Happy Christmas? From RBKC

Warning: This article contains written content that you may find distressing

 

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Grenfell Tower, January 2013

As 2017 comes to a close, we mark six months since the Grenfell Tower fire claimed the lives of 71 people in North Kensington. Many will experience this Christmas as bittersweet: a time to rest and recuperate and be with loved ones; and a time of painful awareness that displaced neighbours are not in secure homes or able to spend time with their families as they would wish.

The Grenfell disaster did not happen in a vacuum, and this and a subsequent article will look at the socioeconomic context in which it took place, and consider the impact on individual lives and the North Kensington community. For many in Kensington and Chelsea, 2017 has been a year from hell. While for others in the borough, it has been another year of abundance-as-usual, despite the horrors of Grenfell.

 

Grenfell – The Context

A handy summary of the context for the Grenfell disaster is provided in the report ‘After Grenfell. Housing and inequality in Kensington and Chelsea’ written by Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, and launched in parliament last month. Click below to see the full report.

After Grenfell Inequality Report

The report dubs K & C “the most unequal borough in Britain”, a description backed up with eye-watering (literally and figuratively) examples and statistics that will echo through the borough for years to come. Perhaps most shockingly, as 2017 winds itself down, there is little sign that the gross inequalities outlined are being addressed, even in the aftermath of the entirely preventable, unprecedented fire.

The Grenfell Tower still stands on the Lancaster West estate: a Stalingrad-like monument to inequality in North Kensington, London, Britain, possibly the Western world. The sickening edifice, once a home to hundreds of people, now represents 303 children from the estate in temporary accommodation, including 226 in Bed and Breakfasts, according to the report. Many of these children have presumably been in this surreal state of insecure limbo since the disaster, despite it being unlawful for a local authority to leave children in B&Bs for over six weeks.

857 individuals were made homeless by the Grenfell disaster, with 20 having been permanently rehoused at the time of the Inequality report’s launch in mid-November.

The report states that K & C (population approx. 160,000) has 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes and over 6,000 homes registered as owned by companies registered in tax havens.

Class

The Grenfell sums don’t appear to add up. But Dent Coad’s report adds to the equation by detailing where the council’s spending priorities have been in recent years:

The Holland Park Opera cost £30 million up to 2014; £26 million was spent on paving Exhibition Road for the 2012 Olympics; Leighton House Museum (near Holland Park) will receive £7 million during 2017 and 2018; a flower kiosk at South Kensington tube station was given a budget of £100,000.

In contrast, the architects of the 2016 Grenfell Tower refurbishment wanted to use more expensive cladding on the building, but the council and Tenant Management Organisation opted for a less fire-resistant option, which saved them £280,000.

At the launch of her report in parliament, Dent Coad labelled the council’s spending priorities “bizarre” and “extraordinary”. The MP, who has a background in design, architecture and planning journalism, said the council is willing to spend half a million on topiary and other cosmetics, but refuses to invest in Lancaster West or pay contract staff the London Living Wage.

The Conservative council’s reaction to the publication of the report was also bizarre and extraordinary. Council leader Elizabeth Campbell labelled Dent Coad “opportunistic” and said the report was “littered with typos” – I counted two, inconsequential next to facts and anecdotes that would appal any decent person.

 

Some Facts from the Report

Death North Kensington is at the sharp end of a class war codenamed ‘Austerity’ that is proving cruel, demoralising and deadly. Life expectancy for men living in the Han Town ward (south of the Borough, near Harrods) is 94. In Golborne ward (North Kensington) men can expect to live to 72, down from 78 in 2010, when the Conservatives came to power.

Slow motion replay:

Here in North Kensington we men live for 22 years less than the rich in the south of the borough.

Income The median income in K & C is £140,000 per annum, but one third of workers earn less than £20,000, and ten percent less than the London Living Wage.

Child Poverty 4,500 children live in poverty in K & C. Two thirds are from working families, with half earning less than £7:50 per hour.

In Queens Gate ward, south of the borough, 2.8% of children are in poverty. In Henry Dickens Court in Norland Ward, North Kensington, 58% of children are in poverty.

Education Low educational attainment runs parallel with poverty. K & C’s average GCSE A*-C attainment is 72%. But on the Dalgarno ward in North Kensington, this percentage drops to 30%.

Health and Fitness Since 2010 funding for primary school sports activities has been reduced. And in 2010, free swimming for children was cut. Obesity in year six (ages 10 and 11) children in the borough has more than doubled in this time from 8.6% in 2010 to 20% in 2016.

