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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday 14th June was the day Urban Dandy was going to write up last week’s historic ousting of the Conservatives from Kensington in the general election. Twenty Labour voters, some from the Grenfell Tower, had contacted us with their joyful responses. North Kensington, so victimised for so long, had something to celebrate.
But the horrific events at the Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate overtook us, and our beloved North Kensington.
Urban Dandy was born on Lancaster West, where the spirit of defiance among the downtrodden inspired our name.
The estate has had serious issues, most significantly a lack of investment and a very negative attitude towards residents from the council. The neglect of the estate during my years there struck me as something of a cruel game – the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (TMO) seemed to be actively against residents. So what should have been routine phone calls to resolve minor issues got nowhere, with a suspicion of a perverse pleasure being taken by the TMO. Nobody liked the TMO, nobody rated them, and today the anger against the organisation and their local authority overlords was everywhere.
A day of helping out at the scene raised many questions: where is the council’s organised response? Where is the prime minister? How can this have happened? Nobody on the estate, and it really is nobody, doubts that the long-term neglect of their housing is behind the disaster. Neglect is a political choice.
The UK is the first world, but within the first world are pockets of the third world. In the third world people don’t buy contents insurance and councils don’t install communal fire alarms.
All the questions will be addressed in time. Some truths we already have: North Kensington is a remarkable multi-cultural success story. It is the best of British, in which everybody is welcome. Today the community was out in force, in total unity, all ethnicities and all religions.
To fully recount the experience of the day would be impossible. So many moments of spontaneous human kindness and decency passed in the blink of an eye. So many tragic scenes were glimpsed in passing. So much love was shared between people. There was no separation, no melodrama, just an outpouring of humanity, brotherly and sisterly love, love for children and love of life.
The events will stay with residents forever: children being thrown from windows, phone calls made from the tower by fathers to say goodbye to loved ones, desperate residents switching their lights on and off to get attention as the fire spread. Many local people told me about the screams they heard coming from Grenfell Tower, and their feeling of impotence at hearing their neighbours perish.
Many people died today, and so many lives have been shattered. The community has not been shattered though, and so it is fitting that the art work for the celebratory blog on the Labour victory is used here instead. Come Unity.
Donations can be made at:
Al Manaar Mosque
Westway Sports Centre
St Clement and St James
Rugby Portobello Trust
Tabernacle Christian Centre
Google or call first to see which donations should go where.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”
The cost to society when the vulnerable are not supported with decent housing and social service is laid bare when somebody pure and decent finds their life and what they hold dear falling apart. It is a bitter tragedy.
Such tribulation has afflicted a beautiful soul in North Kensington. A child she reared so lovingly is in a tailspin of degradation; removed from the family home and out of control. This child was 10 when her mother took me in on more than one occasion, homeless and abused myself. The child is now 15, pregnant, abused and abusive.
Aminah is a woman of strength with a strong work ethic, who could nurse me through my darkest times with assuredness. To understand the harms suffered by her child, it is not Aminah that needs to be studied, but society.
A person who would not do any harm, and could not do any harm, Aminah was born and bred in Ladbroke Grove, not in the village in which she would have been treasured and held in esteem. She was dealt urban anonymity rather than a nurturing community. But she still gives without expecting much in return, and possesses a lightheartedness that is attractive to everyone.
Aminah was orphaned in her teens, and her older siblings lacked the stability to raise her safely to adulthood. The ghetto provided its own support system and she was soon pregnant, with two girls, then abused and left to single parenthood.
She undertook this job with no complaints. And she took me in with no complaints. I had been subjected to an attempt to degrade me, but I have more tools in my kit than she ever did, that’s the only difference. Education, a discriminating and cynical mind, intellect, and a sense that things should work out were available to me. Skin colour is a factor too…
And what of society…how do we explain that a woman who now, six years later, with four children and a husband, is stuck in the same two-bedroom flat that was too small for my bags during my emergency stay. This was a powder keg, a teenage girl with baby siblings, no privacy, a stepfather, without an in-built sense of life being fair; add in overcrowded housing, poverty, acting out and social services. Even a woman of fortitude has a breaking point.
Now Aminah has a grandchild on the way and she will be the primary carer, the social workers denying the right of the mother to raise her own baby.
The family unit has been destroyed, but this woman still works, studies and provides. She plays ball with the solicitors and the social workers.
I learned all this during a chance meeting in the supermarket and I have never felt so helpless. I wanted to cry, she cried, ‘oh Aminah’, ‘oh Tom’ and I watched her walk away, a profoundly beautiful human being in a profoundly sick society. It finished me off.
