I: The Fire
It was a clear day and you could see for miles. From her flat on the 23rd floor, Rania texted one of her best friends from back home and they talked about facts. Who you love is a fact and the meals you cook are facts. When the sun shines it is a fact of God and England is a fact of life. Rania always said she had preferred living in Mile End because the markets were better over there, but at least Westfield was near her now in White City. She was 31. ‘I was born in Egypt 11,426 days ago,’ she told one of her neighbours, pleased with the new app on her iPhone that could count days. Rania was a great fan of Snapchat, she posted there every spare minute she had, and on Instagram and Facebook, too. ‘I love England,’ she wrote in one post, next to a Union Jack, and ‘Live in London’, beside an emoji of a small house and a very green tree. She liked to imagine that one day she would live in a house like that with her husband, Hassan, and their two daughters. Hassan used to work at the mosque. Later on, when he was spending more time away, Rania would send him loving messages along with videos of the girls. One of them showed Fethia wading through a pool of water in a blue dress. Another was of Hania, aged two, rolling down a hill of daisies by Ladbroke Grove.
In the 15th century, ‘tower’ was another way of naming heaven. But Rania always felt Grenfell Tower was too tall. They were at the top and you could see the Hammersmith and City trains coming in and out of Latimer Road Station. From some of the flats you could see the cars, like ants, crawling up the Westway, and from others you were looking at the financial district, all those new towers in the distance with the Shard in the middle. ‘She loved her flat,’ her friend Naseem said, ‘but she did have a preference for small Victorian houses.’ Rania first came to London from Aswan in 2009 to visit her sister who lived in Cricklewood. More and more people had come to London since the late 1990s. Naseem is from Yemen and spent time with Rania at the Golborne and Maxilla Children’s Centre, a nursery their children attended. Melanie Coles, one of the workers there, remembers how much Fethia missed her father when he was away. Rania was always making cakes and bringing them in for the staff and she got to know the other young mothers. As well as befriending Naseem she was close to another mother from the tower, Munira, who lived on the fifth floor. It was a strong Muslim community: many were from the Middle East, but a sizeable number were from Morocco, and some of the local boys referred to Grenfell Tower as ‘the Moroccan flats’. ‘It was Rania’s habit to cook for everyone,’ her older sister Rasha told me. ‘Everyone was fascinated by the way Rania cooked,’ Naseem said. ‘She would make these huge prawn dishes; she would buy everything, make it wonderfully and hand it over to her neighbours.’ Munira could speak some Punjabi and she took Rania and the other women to Southall for piercing and waxing.
‘I love you so much,’ Rania messaged her husband when he was away. ‘I miss that naughty little boy.’ Rania’s new friends thought it was odd for someone from her culture to be so openly affectionate towards her husband, but Rania didn’t care. ‘She was very religious, very devout,’ a woman who went to the same English classes as Rania said, ‘and she gave off a sort of spirit of blessing. You’d leave the party saying: “I want to be a bit more like Rania, and act that way.”’
She said she would happily have a dozen children. She found it easy. She was incredibly relaxed with her two, letting them paint their faces and daub the bedroom cupboards with nail varnish. She would just smile. She told everybody she only cared about love and God. ‘And clothes,’ Naseem told me. ‘She would take me to Mile End. If I was going on a visit to Saudi Arabia, I’d need new clothes. You can’t wear the stuff at home that you would in London, cardigans and jeans. It’s much more strict.’ But Rania was strict with herself and her only indulgences, apart from the children, were elaborate cakes and the latest iPhone.
She was fond of a quote she’d found from William Golding. ‘I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men,’ it said. ‘They are far superior and always have been.’ Most of the women thought this was a bit untrue, but Rania was very much herself. When her brother-in-law Tariq became sick in Cairo and had a leg amputated, it was Rania who insisted to her husband that he go. It was early June 2017 and she said she and the girls would be fine. Hassan remembers her words. ‘She said: “Go and do not leave him,”’ he told me. ‘My daughter Fethia sent me messages every day – “Daddy, come, we need you. Daddy come.” When the council gave us the flat, I worked it upside down, and changed everything, making it beautiful. And when the woman came from the TMO’ – the Tenant Management Organisation – ‘she was shocked at how different it now was. That was all just for my wife. My girls. And Rania made a special cake that time. It was like the one she did every Friday for us to take to the mosque.’
On Monday, 12 June, Rania and Naseem went to the Sainsbury’s by the canal at the north end of Ladbroke Grove. They went from there to the Westway Centre off Portobello Road; that was where Rania took English classes (she had the best attendance) and she was due to graduate that day so they went there and met up with their friend Muna Ali. They all went to Falafel King afterwards to have lemonade. They just sat at the window watching the world go by, and they discussed Ramadan. Naseem promised to come to Grenfell Tower so they could break their fast together and make her famous cheese pie. ‘It had been such a big iftar last Ramadan,’ Naseem said. ‘Seven ladies and we were all laughing in the kitchen and it was such a good day.’
‘You have to come to me,’ Rania said to Naseem in Falafel King. ‘You’re supposed to be my best friend.’
‘I will. I will.’
The weather was going to be good and they imagined the lovely time they would have at Rania’s flat on the 23rd floor. On the day of the fire, at the nursery school, Fethia had practised a new dance routine in the garden. She was wearing white leather shoes with flowers on the front, and, while she was dancing, one of the flowers came off and got lost. She was upset. At the end of the day her teacher found the flower and put it next to Fethia’s peg. It would be there the next day. ‘Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things, but it will all be fine,’ her teacher said to herself as she closed her classroom for the day and made her way home.
Standing at 221 feet, Grenfell Tower was opened in 1974. It is owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and was managed on behalf of the council by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which ran more than nine thousand flats and houses in the borough. By June 2017, the tower housed some 350 people in 127 one or two-bedroom flats, a slight rise since a refurbishment completed in 2016, when new windows were fitted in all the flats and the building was covered in rainproof aluminium cladding and insulation. It was a typical early evening in summer, the stairwell was quiet and the two lifts were busy. The smell of cumin and cinnamon filled the landings and onions were frying. The sound of music and television shows passed easily through the open windows: the evening was warm and the trees below were green; people came and went from the new leisure centre.
At 4 p.m. that day, Alison Moses got home to her flat on the fourth floor, flat number 11. She’d gone to the bank to get money out for her daughter and then the two of them had gone to pick up Alison’s grandson from school. Alison first lived in the tower in the early 1990s. She left for a few years but returned in 1997 to a one-bedroom flat. She was pleased to live there again. ‘It’s a funny little community,’ she said. ‘Everybody knows everybody, if not by name, by sight.’ There were six flats on each of the 23 floors, apart from on the lowest floors, which between them had a new boxing gym, a new crèche and a few flats. There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country. It being Ramadan, a number of residents were at the mosque, and others, mainly the women, were preparing food for the end of the fast. Mr Ali Jafari, who was 82 and lived in Flat 86 on the 11th floor with his wife and two daughters, spent most days sitting in his special chair at the shop where his friend Abdullah worked, Noor Hardware on Portobello Road. All the customers knew Mr Jafari. He was Afghan and came to live in the UK 18 years ago, to escape the Taliban. The only time he ever missed his few hours sitting in Noor was when the lift was broken in the tower. Abdullah liked him being there: he was part of the furniture. It was his habit to pick up Mr Jafari every day, after the old man’s lunch and prayer, and he would resume his seat at the hardware shop, talking about how things were in the old days from his perch under the Loctite glues and the padlocks and the smoke alarms.
That day, Abdullah waited a while beside the new school at the base of the tower. He noticed that you couldn’t get as many vehicles close to Mr Jafari’s tower any longer because of the new building, Kensington Aldridge Academy. He turned off the car engine as he waited; it wasn’t like Mr Jafari to be late. But when the old man came down he brought some bolani with him, Afghan flatbread. They ate it in the car and joked together on the way to Portobello Road. It was nice the way Mr Jafari talked about everything, from girls to travelling the world. ‘I remember dropping him back home that night,’ Abdullah said. ‘He was old and he had diabetes so I used to take him right up to the door.’
On the floor below the Jafaris, the 10th, lived a man in his early fifties called Antonio Roncolato. He had just got back from a week in Padua. And in the two-bedroom flat above the Jafaris, number 92, was Karen Aboud, who lived with her sons, who were 12 and 17. She works as a make-up artist in a hairdressing salon in Maida Vale, often doing weddings and photography. She took half days so she could pick the boys up from school, do the tea and help them with their homework. It could be tricky in the flat, because, at that time, the boys fought a lot (they shared a room) and Karen wasn’t always able to cope with them. That’s how she thought of it. She couldn’t cope. Karen was born in Beirut and came to the UK when she married a Lebanese man who lived in Bishop’s Stortford. The marriage broke up around 2008 and she took the boys back to Beirut, returning with them to London in 2014 and taking a private rental in Grenfell Tower. It wasn’t easy to pay the rent, given London prices. She could only work 16 hours a week so she received housing benefit. When her older son, Adel, went to Kensington Aldridge there were concerns about his behaviour. ‘I couldn’t do anything,’ Karen told me. ‘I was alone and like everyone else was trying my best to survive.’ Eventually a social worker from Kensington and Chelsea Council got involved and Karen immediately saw an improvement. They worked out how to reduce the anger and friction between the boys. The social worker has boys, too, and is Muslim, so a flow of understanding was there from the start. Things were moving on. Karen and the social worker, Kezia, had an appointment at 3.30 p.m. on 14 June to discuss closing the case.
A 49-year-old man, Miguel Alves, who works as a chauffeur, lived one floor above, in Flat 105 on the 13th floor, with his wife, Fatima, and their children, Ines and Tiago, 16 and 20. Miguel is from Portugal and has lived in England since 1991. It felt to him like it took a long time to get the place in Grenfell Tower. He was working and they had their son, but then he lost his job and the accommodation that came with it, and the council put them in a bed and breakfast place in Willesden. Tiago wasn’t well there, the place was dirty, so the family was offered a flat in Grenfell Tower in 1998. Three years later, as soon as it was possible under the Right to Buy scheme, they bought the flat and in time made a third bedroom, when Ines came. (There were 14 leaseholders in the buildings.) ‘It was a wonderful flat,’ Miguel said, ‘spacious for a flat and the area round there is great.’ On the night of 13 June, Miguel was feeling good. His wife’s cousin was in London from South Africa and wanted to take them to dinner. Miguel usually plays football every Tuesday at 8 o’clock, so he wanted the dinner to be on the Wednesday or Thursday. ‘My wife said she preferred Tuesday,’ he said, ‘and in the end I had to agree because the wife has all the power.’ So they spent the evening at a Portuguese-run restaurant in West Kensington called the Village Fayre, where the conversation never stopped for the six people at the corner table. Miguel brought the car. About 10 p.m. Ines began agitating because she had a chemistry exam in the morning. She said she would just head back to the tower by herself but her father said no, it was fine, they’d finish up and drive back together. She could study her notes and the adults could continue their conversation over tea. It was always a pleasure, on a nice evening, to entertain in the sitting room with the twinkling lights outside.