During the same period, the borough has seen exponential rises in diabetes, chronic heart and pulmonary disease and Tuberculosis. The report even mentions a case of a K & C child with “full blown rickets”.

Those with dual or triple diagnosis of mental, physical and learning disabilities experience the most extreme income inequality.

Housing The key to the whole game. Many K & C residents are housed in temporary accommodation, two thirds of which is located outside the borough. The average time spent in such accommodation is 27 months, which wreaks havoc on children’s academic prospects. So does the fact that 68% of children in the Golborne ward live in overcrowded homes.

Mortgage? The average home in the borough costs £1.5 million, while the average price for a flat in North Kensington is now over £700,000.

Rent? The average cost of a three bedroom flat in North Kensington is £738 per week. That’s 75 hours of work at the London Living Wage rate.

 

Policy Outcomes 

But the above are facts of life/death that are meant to pass unchallenged, as natural as the air we breathe. A bit like the existence of food banks in the Royal Borough, which were described by Nicholas Paget Brown, the erstwhile council leader, as “a fine and noble thing”.

The widening rich-poor gap outlined in the report is the consequence of deliberate and calculated national government policy, which emboldened councils such as K & C to pursue an extreme austerity and accelerate social cleansing after 2010.

The Tory policies collectively amount to a violent attack on the majority of people in North Kensington and similar areas around Britain. What could be more violent than a policy that kills men 22 years ahead of their time, keeps thousands of people rooted in poverty and housing insecurity and sabotages the life chances of the jewels of society, our children?

In this context, the Grenfell disaster should be a wake-up call to the ruling elite that their intentions have been exposed. Not so. A K & C Conservative councillor told Emma Dent Coad that the preventable deaths of 71 people, including a stillborn baby, are just “one of those things”. The show must go on, and it has gone on…

Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives thought it appropriate to ask residents to rank how much they care about the Grenfell disaster, 0-10.

They made sure they included the number zero. No typos from the Tories.

Zero

 

Grenfell – The Aftermath

And what of the direct victims of the fire and the wider community? The human cost behind the statistics.

While the council and May government dithered and fudged their response to the Grenfell Tower fire, treating it as a public relations crisis, others got to work.

Psychiatrist and Creative Arts Therapist, Dr. Sara Alsaraf, has been volunteering as part of a group set up two weeks after the fire by four female therapists with experience in trauma work and two local women who are funding it independently of the council. Sara told Urban Dandy about her experience volunteering with victims of the disaster:

 

“One of the therapists is a local who lost five members of her family in the fire. She is of Moroccan origin and embedded in the local community. She has been canvassing people to attend counselling in every community centre, at hotels, at mosques etc. We started running the group every Wednesday evening at Trellick Tower and were kindly donated the space by MCWG (Making Communities Work and Grow). Unfortunately, attendance started to dwindle over the last couple of months despite our efforts to engage people. There are various reasons for this, which I will go into later”

 

What sort of stories have you heard in your capacity as a counsellor? 

“Initially, we heard stories from people who lived in the building or nearby and from relatives who had lost family. We heard stories from the night of the fire, the panic and confusion, the life or death question that all the residents asked, which was: ‘Should we leave? or should we do as the emergency services are telling us and stay put?’

 

We heard from people who had lost family members, including a family where all perished apart from a five-year-old now in the care of her Aunts. We heard from those who witnessed the fire and how they are unable to get the images out of their mind and how the local children have been affected, some talking about the fire constantly others avoiding even looking in the direction of the building, having to have curtains closed at all times so they cannot see it. 

 

We heard from locals who have lived in the area for years and who run businesses, about the sense of shock reverberating throughout the community and the inability to make sense of the loss of life as well as the aftermath.

 

Interlaced among this has been consistent disappointment, anger and shock at the incompetence of K and C council”. 

 

What are the issues that have come up – anything that has particularly struck you?

“In terms of symptoms of traumatic stress, I think that people affected directly by the fire are unable to realise how deeply they may be affected yet. Experiencing the Grenfell fire firsthand is incredibly difficult to process and there is no doubt that most of the survivors’ and witnesses’ lives will be profoundly affected. At present though, for most people, they are focusing all their energy into getting through each day. Living in a ‘limbo’ state in hotels or bed and breakfasts is draining and any motivation they have is being demanded constantly to sort out practical issues: housing, money, children, funerals and so on. The council is causing individuals and families additional stress and suffering by taking so long to sort out these issues and also demanding constant form filling. I am also being told that survivors are all being treated differently and there is no consistency in the council’s approach to rehousing.

