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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
The other talented children taking part and so close to winning were:
As Abdullahi M said: “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.
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’s theage of uncertainty, overuse of the word ‘terrorism’ and common sense gone digital. If what the astronomers tell us is true, we’ve moved light years away from the cosmic location we were at just four years ago and you can kinda tell. Yet, Mario’s key cutters, Poundland and Tesco’s all seem to have remained in the same location as I look through the eyes of a child.
The said amount of time has passed since we shared, right here on Urban Dandy, how the natural falling of a tree on our block inspired the locals to spill out onto the streets and finally make themselves known.
I don’t know if it’s time, frustration or just karma for me, but it seems that the neighbourly thing is at an all time low. The same eleven-year-olds that used to humbly greet me on my way out the door are now fifteen and just about neighbourly enough to replace those kind words with a nod and an ice grill and if I’m really lucky it may also be the waft of urban incense of the green variety. I can’t tell you how many times my doorstep has been littered with rolling papers, Subway sandwich wrappers, rappers and pitiful young girls, a few months into puberty and possibly a couple of years from single motherhood. They would exchange a type of loud poetry of the sailor type among themselves and upon any young ears that are unfortunate enough to be near their fruitless performance.
I remember the gradual build up to this and the times when my suspicions of drug activity were vague and unsubstantiated, but I never expected to be welcomed home with an offer to buy drugs on my own doorstep.
Yep, it’s certainly a different time and place in space and you’d easily be forgiven if you don’t remember the tree that considerately descended on the very same block, even though, at the time, it was the most activity we had seen and the main focus of conversation for months. Now two years on, teams of mopeds turn the streets into Silverstone as they wheelie up the track block dropping off their illegal supplies under the diffident noses of the police, the housing association, the moon and even the mid-day sun, for that matter.
Rumours spread of the neighbours’ children having knife tussles in the street and of warning shots being fired in a place that celebrities could never imagine while they strut with all their pretense, trying to ignore the echoes of their own name. It’s hard to believe that one area could support such opposing lifestyles but Notting Hill is such a place.
The local news is sometimes national news, depending. It could be about the actress Eve strolling through her new manor, a sixteen-year-old laying in a pool of blood, Rita Ora doing a photo shoot, or a mob of eleven police restraining a wannabe thug child. Considering the later; this not yet man will no doubt only use this encounter as a badge to show the peer group that he has achieved a Netflix version of manhood. Meanwhile, the Beckhams will do the school drop off oblivious to this. But all of this in one stretch of concrete.
These are not incidents but everyday life. It’s like a kind of trash bag made of diamonds. It’s odd knowing that Princes William and Harry went to the school up the street and just feet away from that ambitious parent attending a school viewing, hoping to give their child the same Prince Harry experience they may experience the polar opposite. It’s also a Big Issue magnet, a haven for the more ambitious of the homeless. I know this because it took me two years and some strong language to be rid of one such aggressive Big Issue seller and to have him accept that I was a regular guy. He eventually dissolved our tacit contract and moved on to more supportive folk to maintain his structure.
Home and Away
Elsewhere in the world there are at least a few miles between these opposing classes. I find the choice to park your car in the centre of a spot, that could hold two vehicles, snooty and sub-civilised; but no less churlish than maneuvering a 60 lb leather sofa into a parking space in front of your own home, but who cares? Damn right it’s an environmental crime but not to be declared in Orwellian style with the hope of profit but just to dispense a call for the raising of one’s personal standards, empathy and maybe a little shame. Yeah, the mice come out knowing that the neighbourhood ugly gives them hope that there will be a serving for at least four when they carelessly drop pizza and other food items on their own doorstep, but who gives a..?
The bigger picture
Truth is, beneath all of this is a fight between two demogra-folks, both too smart to actually realise they’re in a war over a silly name. I’m not sure who named Ladbroke Grove Notting Hill but the two gangs have both been co-living on the same turf for some time now. As Notting Hill gets written into the history books, Ladbroke Grove makes its own history reminding us of the area’s past like an immortal storyteller. Immortal because, much to the disappointment of some locals, it just won’t go away. This neverending story is what opened the doors to make it Notting Hill (Ladbroke Grove or whatever you choose to call it), Marvin Gaye, The Sex Pistols, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, The Rolling Stones and all.
Rough Trade Records started out in Ladbroke Grove and without moving an inch has become Notting Hill’s musical pride and, somewhat organic, record shop. Yet who remembers when they sold NY W.B.L.S. radio mix-tapes and when people sprayed the bricks with Sham 69? How about, graffiti artist Futura 2000 knocking around with the Clash or Queen Latifa searching the crates for her little-known single?
Synonymously the neighbouring food equivalent would be The Grain Shop that still lives opposite Tavistock Square on Portobello Road, Notting Hill, or is it Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove? Even regular healthy food got caught in this name politics and was changed to organic without its consent. Even though The Grain Shop still services the area for their food needs, the name of the food they offer, although it’s mostly organic, refuses to boast, because unlike most other things their attitudes have not changed. But you would have to remember Ladbroke Grove to know that. To know that the owners care more about the nutrition that they provide for their community than giving it a fancy name.
Then there’s The Tabernacle: it still sits in Powis Square but seems to be wanting to slide up the hill rather than down the grove. Thankfully, it is regulated by culture. Every time a hundred pound designer Champagne creeps onto the drinks menu a Jerk Chicken wrestles it down to the ground, sometimes it’s a saltfish fritter fighting with a Greek Salad or even an unexpected Chicken Saint Lucia being drowned by the soup of the day.
Yep, most of us are just casualties of a war of status and as soon as Notting Hill recognises that it’s Ladbroke Grove is the moment that Ladbroke Grove will see that it is Notting Hill. Gentrification will then become an organic process with the participation of locals. The area’s potential will then be clear and we can concentrate on bigger things like what the fuxit our exit from the EU actually means and how we need each other more than ever, NOW.
Whether it’s your micro neighbour or your macro neighbour we need constructive communication and not snobbery. Coming to accept that there is not, and has never been, a middle class may be a little hard to swallow for some but for God’s sake get over it quick because at this time if you’re not excelling to new financial altitudes whereby work is but a choice, then your choice of neighbours is not a choice at all. It’s Russian roulette, only now there are three slugs in the chamber of the proverbial gun to your head. It’s easier, far easier for somebody to complain about their co-inhabitants rather than to seek resolve with each other. Whether you dropped down from Knightsbridge with high expectations or you have never left the area and cannot quite grasp the gentrific change, it’s time to talk; otherwise, the government (or foreign corporate interests to be precise) will be only too happy to play your friendly mediator.
If you’re like me and have lived in any of the other communities that are globally accepted as parallels, you’ll know that there is not another area on earth like this one. New York, Paris, and Los Angeles all boast of multiculturalism but even as diverse as they are, the local cultures have enough distance between them to never meet.
Not so with us, just look at the size of our streets, somebody sneezes, you feel it across the road. We live in a very claustrophobic space of scraping buses and folding wing mirrors but with that comes the unique advantage of having to interact and survive within each other’s world, yet without each other in this little village. It makes sense for us to finally define it ourselves with the help of those who bring their foreign experiences if they are only willing to introduce themselves and share rather than seize real land, by any other corporate term.
I believe that on this third rock, in this western hemisphere, in this Royal Borough, while the world divides itself in the hope of the government submitting a plan for re-uniting it we have the potential to become a beacon to the world but we have to stop the selfishness and start participating, preserving, embracing and becoming curious about our homies, and each other’s welfare not farewell.
Dedicated to: *The Krew: Shaban, Drew, Kevin Wez, Nicky and Jeff (RIP). Song: The Escapades of Futura 2000 – Futura 2000 and The Clash
“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.
“In the heart of the Urban Dandy is the fate and the conflict of the bohemian, to become preoccupied with the things he/she shuns – materialism and money” (About Us)
Descriptions like this can be traced back nearly two centuries when the word ‘Bohemian’ was first used to define those who didn’t fit the mainstream, bourgeois view of respectable living.
Mid-nineteenth century bohemians were those associated with alternative lifestyles and world views, engaged in the arts, writing and philosophy. They were united in their rejection of bourgeois, materialism trivia and sentimentality. What was respectable to the bourgeois was, to the bohemians, banal.
