Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Disaster: the Noble Idea and the Non-Society

It should not have happened.

Words repeated thousands of times in the news this week, no less true for every repeat. But to think them, to agree with them, is one thing. To see the remains of Grenfell Tower for yourself is to find that to feel them is quite another.

It is not like seeing it on a TV screen. But then, seeing something that should not be never is.

The effect is sharpened by the local architecture. Kensington is a densely built-up suburb, and from many of its boxed-in streets there is no line of sight to the tower, or what remains of it.

Hence how it punches you in the face, when you glimpse it over the rooftops or framed in the sky at the end of a lane. Even in a warzone the sight would appal. Outside one it is all the worse for its incongruousness, least of all in the wealthiest ward of a modern international city.

It was chilling. The tower has been so utterly blasted by the flames that it is as though it has been not merely gutted but ripped into another dimension, a dark and twisted mirror of our own. A patch in the bottom left stands intact; the unblemished grey walls with windows still in place are a stark contrast, the only part of the structure to have resisted the forces that tore it from this reality. The rest has been left a mass of shades and shapes that do not belong in the world, punctuated only by flashes of fluorescent orange: firefighters who flit in and out behind the windows like solid spectres, combing through the ruin and no doubt witnessing things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

To think that each little square housed a home. The dreams, the pain and the love that each would have harboured as their occupants negotiated their daily struggles through this troubled country.

The hope, and the despair, snuffed out alike in final moments that no-one was there to witness, and no-one will know while still in this reality.

But the universe knows. Everything that happens, it records, and it remembers.

The tower stands in North Kensington, an ethnically and culturally diverse neighbourhood which we might generalize as a ‘low-income area’. And then, ten minutes’ walk to the south, you have streets like this.

Notting Hill and the Ladbroke estate emerged from the 19th Century redevelopment of this area as one of the wealthiest and most fashionable zones in London. And now, barely in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, it feels so many worlds away from the communities next door. Broad leafy terraces lined end to end with houses, mansions, plastered and pillared and terraced and decked in the kinds of architectural features that would send most people reaching for a dictionary.

We may wonder how many of those fancy houses were among those that opened their doors to the survivors of Grenfell Tower following the disaster – in the same moment as wondering how many are owned by corrupt tycoons and oligarchs far, far away and kept empty on purpose.

The effect is surreal. London has many rich parts and many impoverished parts, but their uneasy coexistence here in Kensington is surely distinct. It is a patchwork of concentrations of affluence and abandonment, which phase in and out of each other in the spaces in between like waves in the fabric of time and space, vying for expression. The Portobello Road market, which reflects that shifting character as it stretches from the Westway into the monied heart of Kensington, is one such kaleidoscope.

RBKC = Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

And now there is rage here, and so there should be. It should not have happened.

But it did, and so it joins a catalogue of atrocities through London’s history for which those kicked to the bottom of the social hierarchy have always paid the harshest price. Northern Kensington has long been a microcosm of this. Before sections of it were redeveloped and gentrified, the area was known for its potting, brick-making and pig farming, a hell of clay mines and slurries and gravel pits which the London historian Andrew Duncan, in his Favourite London Walks, calls ‘one of the most notorious slums in Victorian England. Somehow’, he observes, ‘all this squalor existed until the 1870s side by side with the middle-class suburb on the slopes of the hill above’. It seems the threads of the Kensington puzzle run some way back.

An old pottery kiln, from when ‘potteries and brickfields were established here amid some of the poorest housing conditions in London.’ Opposite it is Avondale Park, ‘then a vast pit of stinking slurry known as the Ocean’.

But the horror at Grenfell Tower has a distinctly modern dimension that none of the history, however important, suffices to explain. It is a dimension best captured by the MP David Lammy in his Channel 4 News interview a few days after the disaster, one of the rawest and most poignantly sincere you might ever see from a standing politician.

‘We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable’, he says. ‘And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built…and it’s falling apart around our eyes.’

