Grenfell: Some Relief for Some of Us

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Ten-year olds in North Kensington have seen more than they should ever have seen. Heat, fire, pain and death from the Grenfell Tower; Slowly inhaling the dust of the lost. 

A mutilated building stands as a constant testimony to the mass incineration of June 14th. As they look down the street, between houses, the Tower appears, as they travel through the concrete jungle, Grenfell is there, on their skyline and their minds.

The children of North Kensington lost faith in the safety of the world, and any sense they May have had that the role of government is to support the population. Profound trauma, with parents’ availability to provide emotional support severely reduced by having to fill the space vacated by government in the disaster response.

Waves

But for some of us there has been some release. In Devon my 10 year old was finally freed from weeks of the oppressive atmosphere of disaster. As the waves crashed in, she ran away, then chased them back into the sea, shouting at them. Her shouts turned to screams, pure joy and liberation…

Nature was safe again, the world was suddenly the right place to be after weeks of questions about cladding, fire, safety and the inhumane treatment of people. Re-connected to her original source, this child was at one with the water, sand, the vast sky and the cold wind.

To see her lose her ‘self’ and be her pure, true self in those moments was to regain my own faith in life. But most North Kensington children have not yet had such a moment.

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Housing

As of that day, 2nd August, 12 households from the Tower had been rehoused – a statistic that tells much of the story about the re-traumatisation of victims by way of bureaucracy, political decision and incompetence in the richest borough on the planet, with its 1,400 empty dwellings.

If there is to be a restoration of faith, it will not be courtesy of Kensington and Chelsea council or Theresa May’s government.

Genuine relief is provided by local charities and community organisations, quietly organising weekends away, holidays and residentials for families. Here in North Kensington, there are creative, sporting and communal activities to lighten the burden on parents.

Power

The community has stepped in to provide what the council cannot – humanity. What none of these organisations can provide is what the council can, but aren’t, providing: housing, the only way to dignity. And as such the dignity of the victims, survivors and the wider community is not being honoured. On the contrary, it is being threatened and trampled daily.

Individual stories in North Kensington tell a bigger story of dehumanisation and some of these will follow on Urban Dandy. In the meantime, I’m relieved that I had moved away from the Lancaster West estate to safety, and that my traumatised daughter could connect with Blessed nature, arriving home again.

 

Tom Charles

Grenfell – Night Thoughts

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As the sweet summer breeze

blows through this petrified charcoal edifice

stirring the parched remains of the perished

inside this crematorium created by man’s greed,

 

We who are in temporary sleep

slowly inhaling the dust of the lost

unlike God, offering not the breath of life

Yet not forgotten, becoming part of us

 

Fused into our very being

scorched into our souls

as the seared conscience

of those that govern

offers no honour, shame, guilt

or Judas-like, intestine-spilling torment!

Instead scurrying like rats

under the tarpaulin of fear

 

Light exposing their hidden deeds of darkness

that atomized men, women and children before their time

those who’s bodies can no longer cast shadows

 

Your eternal flame

forever burns brightly

shining like stars

guiding both seeker and wise

along the narrow path

in their quest for the truth…

 

 

M.C. Bolton, 28th July 2017

Photo by Hugh

When Emma Dented the Unwritten Coad

Before the fire, this was written…

It was something none of us thought we would see in 2017: The Conservative party lost their seat in Kensington, their safe seat, their stronghold, the wealthiest constituency in the UK, the Royalist Borough.

Previously held by (Sir) Malcolm Rifkind, he was forced to abandon ship in 2015 after being caught in a channel 4 sting complaining about his wages, bragging about how little constituency work he did and accepting obscene amounts of money to talk on foreign policy, a subject upon which his expertise lies in getting things spectacularly, repeatedly wrong. Read about it here if you want.

Do-nothing Tory grandee Rifkind was replaced by London’s deputy mayor, Lady Victoria Borwick. Unlike Malcolm, she did engage with the community and acknowledged the existence of the poor. Like Malcolm, her political life was devoted to class war. On housing, on the cuts, on refugees, for much of her tenure her complacency was matched by the resigned apathy of the non-Tory population of North Kensington.

