A TALE OF TWO CITIES

‘They thought they could snub the conventions of decent society when they seized the sixty-room mansion and transformed it into hippie house!’ No, not a Daily Mail leader, but the booming tones of the British Pathé News reporter covering the end of the celebrated squat at 144 Piccadilly in 1969. The film clip covering the Met’s raid on the property after it had been taken over by the London Street Commune, a loose collective of ‘hippies’ formed to highlight homelessness in the capital, is unsurprisingly one-sided in its perspective as what the narrator describes as ‘the spongers who call themselves hippies’ are evicted from the residence they’d occupied for a week. The commentary goes onto say ‘by their shameless actions, (they) disparage the plight of decent people who cannot find homes’. Decent as in those who regularly visit a barber, one wonders?

There’s no doubt what began as an admittedly ‘radical’ (in the jargon of the time) attempt to bring homelessness to the public’s attention worked as a PR campaign, and whilst there would have been deserving cases taking advantage of the operation, there would also have been a fair few rich kids slumming it and bumming around from one squat to another as they indulged in a bit of counter-cultural backpacking; the additional infiltration of Hell’s Angels and drug-dealers then made its dramatic ending inevitable. But the roots of many homeless charities we take for granted today were in such stunts and in that respect they served a purpose, even if the media coverage was more or less entirely from the viewpoint of the short-back-and-sides generation.

It’s interesting when watching the Pathé report to notice that virtually all of those being herded out of 144 Piccadilly look to be under 30. A good half-decade of Swinging London propaganda had attracted young people to the capital from across the globe, like monochrome moths drawn to a psychedelic flame, even though many of those arriving soon found themselves in a similar situation to the one that befell the lead character in Ken Loach’s landmark BBC TV play ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966. Today, London retains its attractiveness to the overseas eye, though there’s a glaring divide between those imported as a cheap labour force (with employers recycling the hackneyed excuse that ‘British workers won’t do these jobs’) and those with the big bucks to buy up huge chunks of the capital.

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the early hours of Wednesday morning has already been politicised, though not necessarily by politicians themselves. Whilst the cause of the appalling event would appear to have been an accident, the shoddy corner-cutting workmanship and lacklustre fire safety precautions that enabled the inferno to take hold of the tower block with such frightening speed seems to be symbolic of a vast chasm between rich and poor, not just in the capital as a whole, but in one specific corner of it, where the haves and have-nots sit cheek-by-jowl. London Mayor Sadiq Khan received a rough ride from residents when he attempted to give a media statement at the site, whereas Theresa May’s decision to avoid residents and speak to fire-fighters away from cameras and microphones was the latest PR own-goal of a PM giving Gordon Brown a run for his money in the ‘most unsuitable candidate for the job ever’ stakes.

Far be it from me to imply there’s any political mileage to be got out of this terrible disaster, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to have captured the mood of the moment in a completely natural manner that contrasts sharply with his awkward opposite number in Westminster. His ease with the general public has been demonstrated yet again in the wake of Wednesday’s events; of course it won’t do him any harm with the electorate, though it really would be churlish to suggest his visit to North Kensington and to the church where many of the survivors have congregated was some sort of points-scoring exercise. If it was, then he once again trounced Mrs May, who doesn’t seem capable of doing anything right at the moment.

During an emergency session of Parliament, briefly recalled to respond to the tragedy, Corbyn made a salient point about the housing crisis in London. ‘It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said, and then added: ‘Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally.’

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is (lest we forget) Labour, though it has emerged she was actually on the board of the discredited quango running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the one that gave the green light to the fatal refurbishment of the block last year. That naturally doesn’t look good, though this fact has been overshadowed by the predictably hysterical headlines from the likes of the Mail claiming Jezza has called for private property to be ‘seized’ for the benefit of those made homeless by what happened at Grenfell Tower. This isn’t another example of his so-called ‘Robin Hood’ policies, but seems to me a genuine attempt to once more underline the social inequalities of life in the capital.