‘You go to bed in the house that keeps you safe, don’t you?’ said Zainu Deen, the father of Zainab Deen, who lived in Flat 115 on the 14th floor with her son, Jeremiah. Everybody said that Zainab had always been independent: she left home at 18 and worked all the hours she could at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. She was born in Sierra Leone but grew up in Paddington. She told her friends she was really pleased with her flat in the tower because it was so spacious; most rented flats in central London have tiny bedrooms, she said, but this was different. ‘They have no council houses in my country,’ Mr Deen said, ‘and even if you are married, your husband cannot always afford a place.’ In his opinion people are always looking for a new life. That was Zainab. ‘She had a lot of friends in Peckham,’ he said, ‘all over the place. Most of the photographs I have of her she is with friends.’ Zainab’s new next-door neighbours were two brothers from Syria, Mohammad and Omar Alhajali. They came from Daraa, near the Jordanian border, and were civil engineering students. After Daraa was besieged by the Syrian army in April 2011, the brothers fled to London, where they continued their studies. Mohammad went to the University of West London. They also worked part-time – Mohammad did shifts in a shoe shop and in Harrods – and they moved into a private rental in Grenfell Tower in 2016. Mohammad loved the flat; it was just the way to live, the red fitted kitchen and central heating, plus a view over the whole of London, and he enjoyed being near the parks.
‘Some people are famous in a block for loving their dogs,’ a former neighbour of Zainab’s said. ‘Like, there was this guy on the 15th floor, Steven Power, he had two bull terriers, you know those dogs? Loved them, he did. Would’ve died for those two dogs.’ People in the tower would go round to Steven’s for a drink. Sometimes they sat together outside the tower, too, next to the leisure centre. Power used to be a lorry driver, but he was 63 last June and didn’t work anymore and anyway the dogs were a full-time job. He hated the way the building had been refurbished; they say it was a thing with him, complaining about the building and how it didn’t work and how life wasn’t the same. On the other side of the lift on his floor, a 21-year-old called R.D. wasn’t sure about the dogs. ‘I was so scared of them,’ she said. ‘I used to peep through the peephole, because I was, like, “Oh, my God, they’re going to eat me today!”’ R.D. was friends with a boy called Yasin El Wahabi who lived on the 21st floor – they went to school together, and Steven Power’s daughter, Rebecca, had been in the year above. They all knew each other. Yasin’s little sister used to scooter around the tower. They were quite a well-known family. ‘Yasin would make up stories,’ R.D. said. ‘He’d say: “Yeah, my dad’s a drug dealer; he’s in the Mafia. Next day, my dad’s a doctor; he’s a nurse. A gardener.’ Yasin’s father, Abdulaziz, 52, was actually a porter at University College Hospital. His mother, Faouzia, was involved in the sewing group at the Westway Trust. ‘She sat by the window,’ a colleague said, ‘dropping a stitch when she saw something funny outside.’ R.D.’s family were from Casablanca and the El Wahabis from Larache.
‘One time,’ R.D. said, ‘Yasin broke his foot. He came up the stairs to our science class on his crutches. He comes in, one foot in a cast and on the other he had a Moroccan slipper, like a belgha, a thing you’d only wear at home, this round thing made of leather. All the Moroccans knew what it was and we laughed. So everyone remembers the time Yasin came to school in his Moroccan slipper.’
Everybody knew Yasin. He worked in Subway, the sandwich place, and was doing an accountancy course at the University of Greenwich. He sold rugs at his uncle’s stall in Portobello Road and refereed at football matches. One of those busy kids you don’t worry about because they’re on the case. Yasin’s little brother, Mehdi, at eight years old, had a passion for furry toys, Trolls, Minions, Furby, and spent hours on the floor with his Lego Coastguard Patrol.
R.D. said you knew people in passing, like Mr Neda, the former Afghan military officer who lived on the top floor. He would sometimes hold the lift for her. R.D. usually went to Morocco for the summer, but she stayed on in London in 2017 to take an extra class at Richmond American International University. It being Ramadan, she was up late on the night of 13 June, thinking she might eat something. R.D. always felt she belonged in her flat; she knew every corner of it. ‘My bedroom was pink,’ she said, ‘but a light pink, not a baby pink. Our flat was covered in pictures, with a big Moroccan couch in the living room.’ Elsewhere in the building, as darkness fell on 13 June, Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who was 12, was home alone in her family’s flat on the 20th floor. Her Colombian father, a 54-year-old bus driver based at Westbourne Park Bus Station, was having a drink with a friend who lived on the third floor of the tower, and Jessica’s mother was out at work. She was employed as a housekeeper and often took on extra hours helping at dinner parties around Notting Hill. Jessica’s sister, Melanie, was at her boyfriend’s house just off the Edgware Road. Jessica watched television and then went to bed. The window was open to let the air in and she unplugged her phone and took it with her to bed.
All over the tower, people were either staying up to break their fast or heading off to bed. ‘I was sitting up,’ Hamid Wahbi told me. ‘I was packing to go to Saudi Arabia the following day.’ Hamid had run the fish stall on Golborne Road for many years, and everybody knew him. He was one of those who’d converted their two-bedroom flat at Grenfell into a three-bed; his 18-year-old son lived with him and so did his mother, who was in her eighties and not greatly mobile. The son was also friends with Yasin El Wahabi on the 21st floor. Hamid says it was a hectic week. On the Sunday he’d provided fish for a local wedding of three hundred people, then it was clearing up on Monday and suddenly it was Tuesday and he had hardly any time to prepare for his trip. You never have enough time. It’s either work or family and there’s also faith of course and it’s Ramadan. It was late on Tuesday night when he began to pack his bags and took a shower, but it didn’t feel late because he could still hear a lot of noise coming from the street.
It had been a long day for Khadija Khalloufi in Flat 143 on the 17th floor. She was 52 and worked all the hours she could at Marks & Spencer on Edgware Road. She missed her family all day every day: they lived in Mohammedia in Morocco and she told friends it was sometimes difficult to stick with the life she’d made in England. ‘Khadija was the eldest child,’ her brother Karim told me. ‘She was always like a second mother. She came to London a long time ago and worked to send money home. That was her first aim.’ And as that Tuesday evening came to an end Khadija sat up talking to friends on the phone. ‘It was odd,’ one of them said. ‘Looking back, it is almost as if she was waiting for something to happen. Her husband, Sabah, was asleep.’
Down below, men were returning from the Al Manaar mosque; they would follow the smell of food up the tower, and sit down with their children, who were busy, even at that hour, living the lives they lived on social media. Into the mix came people who didn’t live in the tower. Mohamednur Tuccu, 44, along with his 34-year-old wife, Amal, and their daughter, Amaya, aged three, had visited his cousin Amna Mahmud Ifris, 27, on the 19th floor. Mohamednur sent a text to several of his friends saying: ‘This is going to be the best Ramadan yet.’ Next door, Manchester United fan Gary Maunders, a 57-year-old father of four who lived in the area, was spending the evening with Deborah Lamprell, who worked at Holland Park Opera. Yasin El Wahabi went to the mosque to say the prayer that would close his fast. His sister Nur Huda was revising. She was at Holland Park School and had been commended by her teachers recently for a recitation of ‘Dover Beach’. Just across the corridor from the El Wahabis, Helen Gebremeskel cooked supper and her daughter, Lulya, watched a movie. Helen was so proud of her all-white flat with its little prayer room and its deep purple cushions. An asylum-seeker from Ethiopia, she sometimes stood back to admire the style of her kitchen. She too worked in a beauty salon. Nice things were Helen’s thing: to be comfortable and feel at home, at last. On the 22nd floor, the Hashim family were still up. The mother, Nura, was studying the Quran; her daughter, Firdaws, who was 12, was writing in a journal, and her sons were asleep. A woman who lived on the Silchester Estate, the other side of Bramley Road from Grenfell Tower, recalled looking from her kitchen window just after dark. In many of the tower’s rooms, running up to the top, she saw the gentle pulse of blue lights coming from televisions and computers, as well as the yellow lamps she often saw, a typical London tower block in a mild evening in June.
Inside the tower, by the lifts, there was a sign. ‘If you are safely within your flat,’ it said, ‘and there is a fire elsewhere in the block: you should initially be safe inside your flat keeping the doors and windows closed.’ Near to 12.15 a.m., a fire began in the kitchen of Flat 16 on the fourth floor. The flat was rented by an Ethiopian cab driver called Behaulu Kebede, a father of one. Some immediate neighbours heard a bang, but the rest knew nothing until, about twenty minutes later, Mr Kebede appeared in the hall in his stockinged feet, saying there was a fire in his flat. He thought it had started at the back of his fridge. He called the police before going to the door of his next-door neighbour, Maryam Adam, who was three months pregnant. ‘It was exactly 12.50 a.m.,’ she said, ‘because I was sleeping and it woke me up.’ She looked at the clock as she made her way onto the landing and looked towards Kebede’s open door. She could see into his kitchen and she thought at the time that the fire wasn’t very big. There was no siren sounding but some of the other neighbours were woken up by knocks at their doors and they too came out. A call was made to North Kensington fire brigade at 12.54. Maryam Adam left the building immediately. She didn’t even pick up her phone, a fact that would trouble her later. ‘I had many friends in the building,’ she said.
Flames from the fridge had engulfed the kitchen and were quickly licking out of Kebede’s open window, setting fire to the insulation in the cavity beween the building and its new cladding. It wasn’t obvious at first that this had happened: when the firefighters arrived, a group of eight, they came up to Flat 16 and put out the fire in the kitchen. They didn’t notice that the flames going out of the window had allowed the fire to enter the cavity. The barriers that were supposed to seal the gaps between panels in the event of a fire were too small, or were badly fitted, which allowed the cavity to act as a chimney and draw the flames upwards. Alison Moses, who lived across the hall from Flat 16, was on the phone to her daughter, Malikah, who lived nearby, talking about the day they’d had and how glad she was to have made it to the bank. Over the phone, she could hear sirens passing Malikah’s flat. She thought there were a lot of them, and then they got louder, as if they’d arrived at the tower. Suddenly there was a pounding on her front door and she opened it with the phone still in her hand. ‘It was the man from Flat 16,’ she later said, ‘looking really scared, telling me there was a fire. He was knocking on the doors of everybody on our floor. I came out and saw there was a baby’s basket on the floor, so I thought the fire must be in Flat 15 because they’ve got young children in there. I met the boyfriend of another neighbour, Zoe Dainton, and told him to go and get her out.’ Alison put on a dressing gown, thinking she’d only be gone for twenty minutes. When she got to the stairwell she saw some firefighters and a couple coming down the stairs. ‘How far have you come from?’ she asked.