But nobody really thought she was under serious threat of losing her seat. Two months ago, when the PM called the election, Labour had no chance in Kensington. Then came Labour’s manifesto, coupled with the Conservative party having nothing of use say about anything. A huge turnout, and two recounts later, Kensington was the final seat in the country to be called. And what a call the constituency made.

As if to milk the attention for all it was worth, it was late on Friday night when jubilant scenes erupted at the Town Hall. Emma Dent Coad had beaten Borwick by 20 votes, changing local politics forever, and making a mockery of Theresa May’s miserable campaign.

Urban Dandy tracked down Labour’s Kensington majority, and here they are, the 20 official history makers in their own words:

(note: their words were shared before the disaster)

Lisa (first past the post): “I have never voted conservative, and although I have always thought it is a given in k and c that the tories will win, I have always believed it is important to exercise ones right to vote. I am sick to the eye teeth of how our area is being over regenerated and valuable services, including outstanding children’s centres, have been or are planned to be closed down – all in the name of affordability with the borough refusing to consider the bigger picture. This year, like many others, I voted for labour. I am absolutely blown away that Emma Dent Coad has been elected to represent the people of Kensington. This is such exciting news. It feels progressive and exciting. I am a very happy resident right now.

Sophie (come unity): “I’m delighted with the result.  I have lived on Ladbroke Grove for 15 years and have seen many changes.  I was involved in the campaign to keep North Kensington Library in the community and more recently was involved in the running of the KPH (A valuable community hub – now sadly closed). Emma supported the library campaign and came to the birthday party we threw for the building in October.  Incidentally I took the opportunity to invite all councillors to the party following a debate in Kensington Town Hall and Labour were the only councillors who came:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWWCd5mviY8

I extended a similar invitation to all councillors in our final week of running the KPH.  I was told that Tories were too busy with their election campaign, but Emma came down with all the Labour councillors and spent an afternoon in the pub.  

This is the first time in my life I have been able to vote for somebody that I truly believe in – someone who really speaks out for our local community”. 

Edward (Grenfell Action Group): “Nice to see a supporter of Save North Kensington Library and Save Wornington College campaigns elected as our MP. Certainly wiped the smug smile off the likes of Cllr Paget Brown and Cllr Feilding Mellen who treat the residents of North Kensington with contempt and disdain”

Dave (Buzzing): ‘K&C is taking back the streets for the many not the few…leading by the front for a better society that accounts for people from different walks of life and circumstances’

Jen (Dandy): “I never thought I would see a time when K&C wasn’t a Tory stronghold. Results go to show how much London and all of Britain need tax paid properly by all to fund the crucially important services universally available in the UK of healthcare, education and more. Go on Jezza!”

Kassim and Wife (joint statement): 1. Tories ignored us for so long not anymore now! They know now why they lost the seat! 2. Voted for Prosperity over austerity! Hope over fear! 3. Tories lost contact with Kensington voters!

Yvette (Labour party member, nearly ran me over once): “The successful and historic election of EDC as a Labour MP in the Kensington seat demonstrates true democracy at work. For the young and old who voted for the first time it means they will know going forward that their vote makes a difference; and that fighting for what is right is worth it.”

Lindale (Natasha’s dad): I did vote to get the conservatives out, I’ve been waiting for this for years.  My first email to Victoria Borwick was to tell her how useless Malcolm Rifkind was.  I ran a facebook campaign to get rid of the Conservatives.  Getting the Tories out of Kensington was so sweet, I am curious to see what changes it makes to some of the ongoing issues in the Boroug

Niles (23): “When the rhythm changes so does the dance”

Anab (Upstairs): “I voted Labour!”

Sheraine (The Guv’nor): “It’s amazing man, Well deserved, she’s worked really really hard and she’s very capable”.

