LIVES, INTERRUPTED

Grenfell 2022It’s a measure of just how long this here Winegum has been going now that when a five-year anniversary of a major news story comes around, I can point to an actual Telegram post reacting to it at the time it happened. Such is the case with the Grenfell fire half-a-decade ago today. 72 dead, hundreds of lives cruelly and brutally interrupted, a tower block reduced to a charred carcass – a grotesque blot on the London skyline that says so much about the capital’s priorities; and nobody yet behind bars following an interminable pass-the-parcel blame game that remains ongoing. Glancing at the 2017 Winegum response to the tragedy earlier today – a post grimly titled ‘Clad in Black’ – it’s interesting that the rumour which emerged early on, the one that hinted the horrific inferno was sparked by a fridge catching fire in one of the block’s apartments, was a rumour I was understandably sceptical about; in the 24-hour news age, such fevered speculation often accompanies a story when the full facts have yet to be established.

Ironically, it turned out the beginnings of the blaze were genuinely caused by this incident; however, the easy speed by which the flames swiftly engulfed the whole building – reaching the top floor in a mere 18 minutes – was entirely due to the superficial cladding that had been cheaply tacked-on to Grenfell Tower’s exterior to make this aesthetically ugly example of 1970s social housing more palatable to the panoramic views of the wealthy neighbours that had colonised Kensington since Grenfell’s distant construction. For those who lived at Grenfell and survived the tragedy, the fire has been one of those life-changing moments that have altered them forevermore; they will never again be the people they were before that day, and the fire has discoloured everything thereafter, almost coming to define the individuals they have been ever since 14 June 2017; most struggle with the kind of survivors’ guilt familiar to veterans of wars, wondering why they are still here and their comrades (or friends and neighbours) aren’t.

And these fortunate few only made it out of the building because they ignored the perceived wisdom of the fire service and didn’t stay entombed in their flats; those that did paid the price with their lives – all 72 of them. The fact Grenfell Tower is still standing serves as a potent reminder of the tragedy that is impossible to avoid whenever travelling through West London. Its gruesome wounds may now be hidden by cladding which is less flammable than the cladding that enabled the fire to spread with such lethal haste; but its continuous presence as a melancholy beacon for the neighbourhood’s less-affluent community is a damning comment on the corner-cutting contempt for them that seems to symbolise so much of modern urban living in Britain today. As was pointed out in a ‘Newsnight’ feature on the tragedy aired on the eve of its five-year anniversary, any attempts at closure by survivors are inexorably linked with justice, something that appears as remote five years on as it did in the dazed and confused days following the fire.

The inquiry into Grenfell has yet to conclude, and as a consequence there have been no charges and nobody has even been found accountable for what happened. Clearly, somebody must be responsible; unlike, say, 9/11, where the perpetrators were instantly identifiable and quickly named and shamed as deliberate instigators of a massacre, with Grenfell there has been shameless buck-passing from even before the government inquiry set up by Theresa May in 2017 began. The frenzied 999 calls from that night which were aired during the early days of the inquiry make for a heartbreaking listen as the residents are repeatedly told not to leave their homes; later calls that inform the emergency services that flames are outside the door then lead to belated advice that now is the time to go, however frightening a prospect it must have been for residents forced to fight through the fire when they could have exited long before it reached their floor.

The survivors may still be with us to recount their own personal stories of that night five years ago, but their survival comes with physical (on top of mental) scars that remain poignant obstacles to their futures. The appalling amount of toxic fumes inhaled during the inferno continue to affect their wellbeing, and long-term health issues are difficult to assess when there is still so much mystery surrounding the chemical nature of the materials used to ‘gentrify’ Grenfell for the benefit of those incapable of avoiding North Kensington when reclining on their South Kensington balconies. The radioactive traces of Hiroshima that everyone born after 1945 carries inside them via the contaminated atomic atmosphere has odious echoes in the lungs of Grenfell survivors, whose hopes of a long life are severely compromised by the poison they inadvertently ingested.