‘Floor 13,’ the man said. ‘It’s heavy with smoke up there.’
If you live in London and dial 999 looking for the fire services, you will normally be directed to the London Fire Brigade control centre in South Wimbledon. In the early hours of 14 June, however, there was maintenance going on there, so calls were directed to the fallback control in Stratford, East London, which was staffed that night by 11 people. A control officer took a call to do with a fire in the kitchen of a flat on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower.
And then, just as the firefighters from North Kensington were leaving the scene, having doused the kitchen fire, the control at Stratford started receiving further emergency calls. ‘There’s a fire in my sitting room on the tenth floor!’ ‘My bedroom window is covered in flames. I’m on the eighth floor.’
‘That’s impossible,’ the operators were saying to each other. ‘The fire on the fourth floor was just put out by firefighters!’ One fire chief told me the problem was that the people in Stratford couldn’t see what was happening and so were confused when suddenly dozens of calls were coming in at the same time. The operators told the callers to stay put in their flats. A senior operations officer eventually got a picture from social media up on his mobile phone and showed it to his superior officer.
‘Heavens above,’ she said. More firefighters were dispatched. Those already on the scene set up a muster-station with a watch manager in charge on the third floor of the tower. Other fire vehicles began to arrive. When they saw that the fire, far from being out, was spreading up the east side of the building, they called in more resources. ‘At that stage it was a four-pump fire,’ one of them told me. It goes like that: four-pump, six-pump, eight, getting steadily more serious. At Grenfell, the watch manager went outside and realised that the fire was spreading rapidly. His mate inside the building radioed him.
‘Have you made it up?’ he said, meaning, ‘Have you called for more resources?’
‘Yes,’ the watch manager said. ‘Make pumps six, make pumps very quickly.’ Soon the station managers and the group managers arrived in cars. By now, everybody could see the fire was out of control on the outside of the building, and probably getting into flats from there. Glass was falling, people were screaming from the windows, and a crowd was gathering at the base of the flats, many of them videoing on their mobile phones.
I spoke to firemen who had attended dozens of tower-block fires. ‘In the early hours we were calling each other,’ one of them said, ‘and it was like, “That’s impossible.” Usually, in a tower fire, the blaze is put out and the people in the flats above and below don’t even know there’s been a fire. This was something else.’ Richard Welsh is a senior officer with the London Fire Brigade. His pager went off at 1.18 a.m. ‘Initially they had six machines there,’ he said. ‘Then they asked for eight, and then ten, and then 15, 20, and then 25. I’m hearing that on the way there, so it’s becoming really clear … One of the first things I did was declare it a major incident because I knew we were going to need a lot of help.’
‘I just knew it was probably the job of our lives,’ Pat Goulbourne, another senior officer, said. ‘I could see fire from the lower floors and I couldn’t believe I was looking at fire all the way to the top floor.’ As one of the engines sped down the Westway the recorder on someone’s phone picked up the voices of the firefighters as they first caught sight of the tower. ‘That’s not a real block with people in it,’ one of them said.
‘How the fuck we gonna get into that?’ another asked.
‘Jesus Christ. That’s a whole tower on fire.’
‘There’s people jumping out of the windows, mate.’
‘That’s a real block. How’s that possible?’
Residents on the lower floors heard the sirens and the commotion. Sepideh Minaei-Moghaddam, a 39-year-old Iranian, lived on the first floor with her son, Sepehr, who was two. ‘There was a smell of smoke,’ she said, ‘and I heard the fire engines and I went to the window.’ She opened her door and saw people running past her floor. ‘There’s a big fire!’ Mahboubeh, one of her neighbours, shouted. ‘Just take your son and come out!’ Sepideh went back into her flat and packed a nappy bag and wrapped her son in a blanket. Her purse was in the nappy bag and her keys were in her hand. It wasn’t easy to go down: she had not long ago had a hip operation, and she’d never really wanted to be in a tower. She said she always dreamed of living in a place with a garden. But she went down the stairs holding her son and was aware that there were people behind her. She left by a door at the rear entrance to the building and when she opened it she saw small fragments of glass, like a shower of glass, falling down from the top of the building.
Miguel Alves, who had enjoyed the dinner with his wife’s family at the restaurant in West Kensington and then had coffee with them in his flat, had ended the evening by driving his guests to their hotel in Paddington. The fire had started by the time he came back. The lift he was in stopped on the fourth floor, where there was a great deal of smoke. He took the stairs up to his own floor and told his wife and kids to get dressed and leave. Ines, his daughter, put her clothes on over her pyjamas and picked up her chemistry notes that lay by the bed. Soon after, the streets around were filling with fire engines and it seemed like a hundred blue lights were flashing as people gathered at the foot of the tower. It was 1.20 a.m. The fire had travelled diagonally up the building before spreading round the north face, passing from the fourth to the 14th floor in about 15 minutes. Smoke from the burning cladding entered through gaps in the new but ill-fitting windows, and the smoke travelled from there into the common areas and the stairwell. In Flat 111 on the 14th floor, Denis Murphy, 56, dialled 999 and was told to stay inside his flat and that firefighters would soon reach him. He called his brother at 1.30 and left a message saying there was black smoke everywhere. People could have made for the stairs at that point, but they were told to stay put. And it quickly became evident that some people were trapped. Tall ladders were needed, but they are scarce in Central London and the first one didn’t arrive until more than half an hour after the first phone call to emergency services. Everyone who died that night died above the tenth floor. Despite the rapidity with which the fire spread, it was a while before it took hold on all sides of the tower. Yet no residents were rescued by being taken down ladders on the temporarily safe sides of the building. And confidence in the ‘Stay Put’ policy meant that at no point did fire chiefs order a full evacuation of the building. Neighbours alerted neighbours where they could.
Someone at the control centre in Stratford told Zainab Deen, who lived across the landing from Denis Murphy on the 14th floor, that the safest option was to stay inside. She was advised to put wet towels along the bottom of the doors and to open windows if she could, ‘to increase ventilation’. In Flat 116, on Zainab’s other side, Oluwaseun ‘Ollie’ Talabi, a 30-year-old builder, woke up when he heard someone repeatedly shouting ‘Fire’. He’d always been paranoid about the block, always worried that something could go wrong in there. When Talabi heard the cries he roused his girlfriend, Nida, and their daughter, Keziah. He opened the front door and was immediately pushed back by a wall of black smoke. He went to the window and shouted: ‘Help! I’ve got a baby in here!’ From the ground below, 14 storeys down, people were yelling and yelling: he should stay where he was, the fire rescue people were on their way up. But from the window Talabi could see the whole corner of the building was on fire. Everything was happening so quickly; his mind was racing with thoughts of what to do and with dread also. He went into the bedroom and looked in the airing cupboard and gathered a huge pile of sheets in the sitting room. He began tying them together, he had 14 in all – one for each storey. Was that enough? Once he had them all tied together, he went over and tethered one end to the window frame and threw the sheets down. The ‘ladder’ went down the length of the building and stopped about thirty feet shy of the pavement. He and Nida persuaded their daughter to climb onto her father’s back and he stepped out of the window holding onto the sheets and began climbing down. But after a few feet it became obvious that his daughter could not bear it – she was too frightened and was crying – and so Talabi shinned his way back up to the flat. At that moment, as he was trying to calm his daughter down, a group of firefighters came into his flat. They had four neighbours with them, including Zainab Deen and her son Jeremiah from across the landing. Their side of the building was blazing and their ceiling was falling in, so the firefighters quickly mustered residents in the Talabis’ flat. Jeremiah just walked in and sat down on the bed. It was all getting desperate, and very confused, so Ollie Talabi grabbed his girlfriend and his child, one in each hand, and they ran for the stairs. He remembers, as he ran, seeing into the adjacent flat to theirs, number 112, where the young Syrian refugee Mohammad Alhajali sat on a sofa reading the Quran. Mohammad’s brother, Omar, had already fled with the firefighters, thinking his brother was behind him. As the Talabis left there was dense smoke and chaos all around them, but the young man just sat there, as if waiting for something to pass.
The stairs were slippery. Talabi says he thought they were all going to die. His daughter was choking on the smoke and people were lying on the stairs. The foyer of the tower was covered in snaking red firehoses and pools of water, and finally – after the terrible heat and the dark staircase and the falling glass – there was fresh air. ‘I just kept thinking about the little boy who was lying on my bed,’ Talabi said later. Some people saw Zainab Deen waving a sheet at a window on the 14th floor. Where had the firefighters gone? And why weren’t they bringing her and Jeremiah and the others down? Zainab phoned her friend Francis who lived in the next block. ‘The firefighters are here,’ she said. ‘They have told us to stay.’ When he called her back she said Jeremiah had collapsed from the fumes. Francis was standing in the crowd below the tower, and he handed his phone to a fireman standing nearby. The fireman told her they were getting to her, more of them were coming, and then he gave the phone back to Francis. ‘Tell her you love her,’ the fireman said. It seems, from all that can be gathered, that the fire became overwhelming, visibility quickly fell to zero, and the floor was abandoned. Ollie Talabi kept wondering, and thinks he will always wonder, whether he could have carried the boy down the stairs in his arms.
Outside the tower, Omar Alhajali was standing by himself. He could have sworn his brother was right behind him, but he wasn’t. Mohammad was alone in the flat next to the one where Zainab and her son were trapped. When they first learned the building was on fire, Omar and Mohammad ran out onto their landing but they thought the stairs were on fire, there was so much smoke coming up from them. When the firemen appeared out of the smoke they grabbed Omar and pushed him towards the stairs. ‘I couldn’t see or breathe,’ Omar said. ‘People were shouting. I walked and walked and walked and when I reached the second floor I began to smell fresh air.’ Standing outside on the grass, he could now see that the whole side of the building was on fire. He phoned Mohammad.
‘Where are you, Omar?’ his brother replied.
‘I’m outside. Where are you?’
‘I’m still in the flat. No one brought me outside. Why did you leave me?’
Omar looked up and saw Mohammad at the window shouting ‘Help’. The fire was getting closer. Omar wanted to run into the building and lead his brother to safety but the police wouldn’t let him. They had set up a cordon and were manning it, their faces full of panic. A crowd of young Muslim boys just back from the mosque were agitating to get past. Omar looked up and could see that the flames were almost in their flat. ‘I want to speak to the family,’ Mohammad said and Omar’s heart froze as he ended the call. In the following minutes Omar could do nothing but watch as the worst of all nightmares unfolded. The brothers had escaped Syria together, leaving when the bombing became too much, and London was their haven. At last, the flames reached the flat and Mohammad jumped from the building. Omar has never said if he saw his brother fall. He has never said, and no one would want him to.
