“London is suffering in nearly every way, isn’t it?” a colleague in the U.S. wrote to me the other day. London is certainly suffering and this latest disaster in the heart of the Capital has been almost too catastrophic to bear. A tower block containing some 250 dwellings caught fire in the middle of the night and within minutes, the entire building was engulfed in flames. Those living on the top floors stood virtually no chance of getting out alive. As the fire raged out of control, helpless inhabitants, including many children, were filmed screaming for help at the windows, waving makeshift flags and flashing lights on their phones, desperately signaling for help that would never reach them. In scenes reminiscent of 9/11, people began to jump out of windows to escape the flames, others tied sheets together as escape ropes or used cloths or bin bags as parachutes; most distressingly of all, distraught parents threw children out of windows in the faint hope that they might survive the fall – a baby thrown from the ninth or tenth floor was caught safely by a member of the public, others will not have been so fortunate. Trapped in their homes, some inhabitants called out messages to loved ones or phoned and texted friends and relatives as they waited for the fire to claim them.
Dozens remain unaccounted for and many of the missing will never be formally identified, their mortal remains burnt beyond recognition. Those who have survived are homeless and have lost their every material possession. The public have been characteristically generous and relief centres have been so inundated with donations that they are now having to decline offers of clothes and food. However, finding homes for these traumatised families will be another matter altogether in a city already facing a massive housing shortage, thanks partly to the majority of Londoners being priced out by foreign investors and wealthy Brits who have moved into traditionally working class areas and ‘gentrified’ them. The firefighters who worked so heroically to save lives faced horrors that night that no human being should ever have to witness. A contact of mine who has conducted research in risk assessment for the fire and rescue services, told me that there are some traumas so horrific that no amount of counselling or therapy can ever fully treat those afflicted. “Firefighters are trained to save lives, they feel called to rescue people,” he said. “I knew a highly experienced firefighter who had to change job after attending a fire at a children’s home. He couldn’t get them all out. If a casualty is a child, it has a particularly devastating impact on a person. For all their training, firefighters have to be prevented on occasion by their officers from attempting unreasonably risky rescue attempts. They will put themselves in terrible danger, particularly if the victim is a child.”
The fire was not yet extinguished before it became clear that this was not an unavoidable tragedy that could have happened anywhere and to any community. The building had recently been fitted with highly flammable cladding to render it more sustainable, whilst the building had no integrated fire safety system, no sprinklers, and the smoke alarms apparently could not be heard away from the main corridors. Other damning details included the lack of safe escape routes, communal areas allowed to become cluttered with rubbish that was never collected, rendering it even harder to get out of the building quickly. According to residents’ groups, residents had complained repeatedly about the lack of safety and warned of power surges caused by dangerous electrical circuitry which had on previous occasions caused electrical goods in flats to start smouldering. As some commentators are stating openly, this was not a tragedy—it was a crime. The victims were not a random collection of individuals who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time such as, perhaps, the passengers on a doomed aircraft. These were the poorest of the poor, living in one of the most deprived areas of London.
Thousands of city dwellers live in tower blocks but I am not the first person to have surmised that this kind of horror could not have occurred in a chic apartment block occupied by well-heeled professionals able to pay upwards of £1 million for their bijoux dwelling in a block replete with fountains, a communal gym, every mod con…and state-of-the-art safety systems. The Grenfell Residents Association blog contains the chilling message:
Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC. ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.
They did indeed predict such a tragedy, as the long list of previous posts clarifies. But the residents of Grenfell Tower were poor—the first identified victim was a Syrian refugee—and they were not taken seriously. Anyone can have the misfortune to die in a burning building, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore the reality that the victims of this particular catastrophe were rendered many times more vulnerable by their social status. Everything, from the shoddy materials used to clad the building and thereby turn it into an enormous chimney, to the way in which residents were treated when they complained, points to the ugly fact that there remains a vast rich-poor divide in Britain and one that we ignore at our peril.
Tower blocks like Grenfell Tower were built in the 60s and 70s as part of the slum clearances of that era. It is scandalous to consider that in postwar Britain, thousands still lived in Victorian slums, in cramped, unsanitary living conditions with no basic amenities. It was an inhumane situation which desperately needed to be addressed. However, what replaced them may have been just as inhumane. Yes, the new flats tended to have such modern luxuries as central heating and bathrooms with flushing toilets, but whole neighbourhoods with their close-knit communities were permanently destroyed in the process and the tower blocks themselves were in many cases ugly and impractical, the flats cramped and described by critics as ‘hutches’ more than homes. No one should have died in the terrible way the residents of Grenfell Tower were killed, but nor should anyone be expected to live like that, in overcrowded, unsafe and poorly maintained buildings, ignored and forgotten as though they were an embarrassing nuisance rather than human beings entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.
When brutalist monstrosities such as Grenfell Tower first started popping up all over London and other British cities, poet John Betjeman (who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984) was a vocal and tireless critic of this brave new world. He was treated as an embarrassment, a sad, reactionary old man with outdated views entirely at odds with progressive thinking. Re-reading some of his lines on the subject, he sounds rather more like a doomed prophet.
Pepys Estate, Deptford by John Betjeman:
Where can be the heart that sends a family to the 20th floor
In such a slab as this. It can’t be right, however fine the view
Over to Greenwich, and the Isle of Dogs.
It can’t be right, caged halfway up the sky
Not knowing your neighbour, frightened of the lift,
And who’ll be in it, and who’s down below
And are the children safe?
What is housing if it’s not a home?
Where indeed? Prime Minister Theresa May has promised a full inquiry and it can only be hoped that those responsible will be called to account. But being given a voice now, with the ruins of Grenfell Tower still smoldering, will surely be of cold comfort to the relatives of those who were ignored, silenced and left to perish in such an unspeakable way.