Faisa (first time voter): “I voted for Labour because I don’t like Theresa May and I think there should be a new prime minister”

Abdullahi (Baraka Obama): “I always vote Labour, I could never give my vote to the Conservatives. Even with a tiny majority, it shows you can’t be laid back. The Conservatives thought ‘nobody can touch us, this is Kensington and Chelsea’ – Now the community needs to say, if we’ve done well in this one, we can do even better in the future’.

Farhia (second time voter): “I previously voted Lib Dem but this time around I voted Labour. There was so much benefit from a Labour government – help with costs as a student, I could pay off my tuition fees. If I benefited, it’s only fair for future generations to have that chance. Their values match the working class, compared to the Conservatives, who just make life harder for us”

Karen (Brighton fan): “Emma Dent Coad saved the house I live in when the Conservatives wanted to knock it down. She’s a lovely lady to boot, very humble”.

Mustafa (Abu Jamal): “I like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s the one who is in touch with the reality of life, he’s very genuine. The Conservatives have no idea what working class people get up to. What was important was the manifesto, scrapping tuition fees. I don’t want my kids being in £50,000 debt”.

Valentyna (first time voter): This year I went voting and it was the first time in my life and I’m very proud to make this step especially as my vote mattered and Labour won! Guys wake up and take a stand. 

Chris and Reem (Joint statement made live at the Tabernacle)”We voted for Labour and for Emma Dent Coad in protest at the Tories’ pursuit of “Brexit-at-all-costs”. We are stronger within the EU. We also voted to counter the Israel Lobby’s pernicious campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn”.

 

And for good measure:

Ayman (age nine, Year 4, local primary school): “I asked my parents to vote for Labour because of the NHS and humanity as the Conservatives don’t care about us”

Maya (age 10, Year 5, another local primary school): “I was there on Friday night with my mum. It meant a lot to my mum and it was a once in a lifetime experience for someone like me. It was good, Emma came out crying and everyone was like ‘wooooo’ and singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘Go away Tories, Labour in’.

Respect.

 

Postscript:

Four days later, hell broke loose in Kensington. Soon after, in parliament, Emma Dent Coad made her maiden speech. Sensitivity, compassion, calm, poise, and an unflinching demand for justice. North Kensington is finally represented.

 

 

Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

 

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By Sophie Lodge

Grenfell In Parliament

Survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster in West London and members of the North Kensington community travelled to Parliament on 29th June, giving evidence to relevant Labour shadow cabinet members to enable them to better hold the Conservative government to account over its handling of events.

Earlier in the day, the UK government announced that its public inquiry in to the disaster would be led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. The controversial choice of Moore-Bick, made without consultation with survivors, adds to the sense in North Kensington that the government, in cahoots with its local government counterparts, are fudging the official response to the disaster, which has officially killed 80, although the real death toll is known to be far higher. The public inquiry will establish the cause of the fire, but will not have the power to bring criminal charges against those responsible.

Meeting in Parliament

The Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott invited survivors, families and local residents to meet with her and her colleagues in parliament to bear witness to the truth of what is happening on the ground following the unprecedented disaster. What they learned was that the reassurances given to them by prime minister Theresa May and home secretary Amber Rudd are at odds with reality.

Survivors, who arrived in busloads from around West London, spoke directly, through family members and one through a translator. The main concern raised was housing, but indignation was also expressed regarding the incompetence of the local authority, treatment of surviving families as charitable cases, class differences, the choice of judge and the impact of the disaster and government response on local children.

The theme, recurring with every speaker, was dignity. Dignity for the dead, for the survivors and for the North Kensington community. They were asking for dignity and they conducted themselves with the utmost dignity, in a strange setting, making demands they should never have to make. The Labour MPs present were armed with facts and anecdotes and will be keen to hammer home, to the government and the electorate, the need for dignity.

Box Rooms  

Numerous survivors told of how they had been moved to wholly inadequate and inappropriate “box rooms” in hotels or Bed and Breakfasts outside of Kensington and Chelsea. Some of these small rooms are not even equipped with fridges.