It goes without saying that these social inequalities have been part of London life for centuries; after all, what better chronicler of the capital than Dickens, who documented the disparity between rich and poor in fictional form over 150 years ago? Yet, the nightmarish scenario in North Kensington now looks like something that was a long time coming, just as the collapse of the Savar sweatshop in Bangladesh was in 2013. Jeremy Corbyn has managed to articulate the anger arising from Grenfell Tower better than any other politician, but people are angry. And they’ve every bloody right to be. That’s why they stormed Kensington Town Hall today. This could prove to be a crucial turning point in the way this country is run as much as Hillsborough was for the way our national sport is run. Time will tell.

© The Editor

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4 thoughts on “A TALE OF TWO CITIES

  1. As far as I know, Sadiq Khan is entirely innocent of any culpability in the background to this event, yet even he had to suffer personal abuse on his official visit to the site. Given that state, perhaps it is hardly surprising that Theresa May’s advisers considered that the prospect of her meeting the locals immediately could have been as incendiary as the tower itself, despite her being personally every bit as innocent as the Mayor. The locals were merely taking it out on any figure of authority: in this context, Jeremy Corbyn counts as a ‘rebel’ and, therefore, not a figure of authority, hence can appear there popularly and safely, which he is quite understandably very happy to do.

    Apart from heightening temperatures and gaining short-term ‘compensations’, it is hard to imagine what the emotive locals think they will achieve. There is one big, steaming, long-term issue behind this: the housing situation in and around London – and one medium-term issue regarding the fire-safety of high-rise dwellings. Neither will be solved quickly and neither solution will be advanced at a pace greater than the wider state can accommodate.

    This is a desperately sad event for all those personally involved and one which should not happen in modern Britain but, if we step aside from the momentary emotion and get to the source, the reason such residences were ever built was simply to squeeze more people into a given area of land where those people wished to live, i.e. London, without compromising green space within and outside the city. Would you prefer they built all over Regent’s Park or on the Green Belt, because that’s the decision which led to Grenfell Tower. Its refurbishment, its cladding and its inferno are merely consequences, the real question is why it’s there in the first place.

    A smart government would have concluded decades ago that London has its capacity limit and that strategic plans should be made to balance the economic activity, and thus the magnet-effect of population, more evenly across the country. Instead we see areas of the country in rapidly-deserting decline, while London and the South East fails to accommodate its demand sensibly, so prices rise, standards drop, risks increase and, all the while, the rest of the country has space aplenty.

    A key issue is that governments of all hues continue to play a game of ‘my willy’s bigger than yours’, desperate for their capital city to outgrow those of rival states: the same issue is demonstrated with Heathrow, an impractically over-grown unit but one which governments demand must always be bigger than Paris CDG, Schiphol etc, just to win the ‘big willy’ game.

    I’m afraid that Grenfell Tower comes under the heading of ‘a symptom’ and not ‘the disease’: sadly there is no enthusiasm for finding a proper cure for the disease, so we shall carry on suffering from all the frequent symptoms, whatever levels of futile sticking-plaster are applied after this sad event.

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    1. The system-built tower block of the mid-60s that was rightly discontinued when the faults in the construction quickly became evident seemed to replace one style of slum with another; but it would appear recognition of that social housing failure curtailed social housing on any large scale ever again, in London or anywhere else. Yet, conversely, in the capital there has been a building boom over the past 25 years that has no social housing element to it whatsoever whilst London continues to both attract and recruit new arrivals with little or no hope of capitalising on this boom. If the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was solely due to aesthetic reasons, which it certainly seems to have been, the superficial waste of so many millions (and consequently far more lives than the current estimate) really makes it appear to be an accident that was long waiting to happen, and a sad story of our times.

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      1. Some claim that the external cladding was applied to improve thermal efficiency in pursuit of ‘green’ targets – be careful what you wish for, some would say.
        That said, if the improved insulation had reduced the residents’ heating bills, maybe they’d then have become less inclined to introduce more flammable fuels like paraffin and propane into the building, achieving an overall improvement in fire-safety.

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      2. From what I can gather, there were two different types of cladding available and the cheapest option was applied at Grenfell Tower; combine that with the use of paraffin heaters by tenants (if indeed they were being used) and it’s certainly a combustible mix. The ruin of that building now is an incredibly grim monument to this disaster, almost a grotesque tourist attraction.

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