One of the boys returning from the mosque who was trying to get into the burning building was Yasin El Wahabi, the popular student and football referee, the boy who worked in Subway and helped his uncle sell carpets on Portobello Road. After prayers at the Al Manaar mosque, Yasin had gone with his cousins to eat at an American diner called Tinseltown on Westbourne Grove. When he got back to the tower and saw fire engines and the flames raging all over the building he raced to the cordon. Firefighters were using riot shields to protect people coming out of the building from falling debris, much of it burning cladding that was falling down in strips. Yasin, learning his family were still on the 21st floor, made it past the cordon and disappeared into the building. A friend of Yasin’s from their old youth club got him on his mobile soon afterwards, and Yasin told him it was crazy: they were all now trapped up there and there was no one to help them. ‘Tell the police! Tell the police!’ Yasin yelled. The boy ran down to the tower from his house and said when he got there that it seemed like the whole of West London was out on the streets.
Two hundred and twenty-three residents escaped from the tower, but many others couldn’t make it through the smoke on the stairs, or were told to stay put by firefighters in the building or by operators on the phone. Stratford had been overwhelmed by calls: there were more than eight hundred from inside or around the tower that night; some of the calls were diverted to Kent and others as far as Newcastle. The nature of the fire response operation changed very rapidly: soon it was no longer a matter of extinguishing a localised fire so much as a question of mounting individual rescue bids all over the building. ‘There is a mindset with firefighters,’ one of them told me. ‘They want to put fires out. And on this one it had gone out of control before most of them hit the ground. Getting to people was proving difficult and, to be honest, there was a lot of fear on the part of managers that the building was going to come down. It’s mainly people’s instincts that save them in a fire – advice is contradictory and it can’t help everyone.’ The calls are harrowing. The callers are often panicking, choking, praying, but, for hour after hour, the advice was the same – stay put. ‘We know where you are and we’re coming to get you’ was the last promise many of the victims received. The London Fire Brigade reckon they were able to reach and rescue 65 people. The majority of the survivors walked down the stairs quite early in the fire’s progression, but others, mainly higher up in the building, who were not alerted until later, died because they took the advice.
These blocks are supposed to be built in such a way that a fire can’t spread in them, so the firefighters, most of them (there were about two hundred by two o’clock in the morning), were putting people in ‘safe’ flats that weren’t in fact safe, and in a number of cases, according to texts and phone calls from residents to people outside, were sending people back up the stairs. ‘People were ringing Control saying, “I’ve just opened my door and there is thick black smoke outside,”’ said Matt Wrack, head of the Fire Brigades Union, when I asked him about it. ‘Telling them to evacuate is sending them to their deaths. So you’re in a flat where you can breathe, you go out of the flat you can’t breathe: there’s only one thing you can tell them to do.’ Commanding officers were worried about the low water pressure. Servicemen and women were lugging portable water pumps into the building, because the mains at Grenfell couldn’t do the job. Some officers were later critical of Thames Water. Others said that radio communications on the night were a complete disaster, owing to cuts in funding for the fire service. Many people believe, and there is some evidence for it, that the positioning of the new academy school knocked out too much space for fire vehicles to park. In any event, the fire was out of control within minutes and there was no extinguishing it.
Firefighters aiming to rescue people say it wasn’t clear which floor was which as they climbed the stairs: it was smoky and even with torches they struggled to see where they were so a lot of time was wasted in failing to find people. The stairs quickly filled with smoke and at least nine people were overcome by fumes as they tried to descend. ‘There were dead people on the stairwell,’ one fire officer told me, ‘and that … well, the stairs should allow safe passage, with hydraulic or weighted doors.’ The gas pipes that ran around the corridors and in and out of the stairwell passed through unsealed holes that allowed smoke and flames to pass through very easily. Residents who weren’t too high up, and who could take a lungful of air and move quickly, could manage to get down the stairs. But by 2.15 the blaze had torn through the outer skin of the building and moved throughout the interior, setting fire to everything as it travelled through the floors in quick succession. If you happened to be asleep, or if nobody had rung you, or if you relied on the lift, your chances were slim, even if you didn’t live any higher than the tenth floor.
Mr Jafari, who went every day to sit in Noor hardware shop, was in Flat 86 on the 11th floor. He hadn’t been feeling well that evening and was asleep. His wife, Fatima, and one of his daughters, Maria, had gone down to the street to see what all the noise was about, leaving Mr Jafari with his other daughter, Nadia. Once Mrs Jafari was downstairs the police wouldn’t let her go back up. Some parts of the building saw the fire long before others, and it wasn’t simply a matter of height. For some reason the Jafari flat was very swiftly reached by the flames and Mr Jafari came out of the bathroom to see that the fire had broken through to his kitchen. Nadia grabbed her father and they moved into the hall, Mr Jafari moving slowly, the only way he could. Natasha Elcock in Flat 82 had turned on all the taps and flooded the place before escaping down the stairs. Mr Jafari knew his legs wouldn’t take him down, so they got in the lift. It descended one floor and the doors opened onto the tenth, which was dense with smoke. He stumbled out. No sooner had he breathed a lungful than he collapsed outside the lift and the doors closed and his daughter was taken down. A fireman who appeared on the tenth floor saw Mr Jafari on the floor and carried him down the stairs, out onto the grass. ‘When they took him out,’ his daughter-in-law Zanya said, ‘they tried to help him breathe but his heart had stopped.’ Zanya and Mr Jafari’s son Ahmed run a laundromat on Ladbroke Grove. Ahmed found it almost impossible to talk about what happened to his father. ‘God comes for us all,’ he said. ‘He could come at any time.’ Another elderly man, Abdeslam Sebbar, who lived across the corridor from the Jafaris, was choking and couldn’t get his taps to work. He wanted wet towels. Eventually he took off his shirt and was waving it at the window. He was 77. One of his grandsons took a call from him in which he said he couldn’t see anything. ‘Pitch black,’ Mr Sebbar had said. Firefighters got to him a few minutes after they found Mr Jafari; they got him down the stairs too but he died later in hospital.
A few floors up, a 56-year-old man of Irish descent, Denis Murphy, was talking to the emergency control at Stratford. The officer kept him on the line for some time, telling him to stay in his flat, asking him where he was, but eventually the smoke overcame him and he fell silent. Four people had now died on the 14th floor at a time when many, higher up in the block, still hadn’t realised how serious the fire was, how quickly it was spreading and how difficult it had become to escape. Steven Power, the man with the dogs, refused to leave his flat without his beloved animals, though many people spoke to him on the phone and tried to persuade him to come down. Steven had baby-sat people’s children, he had lived in the block longer than most, so a great many people thought to ring him. ‘Nope,’ he said. His neighbour Christos Fairbairn, a young, powerfully built black man, had called the fire brigade seven times, and for some reason to do with the positioning of his flat in relation to the path of the fire, was able to stay inside for hours. He tried three times to leave. At last, putting a wet towel over his face and taking a deep breath, he made a run for it. He couldn’t see anything on the stairs. ‘I just remember stepping on things that were soft,’ he said. ‘As I went round one of the bends, I fell. I landed on a body: it was an Arab man, lying on his side, long hair and beard, and he was gone. By the time I got to the third floor I couldn’t feel my arms. I’d breathed in a lot of carbon monoxide – I was being poisoned and I fell. That’s when the firefighters came and picked me up.’
‘The fire was all the way round the building,’ Beinazir Lasharie said. She lived right next to the tower. On either side of Bramley Road, a great many people living in blocks were watching from their windows as the horror unfolded. They could see the trapped residents, each of them waiting for firefighters to reach them, many of them waving the torches on their mobile phones to get attention, one family waving a string of fairy lights. A woman named Imam who lived opposite said she could hear people shouting: ‘We’re here!’ Some of the trapped people were shouting to the helicopters flying overhead. Imam watched helplessly as a man flashed his phone continually for an hour and a half, the darkness behind him suddenly lit up as the fire approached from the other side. Down below, Joe Delaney, a resident in Barandon Walk, one of the low-rise housing blocks that run from the base of the tower, had called 999 at 1.37 a.m. – ‘You have to send ambulances!’ he says on the recording – before going upstairs and telling his neighbour to pack a bag. ‘She has a three-year-old,’ he told me. Debris was falling and endangering their own block. A man named Steven Pretty in Verity Close put his head out and saw a whole row of windows on the 14th floor fall to the ground. ‘You could hear people screaming from the tower,’ Delaney said, ‘and I said to my neighbour: “Do you want Jessie to be seeing and hearing that?” It was just a complete disaster.’ A policeman ran across, and told the low-rise residents to get out, and Delaney walked for a long time, all the way to Holland Park Avenue.
It was now three in the morning, and there were television cameras everywhere, including on the helicopters that some of those who were still trapped in the building thought might rescue them. Young people on the ground were already giving interviews. Strips of cladding were falling into the trees beside the walkways below the tower. ‘Use the stairs! Open the window!’ people shouted from the crowd below. You could feel the intense heat of the fire from three hundred yards. ‘I didn’t know about the fire until it reached the 15th floor,’ Hamid, the fish-seller, said. ‘I was in the shower and I heard something crashing from the window.’ He put clothes on and walked out onto the landing and down one flight. He saw that people were making for the stairs. ‘I was holding the door for Eddie Daffarn to come downstairs, and for Sam, the son of my neighbour.’ No one had woken Sheila, the elderly lady who lived on that floor, and Sam had to leave without his father, who suffered from dementia and was refusing to move. ‘Where is your dad?’ Hamid asked him.
‘He is frozen. He can’t walk.’
Reflecting on it later, Hamid said he understood. Sam – who told the firefighters where to find his father – ‘had to run for his life’. Daffarn, a local campaigner and leading light in the Grenfell Action Group, had nothing with him as he made his way down the stairs. He had issued warnings about the safety of the building for years and, standing outside wrapped in a blanket, friends say he seemed numb. Two of the people on his floor mentioned to me by Hamid – Sheila, 84, and Joseph Daniels, an Indian air force veteran, 69 – didn’t make it to the stairs. Several people said they thought the firefighters had gone in to get them.
Those coming from the 16th floor passed Sabah Abdullah, 72, and his wife, Khadija Khalloufi, who worked in Marks & Spencer. There was smoke everywhere and, somewhere on the way down, she let go of her husband’s hand. He called her name. It was difficult to walk because the steps were covered in debris, you couldn’t really breathe, and further down there were bodies lying across the stairs. As you were coming down, firefighters in masks were passing you on the way up. Khadija got lost. She had been slumbering on the sofa moments before they left. She spoke to her neighbour, a Lebanese woman, who had banged on her door. But then she lost her husband on the stairs. After she collapsed a fireman carried her down the last few flights of stairs. On CCTV you can see him carrying her out of the tower and laying her down on the lawn, where she died. ‘My sister studied Arab literature, then accountancy’ her brother Karim told me when I met him. Such people come to London to operate the tills in high-street shops. ‘We were a big family of nine people,’ Karim said. ‘Khadija was the eldest. And when she came home last time she seemed different.’