A deep psychological journey into a cosmic waltz (Buckle up)
So what is the value and nature of truth on earth? In asking this question with some research one realises that most people today are only equipped to run from it and have become inured to finding refuge in lies to protect the all important ego.
Richard Bandler is one of the fathers of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He studies the natural communication between people, the psychological affect of the experience and how to consciously steer it to make the results more desirable for the individual. In his practice he often uses ‘Mirroring‘. Mirroring is a natural mimicked response to another’s way of communication towards them. Although one of the subjects is unlikely to be aware of mirroring, the action effectively causes a more harmonious interaction between the two parties because the point is to appease and magnify what is natural to the other party. Only this, in Bandler’s system, is achieved consciously by one person, leaving the other vulnerable, unaware of the actions towards them as the unsuspecting participant.This is almost always to the advantage of the user of NLP. Yet this is oxymoronic for the fact that the unannounced study of the character can also be seen as manipulative and lying by omission.
There is definitely an agenda. Yet there is truth in the actual reflection of the person evidenced by the harmonic result. Without external observation, we cannot easily know our selfdom, yet this reflection does appear subconsciously in subtle, peripheral ways within nature. Analogous to a rhythmic dance you can see the lovely tone is set and then nature follows.
You will have already read our blog about the predicament facing the Kensington Park Hotel and what it means for the local area.
We thought it would be interesting to follow this up by gaging local reaction to the news that KPH might soon be closing to make way for flats for the rich. Rather than stating the obvious (that the public supports KPH and opposes the building of more luxury homes,) your intrepid dandies set out to ask local businesses what they thought.
Methodology: We asked everyone, indiscriminately and inclusively as long as their business was situated a stone’s throw from the KPH…
Receptionist: ‘I’m not from the area, nobody in here is’
UD: ‘What? Nobody? About 50 people have passed through the reception area since we’ve been here’
UD: ‘But what do you think about the fact that a local music venue is closing?’
An inauspicious start, but we headed north, away from their mirrored windows, closer to KPH…
‘They should let it run, it’s a good place for music. They bring lots of people, they should keep it open’
‘It’s a charming venue. The area is much more diverse now since they improved it’
‘It’s a shame especially because they spend lots of money here, the KPH buy from here’
‘If they become a chain they will buy elsewhere not from local shops’
UD note: Chain being the pertinent word as this would break many links in the chain of supported stores.
‘They are our customers, he uses our services’ (her colleague looking on curiously)
‘Why?’ (distressed now)
‘Oh no! That’s a shame, it’s a very nice place. I know the staff working there, I go there a lot. I never go to the other pub, this one is friendly, everyone is going there, why they want to close? I think it’s not a good idea.
UD: ‘Why do you like it so much?
‘It’s just KPH’
‘I would like to live in this area because it’s nice; rich people live here, poor people live here, it’s very nice, it’s not like this everywhere’
(Staff member expressed surprise when we informed him, bearing in mind you don’t normally go to banks for a chat about local goings on, but we’re just UD and we had to seek that balance) ‘You mean Mr.Powers (sic)? The Mean Fiddler? I’m local to the Mean Fiddler so I know him’ (What followed was all positive but off the record so the iron eagle doesn’t swoop on this friendly soul)
‘It might be closing? I didn’t know, but good I’m happy. The manager keeps parking on our premises without asking. So I don’t go there. Well, I went there once, but not any more’
‘Compared to the way it used to be its a lot better, the clientele is better. He should just ask and I would probably say yes if he has the decency but on a business level it’s a conflict of interest. If rich people move in they might buy furniture from me. We’re a mid-range furniture shop’
‘On the broader picture, I’m completely opposed to this sort of thing, it affects communities and it’s not good for society. It’s always nice to have a local pub and it’s sad to see this type of thing happening’
Estate Agents John D. Wood & Co
‘We go there for drinks a lot, I didn’t know that it might be closing. He turned it all around. That’s a shame, it’s been there for such a long time. It was a mess before he came in and did what he did’
‘We now go there and that’s testimony to what he has achieved’
‘Yeah it’s right in the area and we go in and say hello to him. It should stay, well those are my thoughts. It’s such a shame, what’s happening in London’
(At this point I must say, it seems to sound a little scripted but in truth these are the unadulterated views of the local businesses surrounding the venue)
Local Chip shop
‘I don’t personally drink but it’s sad if it’s going, it’s bad enough having a Cafe Nero over there (pointing),it’s a bit like an extension of Holland Park and not Ladbroke Grove. Like all of these coffee shops, there’s no unique coffee shops anymore, there’s no authenticity’
‘I grew up in this area, now I travel here for work and the area is changing, it’s all for rich people now’
Local Betting Shop
‘Huh? I’m only here covering for the day’ (Okay, moving on swiftly)
Estate Agents Bective Leslie Marsh
(Now here’s a surprise) ‘We weren’t aware of that…I’m stunned, I didn’t know’
(A suited, authoritative looking character stands up and takes over the conversation)
‘Great music venue upstairs. I’ve been to some great gigs there. I thought it was listed as a place of community value. If people realised what was really going on they’d be gutted.