Some of the hotels are only providing breakfast to survivors, who must otherwise fend for themselves. One woman said that a relative of hers with asthma had been placed in a room with no window.

Others reported having been offered unsuitable accommodation in the south of the borough, while others had turned down numerous properties outside the borough, which had been offered only as temporary shelter. The local authority has not come forward with a plan for permanent housing, and concern was expressed that when temporary accommodation tenancies expired, Grenfell victims would be forced out of the borough by the unaffordable private sector market.

Those gathered heard that when hotels decided that they no longer had room to house the survivors, in some cases at 2am, there was no council contingency plan in place to support them.

Authorities Losing Authority

All of the residents who spoke decried the lack of support from Kensington and Chelsea council. While public support has flooded in, the survivors “have to go and search for it.” The absence of deliveries by the council has meant that survivors have had the unedifying experience of rooting through bags of charity donations to find essential items. One story was of a survivor who was provided with no shoes and no food by the council and had to head out to look for them.

The council was condemned for its inhuman response, “they haven’t even sent people to ask how we are” said one survivor, “Everyone else is asking how we are, why can’t they?” When Abbott asked if the information given to her by May and Rudd, that every survivor had been allocated a social worker, was correct, she was met with a resounding “No!” from all sides.

Survivors and community organisers demanded a local authority presence 24 hours a day at all hotels housing survivors to ensure their basic needs could be met.

The MPs heard that the Westway Sports Centre, acting as the hub for coordination of the relief effort is not using translators, despite English not being the mother tongue of many of the residents of the Lancaster West estate, of which Grenfell Tower is a part. Residents of neighbouring blocks have also been moved, lost gas and not kept informed of developments.

Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, agreed that residents had been “fobbed off” by the local authority, and claimed that the council was now effectively in “special measures” due to its incompetence.

Others questioned how the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), which manages the estate for Kensington and Chelsea, could still be in situ following their own mishandling of the disaster.

Thirty Pounds

Among the many shocking revelations brought to parliament by survivors was that the council was giving people an allowance of £30 per day to live on. Additionally, they were required to keep a record of what they had spent their £30 on.

Others told of traumatised survivors being offered £500 in cash with a further £5,000 to be put in their bank accounts, but with the caveat that accepting the money would affect future housing benefit payments. It was not clear if relief had now become a loan in the richest borough in Europe. Community organisers pleaded with the MPs present to take action to stop the authorities presenting victims with complex agreements to sign to enable them to receive minimal relief. The MPs explained that they had been given an entirely different report from the government: that everything was going “okay.”

Another fact, presumably not reported to the official opposition party by May and Rudd, is that survivors who need to use the Westway centre are made to wear wristbands to identify them as Grenfell residents. This made them “look like cattle” stated one family member of a survivor, who explained that as a sports centre, Westway already has the technology to produce photo identity cards, which would afford the survivors more dignity.

A Syrian survivor, who lost his brother in the blaze, talked about his family traveling to the UK to be with him in order to grieve together. He said that the grieving process was very difficult as the hotel room he has been housed in is a box room, so he and his family cannot spend the private, quality time they so desperately need to honour their loved one.

One man told of how his sister had been investigating safety in the Grenfell Tower and had been threatened with legal action by the council as a result. His sister died in the fire.

Impact

One major problem among the many identified was that Grenfell survivors were now dispersed across a wide area. They are unable to console each other, share their experiences together or coordinate their response. A weak constituency has now been further weakened.

More harrowing anecdotes followed: orphaned children with no social worker; one survivor, so traumatised and receiving little support, attempting suicide.

The link between the suffering of these residents and the class-based politics of the area was eloquently identified. One survivor compared the class system in North Kensington to that of the Titanic, where the rich can survive but the poor are at the mercy of events. People described the “managed decline” of the area and the council’s social cleansing.

Others objected to being referred to as “the poor” by Abbott, protesting: “we’re educated working class people, we’re not poor.” But there was no debate about culpability over the inadequate response of both the local and national governments: “the local and national governments don’t care,” “If you want to help us, just help us,” “the government just do not care.”

