SO MANY questions surround Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, London. The fire ravaged and raged, claiming the lives of 12 people, with more victims certain to be discovered, and then smouldered all day. Even by the time of the 10pm news on the BBC, the building was still burning, almost 22 hours after the blaze began.
The stories are too terrible to tell, of people jumping from the upper floors, a baby being thrown to safety while its mother apparently perished, unable to jump, and of the missing, including a 12-year-old girl separated from her mother during the evacuation, and a mother-of-three who told a friend on the phone that they were not going to make it.
The horror is unimaginable, but we must imagine it – and then we must explore what happened and why in the widest possible context. Not just the cause of the fire and why it spread so fast, but the deeper societal causes and why it was that a tower block in a one of the richest cities in the world housing poor and disadvantaged people could just burn down almost like a giant box of matches.
There are so many questions, but what matters first are the lives lost and the lives shattered. Once the human suffering has been eased as much as is possible, the wider questions will be asked; practical questions such as did the cladding to make the building energy-efficient pose a fire risk, something first raised as long ago as 1999; and questions about the sort of society we live in, where houses worth untold millions stand near council-managed tower blocks warehousing the unseen poor.
All day yesterday on social media, people were sharing the concerns of the Grenfell Action Group that the borough of Kensington and Chelsea had been “playing with fire” in the way in which it and a tenant management organisation ran the block.
Conditions had been complained of for years – including rubbish dumped in shared hallways – alongside concerns about what was described as the opaque way in which the management organisation was run.
Cuts to the fire service were raised as a possible factor, although perhaps the deeper question lies in the way that austerity has forced local councils to come to complicated arrangements to maintain services. And of a government, as a leader in the Guardian suggests, “in hock to a grasping building industry running a policy of austerity that has starved local councils of cash”. That sounds about right this morning as we survey this avoidable tragedy.
Newspapers are often criticised for political manipulation and propaganda, understandably enough, but the media can be a force for good at such a time. Just put aside the usual prejudices and survey today’s front pages.
The Daily Mail uses its reporting heft to powerful effect for once, rather than propping up the Tories and pathetically bashing Jeremy Corbyn. The front page is given over a single image of the tower block ablaze with a headline asking: “How the hell could it happen?
All the papers carry similar images and ask similar questions, with the Times opting for: “Disaster in 15 minutes”, while the i-newspaper has: “Tragic. Horrific. Avoidable.”
The Guardian features the most telling quote, from a buildings expert who says: “We are still wrapping high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems, then being surprised when they burn down.”
Towers are sometimes symbols of boastful virility, as with the golden excesses of Trump Tower. Towers of that ilk are built to swagger and show off idiot wealth. Other towers seem to stand almost as forgotten voids – big on the skyline but small on society’s list of problems to be resolved.
Yet even though Grenfell Tower contained people I have characterised as the unseen, they were people who belonged to a community; people from around the world who came to the great city of London to make a life, or the left-behind who had always lived here.
That sense of community was palpable both in the tragic losses and in the way how – as in Manchester after the arena attack – people rallied round to help, offering food, clothing and somewhere to stay.
At heart, we live in communities that will help in a crisis; and yet we also live in a country where austerity has pushed problems into corners of neglect, and seemingly compounded those problems in the name of saving money.
Incidentally, if you have building work done on your house it is necessary to put fire alarms all over the bloody place. The efficiency of the alarms in that tower block will be one of many questions needing to be asked – alongside the deeper matter of how we arrange our society.