The thinker Alain de Botton describes the “martyr figures” of the bohemian value system as those who “sacrificed the security of a regular job and the esteem of their society in order to write, paint or make music, or devote themselves to travel or to their friends and families”[i]
By favouring sensitivity over worldly attachment, bohemians found themselves destitute, unable to reconcile themselves to spending their time and energy in service of a job they loathed to secure comfortable material lives. They looked elsewhere, forming their own subcultures and alternative movements.
But while mainstream society has its status symbols (peerages, job titles, awards, bling etc.) the bohemians’ status is attained through social skills, poetry, choice of reading material and company kept.
In the 1800s, society reported only bourgeois achievements and alternative heroes were seldom seen. The bohemian response to this freezing out was to try to shock respectable society out of its complacency. The Dadaists and Surrealists provided alternative voices to the prevailing narratives of social conservatism and fear of difference. Similarly, the Beat poets challenged a culture dominated by those who believed society offered a just reward system.
Bohemians tend to gather in ghettos, a survival instinct and economic necessity. Inner city areas with low end rent have been the focal point, potential havens of freedom, liberation and creativity.
All well and good, but any Bohemian must operate within the laws of the land. And so, the fate of the bohemian is still to become preoccupied with what is ostensibly shunned: money and material comfort.
In North Kensington, a wind chill factor of poverty blows in. Over half of the Borough’s children attend private schools, while 41% of their peers live in poverty. Boho? Many of those who had enjoyed a degree of material comfort and predictable security can no longer rely on this. And the society is more atomised and less community-based than ever. The future is uncertain.
Under an entirely unnecessary sham economic policy called ‘Austerity’, brutal class war is being waged. For those leaving university with five figures of debt, fulfilling their life’s purpose and building a community that enables people to realise their own individuality is not an option. Neither is debt slavery an economic benefit to the country; it is a deliberate, class-based political decision.
The result is best articulated by Oscar Wilde: “There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor”[ii].
The confusion of the value of a human with the monetary value of what they possess has led the majority into tedious, demoralising work in a bid for respectability. Wilde said that our society has been constructed on such a basis “that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot fully develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living”[iii].
And this is the dilemma of the Urban Dandy; it is what is inside them that enriches life. But they must live outwardly. And that is why, in our hundredth post we declared our intention:
“Identifying with the downtrodden, the poor and the dandies, the human, those who won’t back down and those that capitulate under pressure”.
A final warning: Beware of the word Bohemian now. It has been bastardised, called Boho…Tory Bohemia
Been the king of Notting Hill, Lord of Ladbroke Grove
Seen new money flooding in, pretentiousness exposed!
All about the bag you hold, label inside your clothes
Even though it’s daddies cash you wanna be boho!
Without a picture painted, book or verse
A modern day hippy – but in reverse!
The queen of hearts has marked your card
Like me seen through the looking glass
Oh! Alice dear you’re lost in space
What’s really happening to this place
But Alice dear -don’t you understand
For most of us it’s not wonderland!
Poem by MC.Bolton, 2015
[i] Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, Penguin (2005), p. 280
[ii] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, p.1180
It’s 11.45am on a Tuesday in March and I’ve just come back to Portobello after moving some things into a Brentford storage unit.
Heavy work, so you’d think a full English carb fest was on my mind. Not so, here’s why…
…So, we get to the door of the Electric Diner on Portobello Road, only to be greeted by our regular (Antonio Banderas looking) waiter. I may have appeared a bit rude as I zipped past him fully aware of the clock ticking away on our 50% local discount deal as it fast approached 12.00. I rushed past into the ready and waiting waitress. “Will you still honour the discount as it’s not yet 12 O’ clock”? I said in a half couldn’t care less way, without revealing the fact that her answer was a remote control to push an invisible button to send me away or make me stay, just like a puppet”. ” If you order before 12.00 it’ll be fine”. She said. You’ve never seen a person sit down so quickly.
It was about 11:52 when my guest: sweet Juliet ordered her poached eggs on toast with avocado and a bit a lemon on the side, accompanied by a pot of mint tea to kill the chill. Note below, the avocado’s succulence. Continue reading →