Saturday, 17 June 2017

Family Trees (Grenfell Tower)

In the wake of the violent attacks in Manchester and London and that fiasco of a General Election, I was quite looking forward to writing about trees this week - nothing controversial, a peaceful topic, pastoral, relaxing and restorative.

Then came the Grenfell Tower tragedy and a pressing need to respond in some way to that horrendous event and its background causes.

I have seen my house burn down and I have first-hand experience of tower-block life. I lived in one in the east end of London in the late '70s, part of the social housing provided by Tower Hamlets, that city's most deprived borough. Highworth Point stood 26 stories high and the wind from Hackney Marshes used to howl round it and its six bleak companion towers on the estate. The flats themselves were serviceable enough as concrete boxes go, but getting to them was a bit of a nightmare. The elevators were used as latrines and the stairs were littered with broken glass and refuse. It wasn't a good environment for kids to grow up in, so the flats were allocated in the main to young couples and older tenants whose families had grown and flown. English was most people's second language. It was a cosmopolitan and reasonably caring community - though in truth no one particularly wanted to be there. I have blogged about it before.... and wrote a poem about the whole concept of high-rise housing, of which it's worth quoting a couple of lines:

   "We, the people, condemn this new world with one voice
     though we end up as tenants - we haven't much choice..."

London's tower blocks, when originally completed in the early '60s, may have been better equipped than the horizontal slums they were designed to replace - but that material advantage wore off after a couple of decades, by which time a lack of maintenance coupled with the relatively soulless nature of high-rise living soon rendered them not much better than vertical slums. Thankfully, Tower Hamlets took the sensible decision in the '90s to demolish Highworth Point and its fellow high-rises rather than try and tart them up as was done in other London boroughs. Blackpool recently felled its own three remaining tower-blocks.

The real iniquity of the Grenfell Tower disaster is that this happened to a social housing community situated in Kensington, the wealthiest borough of London, and that the tenants of the tower had been warning the housing association for months that the place was unsafe. The allegations being made are that the refurbishment of their building was done on the cheap using materials that have been declared unfit for use in other countries with more stringent regulations; that an overdue review of whether the regulations were still fit-for-purpose kept on being deferred on the grounds that nothing bad had happened; that the tenants' repeated expressions of concern were dismissed by the TMO.

The inhabitants of Grenfell Tower had little option but to live where they did, in a refurbished concrete high-rise - but the management association had an absolute moral duty to give them a secure environment and to listen to and react to their concerns that Grenfell Tower didn't measure up.

You might be wondering with some justification where the trees theme kicks in - it's right here.

The residents of Grenfell Tower had arrived there from all quarters - England, Brazil, Ghana, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Syria and beyond. They had family trees stretching across the world. They were living in London in the hope of making better lives for themselves and their children, cosmopolitan and aspirational. In the space of a few horrendous hours as fire and smoke tore up and through their high-rise homes, those family trees were ravaged in the most cruel way imaginable; fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters were variously separated from loved ones or shrivelled together in the flames. The agony is beyond comprehension.

Such a catastrophe should not have been possible in 21st century London. The shock and anger won't subside any time soon. I hope those impacted get the chance of a proper inquest rather than the public enquiry that has been proposed.


To the memory of those who died in Grenfell Tower, June 2017
Surely Grenfell Tower will be torn down in the aftermath of whatever investigation takes place. No one would want to live there after what happened. Wouldn't it be fitting if the area was turned into a memorial garden planted with trees from around the world?

Today's poem cannot hope to be an adequate response to the incendiary disaster that ripped through so many family trees at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It's a work in progress, but here goes...

The timing of the tragedy put me in mind of a Simon & Garfunkel song, so I've borrowed it's title for the poem and have woven in a couple of references as well. (You'll recognise them if you know the song. If you want to check it out, it's on the album of the same name.)

Wednesday Morning, 3A.M.
I lived in onesuch once.
Thank god they pulled it down.

For the residents of Grenfell Tower
could only cower in smoke-filled cells
as hope deserted and as fire engulfed them
Wednesday morning, 3AM,
no hydrants, no sprinklers, no chance.

Just weeks before,
no one has died, you said, no one is dead,
as you ignored those tenants' timely protests.
They were lucky to have a roof above their heads!

They came from every continent to London
with hope in their hearts
to make a safer and a better life,
a new start from scratch.
Because needs must,
they were at the bottom of the ladder.

You provided social housing to fit the bill.
You had a duty of care - almost a sacred trust,
yet put the renovations of the tower
out to private tender looking for the cheapest quote
or something even lower
and turned a blind eye or something madder still.

So many priceless family trees scarred,
charred or burned completely
down to cinders and ash
in a forest fire of a concrete pyre
in the middle of a city gone mad
with the cynical dash for cash.

There will be a reckoning.
No one has died, you said, no one is dead.
Ask your expert quantity surveyor now
what is the itemised cost of a human life?
Ask the nightwatchman who's lost
both his children and his wife.

Wednesday morning, 3AM.
Alarm bells were ringing.
This all seemed unreal,
a script badly written.
They shared with him by mobile phone
the last moments of their living hell
in a burning shell -
Good-bye, I love you.
I don't want to die.


Thanks for reading. Take a deep breath. Be kind to each other, Steve ;-)
Reactions:

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very well written.

Adele said...

Your capacity for measured response in a crazy, careless world is very moving. The poem is profound. Thank you Steve.

Anonymous said...

As others have said, a very powerful response to a disaster that should never have happened. I think the poem is excellent, by the way. Well done.

Anonymous said...

News reports tonight suggest the burning cladding and insulation gave off poisonous fumes that would have been lethal. Talks of criminal investigation. Shocking what happened.

Steve Rowland said...

Fire safety in residential tower blocks now becoming a 'national emergency'. At least 27 buildings declared unfit that were previously signed off as ok!

Anonymous said...

Apparently 100 buildings tested so far and they all failed!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant poem.

Anonymous said...

This makes for very sad reading - but a powerful blog.

Anonymous said...

Spot on. Great poem. Grenfell Tower and other sub-standard makeovers are a national disgrace. Profit above peoples lives. Keep speaking out.

Anonymous said...

Such a moving blog. I cried when I read your poem.

Anonymous said...

Corporate manslaughter. Right on the button.

Anonymous said...

Impressive. A measured blog and a very moving poem.