Writings from the Roots – North Kensington Zine

Cover
Art by Toby Laurent Belson

Urban Dandy features in a new Ezine, curated by Toby Laurent Belson. This first edition brings together the words of local writers, campaigners, film makers and artists to reveal the context in which the Grenfell Tower fire took place.

The Zine represents some of the best of the North Kensington community: creativity, diversity, openness, unity and defiance…above all a commitment to life in the face of forces that work against it.

The Zine is an ideal primer for those who want to learn more about this unique area, as well as a timely reminder that the Grenfell Tower atrocity did not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of policy decisions and systemic attitudes towards the population of North Kensington.

As the struggle in North Ken continues, Writings from the Roots will stand as a testament to the enduring spirit of the people of this area who continue to face down injustice and insults from the same forces that were at work long before 14th June 2017.

 

Some words of introduction from Toby Laurent Belson are below. You can open a digital version of the Ezine hereNorth_Kensington_Writings_1 and print copies are available at local libraries (Ladbroke Grove & Kensal), the Venture Centre, Acklam Village, Henry Dickens Community Centre and the Taberncale, where there will be an official launch on Saturday 15th June at 6pm.

Over to Toby:

“It has been produced to respond to a couple of specific things:

1 An acknowledgement that the strong online presence and platforms of our grassroots activities are not always matched by offline efforts (albeit for good reason given the next level of resource and commitment some of these outcomes require).

2 To make clear that there are strong and established networks in this community. Just as in the 60s and 70s, where the People’s Association and their centres acted as a gathering space for a multitude of autonomous groups or All Saints Road was a space of Black communiity resistance. Things are connected.

3 To publish a piece that (amongst others) will act as a marker. Having done various research over the years, the value of published works and outstanding ephemera has become clear. And the need for communities and individuals to produce their own stories and present their own narratives has also become clear. We need more books, more zines, more leaflets, more posters, more songs, more films, more artworks, more exhibitions, more talks, more libraries and more archives. We have the skills in and around the community to do it all.

This is a further development of the ‘North Kensington Healing’ artwork produced for the ‘Shifaa (Healing)’ edition of the Khidr Collective zine released in January 2018.

https://www.khidrcollective.co.uk/product-page/khidr-collective-zine-issue-two-shifaa

In continuing to explore the nature of this part of my home, West London, roots are discovered that go further out and further down with an endless diversity of trunks, branches, blossoms and leaves that make more and more sense. It’s amazing and I encourage everyone to keep on contributing and cultivating to this healing, this culture, this freedom.”

 

Business Profile: Seeds for Kids

This feature was written for, and first published at, Portobello Business Centre – Success Stories

Raffaella small picture

Raffaella Cappello is the founder of Seeds For Kids, a unique Kensington-based company specialising in healthy food education for children.

Sitting down with her in her kitchen, amid bowls of glorious-looking fruit and vegetables, Raffaella explained that the name Seeds For Kids holds a double meaning: ‘Most of my food is plant based, so it comes from seeds: and to plant a seed is to grow something that lasts.’

What does Seeds For Kids do?

‘We provide food education for children and families. This can be through one-to-one bespoke lessons in a private nutrition consultation, looking at medical and dietary requirements. I design bespoke menu plans, starting with people’s likes and dislikes. This approach takes six months and I see the client at least twice a week. If I see something is missing, I provide bespoke nutritional courses. Continue reading

Business Profile: Leafwild

This feature was written for, and first published at, Portobello Business Centre – Success Stories…

Leafwild
Art from Leafwild website

Anna Parfirenko is the owner of Leafwild, a fresh, healthy and aesthetically pleasing café on Ladbroke Grove. I met Anna at the peak of the Tuesday morning rush, when the café is filled with multi-lingual chatter, and over coffee she told me of how it all began and her plans for the future…

What does Leafwild do?

‘Leafwild is a concept: an organic, gluten-free, vegetarian café, all about clean eating with no refined sugar. We have a holistic approach based on mindfulness and openness: we are for healthy eating and healthy drinking. And we are for animals. I wanted it to be vegan but that proved too difficult, so we’re in-between the vegi and vegan crowds. We have had to start serving fish and chicken to keep business coming in and we also sell eggs. We care a lot about the coffee. We use a local London company, Beanberry, to supply our organic coffee. Continue reading

No Lions in England

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UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s latest offensive remarks triggered fresh calls for his sacking. But Johnson’s attitude is not exceptional. His callous comments on Libya are indicative of a mendacity towards the Middle East and North Africa that runs deep in the Conservative party and the UK’s wider political establishment.

