We don’t know how many. We don’t know who. We don’t know why.
In this vacuum of information, anger is building.
Some of this anger will be misdirected, as people lash out in their pain and grief. That’s inevitable. Since the early hours of Wednesday morning, those living near Grenfell Tower, those who escaped from it, those who have friends and family unaccounted for, will not have slept, will have been obsessively checking phones and ringing hospitals and begging for answers, at the same time as they figure out how to cope without their most basic possessions, how to deal with the practicalities of life in this new chaos. Under that intolerable pressure, those we have heard speak have shown remarkable dignity and calm.
That may not hold. Even if the bigger questions cannot be answered immediately, there needs to be a more coordinated, coherent response to the desperate need to know the fate of those still unaccounted for, and to the practical questions about rehousing and resources for those left homeless. And even if those are the most urgent questions, the community needs to be convinced that the bigger questions – what caused the fire? why did it spread so quickly? why was the material used for the cladding in the recent refurb of a standard that is currently banned in the US and Germany because of its flammability? – will be answered without obfuscation.
Answers need to come, and come swiftly. And with them, practical help. Voluntary generosity has been overwhelming, and almost unmanageable – it must now be matched by an ‘official’ response. That official response must be generous, if it is to defuse the tension, the gut feeling that had the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower been white, been wealthy, the building would have been designed to be safe, and any refurbishments would have made it even safer.
We have in the last few weeks alone logged so many unnecessary deaths. The murders of (mainly) young people attending Ariane Grande’s concert in Manchester, and (mainly) young people in Borough Market and on London Bridge. And now unknown numbers of all ages, dead because a fire that started accidentally (as far as we know) spread with unimaginable speed through a high rise block of flats.
What those of us who have tried to honour the dead by recording their names and something of their story quickly discovered was that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. The three names that have officially been released from Grenfell Tower confirm that.
Khadija Saye was 24. A remarkable artist, her work is currently exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. Her death has been confirmed; her mother is missing, presumed dead.
Mohammed Alhajali was 23, and had been living on the 14th floor with his brother Omar. He came to the UK in 2014 and was studying civil engineering. Syria Solidarity Campaign said: “[He] undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home.” The brothers had been due to join the Syria Solidarity Campaign on Saturday to take part in The Great Get Together, celebrating the life of murdered MP Jo Cox and marking Refugee Week.
Of the third confirmed fatality, what can we say? He was five years old. Isaac Shawo has been described by his mother as a “beautiful boy”. He was a pupil at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School and lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower with his parents and three year old brother Luca, all of whom have survived. He gazes out from this photograph, and one can read so many possibilities into that gaze. Possibilities that will never be realised.
Only three stories so far. There will be so many more. Their deaths are as arbitrary as those of the Manchester and London terrorist murders, even if no individual or group is as directly culpable. They should not have died, they need not have died.
We have to change, we cannot continue to value property over humanity, to dismiss ‘health and safety’ which has saved the lives of so many as ‘red tape’, to denigrate the poor, the unemployed, benefit claimants and asylum seekers as scroungers and skivers. We have to change.
David Lammy MP: “For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built… and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it’s about.
You can’t contract out everything to the private sector; the private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done.
You know… are there fire extinguishers? Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? Where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built.
But these buildings aren’t …. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way, or you absolutely refurbish them to the best quality that we can do.”
Jackie Long: “Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the life of people who cannot afford to buy their own property; to live in some of the nicer bits of Britain?”
David Lammy MP: “This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable. My friend who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young, black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power, or locus, or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life. She’d done amazing things: gone to university, the best in her life. But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of a building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. Breaks my heart.
Lammy refers here to Dickens. A tale of two cities, a tale of two tower blocks. Different worlds, existing cheek by jowl, not recognising or understanding each other. In Kensington, some of the wealthiest people in our land live alongside some of the most deprived. The top quarter earn at least £41 per hour, three and a half times the level of the lowest quarter at £12 per hour or less. Within the smallest borough in London, and the second smallest in England, we can see starkly and uncompromisingly the divisions in our society.
These words are from perhaps Dickens’ finest novel, Bleak House, as he marks the death of a nobody, a boy called Jo.
Is there any light a comin?”
“It is coming fast, Jo.”
Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.
“Jo, my poor fellow!”
“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a gropin — a gropin — let me catch hold of your hand.”
“Jo, can you say what I say?”
“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”
“Our Father! — Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”
“WHICH ART IN HEAVEN.”
“Art in Heaven — is the light a comin, sir?”
“It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”
“Hallowed be — thy—”
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
I do not pray. At times like this I almost wish I could. But my faith is not in any god but in humanity. In the kindness of strangers, the coming together of communities in a crisis, the refusal to tolerate those who want to use such a crisis to disseminate hatred and suspicion. I don’t pray, but I hope, I hang on to my hope. And my heart hurts for the people of Grenfell Tower.