‘Something different in her eyes. She went to Rabat. She insisted on seeing people she hadn’t seen in years. When she was going back to Heathrow for the last time, she sat silent in the car and we cried saying goodbye.’
Only minutes after Khadija died, the fire, now raging throughout the tower, reached the kitchen of Flat 155 on the 18th floor. This was the home of Berkti Haftom and her 12-year-old son, Biruk. Mrs Haftom, from Eritrea, worked in the café in Holland Park. She had called emergency services when her flat began filling with smoke, and was told not to make for the stairs because they might not be safe. It was at this time, with her kitchen ablaze, that the ‘stay put’ policy was finally revised, and residents were encouraged to evacuate if they could. The 29-year-old mother and her son went out into the black smoke and somehow made it to the stairs. Many of the people going down were being told by other residents that they should go up. There was too much smoke below, they said, and people weren’t making it to safety. The Haftoms met Jessica Urbano Ramirez – the girl who had been home alone on the 20th floor – on the stairs. Jessica’s father, who had been at a friend’s flat down below, had made it out and police would not let him re-enter the building to find his daughter. According to the phone records, Jessica and the Haftoms were discouraged by other people from going any further down the stairs. Jessica was on the phone with someone at the control centre for a very long time. But it was confusing: nobody wanted to send people down the stairs when it was known that some people hadn’t made it. But why were the firefighters not coming up with breathing equipment and helping them down? Why indeed.
Jason Garcia, Jessica’s cousin, lived in a neighbouring block and when he saw the tower was on fire he called Ramiro, Jessica’s dad. ‘We have been evacuated,’ Ramiro said. ‘I’m here with Adriana and Melanie’ – Jessica’s mother and older sister – ‘but we don’t know where Jessica is.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jason asked.
‘She’s not with us,’ Ramiro said. ‘We don’t know where she is.’
Jason, like so many family members, ran to the tower and tried to get to the base. ‘Police stopped me and said, “No, this road is blocked,”’ Jason told me, ‘so I ran down Bramley Road – I thought I’d go down the walkway. Same thing there. Blocked off. They said they were treating people.’ When Jason looked over he saw people on the ground under blankets and others wearing oxygen masks. He heard the police saying to some other people: ‘You don’t want your children to see this road.’ But eventually he fought his way through to where Jessica’s family stood. Mr Urbano was wearing shorts and was wrapped in a towel. He had no shoes on. ‘They were all in shock, just staring at the building.’ On the upper floors, people were standing at the windows, waving cushions and towels, and some were leaning out. It happened that one of the firefighters, David Badillo, knew two of the uncles, Carlos and Manfred Ruiz, from the sports centre – they had all worked there as lifeguards – and Melanie gave Badillo her keys to their flat, 176 on the 20th floor. (They still hadn’t heard from Jessica.) Badillo went into the building without breathing apparatus and took the lift. According to reports, the lift stopped halfway up and the fireman stepped out on a landing full of smoke. He immediately came back down, Garcia said, grabbed a tank of air and walked back up the stairs, accompanied by a colleague. They went to the 20th floor only to find the door to the flat ajar: Jessica was gone. In fact, it seems that Jessica had been on the stairs, but further up, when Badillo got to the flat, but he had no way of knowing this. Jessica had gone up a few floors with Berkti Haftom and her son, on the advice of people on the phone, because, it was said, the air was a little clearer. Jessica then borrowed Berkti’s mobile and called her mother outside. ‘I’m scared,’ Jessica said. ‘Come and get me. Help us.’ They were on the stairwell and nobody knew what to do.
‘Get out. Run as fast as you can,’ her mum said.
But no one came to guide them down the stairs. The confusion was forcing decisions that weren’t decisions, and Jessica and the Haftoms eventually followed a group of residents up to the top floor of the building. In Flat 142 the Begum family refused to leave their father behind, an 82-year-old Bangladeshi curry chef named Komru Miah. His two sons, his daughter, and his wife, Rabia Begum, 65, could be heard praying together with him as the fire swept onto their floor.
Sakina and Fatemeh Afrasehabi, two Iranian sisters, were having trouble getting out of their flat on the 18th floor. Sakina used to work at the Punch & Judy Nursery in Earl’s Court, but now she was disabled. Only the year before she had asked to be housed closer to the ground. On the night of the fire, once the lifts were out, the sisters came to accept that Sakina would not make it down. ‘She was housebound,’ her daughter Nazanin said. In an attempt to remove themselves from the smoke, they climbed the stairs and made it to Flat 205 on the 23rd floor, with the help of the Afghan man, Mr Neda, who lived on that floor with his wife and son. Fatemeh could hear the helicopters above them. On the telephone with her son, a taxi driver, she wondered why the helicopters couldn’t rescue them. Mr Neda, whose flat they were in, was supposed to follow his family down the stairs. The minicab driver’s disabled wife, Flora, was carried down the entire 23 flights on the back of her son, Farhad, a recent graduate in mechanical engineering who had martial arts training. Both he and his mother survived. Sepideh and her son, Karen Aboud and her sons, Hamid the fish-seller, Mr Neda’s wife and son, Alison Moses and Maryam Adam and Mr Kebede, in whose flat the fire started: they, along with hundreds of others, got out of the building and they stood below, believing everyone would get out. They would, wouldn’t they? In 2017, with all these firefighters, and all these cameras?
Biruk Haftom became separated from his mother, who was overcome by smoke on the landing. He went into the flat of Raymond ‘Moses’ Bernard, a kind, well-known old gentleman who lived on the 23rd floor with his dog, Marley. A great many of those who died ended up on this floor, Jessica included. Gary Maunders had also climbed the stairs to escape the smoke. ‘He used to try and scare us when we were younger,’ his niece Channel said. ‘When I used to be in bed sleeping, lights out, he used to come into my room on his hands and knees. He was just a wind-up merchant, he really was.’ Gary’s friend Deborah Lamprell was also on the 23rd, along with Hamid Kani, who fled the revolution in Iran in 1979. His cousin Masoud said the former chef loved his flat, with his hookah and silver samovar. Something happened to these people, a life, yes indeed, but also a death, a very public one, and to ignore it, or let it go in a cloud of unknowing, would fail to mark their attempts at survival. It is hard to think about, but these people all went up to the top of the tower looking for a chance.
Most of the stories are hard to bear. The Shawos, who lost sight of their five-year-old son in the black density; his body was later recovered from the 13th floor. Victoria King, who was 71, and her daughter Alexandra Atala, on the 20th floor, never made it out. Anthony Disson, 65, a former bin man and Fulham fan, left it very late before trying to get out of his flat. ‘We used to go “totting” together,’ his son, Lee, said. ‘You know, scrap iron. He had a big horse called Lady and a little Shetland’ – he had stabled them under the Westway – and was a friend of Steven Power, the man on the 15th floor with the bull terriers. Anthony was a rogue; he’d been around, and because of that he was a favourite with the boys at the boxing club at the bottom of the tower. He had told his family on the phone that the floor of his flat was too hot. He was persuaded to put a wet blanket over his head and make for the stairs, but he only made it to the 19th floor. Mohamednur Tuccu and his wife and child, the family who were visiting the tower for the ‘best Ramadan yet’, went up to the 23rd floor and that’s the last place they were heard of. The people in Mr Tuccu’s family all loved seeing him, they said, because he was great at giving presents. ‘One Eid,’ his cousin Sui Sui said, ‘he bought all his nieces and nephews a Nintendo DS.’ Marjorie Vital and her son Ernie left their 18th floor flat at the last moment and tried like so many others to find deliverance at the top of the building. From phone messages, it appears many thought they could get onto the roof of the building and be rescued from there, but the door was locked. Mr Tuccu went looking for another way out and tried the stairs. He made it to the bottom but he had inhaled too much smoke and died on the grass near the leisure centre.
Down there, a number of hoses were throwing water at the burning building, but it wasn’t reaching much past the tenth floor. It was like watching daisy sprinklers at the scene of a prairie fire. Already it was clear that this was the kind of catastrophe that would be remembered for several generations. As at Aberfan in Wales, in 1966, where a spoil-tip collapsed killing 116 children and 28 adults, and at Hillsborough in 1989, where 96 football fans were crushed to death, people were already wondering what the disaster at Grenfell said about Britain and the way we live. ‘We have to look this in the eye,’ one of the police officers later said to me. The fire hadn’t even reached its dreadful zenith before the TV announcers began shaking their heads and looking for austerity commentators and someone to blame. The mass distraction began early with Grenfell. New things were still going very wrong as the commentators assumed their positions and the cameras whirred.
Among the last of those who lived high up to be brought out by firefighters were two children, a five-year-old girl, Tasnim Belkadi, who survived, and her sister, Malak, aged eight, who died of smoke inhalation. They had lived on the 20th floor with their parents, Farah Hamdan, 31, and Omar Belkadi, 32, both of Moroccan descent, and their baby sister, Leena. Omar died trying to get his family to the stairs and his wife’s body was found huddled on the stairs between the 19th and 20th floors, her baby wrapped in her arms. Khadija Saye, a 24-year-old photographic artist, lived in Flat 173 in the same part of the building with her mother, Mary Mendy. Khadija was born in Hammersmith and went to school in Ladbroke Grove but her family was originally from Gambia. Their flat was a shrine, of a sort, to all their combined memories and passions. It was a home not a house: the large framed mirror on the sitting-room wall; the picture of Khadija in her first communion dress; thick red curtains on the windows, a bookcase filled with books, and a small white sculpture of the Venus de Milo beside a crucifix. The flat was filled with beautiful headscarves and jewellery, including one of Khadija’s favourites, a gold pendant of Africa on a chain. Mary was Christian and Khadija’s father was Muslim. There were many photographs, including one of Khadija with her father outside a London mosque. ‘Photography has been a part of my life since I was born,’ Khadija said to the BBC a few months before the fire. Work of hers had made it into the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She wore one of her many headscarves and the African pendant for one of her interviews in Venice. ‘My heart is so full,’ she said.
‘So the Khadija heading back to West London, what’s she like?’ the presenter asked.
‘She is an artist,’ Khadija replied. By the end of her time in Venice, she had sold all six of her Victorian-style daguerreotypes and had been offered an internship in New York.