At a fringe event for business people at the Conservative party’s annual conference, Johnson outlined his belief that Libyan city Sirte has the potential to emulate Dubai. He claimed to have met of “a group of UK business people, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte…all they have to do is clear the bodies away”. Johnson chuckled at his own wit. Continue reading

14/7/17 One Month On: A Catalogue of Conservative Failures

Warning: this article contains distressing information about the Grenfell Tower fire.

One month on from the Grenfell Tower fire that incinerated scores of people in West London, destroying lives and traumatising a community, there is no sign that the Conservative national and local governments have learned lessons in compassion and competence. 

As North Kensington marks the day, the community faces an appalling truth: For the UK national government the council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the politics of class war take priority over the provision of restitution, dignity and justice.

Empty homes

Treatment of residents on the Lancaster West estate, of which the tower is a part, has been unacceptable for many years. I was a resident there until 2014 and was glad to leave as it appeared that the council was presiding over the estate’s managed decline. Many others have now been forced to leave in the most horrific circumstance.

Government statistics show that Kensington and Chelsea has 1,399 vacant dwellings (3 October 2016 figure) at its disposal. This number will shock but not surprise the population of North Kensington as we wait for decent homes to be offered to Grenfell survivors.

While others around the UK may express bafflement at this, the mismatch between means and delivery is a daily reality in the richest borough in the country. 1,399 empty properties comfortably outstrips the needs of the Grenfell survivors.

There has so far been no suggestion from government that these properties will be used to help deal with the unprecedented disaster and only 14 families had been rehoused at the time of writing.

In addition to its housing stock, Kensington and Chelsea boasts a budget surplus estimated at £300 million but on the ground, little has been done for the victims. The official opposition Labour party have noted the stark contrast between what they are told by Prime Minister Theresa May and the credible information given by people in North Kensington, detailing the many failings of the official response.

Spin

High ranking council officials and politicians have stepped down since the fire. None stood down willingly, but only when forced to by pressure from central government. The policy is clear: Do as little as possible until the pressure begins to tell.

There is a lack of initiative and imagination, widely understood in North Kensington to be a lack of humanity. A potential flashpoint will come on the 19 July when the council is scheduled to meet. The campaign group Justice4Grenfell has demanded that the prime minister disband the council cabinet. This is unlikely to happen by the 19th, and the Conservative cabinet will be in for a hostile reception.

One reason for the hostility will be the election of Elizabeth Campbell as the council’s new leader, a politician so out of touch that she has never been in a high rise flat, and in a radio interview would not be drawn on whether the council would use its budget surplus to provide decent housing.

Plus ça change – the more the Conservatives tinker, the more apparent it becomes that nothing substantial will change and the litany of insulting moves grows.

Recess

Parliament’s long summer holiday begins next week and it seems that the Conservatives want to kick Grenfell into the long grass of their rural constituencies. But there is no long grass in which to shield their deficiencies in West London. 

There is a power in the raw truth around the Lancaster West estate. But the purveyors of truth have a number of problems: Firstly, they are a traumatised population; secondly, survivors are scattered around West London, without ways and means to coordinate, and thirdly there is a lack of reliable information, brought about by the collapse of the council as a functioning authority.

What paltry official information is being provided is not trusted.

In to the power vacuum have stepped voluntary and community organisations and individuals with talents and experience to offer. Therapists are active in the area, but they are organised by volunteers, not the authorities. 

Stupendous amounts of money has arrived in the form of charitable donations, but there is no evidence to suggest the money, clothes and food are reaching the intended targets. The government was happy for charities such as the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation to take up much of the slack, having received millions in aid money for Grenfell. The Foundation alone has received £4.5 million in donations, but how effective is this if victims still cannot realise their most basic need: shelter?

Charity

The fetishisation of the Grenfell victims and survivors has been going on for weeks. They are a means for the wealthy to feel good, rather than people with needs, rights and wishes.

