Warning: Some of the content of this article may be upsetting to people. This is a personal exploration of the impact of two major events in English history: the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.
Hillsborough and Grenfell are two names that will forever be associated with disaster, atrocity and horrific, needless loss of life in England. In both cases, the victims were abused and dishonoured by the British establishment including the government, police and media. Following Hillsborough, the establishment abusers included Margaret Thatcher’s government, South Yorkshire Police and The Sun newspaper; after Grenfell, it has included the government (local and national), the London Review of Books and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.
In both cases, the abuse appeared reflexive, a perverse survival instinct on the part of these establishment pillars. Lies, cover-up and dehumanisation over Hillsborough; it is a similar situation regarding Grenfell. Human vulnerability and mortality are met by a system that wants to survive.
I reflected on the Hillsborough disaster through my own eyes, those of a 10-year-old child on April 15th, 1989. Hillsborough being possibly my favourite place on earth at that time, somewhere I had been going for years and that had captured my imagination with its noise and camaraderie, a place of fun, release and excitement, all the drama of football. It was edgy but safe.
On that day my team wasn’t playing as it was being used as a neutral venue for the Liverpool v Forest FA cup semi-final. The way football fans were treated in those days – penned in, pushed around – was indicative of the attitude of the authorities to the majority of the population, especially in restless industrial areas like Sheffield. And Liverpool.
The news coming in over the radio, then the pictures on TV, my family talking about it, then all the talk at school on the Monday morning, then visiting the stadium to pay our respects on the Tuesday all caused confusion in my young mind. Those children that died were the same as me, I realised that immediately. The sense of injustice that pervaded Sheffield in the 1980s suddenly became bigger – it was no longer just a sense; it was 96 innocent lives.
I moved on, as you do when you’re 10, but I remained profoundly affected.
Twenty-eight years on, I saw what was once the tower block next to my flat burn. I had lived on a so-called ‘finger block’ underneath Grenfell Tower until 2014. On June 14th, 2017, I saw my view, my estate and my neighbours engulfed. The same palpable feel in the air as when I visited Leppings Lane in 1989. Of course, there is sadness, but there is also much more.
Unlike Hillsborough, there has been very little relief from the trauma. It is only now, after two years, that I can start to think that I have moved on. I live in North Kensington and Grenfell permeates everything here. Working in the third sector, having to deal with Kensington and Chelsea council and having a personal commitment to honouring the victims have all added to the ongoing presence of Grenfell in my mind.
In both cases, I find it very difficult to accept hearing about them through a media filter, sanitised and commodified, adjusted to fit into a ‘news agenda’ or presented rationally as part of the ‘news cycle’. On top of the media gloss, I find it offensive that people try to worm away from justice in the face of death, scorning the sanctity of life. Thatcher, South Yorkshire Police, The Sun, RBKC, KCTMO and the rest…
Thinking about my reaction brings to mind the American Professor Norman Finkelstein describing his mother’s hysterical reaction to seeing coverage of the Vietnam war on television. She saw that human life is sacred and should not be presented in this dry, ‘rational’ way. She had experienced the Nazi holocaust and so the reduction of human suffering to a news item, or even entertainment was beyond her capacity to deal with.
My brain might be similar. Any approach to these disasters that omits emotion is impossible for me to passively consume. When the Hillsborough atrocity has been in the media, I have become tense and uptight, then I feel rage swell up. I then have to switch off. It is the same with the Grenfell Tower.
Where does this rage come from? How much of it is healthy, rational and necessary? How much is something else?
The rage is real and fully alive. It makes my mind work in a different way and my calm demeanour is gone, overpowered. I live in the space between the two extremes of raw pain and peace. I do not want to suppress what needs to come out, to manifest and find expression.
And so, I am left with this class-based rage. I do not want it, it is not freedom, but it may be a healthy thing to learn to express and fathom.
The writer and activist Audre Lorde talked of anger’s utility as a pathway to change: “We have to learn to orchestrate these furies so that they do not tear us apart.” Many in North Kensington could take heed, especially us men.
If this article is crossing the narrow lines of self-indulgence or self-pity, I hope it might also serve to encourage a few men to accept or examine their own trauma. Like many people in North Kensington, I tell myself I haven’t really suffered, there are hundreds and probably thousands of people worse off than me within a mile. The victims’ families and close friends, my old neighbours on the Lancaster West estate, the fire fighters, young local children and the elderly.
In North Ken, I see men with the stiff upper lip and I see the rage coming out sideways, and of course I see that I am maybe better off – at least geographically, I’m slightly removed from Grenfell, and I am learning ways to understand and express my trauma; I can even help people a little bit. But trauma isn’t a relative thing. The fact that others have suffered more doesn’t make my pain easier to bear for me.
To express pain and anger is to express life itself. It is a necessary process.
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles
The Trauma Matters weekend is on at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill, 15th-16th June, for more info and free tickets for North Ken residents, click here.