and are left homeless. But the meme of the poor being burned by the wealthy was just too overwhelming.

This country does have a terrible chasm between haves and have nots and Kensington does represent a particularly extreme delineation. When I briefly lived in New York in the 80s, 96th St on the East Side was known as the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone, where the luxurious upper east side tower blocks suddenly stopped and the tenements and projects of Spanish Harlem began. The contrast was sharp and obvious. For decades, in Kensington, the DMZ between the wealthy south and the poor north was an exciting cross-over area stretching from Notting Hill Gate to the Westway. Gentrifying young bankers looking for a San Francisco Barrio experience proliferated the area, once the domain of poverty-exploiting slum landlords Peter Rachman and later Nicholas van Hoogstraten. But the money won and slowly the less well off in the borough got bought out, moved away and squeezed north of the Westway or, in the case of Latimer Road, into council estates. Kensington’s DMZ is just a street wide in many areas now.

All this is true. And the tragedy of Grenfell Tower was no doubt affected by these terrible inequalities. But there is a danger in memes, and symbols, and ideologies, that the individuals get lost. Sometimes it seems the irony is too great and we forget the actual cost. There is a problem in staring so hard at the message that you fail to see the messenger, dirty, worn out, hard-pressed, hungry, yearning to breathe free.


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