The moulding of their victims in to charity cases by the council and their supporters appears to be taking place with both the perpetrators and victims only dimly aware of it. Simon Cowell of the X Factor, who lives nearby, got in on the act with a quickfire charity single, which has had 6.5 million hits.

Six million singalongs but just 14 homes provided. Charity is important but is no match for the serious delivery of government responsibilities. As the hot summer wears on, especially as Notting Hill Carnival arrives, an explosion of resistance in North Kensington is possible.

The lack of governance has been accompanied with the lauding of the community. On day one this was perhaps pertinent, now it is irrelevant as the dignity of the community is at stake. Platitudes for the people are a safe way for people to feel good without threatening the social order.

In North Kensington, so vibrant compared to the south of the borough, community has been harnessed for use as a colourful backdrop to the daily lives of the rich.

Keep praising us, but we know we’re not at Glastonbury enjoying peace and love, we’re in North Kensington, our neighbours don’t have homes and our children are traumatised. 

The context of the Grenfell Tower was brutal class war, waged by the very rich against the less well-to-do for many years, documented by Grenfell residents among others, and there is no hiding from this fact. The Grenfell victims are being treated in a way that the Conservative politicians would never accept for themselves.

Starting point

After one month, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the starting point for all campaigns and all calls for justice must be that the hundreds* who perished cannot be brought back.

At times it is surreal to think of the blaze and the horrors, as if we are waiting for somebody to change the channel, or to wake us from the nightmare and give us a reassuring hug. But that isn’t possible, the awful memories cannot be erased, and the people and the area will never fully recover.

From such a starting point, the community can stay united and seek justice. It can also seek change, in housing, immigration and the social cleansing long since underway. 

The Conservatives know this and are playing the long game. There will be no sea change in any of these areas while Theresa May can still desperately cling to power. 

While £1 billion was delivered by Downing Street to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland a few miles from parliament, the victims of an entirely preventable disaster are waiting for more crumbs to be thrown. This is austerity taken to an extreme.

Disaster austerity

Labour has an opportunity to distinguish itself. In the Grenfell Inquiry debate on Wednesday, the government was on the back foot, with Labour MPs questioning why the Grenfell victims must go on suffering when such straightforward solutions are available. 

The relevant Labour shadow ministers, for the Home Office, Justice and Housing, have set out that if Labour comes to power, all victims will be re-housed in Kensington and Chelsea, relief payments made with no impact on potential future benefit claims and an unambiguous immigration amnesty with indefinite leave to remain guaranteed would be offered.

All of this would be a welcome change. But as we mark a month since the disaster began, we must also mark a month in which Conservative power has wreaked so much damage in North Kensington and caused so much unnecessary additional trauma, to the victims, survivors, their families, the Lancaster West estate, every single local schoolchild and every adult living nearby.

So much of this upset and trauma could have been avoided had the national and local governments responded in a way that was commensurate to the scale of the problem. 

Whether the cause of the total failure in humanity from the Conservatives is political, pathological, a reflection of their incompetence, or a combination of all three, the fact is that they remain in power. And while they are, North Kensington must endure its most arduous time.

 

This article was originally published by The New Arab on July 14th 2017

*The death toll was not known at this time and it was widely believed that well over a hundred people must have died.

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

19/6/17: The People’s Republic of North Kensington Emerges as Grenfell Exposes a Failed System

Warning: this article contains distressing information about the Grenfell Tower fire.

 

Since the onset of the devastating fire that destroyed the Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West housing estate on June 14, North Kensington in West London has been operating as a people’s republic. 

Local residents and volunteers from around London and the UK have taken to the streets in scenes of unity rarely seen in British life. I am one of those locals, and a former resident of the estate.

The local authority – Kensington and Chelsea council – failed, or chose not to, establish a meaningful strategic presence on the ground in the area in the days after the tower caught fire. 

Similarly, the national government under Prime Minister Theresa May has been conspicuous only in its absence.

Leadership on the crisis has by default been taken up by the local population.

Both local and national governments are Conservative-run and have long displayed a callous attitude towards this ghetto of deprivation, in a city swimming in aimless wealth. 

The Tories’ avarice has now been exposed to the nation but was already well understood in North Kensington.

‘Third world’

The UK has the fifth largest economy on the planet, it is a first world country, but the Grenfell fire is a ‘third world disaster’. It was borne of neglect and a disdain towards the working class so profound that Conservative leaders seem unable to identify it even now.