The problem with this area is you can’t go out and drink because it was all built by the methodist church back then. If people knew what was going on….gutted. If there’s a petition going around, I’ll sign it’
‘Yeah I’d be happy to participate. Y’see, Golborne Road end is more community and the Portobello end is now more sanitised. We’ve seen that reflected in property prices; rich people moving to the area now want to live on Golborne instead of Portobello because they see it as authentic. The community is what gives the area its value. The property value is actually based on the community’
‘It will be sad to see it go’
Post Office/News Agent
‘Business is good while they are there, I can sell my cans to their customers for £1.00 while they are there charging £4 a pint’ (smiling)
‘I didn’t know they were closing. It’s improved a lot’
‘I didn’t know (UD note: nobody knows) – it’s a great pub, but it’s what’s happening everywhere’
‘The music is great. It’s weird, to hear classical music played that loud. At first, we had no idea what was going on (laughing) but it’s a great pub’.
UD: ‘The council is assisting the speculators in taking it over’
‘That’s no surprise, they would have got rid of us if we weren’t just the ground floor. Everything in this area will be flats soon’.
…that’s how Kensington Park Hotel and its proprietor, Vince Power could be described. But the continued existence of this much-loved pub and music venue are under threat from the wave of gentrification sweeping West London.
Sitting in the KPH with my fellow Dandies early one morning was an experience not obtainable at Café Nero over the road. In the upstairs Grove Theatre, a sense of 150 years of history pervaded and stimulated conversations about life, politics, love, incarceration, slavery, music and more. By the time our host, Mr Power, arrived, we were fully absorbed by the ambience of the theatre’s vintage arm chairs, the old photographs and the Beethoven blasting out from the bar downstairs.
On that night was Plurabelles, a performance exploring the evocation of women in James Joyce’s writing, priced at £5. Coming soon might be a luxury penthouse flat for the rich, as speculators seek to acquire KPH and turn a quick profit.
Kensington and Chelsea council talks a good game about preserving the bohemian character of the area, but the council has stripped the KPH of its status as an “asset of community value” on the technicality that the title had been applied for by supporters of the pub, known as KPH United.
Power has found himself embattled. In court, the speculators SWA Developments, in the judge’s words, used the “kitchen sink method”, utilising every conceivable legal method and technicality, to try to force through the sale.
SWA now own the freehold, so KPH’s best hope for survival is to obtain listing as an English Heritage building. Power sees the best case scenario as the pub being bought by the community, which would keep the freehold safe. Without such a move, even if KPH survives in the short term, the speculators will start circling again soon enough.
Power’s legal battle has forced SWA to back down on its plans, revealed in court papers, to change the ground floor “from a public house to another commercial use” but of course this is no guarantee that what replaces the KPH will be anything other than more sanitary gentrification in an area fast losing its charm.
Sitting with him in the bar downstairs, it became clear that profit is not Power’s driving force. In fact, Power had the aura of a Laotian Buddhist monk, speaking with a knowing compassion that cut through ego and put his guests at ease.
As we sit, Power chats easily about politics, society, the local area and music. Having lived between Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove for 50 years, he believes passionately in the multi-cultural London that KPH is a part of. He stated “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in London. It’s this mix of people that gives children an understanding of their fellow human beings”.
As he held court, Power broke off now and again from the KPH story to make observations on politics or on passers-by. He seems to understand how all things are connected. At one point he stopped what he was saying and pointed at three women wearing hijabs over the road, holding an animated conversation as they rooted around in their handbags. “I bet those ladies have got some stories to tell” he says. He reflects on gentrification and the destruction of inclusive communities, drawing a straight line between a society in which some people have no sense of belonging and the decision of some Londoners to travel to Syria to join ISIS. And this connects to the UK’s planning laws, which he describes as “so wide that they’re written for the developer” with loopholes that allow investors to evade the building of social housing.
But Vince Power is no nostalgic romantic, he has made things happen throughout his career. The transformation of the KPH has been remarkable and he has balanced the need for change with preserving the pub’s inclusivity. Down the road is a mental health day care centre and Power is happy to welcome its patients for their lunchtime drink, unlike some local landlords. Prior to the KPH, Power made his name running the Mean Fiddler, Benicàssim among other festivals, as well as organising the Sex Pistols’ Finsbury Park reunion. Locally, Power had Subterranea and the Ion Bar, which is now Sainsburys Local.