What is important here is that that ‘noble idea’, the welfare state, is not merely an economic safety net but rather an explicitly political concept. It was the outcome of a conscious decision, taken by the Labour Party government amidst the ruins of World War II, for a new kind of British society: a vision that rejected the rich-eat-poor heritage that has blighted London for countless generations. Its pathfinder was a character called William Beveridge, who declared he was going to slay five giants: Want (i.e. poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness. And it would be the state, the government, that took the responsibility of standing in the front line of this battle, laying down the infrastructure of free healthcare, free education, social housing, railways, unemployment support, and everything else necessary to make this possible. Just as importantly was the example it set, the principles it embodied: Lammy’s ‘noble idea’ that society should care about the poor and the vulnerable and leave nobody behind.

In a country like the UK with its incorrigible ways of abuse towards the poor, this was a revolutionary accomplishment. And they knew it: they referred to it as building a ‘New Jerusalem’. And these visionaries would have had something to say about magic money trees too, standing as they were in blitzed-out cities with rationing still in effect and an empire crumbling around them.

Of course the New Jerusalem did not go entirely to plan, to say the least. But it laid a foundation, set a legacy, in values as much as in practice, until another revolution in the 1980s began to tear chunks off this infrastructure and hurl those values back out of reality.

This was the market fundamentalist revolution of Margaret Thatcher, and its goal was to abolish society. Its core principles were the opposite of those that built the welfare state: that people should not care about others, only about themselves.

That alone did not cause the Grenfell Tower disaster. Thatcher and her followers set about breaking up the welfare state because, objectionable as their logic may be, they somehow really believed that was best for the country. But they are no longer the pilots. They have since been replaced in the role by the only possible products of their ideology: people who believe in nothing, and whose every political act is calculated – typically with spectacular ineptitude – to serve their own shallow interests.

It may be no coincidence that many of these individuals, including David Cameron and George Osborne, the architects of the austerity project, are known as the Notting Hill Set and cut their teeth in these very realms of affluence that adjoin Grenfell Tower. It is on their account that the programme to strike down welfare state Britain has been transformed from a political movement into an entire culture: a pervading atmosphere of cruelty and contempt that squats upon all dimensions of British life today, by where the kindest and most courageous people are kicked where they struggle, damned as scroungers and skivers and unpatriotic saboteurs not only by the politicians but by the bulk of the mainstream media, their employers, their services, and the cloud of popular hatred that swells at every sign of difference or suffering.

A culture, in short, where it is normal not to listen, not to bother, and not to care – indeed to scoff in mockery at the very idea you are meant to. Society has been turned into non-society; the welfare state has become a hellfare state.

That is why the government, the council, and everyone else in a position to ensure the fire safety of Grenfell Tower so spectacularly failed in their duty in every possible way. Whether we want to talk about sprinklers or fire extinguishers or emergency exits or fire instructions or cladding is beside the point: it is reasonable to presume that if even a single one of any of the key aspects had been attended to, then the disaster could have been prevented, or at least mitigated so as not to result in the comprehensive catastrophe it became.

Only a perfect fuck-you culture could have caused the Grenfell Tower disaster. And perhaps only by it coming to a disaster like this, in the same period as a bombardment of terror attacks and political turmoil, could the country be shaken awake to just how perfect a fuck-you culture it has been reduced to. There is no doubt now that that awakening has started, at least in some segments of the population. People know it should not have happened, as they should. People are angry, as they should be. People are demanding justice, as they have every right to expect. And they are demanding that an atrocity like this must never happen again.

The only way they can achieve this is by vanquishing that fuck-you culture that now infests so many layers of British life: the government, the councils, the companies, the newspapers, and the very institutions of the welfare state it rots away from within. In its place, they must build a new culture where to not care is wrong and will be held to account.

Can they do it? Can they banish once and for all the very idea of the non-society, and make a renewed attempt to establish obligations of care as the driving force of life in this country? Can they bring back that noblest of ideas, the idea of society itself?

There is an opportunity now. It has come at an abominable cost, one that should not have been necessary and must never be paid again.

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