 

Are people suffering PTSD?

Many people are suffering insomnia, anxiety, panic, depression, flashbacks, it will probably become full blown once the practical issue are dealt with. I am certainly hearing about people drinking more alcohol or using drugs to control their emotions. People are irritable and have a short fuse. Some are fearful and paranoid about everything, checking on their loved ones throughout the day.

 

In terms of safety – how will the people impacted ever feel safe again? This happened to them in their own homes, plus there is a possibility of corporate manslaughter. There are so many strong emotions being contained by people including mistrust, paranoia, senselessness, anger, shock…

 

Another issue now is that people are not attending therapy and support services that are on offer. According to our local therapist who lives in the community, those affected are stating that they need help but that they cannot access services. Maybe there are issues about the services on offer.  We are hoping to change the time of our group and location so that it is more accessible to the community. Of course people are dispersed in hotels and B&Bs which makes attending local services more difficult. There also needs to be consideration of cultural sensitivity to contact with mental health services. For some people they may never have experienced anxiety, depression or PTSD and worry that they are going ‘crazy’ and that this is confirmed if they see a psychologist. This is not the case at all and there are a variety of ways psychological support can alleviate the anguish associated with profound trauma.

 

It is important that people continue to engage with their community services such as Almanaar Mosque, Acklam Village and Al-Hasaniya Morrocan Women’s Centre. Healing can also take place in community groups around food and sharing with one another and does not always have to be done in a formal setting”.

Sara can be contacted at: saraalsaraf@gmail.com

 

2017 fades with no traditional, warm Christmas card scene…2018 will begin without justice for Grenfell. Happy Christmas from RBKC? In part two – more from those working with the victims of the disaster, and K & C council respond…

 

 

By Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

Grenfell: The Ghosts of Christmas Past

No windows adorned with twinkling lights

like a kaleidoscopic lighthouse

that once shined so bright

no mistletoe, bells or berried wreaths of holly

upon doors of homes that were once so jolly

no matter what faith belief nor creed

neighbours that cared for those in need

 

In both Church and Mosque

Good people gathered

Ensuring God’s love

in the community scattered

 

now no angel or star on top of a tree

excited young children with expectant glee

souls that now sleep

to never awake,

unwrap their presents,

eat turkey and cake

no crackers pulled

or paper crowns worn

on the heads of proud parents

of those that just born

 

no away in a manger

a crib for a bed

souls which had life

now missing, presumed dead

the spirits of the loved

whom from this world have passed

not forgotten, remembered always

Forever deep in our hearts…

 

M.C. Bolton

 

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Grenfell Tower, January 2013

North Kensington: Street Art & Power Dissected

North Kensington in West London changed forever following the Grenfell Tower fire disaster of June 14th this year. Already known for its street art, the area’s walls have become a canvas for tributes to those lost in the fire, a space for free expression and to vent rage, without a media filter. A semiotics expert and local resident, Chris Arning, looked at the possible meanings and genesis of a striking example of post-Grenfell North Ken street art…
What is Semiotics?

Semiotics derives from the ancient Greek word semion, meaning ‘sign’ and is a subject devoted to evidence-based analysis of signs and meaning. It is a field that encompasses culture, communication and meaning and includes logos, branding and street art.

 

RBKC

RBKC

RBKC 2

 

North Kensington is replete with street art. Of course there is always a flurry of artists before carnival every year, but since Grenfell in June, a lot of other types of pieces have appeared: the modified London Underground Love sign and a great Grenfell RIP on the corner of the Acklam Road on the left as you turn off from Ladbroke Grove towards Portobello – done, I think, by Code FC. Street art is the medium and message of anonymous resistance. It is done to show that whatever the official story, the streets is watching and people know what is going on – sgraffiti means ‘scribbilings’ (from the Italian sgraffio, to scratch) something that goes back at least to ancient Rome.

 

On the way home a few weeks ago, I happened upon a strange sign on a wall off Powis Square. It sort of stopped me in its tracks because there was an uncanniness about it, both familiar and eerie. I’m writing a book on semiotics at the moment, as you do, and I was intrigued so thought I’d take a pic and have since pondered what it might mean. I deciphered the letters tangled up together as RBKC. This is the old logo of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You can still see it on some of the street signs of the borough.

 

I have reproduced the street art above, alongside an embossed version on a local street light.

 

Questions 

Continue reading

North Kensington Children Honoured

Two London-based community organisations honoured the young people of North Kensington at the weekend. At an event on Ladbroke Grove, local children affected by the 14th June Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath showcased their creative skills and public speaking abilities.

