They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
A terrible yet captivating sight… It felt as though doomsday was upon us in the early hours of that morning. It felt impossible to reconcile that our neighbours – with whom we would have crossed paths at the Sainsbury’s Local by Ladbroke Grove station or the Kensington Memorial Park, people who could easily have been members of my family (or yours) – were trapped inside this vision of hell on earth. The charred skeletal remains of the Grenfell Tower loom heavy over the skyline, haunting the local community – including my parents, brother and sister-in-law, who all live minutes away from the blackened monolith.
The Grenfell fire was an avoidable tragedy, but it did not happen in a vacuum.
We have read about the endless pleas and challenges from the tower block’s residents to the council to address fire safety concerns. A 16th-floor resident, Eddie Daffarn, wrote months prior to the fire that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord”.
My experience of growing up in inner-city London as part of a working-class community, and my familial connections to Ladbroke Grove specifically, convinces me that the Grenfell fire was a manifestation of many decades of systemic contempt directed towards the area’s immigrant and working-class residents.
If we consider the history of the area of North Kensington, it is difficult to see the fire as an isolated incident. There has been a long saga of neglect and indifference, of “managed decline”, of deregulation and outsourcing of the council’s responsibilities, to the detriment of the working-class residents of the inner cities, including those in North Kensington.
Tumbledown Victorian terraces occupied the site of Grenfell before its construction. These properties had been divided and subdivided into squalid bedsits that only the poorest would tolerate; so appalling were conditions that the area was described by an MP at the time as “the most tragic of slums… in all of England”.
In the 1950s slum landlords, including the notorious Peter Rachman, exploited tenants after identifying a gap between the council and residents. Rachman would make the lives of his tenants unbearable, using harassment to force them out and then charging higher rents to the next occupants. In the 1960s the Westway flyover was built over the heads of North Kensington residents. The authorities have a tradition of doing things to people, rather than with people.
[See also: Failed by the system, I became a lecturer at 50]
Only a few years prior to the fire, the council were keen to demolish the tower altogether, following a plan for the refurbishment of the area. The “Masterplan Report” recommended levelling the building as it “blighted” the skyline. In 2012, this suggestion was rejected; in its place the flammable exterior cladding was affixed to the building to make it more aesthetically pleasing to the area’s richer residents. It is undeniable that a class and ethnic divide was not only evident within this particular event but can be traced back as far as the beginning of the last century. This 14 June, it will have been five years since that fateful night. Despite these ongoing challenges and the palpable anger felt by people in the local community, they continue to demand respect and to be treated with dignity in the face of incredible apathy, through the establishment of Grenfell United and Justice4Grenfell. Seeing this work fills me with genuine pride. After all this injustice, their spirit remains strong.
Elias Suhail is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.
A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.
This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain