Wednesday 21 June 2017

Grenfell Tower

The first thing that hit me was the smell as I came to the end of Lancaster Road. Strong, acrid. The second thing I saw was the cordoned-off road, off-limits even to cyclists. The third thing I came up against were the on-lookers. A better definition would be, the vultures. Mobile phone cameras at the ready, snapping away at the blackened husk. Shifting positions to get a better angle. Walking through cul-de-sacs to get a better view. What for, I asked myself? So that in our algorithm-rich world the survivors, two or three years hence, maybe more, would chance upon these images on their Twitter or Facebook feed? Images, I was sure, they would find painful to see? It was then I dared to look up. I remembered it then, from a previous time when I saddle-pushed my two-wheeler the length of Portobello Road and got lost trying to get back to Camden. On that occasion, I went further west by mistake and tried to catch my breath on the grounds of this building, this giant whose hollowed out flats cried out a never-asked-for tragedy. This building around which on-lookers had created their own panopticon. The single point that could be seen from up high in the air or down here on the ground, amongst the vultures.

I cycled on through Verity Close towards Dulford Street and it was then I was aware of another element: silence. Not the normal silence as in absence of noise, but Whitman’s silence: “As I ponder'd in silence/Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long/A Phantom arose before me, with distrustful aspect.” No matter where you stood or sat, this charred phantom followed you around. I, then, looked up for a second time. I counted the floors and stopped at number 15. There, on that one, I could have been on that one. I retraced my steps. Not my actual steps, but my mental ones. I travelled down memory lane more than sixteen years before, when my daughter had been born. On the 15th floor of a 20-storey-tall high-rise. A water birth in a pool we hired from a Mexican/Irish couple. The joy of bringing a much-desired and thoroughly-planned baby into the world and the thought that it could have been followed by death and destruction.

I came down Mary Place and turned right onto Sirdar Road. A sea of “Missing” posters lined up one side of the road, reaching all the way to St Clement’s Church, one of the emergency relief centres and where I had come to give my support. My offer to help was accepted although they weren’t really taking volunteers. The supply had outnumbered the need. My faith in humanity was momentarily restored.

I helped fold boxes and pack up clothes. At some point I was needed to take some stationery to another centre on Kensal Road. Since the streets nearby were heavily congested, the rational went, a bicycle would have found it less difficult to slalom around the traffic and cut through the back roads. I saddled up and fifteen minutes later I pulled up outside another centre with helpful-looking people outside. More volunteers. Please, go on the council website and register, a lady with a clipboard in hand said, you can then list your skills and wait to be contacted.

I turned around and decided to go back home. I returned to the Regent’s Canal, the same route I had used to get here. Along the way I could not stop thinking of the residents of Grenfell Tower. People with dreams and hopes. People whose lives had been turned upside down forever. And for what? For money. To save an extra £2 per square metre. And why? Because they were worthless. In the eyes of this class-obsessed society that likes to style itself as classless, these people lived on the wrong side of one of the richest boroughs in the country. It might sound strange but Whitman’s phantom pedalled with me all the way back home.

© 2017

Next Post: “London Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 1st July at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Hi Mario - it must bring the horror of it all home to actually be there ... I am just shocked at how awful the whole situation has been. Thank you for giving us your thoughts ... I used to live in that area a few decades ago. I imagine your thoughts about your daughter's birth - I try not to think what it must have been like ...I didn't see much footage - but it's just so desperate. Sadly there is nothing one can say - thank goodness for the people who helped save lives and those who helped ... all peoples ... I'm sure Whitman's phantom will be with you for a long time - thank you for writing this up for us ... Hilary

  2. Such a tragedy. Good for you for trying to lend a helping hand.

  3. Thank you for this. We need real people to tell real stories - to challenge the vultures and the politicians.

  4. I actually had to hunt to find information on this. The coverage in the States is actually pretty minimal and just summed up as 'a fire occurred'. It was forgotten almost as quick as possible with very little outside information. I'm so sorry for everything that is going on over there.