The children were given a platform to reflect on their experiences of the summer after the Grenfell disaster. Many of them had benefited from trips away from West London, funded and organised by Baraka Community Association (BCA) and Worldwide Somali Students & Professionals (WSSP). The trips included a residential at Hindleap Warren, visits to Legoland, Chessington, Butlins and Thorpe Park.

Over a hundred days have now passed since the unprecedented fire on the Lancaster West estate, which claimed scores of lives, including friends of the children present.

The young people were set the task of designing posters to express their feelings experiences during summer 2017, presenting them to a panel of judges that included Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad. Contestants were judged on their artistic ability, literacy and presentation skills.

After much deliberation and disagreement, the cash prizes went to:

Third prize: Aisha, aged nine, for her poster ‘Asia, Africa’.

Aisha reflected on getting far away from North Kensington to Dubai, Kenya (which she described as ‘boring’ – sorry Kenya) and Somalia. Aisha gained the judges’ praise for her lively, confident presentation.

Aisha
Aisha, 9, with Emma Dent Coad MP

Second prize: Abdullahi M, aged nine, for his poster ‘My Sad but Amazing Summer’.

Abdullahi described the events of 14th June as they had unfolded for him, talking about his mother’s tears, and the united local community. He ended his presentation with the words “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.

Abdullah
Abdullahi with Emma

First prize: Hussein, aged 13.

Hussein received first prize for his combination of a brilliant design and a very eloquent presentation, outlining how each section of his picture linked together, and explaining the abstractions to the audience and judges.

 

Winning Entry
‘Summer 2017’ by Hussein

The prizes were awarded by Emma Dent Coad MP, who hailed the organisations involved and the families in attendance, noting that they were doing “what we all want to do: making the most of ourselves and our children”.

The event showcased the effectiveness of well-established and well-connected community groups. Already up and running and filling in gaps in provision long before the Grenfell fire, these organisations were in place to provide much-needed support and relief when North Kensington was shattered by the events of June 14th. When government services were most needed, they were found wanting, but the community was able to provide some essential presence.

WSSP’s Director Kasim Ali said: “The aim was to help children cope with the Grenfell disaster by talking about it and expressing themselves artistically. At the same time they learned lifelong skills such as design, presentation and public speaking”.

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The other talented children taking part and so close to winning were:

  • Sahra
  • Maryama
  • Sharifa
  • Muna
  • Yasin
  • Ayman
  • Abdullahi E
  • Ibtisam
  • Abdirahman

 

 

As Abdullahi M said: “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.

 

 

By Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

I’m Spartacus

 

Herded into the arena

bloodied by poverty’s lash

sand soft between our toes

as we march into the stadium of despair

mentally chained by our delusion of freedom,

divided into race, faith, nation, class

then pitted against each other

For our rulers’ pleasure

 

But many refuse to fight

Us – the truly dangerous ones

instead pointing upwards to the audience

of those that truly despise and fear us

 

Yet you who plunder our homes, invade our streets,

Women who tightly clutch their handbags

staring at the pavement in terror

for surely we are all vagabonds, cutthroats and thieves!

Suited men who’s bowels loosen

when passing our urban-talking youth

who defend their postcode by the same extreme violence 

that the state metes out to them with impunity,

 

We who are crushed on every side

surrounded by avarice and greed

by disciples of the latest fad,

drinking alfresco skinny lattes on Westbourne Grove

the need to be scenes,

our wrath slowly being squeezed

accused of sour grapes, lacking aspiration,

Yet it’s our blood that makes your wine

with which you wet your lips

as you toss us your scraps,

we who slowly devour and destroy one another,

 

But Spartacus is rising

resurrected like a phoenix in the flames

our sight restored by tragedy

injustice the fire that burns brightly

inside compassionate indignant hearts,

shaking those who’s God is mammon

 

Yet it’s not your eye of the needle wealth we wish to pillage

but your fraudulent sense of privilege, entitlement, arrogance and ignorance

hiding in your bunker-like basements

whilst above, homes, communities are destroyed

 

as we stare at our Stalingrad-like monument,

united under the banner of hope and faith,

love for our children will ever be our shield,

God’s wrath will be stirred

by the death of his innocent ones

 

Millstones will be prepared,

the sea’s depth beckons

those that hide behind their cloak of guilt

for this slaughter ignited a fury in our hearts

we’ll stand against your legions

we’ve buried our dead

but we will never let you bury the truth…

 

 

LW2

M.C. Bolton, September 2017

 

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