At A Loss For Words
Those were the words of many people as they looked down on the table staring at the book of condolences outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church on Sunday near the Grenfell Towers. Surrounded by hundreds of visitors and local residents, each paying their respects, united by grief, the spirit of a strong community has risen up all around the Police tape cordoning off each road to Grenfell.
As I walked away from Holland Park station through the deserted streets, there was no noticeable movement outside the mansions of the super rich. It is a disquieting feeling as each step takes you closer to Latimer Road, a feeling that something has been quite wrong here for a lot longer than many have wanted to admit. It is so hard to describe so much of what you see around Grenfell because within the sadness there are so many moments of incredible compassion. The generosity of the community handing out food and drink freely to visitors, the sense of understanding as people hug each other and listen carefully to local residents recounting their experiences of that tragic night. There are posters of missing people lining the streets with personal messages written all over them, flowers drying on the floor surrounded by burnt out tea light candles. It is hard to put it into words. It is hard but it is important to face the brutal reality when you stand looking up at the charred black box in the sky. What were once homes, are now burnt away and left is nothing but silence as everyone looks solemnly up into the sky.
A little girl walked up to the table asking where she could write her own message, she told me that she knew a girl from her school who had been missing since the fire. There were no words I could say that would explain to a child why something like this could happen. There are many children looking around their school classrooms today yet again wondering where their classmates have gone. There was nothing to say but to watch warmly and smile sadly as each child took some crayons and drew their own picture for the victims.
One by one, as people arrived they felt the need to recount their personal experience of growing up around Grenfell Tower, the changing face of Notting Hill and the anger they felt about how this inferno could have been prevented. It is important to listen to their voices, to hear the issues that have been ignored for so long. These are the voices of the voiceless. So as we all stood looking down at that table, not knowing any words that could describe this emotion, all we could do was put down anything that came to mind. Because these words were still worth more than no words.
While we’re processing the stages of grief, there are no words that can describe the whirlwind of emotions that Grenfell stirs up. Whether you’re reading the newspapers, watching the news, or standing amongst the crowds, there is no one who can be untouched by this encounter with an avoidable British tragedy. It demands that we stop for more than a minute of silence.
Something is very wrong here. We’ve watched on for years as skyscrapers have sprung up around us, once thriving communities have been stripped bare and replaced by pristine facades of newly built houses, standing virtually deserted. This is how the area around Vauxhall Nine Elms feels. There is a marked feeling of emptiness as the buildings have been rising up surrounding the Landsdowne Park estate. This is the story around every inner city in London. It is a tragic story of displacement, greed, exclusion and collusion.
While inequality can no longer be questioned or denied. It is time to question why when every council tax rebate that Kensington & Chelsea’s residents accepted, other poorer residents in the same borough were denied their basic right to a safe home. Austerity is not just a political bargaining chip, it is the act that bargains who is entitled to life or death. An undeniably cruel reaction to a financial crisis that has forced people to justify why some need to go without for others to go with.
Britain has been a political playground for many years, but with every policy that has bargained our worth across generations and communities – it has also become a political act of polarisation. Yes there are people divided by their vote for Yes/No or their allegiances to Left/Right – but there are also many more people who no longer see any value in a way of life that prices out the poor to price in privilege.
When is enough really going to be enough?