I seek a burning bush
deep inside this internal wilderness
blazing sun the canvas
upon which vultures circle
over dry bleached skulls
of the eternal lost
who’s spirits are forever imprisoned
in this arid haunt of demons and jackals
Oh! Lazarus salve my tongue
with just one drop of your tears
as slowly I wander amongst these ever-changing dunes
crawling over rocks that were once thrown
by men without pity or grace
along with memories of scorpion-like words
that once pierced my heart…
Yet still no ignited shrub
giving purpose – offering hope
to a man who’s fist clenches time’s sand
which slowly seeps through his fingers
like his dreams
blown into heavenly halls
by divine life-giving breath
my mind boiling like mutton
a feast for an old toothless lion
who has only his roar!
Like Moses searching for the promised land
that flows with milk and honey
always eluding me
Darkness falls – I play games with the stars
that have shone on greater men
in the distance I spy a dancing flame
surely it doth burn so bright
bringing light into the hidden places
where only the bravest soul dare venture…
©M.C. Bolton, February 2018
Urban Dandy Meditation #1 was on 15th February 2018.
A new venture, aimed at people from our community and further afield to engage in the practice of transcendental meditation and to stimulate discussion and creativity.
A theme of ‘Who are we, really?’ guided us through the hour – the class were told:
Urban Dandy’s writers look at context, we explain things, point out pertinent detail, tell the truth and discern. But, Urban Dandy is for the whole human, which means we’re interested in looking beyond context. If we let go of this role of journalist, poet, or whatever label we could pin to ourselves, what remains?
Discomfort might be one thing…
The class was led into the first few minutes of meditation practice,
The brief instruction: Sit, feet flat on the floor, an upright spine, ‘when the body is still, the mind is more likely to follow’, focus ahead – still eyes,
“When we sit down to meditate it is as if an old friend sits down with us, a life-long friend, a friend who accompanies us everywhere and who is so close to us as to be practically indistinguishable from the ‘me’ or the ‘I’ that we habitually call ourselves. That friend is the moving mind, which in Sanskrit goes by the name of manas”.
“Manas is our friend and can help us in all sorts of ways but it has one abiding fault: it never knows when to stop talking and so makes it difficult for us to hear anything else. We spend most of our waking hours listening to the chatter of manas ceaselessly commenting and judging – judging not only our own actions but the actions of others as well”.[i]
Then a discussion: How was the practice? ‘It went quickly’ – ‘it went slowly’. Who are we? We cannot be manas – our thoughts.
The second practice
Suggestion: Do not worry about the wandering mind, that is what the mind does, there is no failure. The mantra is the hand rail when you want to come back.
What is a mantra? A sound, repeated silently, inwardly, preferably not in one’s mother tongue. What is meditation? Different participants had different ways, but the class was in transcendental meditation, in which the practitioner transcends their physical, mental and intellectual selves and touches pure being. Here, the meditator begins to open up to the question ‘Who am I really?’
“Every single time we return to the practice, we are overcoming ancient innate tendencies of the mind to flow outward. Every time we come back, we are reminding ourselves where to look, and it gets deeper each time. This is why it’s said that what matters isn’t how many times we go away, but how many times we come back…”[ii]
(To become who we truly are we first have to come out of being what we are not).
Naturally, because of life and its demands and preoccupations, context came in to the conversation – the heaviness of life, this was a gathering of people with heavyweight life experiences and no little wisdom, but the question was worth coming back to, to taste that bliss, to lighten the burden: Who are we, really?
Glimpsing some light and following it, discovering that I am indeed part of that light and it is part of me… Good night everyone, thanks for coming, and we leave.
But the truth remains and will be touched again, always available.
Urban Dandy Meditation #2 will take place on Maundy Thursday, 29th March, same venue same time – The Library, Downstairs, Essex Unitarian Church, Notting Hill Gate, 7:30-8:30pm
By Tom Charles
For Brian – ‘it is always there’
[i] From the booklet ‘Beginning to Meditate’, The School of Meditation
[ii] Krishna Das, ‘Chants of a Lifetime’, Hay House, 2010, p.54
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.
At first glance, it is difficult to imagine Matt Okine having the discipline and drive to rise in the early hours for three straight years to host a national radio breakfast show. His easy style and unflustered lyricism belie what must be a fierce work ethic and creative urge. But this is what Okine does: laziness is his mask, the lie that he uses to present his truth.
The Australian is much decorated and lauded for his acting and stand up, and is a serious all-rounder: he presents a cookery programme on TV and raps as part of Boilermakers. Okine’s success sees him sell out comedy shows wherever he performs and now he is back in London at Soho Theatre, ostensibly talking career changes, but there is much more simmering under the surface in his show ‘We Made You’.
The opening night at Soho saw Okine in full flow for a full hour. This was a comedian who delivers with clarity and panache. Virtually non-stop, the intensity of his performance was complemented by his laid-back style, giving him an authentic edge, sympathetic and apparently very real.
There was a conspicuous lack of confrontation during Okine’s hour on stage, with any aggression reserved for rants at potatoes, crabs and other sources of nourishment and irritation – food being his favourite subject. His charming, disarming ease with the audience meant the Soho Theatre was quickly relaxed, with plenty of laughing out loud, while Okine kept an emotional distance, never quite straying in to vulnerability, although he hinted at pain throughout the hour.
Matt Okine’s light touch works as a layer above an undercurrent of tension. He expressed a struggle between the real person and the personality adapting to the modern world and its absurdities. The silliness of mainstream popular culture formed the basis of Okine’s act: exotic crisp flavours, eight-hour binges on TV cookery programmes, social media and the rest. All this was done without criticism, Okine being the passive and innocent consumer, with the effect of him being far funnier than any comedian attempting to intellectually deconstruct consumer culture.
Okine occasionally juxtaposed his light-hearted observations with revelations of his inadequacies and insecurities: body image, hair loss, ethnic identity and facing his contradictory relationship with his father. What can you say and what can’t you say? Again, the tension between being authentic and adapting to modern life, with the mask of a media savvy, successful 30 something.
There is something of the nihilist in Okine. Or perhaps it is that he reveals a strange western digital age mass nihilism in which we have so little control over our lives and environments that we sink into the minutiae of our particular preferences and irritations as a way of avoiding the facts of our mortality and the moral bankruptcy and degradations of consumer society.
Whatever, he’s very funny, a natural, and this show is highly recommended.
See Matt Okine: We Made You, at Soho Theatre, London until 29th August.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This article was written for, and also appears on, The New Arab
Art by Junior Tomlin
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