Grenfell: Some Relief for Some of Us

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

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

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

Waves

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

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

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

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Housing

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

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

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

Power

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

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

 

Tom Charles

Grenfell In Parliament

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

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

Meeting in Parliament

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

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

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

Box Rooms  

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

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

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

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

Authorities Losing Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty Pounds

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

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

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

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

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

Impact

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

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

 

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By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

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

Art by Junior Tomlin

 

Snapshot of a Community in Pain – Children in North Kensington

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

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

Council

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

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From the playground, photo by HH

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

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

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

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

Constant Reminder

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

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

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

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

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

Muted, Mutual

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

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

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

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

The family priority has become null

Fixation

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

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

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

 

 

By Tom Charles with Jennifer Cavanagh

@tomhcharles

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

Come Unity – Grenfell Tower

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.come_unity

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.

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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.

Art by Sophie Lodge, Ladbroke Grove,

By Tom Charles

@tomhcharles

Aminah

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

 

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.

 

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Scanned from Adbusters #124, VOL.24 NO.2

By Tom Charles, with permission from ‘Aminah’

Lad Broke Groove

By Tom Charles

“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)

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Art by Angel Lewis

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.

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Screen-grab from the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation

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

 

Vacuous

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

 

Endnotes:

[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

[iii] Ibid p.1178