Recently there was a memorial service in St Pauls cathedral. for the eighty or so people who died in the fire at Grenfell tower six months ago. Senior members of the government attended it, and spoke movingly about the victims. It was a remeberence ceremony, so in that spirit of rememberance…
I went up to the site where I took this photo, a few days after the fire went out. I grew up in West London and always loved the area. It was and is a truly multicultural place with a history of community action, lawlessness, spirit and charm. It epitomises the best things about living in London and is an area truly worth celebrating. I was horified to see the flames licking up one of those towers that loomed over the Westway and felt I owed it to that area of London to go up and offer what I could. So I asked around and listened on social media found some contacts and went up to work in the mosque for a few days.
The community who took the biggest hit from the fire was muslim and the mosque was in a state of turmoil around the disaster. A lot of the relief effort was being managed using their premises and the main hall where we worked was full of different groups who were also there to help. It was a beautiful room with that quality of intelligent otherness that permeates Islamic architecture.
We were in there all day, persuading people to have simple ear acupuncture, people who hadn’t slept for days, whose faces were criss crossed with the trauma of connection with those who had lost everything in the fires, who had seen their friends die, had spoken to them on mobiles and then watched their flats burn, or had watched them throw themselves from their windows rather than face the flames. When I got up there Ladbroke Grove the was alive with the horror of it. You could feel and see it in everyone. A feeling of trying not to go there and keeping positive and superficial because of.. it. Before long ‘it’ got me and I felt myself sliding into shock, feeling numb, wanting to laugh, not being able to connect with the situation in the room in the Mosque because it was simply too much to cope with. It was too awful.
We didn’t come into contact with the direct survivors because they were already gone. They had been ‘rehoused’ in hotels where they were very hard to reach. They were often a significant distance from where they lived and received no help whatsoever, other than from volunteers who could find them. I never had any connection with them, but others from our team did and reported of massively traumatised people holed up in their rooms and hotel managers wanting to charge us for the space in hotel lobbys where we worked. They’re largely still there, waiting to be rehoused, while the media narrative has swung against them and depicted them as grasping immigrants playing the system. They want their lives and their community back. They regard those who put inflammable plastic on the outside of their block of flats to save a very small amount of money per square meter, as responsible for this. They won’t take accomodation in empty flats next to a distant motoway. Nor should they.
We treated those who had been in contact with either the disaster itself as onlookers, or as a support to those helping the living victims.
One thing that was immediately obvious working at Grenfell was that trauma moves from person to person affecting everyone who it comes into contact with. It moves through groups and communitiies.
It has been reported that there are eleven thousand people in the area suffering from a degree of PTSD as a consequence of that fire. That makes sense having been up there and spent time in the hall of the mosque. It makes sense from my memory of walking down the street from Notting Hill Gate and stopping for a coffee on that first day. I think I have it too.
Thus far the buck for this entirely avoidable accident has stopped precisely nowhere. No one is to blame, in a mass corporate homicide kind of a way. The conservative council put the cladding up. The cuts to fire services slowed and limited the response. The wrong advice was given by the emergency services and people died waiting for help. But then who knew just how flammable that cheap cladding was? Who would have imagined that putting something like that on the outside of a block of flats could be legal? Then there’s the matter of only one escape route from the building with main gas pipes on it which swiflty became impassable in the heat. The residents had worried about a fire, and had taken those concerns to the council repeatedly and been ignored and rebuffed. There were no fire doors, no sprinkler system.
The official figures put the number of deaths at eighty five. The unofficial count is about two hundred people, forty four percent of them children. Anybody looking at the building and the footage of the fire can see that an enormous number of people were trapped in those flats higher in the block. The fire occurred during Ramadam. Groups of people were gathered to break the fast together. But then the fires burned with great heat, so it was difficult to identify the bodies. I have heard rumours of the fire service having a more accurate head count from the number of mobile phone chargers in the flats. There were apparrently a lot of phone chargers in there that night. Not all of those in the fire were legally here. Not all of them have been accounted for and most likely never will be as the political drive is to minimise the casualty lists and move on from this as quickly as possible.
But then many people simply can’t, and I’m one of them.
There are a number of observations and messages form Grenfell that are, to my mind, important.
When the chips are down, and a mistake has been made, those in power in this country will lie and connive to save their own skins. They have no respect for a group of poor immigrants. Even when it is clearly their responsibility they will not own that. This is a truism, but we hide behind truisms with a shrug and carry on as before, without really configuring our lives around them. At Grenfell this is what happened. They will do it to anyone they need to, and are not to be trusted at all, ever. I don’t know for absolute certainty they have lied; that this is another Hillsborough disaster on a far bigger scale than the May administration can admit. The local community though are adamant that they have, and have said as much from the first day. The burnt out tower is a constant reminder of this thing that we should not forget again. The relief effort sprung from street level and continues at street level. We will need to learn to repeat that again and again, if things like hard brexit and global warming fulfil their promises.
This would have been very different had it been rich white people. This culture values some people more than others. It doesn’t, then, believe people have any intrinisc value. How valuable someone is based on perceptions of their monetary value and skin colour. We live in a world that treats people as disposable when they are no longer seen as of worth. That can be you too.
Emotions are a collective experience. We don’t each have our own, we share the emotional state of those around it. It’s not just shock and trauma, or ecstatic drugged up joy when the sun came up at raves in the early years of acid house and the crowd went wild, it’s anxiety, fear, worry all the emotions that so many of us who are being pushed too hard are experiencing. If one in sixty nine of a towns citizens are homeless, then we all experience that to some extent. If one in four people are experiencing mental health issues in a given year, then we all are. If many of those around us are worried to death about making the rent and eating, then that’s affecting us all. Substance agendas, eating disorders, porn addiction, that’s all of us.
Walking down the hill into Ladbroke Grove proper on that first day, I searched for the tower. Where was it? And then I saw it. It was, and still is, part of the sky line over the whole of that area of West London. It’s a gigantic grotesque murder scene twenty three stories high that describes horrible, terrifying ends for those in the blackened upper floors. And once you’ve seen it, you keep seeing it, like a monster suddenly popping out from behind a wall or down a quiet suburban street. It’s just there again. Something so awful that it doesn’t become common place no matter how often you look at it. It turned up in my dreams afterwards and I keep transplanting it into the Brighton skyline in idle moments.
It has led me to feel that, in truth, Grenfell is everywhere. Grenfell tower is hiding behind a wall or will suddenly appear down a quiet suburban street wherever you are. Grenfell is there when homeless people freeze to death, or when my patients come out of underfunded hospitals injured from the care they received. Grenfell is there when people have their benefits cut or can’t feed their children. Grenfell isn’t an isolated event that can have a line drawn under it with a memorial service in the City of London and be forgotten about. Grenfell is a process and we need to see it as that; refuse to accept it at every turn; understand with issues such as the subtle trauma of mass homelessness, the collective mental health crisis, and refuse to let it become part of our every day lives.
And the other thing. Simple, quick acupuncture practiced in groups was amazing, and could heal by stealth and calm in a way that was awe inspiring. That was the good thing. And that is the ethos behind the Dragon 2.0 Community Clinic. Chinese medicine to heal communities. If we work with one then we work with all, and if we work with all we work with one.