  5. I appreciate and admire your kindness in trying to help those in need, dear friend. We need more of this! And it saddens me to hear what is happening, it just should not be like this.

  6. Heart breaking. And as obscene tragedy which will be repeated in one form or another until we learn that profit is not king.

  7. I have not been able to get Grenfell Tower out of my mind. I think those people taking pictures were not necessarily vultures so much as they were trying to process that such a thing could have happened, and to record that it happened, so that it would not be forgotten. It is important for us not to forget what happened there, and why. Thank you for your kindness in volunteering. I wonder what I can do from where I am. I have not come up with any good answers yet, but if you have any, i'd love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your response with which I disagree politely but also strongly.

      Had it been a demo instead of a fire, I would have agreed with you. Guerrilla photojournalism is needed now, especially with a polarising media. But Grenfell is different. There have been many reports accompanied by footage. We don't need amateur images that will very likely crop up on survivors' social media feed in years to come. We are all interconnected which means that the photo I have just take on my phone now will appear on your Facebook page or your Twitter feed by virtue of you leaving a comment on my blog. Let's think of what these people have just gone through. Let's think of the mental support they will need. And then think of the "trigger" upon seeing images of their trauma five years down the line.

      No, I disagree. We don't need people to act as vultures. We need people to put their mobile phones away. Not everything needs to be recorded.

      Greetings from London.

  8. That's such a tragedy--not to have proper fire suppression in a building of that height is a crime.

  9. A shame really when one begins to think of all the 'what ifs'. Personally, I didn't know anyone in the tower, but reading all the horrific stories about the incident made me feel like I did. We are all human beings regardless of class or status. The quote below sums it all up nicely.

    Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor. -Sholom Aleichem

  10. An excellent heart-ful piece about the tragedy that should be published widely, Mario

  11. Probably one shouldn't comment on politics of other countries, but most utterances made by the Tories insult the victims and us readers/listeners. Tragedies like this happen in a society ruled by the Conservatives.

  12. I know what it's like to be severely burnt, thankfully I was saved from death. It could have been worse, it could have been fatal. That's why I cried and still cry for those people in Grenfell Tower. I wish I lived nearer. All I can do is make donations. However, I will not criticise any that were caught up in a sudden and unbelievable situation for, as the biblical saying goes, 'they know not what they do'.

  13. Great that you could help out. Sickening to think of all that occurs because some greedy sobs wanted to save a few bucks. Sadly, people are meaningless when it comes to profits indeed, in most cases at least.

  14. Iam very sorry about all the shit England has been through this year.I dont know what to say.Its like someone has put a bad spell on your England I only hope the surviviours get a new home really quick.


  15. Such a terrible tragedy! The people responsible for penny-pinching are also responsible for murder...

  16. Criminal prosecutions need to arise from this disaster. The contractors, the suppliers, the TMO project managers -- someone needs to be held responsible. Bravo to you for pitching in. I have been very reluctant to get anywhere near that building, even though it's my old neighborhood.

  17. Brilliant commentary with so much heart and soul, it bursts my own wide open.

  18. I agree with you about thoughtless gawkers taking pictures after any tragedy. They're as bad as the reporters who shove a microphone in the faces of survivors to ask them how they "feel."

    This tragedy is horrific on so many levels, not that I need to tell you. You saw the aftermath with your own eyes. I've merely felt it in my heart.

  19. Beautifully written and spot on. Your descriptions of the fire scene were powerful and they reminded of Ground Zero when the towers collapsed--the awful smell and the leaflets searching for missing persons.

    And you're right: those poor people died for money.

  20. Such a beautiful but very sad written post.
    This reminded me of the time a wildfire blew over and down on my home. With seconds to leave as the fire chased us down the road.
    We were lucky as our town didn't have one death but over 300 homes were burned to the ground.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

  21. Thank you for this real story where you could help. Very beautifully written.

  22. It's a preventable tragedy that should never have happened and shouldn't be allowed to happen again, but it's great how the local community have gathered together to help those affected

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