Improperly reduced to the position of almsmen, confusion surrounds the whereabouts of the millions of pounds of charity that society rallied to pledge.

The Future

In the absence of an effective local authority, word of mouth has become king in North Kensington. In parliament, those gathered heard unfiltered testimony from many mouths. On the future of the area, questions were raised about the demolition of Grenfell Tower, about rumours that the neighbouring school, Kensington Academy will not open in September and about the long-term psychological impact on children.

Incredulity over the absurdity of the official death toll was expressed, a scene replayed daily on every street in North Kensington. Disappointment, but no surprise, over the appointment of an unsuitable judge with an inadequate remit, was voiced. What is essentially an inquest in to the cladding used on the building was labelled “an insult.”

Some asked Abbott and her colleagues, the Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon and MP David Lammy, to work to ensure the skeletal tower is covered up to protect the dignity of those that died and to stop the community having to face that constant, harrowing reminder.

The politicians responded with the guarantee that they would “not rest” until justice was done. They called for transparency and action from the government.

The diligent work promised by Labour is very necessary, but above all, the cry of the North Kensington community must be heard and kept at the centre of any decisions taken: Dignity and respect now. The most traumatised community in the country have conducted themselves with grace and fortitude, but at the moment this not being met in kind.

 

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By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

This article was written for, and also appears on, The New Arab

Art by Junior Tomlin

 

Snapshot of a Community in Pain – Children in North Kensington

Oxford Gardens Primary School in North Kensington opened as normal on Wednesday, June 14th. Children arrived in the morning and left in the afternoon. But, following the inferno that engulfed the residents of Grenfell Tower in the early hours of that fateful day, their experience was anything but normal. Their lives had irreversibly changed.

The school sits less than half a mile, a few streets away, from the decimated Grenfell Tower that still blazed that morning. Debris floated from the burning tower down in to the playground while the lingering smell, that all knew contained burned flesh, pervaded. Children took in the sickening sight of that once-familiar tower block now blackened and smouldering as they arrived at the school gates.

Council

A council-run school, Oxford Gardens is administered by Kensington and Chelsea – the local authority that threatened the Grenfell residents with legal action when they warned of the fire risk that was to kill them.  The council was as unresponsive to the needs of this school that morning as it was to every other aspect of this community-shattering disaster. From the Town Hall there was nothing, exposing local authority indifference to North Kensington and leading to Kensington and Chelsea being replaced by other boroughs as the leaders of the official disaster response.

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From the playground, photo by HH

Children from the school were killed in the fire; every single pupil and every single parent, without exception, has been affected.

The father of a girl in Year Three told Urban Dandy: “My daughter is really affected. Mahdi and his family were all killed and he was in her class”.

Of his other daughter in Reception, he told us: “She has heard religious stories about the hellfire, and she said ‘Dad, I thought this kind of hell is after death.’ I explained that those people who died in the tower would go straight to heaven, Allah guarantees it in the Qu’ran; if people die in this way, they have already suffered enough.”

On 14th June, children were kept in their classrooms all day, a hot day, to protect them from the sight of the tower. Now they are allowed out again and the relative normality of lessons has resumed, but break time is overshadowed by the freakish and haunting view of Grenfell Tower.

Constant Reminder

A parent of a Year Five child shared: “On the way to school we see the St Francis* kids going to a school they’ve been rehoused in. Then we arrive at the school playground to see the tower, it’s a constant reminder.”

“During a trip with the class, on the tube they all picked up the Metro and all they are interested in is Grenfell. None of them looked at the football news. My daughter talks about it constantly.”

“The school held an assembly for a boy who died, which is more than the council has done. The school can’t do much but they’re trying; they’ve advertised a psychologist and other help. I’m not disappointed in the school, or the police or the fire service, just the council. The teachers aren’t trained for this. They already have to do more than they’re paid for”.

