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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
*St Francis of Assisi Primary school is next to the Lancaster West estate
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 kid. 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 classes. I find the choice to park 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 a 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, 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
“Литературное кафе” — блог Алексея Марковича, где автор выкладывает фото и видео со своих творческих встреч, а также спектакли, поставленные по его произведениям. MarkovichUniverse СОБАКА gmail ТОЧКА com