The maltreatment of the poor on Lancaster West estate is as natural as the air they breathe to the Kensington and Chelsea council leadership. I experienced this directly, as did my neighbours. We were all aware that the estate was being consciously run down, while the whims of the nearby nouveau riche and the Tory-voting Notting Hill set were meticulously attended to.

Obsequiously devoted to austerity, the servants of power in Kensington allowed their prejudice and carelessness to pave the way for a mass immolation. 

The estate is working class, and the Grenfell Tower was home to a significant migrant population, many of whom were mercifully either out or awake due to it being Ramadan. 

Over years, residents have been treated abysmally by the council and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), who have the contract to run the estate. Repeated warnings were given to the authorities over fire safety, but these were ignored. This was part of a pattern of disregard for residents’ needs and concerns, as everybody who has ever lived there knows.

Lancaster West estate is the warehousing of the inconvenient poor in the richest borough in the UK, with an estimated £300 million budget surplus. No improvements have been made to the estate, and the cladding attached to the Grenfell Tower is widely believed to have been introduced at the whim of newly arrived wealthy residents on an unaffordable development nearby.

Three almost identical tower blocks, out of the line of vision of the new penthouse occupants did not receive the “improvement” of the cladding, which appears to have been the cause of the rapid spread of the fire.

Political impact

Kensington and Chelsea council will surely change its leadership in the coming days. Council elections are scheduled for April, but the Conservatives’ failure over Grenfell is beyond redemption for the thousands in the community who have lost whatever sliver of confidence they had in their local government. 

Likewise, Theresa May will struggle to recover her reputation. May initially made a visit to speak with fire chiefs and was criticised so heavily that she had to make a subsequent visit to meet residents, only to be met with cries of “coward” from the street.

May has already seen her stature decline significantly following a woeful and hateful election campaign, which saw the Tories fail to win a majority. As with her stance on refugees, over Grenfell the prime minister appears to unable to muster genuine empathy. Over the Grenfell disaster, and in the election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn eclipsed May with his non-staged, compassionate approach to politics.

Welcomed as one of the people, Corbyn spoke with survivors and local residents, taking the time to chat with traumatised children, before heading back to parliament to raise questions about how such a tragedy could come to pass.

The balance of power is shifting in British politics, and while May is clinging on with the help of the right-wing DUP, her cold, calculated approach has failed and is leaving her exposed. She appears to have no plan B, and Corbyn looks prime ministerial, ready to offer leadership based on the needs of communities.

Community

“It’s wonderful when communities come together” was Corbyn’s parting line to volunteers gathered at the St Clement and St James centre when he visited. 

This was a sentence that anyone helping out over the past few days has experienced as a reality. An atmosphere of unconditional comradeship has pervaded North Kensington. Youths supporting the elderly, Muslims feeding non-Muslims at the mosque, total strangers working in harmony together.

The unity is such that some residents have commented that there is no longer a Muslim community, a Christian community, a Sikh community or any other sectarian community in the area, there is just a community.

Such has been the burden on local residents that many are suffering from fatigue, caused by working long hours on the relief effort and dealing with the traumatising effects of the horrors that have visited the neighbourhood. 

These factors have been compounded by the lack of coordination. Council or government leadership would have eased stresses and provided much-needed direction.

Confusion has been widespread, with conflicting messages coming from different groups and centres, with volunteers and donations being turned away. Worse, some survivors have been treated appallingly with claims that some have been sent out of the borough and that the millions of pounds being pledged are not reaching the displaced. 

There are also astonishing but credible reports that some survivors are being handed just £10 by the council.

In the absence of conventional leadership or government, the most multicultural of populations is emerging from a horrifying blow, with a display of resilience that nobody in the area will ever forget. 

It suggests a new way of organising communities and a new progressive way of doing politics, in which the scapegoating of the poor, migrants and the Left will no longer have a place. This has profound implications for the UK’s role in the world.

As a country, the UK must learn from the compassion of the North Kensington community and invest in a mindset in which equality and peace are political priorities.

 

by Tom Charles @tomhcharles

This article was first published by The New Arab on 19th June 2017. Republished on Urban Dandy 14th January 2019.