‘Her soul was of a kind,’ said Betty Jackson, speaking of her sister Mary Mendy, Khadija’s mother. Their relative Demel Carayol, also an artist and a former member of the group Soul II Soul, was full of memories the day I tracked him down in Palmers Green. ‘Mary came to the UK with the help of her brother,’ Demel said, ‘and it was a bit of a struggle.’ But her flat in Grenfell Tower was a happy place. ‘Her brother Gabriel used to come from the Gambia for carnival and he’d live with them. I once took my drinking buddy to see Mary and Khadija. “You’re not leaving until you eat,” Mary said – that was her thing. She had a giving nature, a Gambian thing.’ She was a Catholic and at one time she sang in the choir of St Francis of Assisi on Treadgold Street, just round the corner from the tower.
The tower was now completely ablaze. Every floor was on fire apart from a few at the bottom, and yet, here and there at the edges, you could still see individual residents, or pairs, waving T-shirts and shouting for help. Khadija Saye took to Facebook when all seemed lost. She didn’t have her phone. She had tried several times with her mother to face the stairwell, but the smoke overwhelmed them and Khadija said she was going to faint. Back in the flat, she tried to gather herself for a final push. ‘Please pray for me,’ she wrote on her Facebook page. ‘There’s a fire in my council block. I can’t leave the flat. Please pray for me and my mum.’
Some people never got out of bed, the fumes killing them while they slept. This seems to have been the fate of Ligaya Moore, a 78-year-old woman who came from the Philippines 45 years earlier, fulfilling a dream she’d had from childhood, to live in London. Mrs Moore died in her bed surrounded by photos of her husband, Jim, a retired British soldier, who died a number of years before. ‘It was the best end,’ a friend of hers said, ‘if you’ll forgive the use of such a positive word in connection with such a hellish situation. But whatever was happening around her, it wasn’t hell for Ligaya, a small mercy in all of this.’ Next door to her, however, Yasin El Wahabi, the young man who had run up the stairs to rescue his family, was trapped with them on the 21st floor: his father, Abdulaziz, his mother, Faouzia, from the sewing class, his sister, Nur Huda, who was 15 and a pupil at Holland Park School, and his eight-year-old brother, Medhi. Abdulaziz’s sister Hanan lived on the ninth floor and had managed to escape; they were in phone contact and it seems the El Wahabis had tried to go down the stairs but were sent back. ‘The firefighters had told them to go back up,’ their neighbour Lulya Gebremeskel said. Against the odds, Lulya and her mother eventually got out alongside the Gomes family from Flat 183, also on the 21st. Andreia Gomes was pregnant; her baby Logan was stillborn later that day. The El Wahabis had been the hub of life on their floor. At home in Larache in northern Morocco, Faouzia’s mother had woken up in the middle of the night. ‘I woke up but I wasn’t happy,’ she told me. ‘My son gave me bread and milk but I couldn’t take it.’ She worked in a fish factory. ‘And on my way to work I didn’t feel normal,’ she said. ‘They told me at nine in the morning. They said “missing” but I knew they were dead.’ Faouzia had spoken to her sister on the phone and said the emergency services operators told them to go into a bedroom and to put wet towels along the bottom of the door. ‘Don’t worry,’ Faouzia said, ‘they’re coming. They told us to go to the back room. Your uncle is talking to them on the other line.’ Eventually they held each other on the bed and Abdulaziz led them in the shahada, the final prayer.
As she made her way down the stairwell, Helen Gebremeskel worried about her friends, the Choucair family, in the flat above them. It would be one of the biggest losses that night: six people on the 22nd floor, a Lebanese family who lived in two flats, wiped out, like the El Wahabis, while they waited. Bassem Choucair, a former military man, worked in Earl’s Court at the M&S Simply Food store. His wife, Nadia, was an assistant at Avondale Park Primary School. Her mother, Sirria, sixty, who lived in the other flat, used to work at the Royal Marsden distributing meals on the wards. Nadia could be seen at a high window with her husband, waving a flag when all hope was gone as the fire raged through the building later that night. Emergency calls made by the Choucairs suggest they believed to the last that the helicopters above the tower could save them. They died with their three girls, Mierna, 13, Fatima, 11, and Zaynab, three. The Eritrean family who lived in the flat between the two Choucair residences were the Hashims. I first spoke to the family’s close friend Jamal al-Muallem a week after the fire. ‘Nura was studying the Quran,’ Jamal said, ‘and we were part of the family at her wedding to Hashim Kedir.’ Jamal ran the Eritrean supplementary school on behalf of the Westway Trust. ‘All the children were in our school,’ he said. ‘They were extremely hard-working. Firdaws and Yahya were meant to come camping with us this summer.’ Yahya was football-mad. Firdaws was friends with Hiba Ali; they would spend Saturday nights together at the Westway Trust in Acklam Place, talking about their lives and studying the Quran. Firdaws won awards for writing and debating. ‘The girls always knew what was going on,’ Hiba’s mother, Ahlam, said. ‘It was Hiba who first knew and told us about the fire because she saw it on social media.’ Hashim Kedir was an Uber driver who usually worked late at night. A friend of the family stopped me one day a month after the fire. ‘A week before she died,’ the woman said, ‘Nura went to see a woman whose husband had died. And she said to the woman, “When I die, I wish I could die on Ramadan. It is a blessed time.”’
On each floor of the tower, there was a bin room and a bin chute, all of them sealed and therefore smoke-free. (When police entered the tower later, these rooms were still completely intact.) But nobody took refuge there. The emergency services operators were advising people to go into back bedrooms and put down wet towels, but no intelligence appeared to be coming back to these operators from firefighters on the ground, describing the true situation and possible escapes. Even after they’d been there several hours they didn’t seem to know about the existence of the possibly safe bin rooms or even about the basic path of the fire, the way it was travelling round the skin of the building, condemning people who were taking refuge in back bedrooms. According to several of my sources, radio communication between the firefighters in the tower and the chiefs on the ground wasn’t working. ‘It was eerily quiet,’ one fireman said. ‘The radios weren’t working. The higher up you went in the tower the more alone you felt. No one could talk to anyone outside. That was the biggest failing.’ To make it worse, very few of the two hundred firefighters made it past the 20th floor, because they had been issued with oxygen packs of standard duration – not the extended duration packs required when rescue operations are likely to take longer than 25-30 minutes. The reason it was eerily quiet on the upper floors was simple: there were no firefighters there, and the people who had been trapped on these floors had decided, or were advised, to go up to the very top of the building, where they all perished. ‘Once it was obvious we had lost control of the fire,’ the same fireman said, ‘the “stay put” policy should have been changed.’ But that didn’t happen until after evacuation was no longer possible for most of the trapped residents. While Marcio Gomes was leading his family down the smoke-filled stairs from the 21st floor – he’d sprung into action, saying, ‘It’s now or never’ when his curtains caught fire, and it saved their lives – the El Wahabis, only next door, awaited death in the back bedroom, still listening to the advice of a London Fire Brigade which knew less than they did about the fire, despite having been on site by then for three hours.
In the final hours, neighbour after neighbour tried their best to help and shelter the people around them. ‘Moses’ Bernard clung to his dog, Marley, and to Biruk Haftom, the boy from the 18th floor who had lost his mother. Mariem Elgwahry, 27, who worked for the website Quidco, and her Egyptian mother, Eslah, came from the floor below looking for a way out, joining many others at the top. None of the firemen was truly equipped to reach these victims, whose messages make it clear that they tried to protect one another, especially the children, until time ran out. Mr Neda, the man who had helped an elderly neighbour, and whose son had carried his wife down the stairs to safety, returned to Flat 205 out of options. He jumped. His next-door neighbours were a young couple from Italy, Marco Gottardi and Gloria Trevisan, 27 and 26. They were in London to work as architects and had told their friends it was heaven. Gloria grew up in Camposampiero, near Padua, and Marco was from San Stino di Livenza, 71 kilometres away. ‘She came to London because it’s the city every young person wants to come to,’ said Emanuela Disaro, Gloria’s mother. The pair had met while studying in Venice at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, one of Italy’s oldest architecture schools. That night, Gloria called her parents and told them the stairs were impassable. Marco came on the phone and tried to reassure them. ‘There are firemen here,’ he said, but there weren’t. Later, Gloria knew they weren’t going to make it down; she left a message for her family and her friends. ‘Her feelings poured out,’ her mother said, ‘very deep, private, beautiful and strong.’
The upper floors were now completely quiet, except for the piercing sound of smoke alarms coming from various flats. Rania Ibrahim, the Egyptian woman who dreamed of living in a small Victorian house, had been asleep and was woken by the smoke and the sound of sirens from the street. When she looked out at the landing there was smoke everywhere and people were wandering about confused. Rania brought several of them into her flat: the first was Fathia Alsanousi, a south-western Sudanese woman of 71, who lived on the other side of the landing on the 23rd floor, with her daughter Esra and her son Abufars, who had been visiting that night. Mrs Alsanousi used to attend the Arabic school in Kilburn and was a well-known face on the 316 bus. ‘I would go to her flat and drink tea with her as if we were in Sudan,’ her former carer Ikram Abbasher Taha told me. ‘So many people did. Her flat was very good but Fathia was always complaining about the height of the tower.’ The Alsanousis were granted asylum in the UK in 1993. As the fire raged below them, all three came into Rania’s flat, where at first it seemed the air was better. Rania later opened the door again and called for Hesham Rahman from next door, who came in from the dark corridor. Rania was talking to her husband, Hassan, who was on the phone from Cairo. ‘It was the first time those neighbours were in our house,’ Hassan later told me. ‘I asked who they were and Rania said it was the lady and her daughter and her son, and I said: “Give me the son.” I said to him: “Can you please take the family and go down.” He told me people were coming to get them. From his voice, I knew he was confused.’ Hassan called again a few minutes later. He was worried about what was happening. “Please, go down,” he said.
‘No,’ Abufars said. ‘The firemen said to stay here. A helicopter is coming.’
‘Fethia, my daughter,’ Hassan said to me, ‘she’d always say: “Daddy, when I am a doctor I will help everyone.”’
Two days before the fire, Rania shared a video on Facebook with the caption: ‘Son, death is coming.’ The video shows people in motor accidents against a soundtrack of prayers in Arabic. When I met Rania’s older sister, Rasha, she told me it was strange that Rania had expressed such an interest in dark things. ‘Rania loved life,’ she said. ‘But when our mother died two years ago, Rania told me she would be the next to die. Seven months before the fire she came to me when I was having a child. I said to her: “Rania, if I die, look after my children.” And she said: “No, Rasha. It will be me first.”’ It was part of Rania’s religious sense and therefore her sense of life that death was imminent. She told her sisters and her friend Naseem that when she died she wanted a celebration where people would eat great food and talk about the good things Rania did.
‘You’re crazy,’ Naseem said to her. ‘That will be a long time from now.’
‘No,’ Rania replied. ‘Soon.’
