Happy Christmas? From RBKC

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

 

Kensington and Chelsea-20130118-01154 2
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

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

Grenfell: Some Relief for Some of Us

IMG_20170803_144941606_HDR

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.

1

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.

 

19275080_10154372748837030_126696950416521457_n

 

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.

IMG-20170628-WA0009
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.”

4

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

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

 

19275080_10154372748837030_126696950416521457_n
Art by Junion Tomlin

Grenfell Victims Must Not Become Charity Cases

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

Oscar Wilde

 

Kensington and Chelsea-20110625-01641
Grenfell Tower, 2014

In the heatwave the volunteers still come, the aid continues, and the community can speak of little else.

The Grenfell fire is all that is happening in Ladbroke Grove and North Kensington. Everybody has been affected by it and, as the mass news media coverage has reflected, the response of ordinary people has been beautiful.

Even the mainstream media has allowed a platform for grief and anger, and have expressed their own rage and incredulity off camera.

We need them to stick around. One Sky News reporter told me his editor had vowed that the channel would “stay on this story all summer”- let’s see.

Waiting game

The silence and low-level response from Kensington and Chelsea council has been palpable. Could they be playing a waiting game?

Their actions, repeatedly and almost systematically continuing to mistreat Grenfell residents and the rest of the Lancaster West estate, suggests that there will be no change unless there is a change in personnel at the Town Hall.

Kensington and Chelsea-20130127-01186
Graffiti from January 2013 on Grenfell Road, when the old leisure centre was demolished, before the cladding was applied.

Once the media go away, they will presumably step up the moves that are already underway:

  • The council giving survivors £10 each in aid despite the millions that have come in
  • One survivor who lost his wife being moved to an old people’s home
  • One surviving family being moved three times in the days after the fire
  • Residents of the low rises on Lancaster West being moved for an indefinite period to cheap hotels out of the borough
  • One friend of mine who lives in a nearby, almost identical, tower block called the council to ask when they would be installing sprinklers. She wanted to reassure her traumatised children who lost friends in the fire. The council’s response: “Just be grateful you have a roof over your head”.

And yet the Spanish government has given long-term, free of charge accommodation via their embassy to a member of staff of the Spanish school on Portobello road who escaped the fire.

 Kensington and Chelsea-20130127-01188

These stories are everywhere and as the media coverage fades, we in North Kensington fear that our cries of despair and defiance will become a localised echo chamber.

Richest borough

Already the media and authorities are lying about the death toll, which is undoubtedly in the hundreds but my morning ‘paper somehow had it at 79 “dead or missing”.

Something malevolently mundane and predictable seems to be unfolding before us: The richest borough in the UK will not use its obscene £300 million budget surplus to help survivors of a disaster it created. And so the relief effort has fallen on the community in the form of charity. The council, unable to relinquish its class based world view, is happy for the Grenfell victims to become charity cases.

The Royal Borough wants gratitude from the poor and the dispossessed – this is the price it demands for the provision of its philanthropic, feel-good, version of public service. Gratitude from a wretched, besieged community is the only thing that seems to arouse Nicholas Paget-Brown and this sociopathic council. Wilde’s words, written in 1891, could not be truer in 2017.

The community, so strong and undergoing such rapid growth and development in the wake of the disaster, must not fall for this perfidious trick. Reject any attempts to turn the Grenfell survivors in to charity cases.

Expect the council and Tory minority government to add insult after insult to their mess, but we must not back down from certain demands:

  • All the survivors to be immediately housed in high quality, low rise, permanent accommodation – stable housing provides human dignity. If this means requisitioning the unused homes of the filthy rich then so be it. This has been suggested already by Jeremy Corbyn,
  • All survivors to remain in the borough, and all children within easy travelling distance of school,
  • Proper investment in social housing in this area,
  • An end to social cleansing

Do not be grateful for the crumbs being thrown to the Grenfell victims. The council want to divert the community’s outpouring of compassion to serve their own tyranny, do not let them.

 

By Tom Charles

@tomhcharles