The tragedy has also emotionally separated survivors in the aftermath, with the understandable reluctance to be reminded of what happened leading to estrangements and divorces as attempts to rebuild lives often require the expulsion of anyone whose presence is a painful reminder of the old lives that can never be returned to. The more tangible fallout of Grenfell was easy to see in the months immediately following the fire; before the physical damage was gradually removed from the landscape, there was a lengthy period in which it served as a gory memorial both to the 72 who lost their lives and those who survived but have never been able to recapture the lives they led prior to the fire. The scale of the wreckage in all its myriad forms is incalculable, which makes the likelihood of simple financial slaps on the wrist for the accused come the conclusion of the inquiry intolerable for these survivors. They need someone to properly answer for the crime that they are the living victims of, and the immoral avoidance of that crime by the guilty parties has been one of the more unedifying examples of the vast chasm between the haves and have-nots seen in recent years.

Central and local government, cladding manufacturers, the outsourced contractors entrusted with ‘refurbishing’ Grenfell – all played their part in the build-up to the tragedy by turning a blind eye (or, more accurately, focusing that blind eye on profit) that in retrospect feels like it could only ever end one awful way. The prevailing 21st century trend seems to be for visually prettier materials to be glued on to the outside of unfashionable 20th century edifices in order to render them easier on the eye, though proper checks were spurned en route by inefficient regulators when confronted by cladding that manufacturers lied about the safety of, and by politicians always eager to take the cost-cutting option when it comes to social housing. And all have played the ‘It weren’t me, guv’ card when their role in the tragedy has been highlighted.

Yet, as research has subsequently revealed, Grenfell’s cladding was not some unique exception to the rule; there are dozens of residential buildings up and down the country still coated in similarly dangerous cladding that was added to exteriors with full knowledge of its potential risks, simply because it was a cheaper alternative for people too poor to give a flying f**k about. In many respects, it’s a miracle Grenfell hasn’t been repeated on numerous occasions ever since 2017, though the fatal potential is present in each and every one of them. Five years on, distance has not dimmed the anger of those on the frontline of the tragedy, as can happen with anyone whose life is derailed by an event that never really goes away, especially if justice is frustratingly elusive and may well remain unresolved by the time the legal process completes its ineffective journey.

© The Editor

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2 thoughts on “LIVES, INTERRUPTED

  1. Sadly, no amount of sympathy, hand-wringing, finger-pointing, blame-targeting or even compensation can go a single step towards bringing back those 72 victims, none of whom I would reckon deserved to die that way.

    As well as the aesthetic appeal of cladding ugly concrete buildings in decorative finishes, there is another driver involved, that is the energy issue. Most of that cladding trend was originally targeted at improving the insulation of those cold base materials to reduce energy use and save tenants’ power bills, hence the use of aluminium sandwich material, an excellent insulator – the ‘price’ of this approach was creating a ‘chimney gap’ in which any external fire could be accelerated, further exaggerated by the use of materials like aluminium with a low combustion point. But maybe the topical pressure for energy efficiency was allowed to outweigh those associated risks? We may never know how much that influence may have been.

    I suspect that eventually the popular ‘circular blame system’ will result, where many/all agencies involved reluctantly agree to accept some proportion of the responsibility for the event, vowing to do everything possible to avoid any repetition, ‘lessons must be learnt’ etc. I’m sure some lessons will have been learnt and some improvements to the enforcement of regulations will ensue: whether they will be enough, only time and an absence of further similar conflagrations will demonstrate.

    In earlier times, different disasters in mines, in factories and on ships etc. led to progressive improvements in safety regulations, from which standards we have all benefited. Grenfell was simply a ‘domestic’ case from which any conclusions would be expected to lead to improved safety in the future. That’s no real comfort for the 72 dead or their families, but the same was previously true for many thousands of miners, factory workers and sailors too, they had paid the price for future security for others.

    Given the choice, few people would elect to live in such tower-blocks, hence it tends to be the people having no other choice who occupy those sites. Most of them have a tough enough life without facing the everyday risk of immolation which those only marginally wealthier can always avoid. That makes the Grenfell tragedy even more sad and even less defensible.

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    1. I remember visiting my auntie, who lived in a tower block complex, as a child during the power-cuts of the era; I recall she had no heating in her flat at the time of the Three Day Week because her fire was electric due to gas fires being banned in such buildings after the Ronan Point collapse – as far as I’m aware, anyway. I suppose that’s one example of how improved safety for residents was a beneficiary of a tragedy. As you say, perhaps Grenfell will lead to a similar improvement, though that can only really begin to take shape by removing the flammable cladding that remains on other tower blocks around the country.

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