Naseem is the friend who went to the supermarket with her, the friend who was at her graduation from the English class, the one who promised to bring cheese pie to the tower when the fast was over. ‘The night of the fire,’ she said, ‘I turned my phone to airplane mode when I went to bed, because my husband told me it was bad for radiation to keep your phone on. So I missed Rania’s call. I woke up to the sound of helicopters and only later did I see her message on Snapchat.’
Rania was running Facebook Live as the situation worsened on the top floor. The neighbours she had brought in were shouting from the windows and her children were in the bedroom. ‘Don’t open the front door,’ Esra said.
‘OK,’ Rania said. ‘I’m just scared maybe there’s someone outside.’
‘They’re in the other flat.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘They’ve gone into the other flat.’
Rania: ‘La ilaha illa allah’ (‘I believe there is no God but Allah’).
‘Listen,’ Esra said. ‘You have children. Standing near the door – the smoke is not going to help you. Where is your husband?’
Rania: ‘La ilaha illa allah.’
Esra: ‘There’s too much smoke here now.’
‘OK,’ Rania said. ‘I’m going to open it. Oh God.’ She continues in Arabic. ‘There is no God but Allah. There is no power and no strength except with Allah.’ When she opens the door and shouts into the corridor, a man’s voice comes back, saying they are OK and are in another flat. Rania comes back inside and closes the door.
The video cuts out. But later she started the broadcast again, pointing the camera over the window ledge so that they could see the shining lights of the safe city beyond. When we can live everywhere in our minds, when social media can take us anywhere, it feels absurd to be trapped in one building. Safety lies only seventy metres away, but it could be a million kilometres, and the freedom of her audience watching on Facebook, and the freedom of everyone who can just watch, is caught in a word she says in Arabic, meaning ‘lucky’. ‘The building is burning from the top and from underneath,’ she was saying. ‘We are on the top floor; the top floor still did not burn yet. God forbid. You can see all the people who were lucky to leave.’ In that phrase, the people watching are inside the room with her, but of course they aren’t inside the room, they are seventy metres or more away, and the story of her entrapment is another sort of reality show.
‘The ambulances are all downstairs,’ she said. ‘We are not OK.’ She coughed. ‘Can you see the planes?’ She recited the shahadah. ‘The fire is coming up. There is no God but Allah.’ She drew back from the window to speak to one of her children. Her breath grew shorter with panic and she continued to pray. ‘Oh, Allah. I seek refuge from sudden death. The police are saying to get out, the whole building is burning and we are on the top floor. To Allah we belong and to him we will return. Oh, the helper of all living things, help us, help us.’ Her neighbour Esra leaned out of the window and shouted: ‘We’re stuck on the 23rd floor! Hello? There’s too many people stuck upstairs! Hello?’
‘Pray for us,’ Rania said. Her voice evened out and she seemed calmer. A scholar told me she was strong in those moments in her use of Islamic prayer. ‘Pray that God covers us and protects us. Peace be upon you all.’
Mr Rahman returned to his own flat and sat on his yellow sofa, surrounded by all the stuff of his life, his photographs and his combs. He had been a hairdresser for many years. ‘He could see the pitches of the Westway Sports Centre from his window,’ his nephew Karim Mussilhy later said. (Karim grew up with him.) ‘He’d make fun of me because he knew I played there: “Karim, were you wearing a green top? I saw you playing and you were rubbish.” He was the king of banter in our house. He taught me how to do a tie and he helped me get my first job.’ The others in Rania’s flat began to pass out from inhaling too much smoke. Abufars, the son of Fathia, returned to his mother’s flat and a while later his body was seen falling from the building.
‘I don’t want to see this fire because it makes me cry,’ the little girl Fethia says in a Snapchat video her mother made close to the end. ‘I want my dad, because my dad is going to …’ The video cuts out. Months later, when I sat with Fethia’s father in the lobby of a London hotel, he related this moment to me. ‘I am not,’ he said, ‘going to let this …’
He uttered an inaudible word and I didn’t ask him to repeat it. But I knew anyhow. ‘I am not going to let it make me cry.’ Then he cried for a whole hour and showed me his pictures.
Rania’s best friend in the tower was Munira al Hassan, who lived on the fifth floor with her husband, Mohammed, and his elderly father, Ahmed Rasoul. The couple had a toddler, Hassan, named for Rania’s husband, and the four of them made it out of the tower soon after the fire started. The family went to spend the night with another friend of Munira and Rania’s called Samia Bashir, who lives a few streets away. At one point, the adults all went back to Grenfell Tower to look for Rania and the girls. When they got there, there were crowds everywhere and TV cameras with their lights on, and Samia and Munira looked up. They knew the exact flat and they could see that there were flames raging out of all of the windows. It was hell on earth. Mr Rasoul, who has dementia, was sitting in a wheelchair looking up at the building. ‘I want to go home,’ he said. ‘I want my shoes. Can you get me my keys? I want to go home to my flat now.’
II: The Building
When I went to Kingston to see Matt Wrack, the head of the Fire Brigade Union, he spent the first half of our interview talking about cuts. In the old days, you had to get the permission of the home secretary to close a single fire station. It was a holdover from the Blitz, and the idea of the fire brigade as a last line of defence. But that began to change during the Blair era and there has been a flurry of reductions in the fire service. ‘Knightsbridge Fire Station has closed,’ Matt Wrack told me. ‘Kensington Fire Station has lost a fire engine. Half the fire cover within four miles of Grenfell Tower has gone in the past four or five years.’ The number of experienced firefighters available in London is constantly under threat. ‘They call it double-jumping, jump-crewing, variable crewing – different terms they use for it,’ Wrack said. It was clearly a struggle to get enough firefighters into the tower early enough, and they didn’t have the equipment they needed. He told me he had spoken to a number of people who had been among the first to arrive, and who had said: ‘If we’d had more people earlier on we could have got more of the residents out.’
But there was something that Wrack wouldn’t be drawn on. A number of fire experts told me the response was weak. Everyone knows that cost-cutting is a problem but there was also a problem with the way the Grenfell response was managed. We don’t like to say these things, but events on 14 June show that, regardless of our affection for them, the professional fire services’ response to the fire at Grenfell Tower was anything but strong. The biggest weakness, all my sources agreed, was the slowness in telling residents to evacuate. Quite simply it caused nearly all of the 72 deaths. ‘There’s a moment,’ the fire expert Stephen Mackenzie told me, ‘when the tactics have to move from “remain in place” to “assisted evacuation”.’ It had been obvious from very early on, even to spectators on the ground, that the fire at Grenfell Tower was not going to be put out, that it was jumping from floor to floor via the cladding, and that anybody staying in the building was in grave danger.
For a period in the 1980s, my father lived in a block of flats in Irvine, the Scottish town that later became famous for a fire. On 11 June 1999, in a flat three levels up from where my father had lived, a fire broke out and quickly spread out of a window to set the building’s exterior cladding alight. The building went up, witnesses said, ‘like a matchstick’; it only took ten minutes for the blaze to race up the building’s façade and then sweep through nine of the 14 storeys. One man died and several were injured, and the incident led to a review of safety issues relating to external cladding. It set a new British standard, first enshrined in the Building (Scotland) Act 2003, which introduced the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which came into force on 1 May 2005. These contain a mandatory regulation: ‘Every building must be designed and constructed in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire within the building, or from an external source, the spread of fire on the external walls of the building is inhibited.’ The UK government in time produced its own set of improved fire safety recommendations, Approved Document B, which, it was suggested, should be adhered to by all building authorities in the UK. It was revised in 2010, with a new regulation: ‘In a building with a storey 18m or more above ground level,’ it says, ‘any insulation product [or] filler material used in the external wall construction’ should ‘be of limited combustibility’, which doesn’t sound very reassuring.
The prompt for the revision was a fire at a block called Lakanal House in Southwark, South London, in July 2009. Six people were killed and twenty injured. The fire spread up the exterior cladding. The coroner had called for better and clearer guidance on the use of plastics on the exterior of tall dwellings: the fire was evidence that regulations were being ignored by a construction industry keen to maximise profit. In August 2016, there was another fire at a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush. The London Fire Brigade wrote to every borough council in May 2017 and told them they needed to re-risk-assess their buildings in the light of the fire, but few of them did in the month that remained before Grenfell. Over the last twenty years pressure groups working on behalf of the construction industries, encouraged by the Blair government’s deregulation mania and the ‘commercialisation of safety’ that came with it, allowed industry to flout regulations and fake tests and call it normal practice. The marketing of insulation products is notably misleading and contractors are known to use combinations of products that have not been tested together. These two things are believed to be behind the fire at Grenfell Tower. Other people would be found to blame, but manufacturers, and those who help them get away with unacceptable standards of fire safety, are the culprits in this case. The plastic insulation industry is one of the most litigious in the world, but it is common knowledge among fire safety experts that their advertisements and their tests are bogus. The pursuit of climate change goals has aggravated the situation. ‘Since the Kyoto Agreement of 1997,’ Stephen Mackenzie told me, successive ministers ‘in the Department for Energy and Climate Change have been cosying up to the insulation industry and encouraging relationships with the plastic industry because they can help meet climate change targets. Once profiteers and fortune-hunters in those industries see the green opportunity, market pressures begin to warp building controls.’ Other analysts agree with him that these firms have been lobbying government for a long time, leading to the ‘greater acceptability’ of their merchandise. The only trouble is that their products were hazardous all along and contravened regulations. In 2011, Mackenzie says, the Department for Energy and Climate Change invited representatives of the insulation industry onto a Green Deal Committee ‘to come up with ways to push more insulation into homes’ – and onto the outsides of homes. ‘We discovered that of the ten firms and construction industry groups on that committee, four were members of the main lobby group for the plastic insulation trade,’ called the Insulation Manufacturers’ Association. ‘One of them was Celotex, the firm whose plastic insulation was fitted to the outside of Grenfell Tower.’
The Department for Communities and Local Government – Sajid Javid’s department at the time of the fire – funds the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to conduct fire safety research and influence building controls. The trouble is that the BRE both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing. ‘The BRE is a research organisation,’ said one source, ‘doing private-sector testing as well as independent fire investigation, and ultimately they have been writing these reports to say everything’s fine.’ For many years now, it has been funded by the government to keep everything as the industry wants it to be, and as government requires it to be in order to meet environmental targets. ‘It’s a scandal waiting to open up,’ one industry researcher said. ‘Look at these government ministers in a hurry to point the finger, but what about their own decisions, and those of the BRE they fund, in allowing those cladding companies to keep putting those lethal products out there?’
