London’s burning, London’s burning.
Fetch the engines, fetch the engines.
Fire fire, Fire Fire!
Pour on water, pour on water.
My son is in Year 1, last term the 1666 Great Fire of London was the core theme of his school activities – he made dramatic fire-related artwork, he learned about fire and wood houses, firefighters and the pain of those who survived. They were read passages of Samuel Pepys diary. He asked a thousand questions. He wanted to know if our home is safe. In his school diary he wrote: People were fleeing like meerkats; the flames were like dolphins jumping on a flat sea. He sang and sang this song.
How do I tell my son, how do we tell our children that in 2017 London is burning again? How can we explain to a 6-year- old that someone like him in London had half of his classmates vanished, burned to death in a mild evening of mid-June? Words fail. They really do.
The burnt skeleton of the Grenfell tower, the huge pinnacle of dark smoke, the tiers, the screams, the rage, the faces of those who have lost everything, the eyes of those searching for the missing. The questions that many are asking and the answers that few want to give. This is a tragedy, but neither natural, nor unavoidable. This is corporate manslaughter, for which someone will have to be found criminally responsible. But this is also as political as it gets, an extreme manifestation of London’s war against the poor, the class cleansing of one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world. The list of the dead and missing is a microcosm of London’s superdiversity and wealth inequality, with old and new migrants, ethnic minorities, elderly on state pension, working poor and people on the dole. The terrible last moments in the tower are captured in text messages and phone calls to family and loved ones. ‘Mamma, I think I’m going to die. Thank you for all you have done for me’, Gloria Trevisan’s apartment was on 23rd floor. She called her mum in Italy several times over the night, these are her last words as flames and smoke crept into their home.
Boris Johnson as mayor of London transformed the skyline of the city. Ultra-sleek skyscrapers have surrounded Saint Paul’s cathedral, in the very place where the fire of London took place. Modern building technologies are safe and fire resistant, we no longer need to fear fire, we are told. And yet many of the buildings, testament to Mr Johnson’s alpha male aspirations, are left half empty, as no one can afford to live there: they are offshore bank accounts for the global rich. A few miles away from the Shard, there was a tower, people were crammed into tiny apartments. Apparently just over £5k would have saved the lives of some of the residents caught in the fire. Apparently £5k are what it would have cost if the external cladding was done with a fire resistant material instead of one known to be flammable. You may pay £5k for a night in a suite in the Shard; words fail.
It is nonsense to blame high-rise towers; ‘let’s not build any more apartment blocks’, one liberal commentator came out with. Nonsense. Manhattan is a long procession of tall, much taller than the Grenfell Tower: apartment blocks, Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, Rome have thousands of towers. It is not the tower form to blame, but how you build it. What materials you use, how much care you take in planning fire exits, how many persons per square meter you allow, how adequate and well resourced your firefighters are. Each of these issues requires a decision to be taken, and every decision about money and resources is inherently political.
No doubt attempts will be made to whitewash the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Theresa May’s new chief of staff Gavin Barwell reportedly ‘sat on’ a report as housing minister warning that tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to deadly fires.
They will tell the residents to let it go. They will disperse them across London so that connections are broken and collective outrage is watered down. Grenfell Tower residents have the right to the city, to stay in their borough, to rebuild their life, to have their many questions answered.