Alongside the formal education from the schools and teachers, local parents rightfully wonder at the education their children are receiving from the local authority in Kensington and Chelsea. The poor perish in tower blocks – inappropriately cladded by the very council – while the needs of displaced, traumatised survivors are attended to by other traumatised individuals in the community. Meanwhile the local council, more than simply deaf, but who threatened legal action against the heartbreakingly accurate and prophetic warnings of the residents – stays noticeably and purposefully absent, absconding its responsibility for both the inferno and the essentials for this in-need community. A short walk south towards Holland Park and there are shops that groom dogs to look “gorgeous and fluffy.” The children understand the connection.

Neighbours, friends and an entire community now rightfully fear becoming charity cases to be appropriated by the obscenely privileged and callously detached. The council’s inglorious response and preceding gross, hard-hearted maltreatment of its poorest constituents will have left local children in no doubt as to where they stand in the pecking order within this Borough. The disaster has provided institutionalised proof of how little value is attached to their lives by their presumed betters.

Muted, Mutual

A parent governor at Oxford Gardens spoke to us: “A lot of the children from Oxford Gardens go on to Kensington Academy, which is now closed because it’s right next to the tower. Oxford Gardens is a feeder school for that Academy. On top of that, children have lost friends from youth groups. A lot of the staff are rooted in the area meaning many people in the school community have been seriously affected.”

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In the aftermath of the disaster, the council was seldom seen on the ground, leaving the heavy lifting to ordinary, untrained people. These diligent individuals came from all walks of the community, tirelessly running the response despite inexperience and a shocking absence of resources and guidance. The council clearly prioritised managing the situation over taking any responsibility or ownership of the disaster or its aftermath. Further, the council’s unresponsiveness diverted local parents away from their primary roles as carers of their children during a time of ever-present trauma, to become the primary caregivers for the whole community. “The family priority has become null” the parent governor told us. Try making sense of that aged nine.

At Oxford Gardens, as at many local schools, the governor explained: “There are empty seats, three children have been confirmed dead, and the children have best friends at other schools who have died or been directly affected. I’ve lost parents I knew. “

“In the playground we’re hugging and touching each other on the shoulder for reassurance. Even with parents we don’t know, the whole body language has changed. It’s a muted, mutual understanding.”

The family priority has become null

Fixation

At the office used by Urban Dandy on Ladbroke Grove, children arriving for supplementary schooling gaze out of the window at the grim, skeletal tower. Most have a fixation with the disaster, attempting to understand it through questioning adults about fire, building regulations and government responsibilities. They want to hear that this will not happen again. But we cannot tell them that the authorities will take care of things, that would be a lie. Our children are manifesting their psychological scars in nightmares, tears, almost constant hugging, drawing pictures of burning towers or looking their elders straight in the eye: “How do you know that we’re safe?”

The public relations management of the disaster by local and national government is not going to fool this younger generation. By the time they are Year Five, children understand their position and value in this class-based society. For those that will grow up in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower, this understanding is no longer an implicit awareness, but explicit knowledge.

They have had to absorb and process more than any child should ever have to, and their consciousness has shifted forever, individually and collectively. They have seen their parents and community respond with humanity and grace in adversity. The flip side to the council’s degrading lesson in class indifference is that these children have now seen human beings at their best. 

 

 

By Tom Charles with Jennifer Cavanagh

@tomhcharles

*St Francis of Assisi Primary school is next to the Lancaster West estate

Grenfell

Not just people, their homes

but dreams, futures snuffed out

unlike the flames

that wrapped their unmerciful wings

around the tower without pity or care

the angel of death

resurrected by learned men’s folly

once again the poor suffering

above their station

swept aside like spent poker chips

as the midnight gambler

shuffles into the shadows

to pay his debt

to the reaper

who tonight had his fill

Yet the morning comes

bringing the dew of hope

for out of these embers

will rise men and women of faith

not just in God

but in justice

as the ashes of those

that were loved

are blown into the

eternal palace of peace

 

MC Bolton, 2017

 

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Art by Junion Tomlin