KPH is a viable, profitable business with great potential. Unlike SWA’s plans for the building, it works. The only access to the rooms upstairs is through the pub, so how it can be changed in to flats while maintaining a public house downstairs is a mystery yet to be explained by the speculators.
The few remaining venues like KPH generate much of the interest in the area that attracts the tourists and investors. They represent the area’s last stand against the imposition of an arid future. The area’s qualities are traded on to make money, but once they’re gone, the value they provided will be gone too. In this way gentrification destroys the thing that was used to attract people in the first place.
Part two, “Community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities”
(Read part one, in which we explained what’s going on and how and why Westway23 was born, here).
Westway23 states that they are not opposed to change along the 23 acres of land set for upheaval under plans drawn up by the Westway Trust. Their protest isn’t against change, but against incongruent change implemented without due consideration for the community. Acting chair of Westway23 Niles Hailstones told me, “They (the Westway Trust) say ‘we had to do something’ – this is a disrespectful comment. They should have talked to the community at the beginning. It’s an abuse of power by the Westway Trust and the council”.
But the Westway Trust is big on celebrating the local community, I point out. “People put on clothes that say ‘community,’ but community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities” Niles responds, “look at the ‘About Us’ page on the Westway Trust website, look at the photo, does that represent the Westway Trust management team?”
I asked Niles how the area is changing more generally; “This area was known for its political and social conscience, everyone was in the same boat. Now, there’s millionaires living next to people signing on”.
Westway Trust states that it was “formed out of protest” but Westway23 points to their track record as concerning. “Look at Acklam, where Westway Trust started,” Niles tells me, “Acklam Hall, the playground – these were in the original mandate, but they no longer exist. They used the same language to get rid of them – ‘regeneration,’ ‘development’”.
“An era of music was born at Acklam that continues to enrich the area. This shows how resourceful we are. But they only see resource as meaning money, they don’t value our resources. We have access to resources that they can’t attract, like people who will agree to contribute to something worthwhile”.
“There’s an ideology behind all the plans – retail, private flats, office space are top of their list”.
On such gentrification, Sylvia Parnell of the Portobello Café Society states that “it’s what’s happening everywhere: people imposing their ideas on a community”.
Niles agrees: “They think they know better, it’s part of the colonial attitude. Gentrification refers to the gentry. The gentry is a class. So it’s not just about money, it’s a class battle. The elite got rich out of the enslavement and exploitation of African people and resources. That’s going on to this day and it’s flippant to think that it isn’t connected to everyday life”.
Westway23 is switched on to the dangers it perceives in gentrification, wherever it appears. Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser for the group explains how he sees the problem: “It’s a loss of diverse human cultures being able to stay in a place and exist with a sense of freedom and agency. It goes without saying that if people cannot feel comfortable, emotionally, socially or materially, then they will leave”.
And, how about our area specifically? “Here, it’s being exacerbated by the local council’s apparent mission to socially cleanse the area. We have traditionally had a great mix of people, many of whom belong to a socio-economic class at the lower end of the spectrum. Current planning intends quite clearly to alter the demographic with a programme of “regeneration” which means knocking down current social housing stock, replacing it with new buildings that will typically see the loss of open space, loss of community facilities and denser populations in what is already the most densely populated borough in the country. The resultant housing stock is likely to contain the usual mix of shared ownership and market rate properties – out of the reach of anyone on less than 70k annual salary. Social housing will be replaced with smaller units that many families will be unable to practically relocate to”.
Picking up on Niles’s point about class battle, Toby views what is happening as “a direct attack on our communities, wrapped up as ‘economic viability’ by those who do not live day to day with the realities of life in the Grove. Or Shepherds Bush. Or Brixton. Or Hackney and so on…” Westway23 is actively engaged with other, like minded organisations in these areas, he tells me.
“The wonders of our diverse and genuinely special community – and others across London – simply cannot survive in an authentic manner because we are forced to adapt to this economic juggernaut”.
And, in the face of such an economic force, how does he rate the performance of the Westway Trust?
“The Westway Trust has failed to provide any permanent or outstanding use of any space to celebrate and support the community. We actually see closures of art spaces and community children’s centres. We see inaccessible, dead space and 20-year services threatened with eviction. We have a sprawling sports centre that was bought with Lottery money; we have a monolithic and moody structure across 23 acres that has never been properly utilised as a space for the creativity that is inherent within its local population. And a specific section of the community – one that has given the area much of its magic – now has countless stories of marginalisation and outright discrimination”.
“What is worse….this has been the situation for over four decades”
Tom Charles for Urban Dandy London @tomhcharles, @urbandandyLDN
Part Three, on Westway23’s positive vision, coming soon