I went to Warwickshire to see a safety inspections guru called Dave Sibert. He was popular with fire chiefs but also with industry veterans, people who like plain speaking and who are worried about the dangerous new trend of ditching regulations. Mr Sibert was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon. He didn’t waste time: the Grenfell Tower fire, he said straightaway, was about the contravention of safety rules by the building industry – ‘That’s the headline failure’ – and also about successive governments’ negligence in holding the industry to account. ‘Up until recently,’ he said, safety inspectors ‘wouldn’t look at the outside of the building anyway, because we’d have assumed that the construction control process would be right in the first place. So how did it get to be the way it is now? Well, building control has gone through similar problems to the fire rescue service. The introduction of approved inspectors introduced competition into the building control sector.’
‘And traditionally,’ I asked, ‘building control would have been the responsibility of the local authority?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If they weren’t happy with the building plan for some reason they’d reject it. But it was decided in the 1980s by the Conservative government that they should introduce competition into the building control sector. We were told that competition improves quality. It’s not been done in any other form of local government enforcement, except the private sector is now allowed to issue parking tickets, but parking tickets are hardly the same as fire safety. What competition actually does is make service providers deliver more of what the customer wants. When building control was with the local authority, when they were the only people doing it, their customers were the public.’
‘And with social housing, the residents,’ I said.
‘Yes. But once you introduce competition, the customer is the person building the hotel, that’s who they’re really wanting to satisfy, because they want their business. Will I win that business by being really strict and worrying about the patrons’ ability to escape through the door? No. I win that business by saying to the person who’s building the hotel: “I’ll charge you next to nothing for approving the plans and I will use my discretion very generously when I’m looking at your plans and deciding whether or not they actually comply.”’
The cynicism is not in the mind of the customer. Very few people will ask construction companies to cut corners – they want their buildings to be safe. The game being played by plastics and insulation companies, by construction firms and competitive regulatory bodies, is hidden under the rubric of keeping costs down. This new culture had an impact at Grenfell Tower. The many bodies doing the work would pass along false options, for example, between this metal and that metal; one of them may be marginally more fire-resistant than the other, but both ‘of course’ meet industry regulations. In fact neither truly meets the standards by any true measure, and in any event the regulations aren’t properly enforced. The council was happy to raise the initial budget for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower from £6.9 million to £10.3 million, but a member of the Tenant Management Organisation sent an email to the project managers, Artelia, asking for ‘good costs’, best prices, to show the following day to the council’s cabinet member for housing, Rock Feilding-Mellen, and the council planner. It was alleged by the Times that this email provoked the decision to go for ‘using aluminium panels rather than zinc’, which ‘could mean a “saving of £293,368”’. But the council didn’t ask for costs to be cut or safety compromised: the TMO just asked for a saving and no inspector stepped in to say that aluminium panels shouldn’t be used.
The fact that no inspector will deeply investigate the flammability and contradict the choices made is chiefly the result of privatisation. Twenty years ago, Sibert said, the council’s ‘building control officer would have received the warnings about all of this stuff and he would have had the balls to stand up and say: “No, that’s wrong. You can’t put that on that building. It says in the regulations it has to be of limited combustibility and actually that stuff’s not safe.” But these independent inspectors simply don’t have the competence or the confidence to say that, because they know that the next time somebody wants to approve a building like that, they’ll just go and hire another approved inspector, so they lose out on the fee.’
Dave Sibert knows very well the man who was responsible for previous inspections at Grenfell Tower. His name is Carl Stokes. A well-trained and experienced fire consultant, Stokes did the fire assessment at Grenfell Tower before the refurbishment, but he was not called back by the TMO after the work was completed. ‘Carl was a fire safety inspecting officer for donkey’s years,’ Sibert said, ‘so he’s spent his career actually doing those intrusive inspections under the Fire Precautions Act.’ (I contacted Mr Stokes for this story but he didn’t respond.)
‘Why didn’t the TMO ask him back in?’
‘I don’t know. What they should have done was call back the fire risk assessor to check if the work was OK. To be honest, the TMO didn’t take the blindest bit of notice while the work was going on, so the least they could have done was get the fire risk assessor back, especially after it was clad. They were sent a letter by the London Fire Brigade, as all the borough councils in London were, after the inquest into the Lakanal House fire, which stated that one of the causes of that fire spreading was the combustibility of the material on the outside of the building.’
There is strong evidence that a concatenation of failures at the level of industry regulation and building controls, more than anything else, caused the inferno that killed 72 people. More than sixty different organisations and subcontractors were involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, and many are answerable for small oversights with huge consequences. But the biggest of all has to do with industry regulations about cladding. Councils all over the country were victims of serial perversions of safety standards, overseen by government agencies going back to 1997. It is argued that the material wrapped around the exterior of the tower – Celotex RS5000 insulation and a Reynobond cladding covered in aluminium, with a polyethylene core and a 50 mm cavity between the insulation and the cladding – was ‘tested’ on a desktop, but never properly in situ.
Many allegations have been made by the Grenfell Action Group. Like a lot of people, I had been thinking about their ‘warnings’ since the night of the fire. When I met Sibert, I asked what he thought of the group’s claims. Their earlier fears about safety issues in the building were being taken as straightforward predictions of what happened. ‘This list of complaints that they’d come up with,’ Sibert said, ‘problems in the building that had never been resolved: none of those has anything to do with the way the fire spread. What they do point to is an ownership with a management regime that had absolutely no interest in fire safety. They hadn’t listened. OK, they were minor issues but they were issues that the tenants had raised.’
The Grenfell Action Group hate the Tory council. Over many years, the council had been the enemy and to them every move it makes stinks of corruption. The media made much of the group: the oppositional tone it took with ‘rich toffs’ from Kensington and Chelsea Council suited both the sense of public outrage over Grenfell and the wish for instant retribution, but the group had never been very popular on the estate. They had struggled to get anybody to pay attention to them; one of them told me it defeated him, how the people in the tower could remain inactive in the face of so much ‘corruption’. But that is the lot of many activist groupings. Edward Daffarn, a resident from the 16th floor who wrote many emails to the council, and Francis O’Connor, who wrote many of the blogs, were committed local agitators with a deep disgust at what the council and its TMO was failing to do for the poorer people of the borough. I spoke to many tenants who respected the work of the action group and who contributed to its efforts, but I spoke with the targets of their accusations, too, and it’s clear that there were prejudices – huge ones – on both sides. But what could they tell you about the fire and its aftermath?
The TMO had never overseen the major refurbishment of a block before, but it was the project lead. There is evidence that the organisation, although it included residents, wasn’t too keen on those who vocalised objections to it. Like the council itself, the TMO’s members weren’t keen on consultation, finding the process a boring hindrance rather than an opportunity. I spoke to one woman, Juliet Rawlings, who had been a tenant member of an earlier incarnation of the TMO, via an involvement in the residents’ association. She thought it was a good idea to have an organisation in the borough that would run the housing stock. ‘The council were falling over backwards to support the organisation,’ Mrs Rawlings said. Another TMO member from that time, Reg Kerr-Bell, agrees.
Kerr-Bell became chair of the TMO in February 2010. He feels, as does Rawlings, that the TMO’s strength was such that all matters relating to Grenfell’s refurbishment were its remit. In the press, very little distinction is made between the council and the TMO, but it was the latter who ran the tower, and the cabinet of the council just topped up budgets. Rawlings and Kerr-Bell suggest, however, that the TMO became more intermeshed with the council under Robert Black, who was chief executive at the time of the refurbishment. ‘He instilled a culture where you couldn’t complain,’ I was told. I contacted Black, trying to get him to respond to this allegation, but he preferred not to.
In a blog posting in November 2016, the action group’s long history of accusations against the council and the TMO came to a head. ‘It is a truly terrifying thought,’ the blog said, ‘but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.’ This was clearly stated, and would seem irrefutable after the fire, but at the time it was merely the latest in a barrage of complaints going back to 2013. Some had to do with electrical power surges; others with service vans regularly blocking emergency vehicle access. They had the support of Judith Blakeman, one of the local councillors, in this (they later accused her of collusion with the TMO on other matters). ‘We are not in a position to accuse TMO officers of conniving to mislead the London Fire Service,’ one blog said, ‘and of playing Russian roulette with the safety of local residents, and nor would we presume to make such accusations. We do, however, invite our readers to study a selection of the many photographs we took, and to form their own conclusions.’ This was before the refurbishment had even begun. On 20 August 2014, by which time it was underway, the group sent an email to Ben Dewis, fire safety team leader at the London Fire Brigade.
A number of residents of Grenfell Tower are very concerned at the fact that the new improvement works to Grenfell Tower have turned our building into a fire trap. There is only one entry and exit to the tower block itself and, in the event of a fire, the LFB could only gain access to the entrance to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs. Residents of Grenfell Tower do not have any confidence that our building has been satisfactorily assessed to cope with the new improvement works and we are seeking a meeting with the chief fire officer from Kensington Fire Station so that these concerns can be addressed.
Fire safety was a regular interest of the group – though they never said anything about cladding or the safety controls relating to the new materials. In 2015 there was a reference to ‘the poor standard of work’, and a suggestion that a significant number of residents ‘are not satisfied with the standard of the work delivered by Rydon [the building contractors] and many claim they felt bullied into having the work done by the TMO in the first place’.
‘That’s just not true,’ a council worker told me. ‘We tried to answer every issue raised by the action group, but it was never enough; they bombarded us with round-robin emails and to my knowledge we tried to keep on top of them. It’s not easy when the TMO had 6500 other social tenants and 2500 leaseholders to help in the borough. But this Grenfell group was political. They hated everything the council and the TMO did, no matter what. But it is simply false of them to suggest the refurbishment was forced on them. Tenants asked for it to happen, heat insulation on the tower was not good and the windows were poor, and the understanding was that the refurbishment would regenerate the block and to some extent compensate residents for having put up for so long with the building work on the academy down below.’ It is no secret that the action group had opposed the building of the school and the new leisure centre, suspecting, quite accurately, that green space, vehicle access and trees would all suffer. Other residents argue the school was necessary and the leisure centre a boon. ‘Residents of Grenfell Tower,’ the blog said, ‘have long since learned that it is useless to try and raise concerns or complaints about this shabby and abusive treatment that has attacked our community and turned our homes and residential amenity into a massive, unsightly and uninhabitable building site.’ That was their view and they pursued it obsessively. Over five years, the action group complained about noise, double-glazing, air pollution, housing policy, gentrification, the fate of a local college, local trees, a cinema and a library, some Labour councillors, all Tory councillors, asbestos, Holland Park Opera, and dozens of other things they didn’t like. As with many urban residents’ groups, they made their estate sound like a terrible place to live, yet the tenant population was among the most stable in the country. Tenants very much tended to stay. ‘That’s because they were frightened to move and lose their tenancy,’ one activist told me. ‘No,’ another local said. ‘It’s because they lived in one of the most exciting parts of one of the most exciting cities in the world, surrounded by giant parks and local amenities.’
In any event, whatever the arguments, the members of the group, who would come to be seen as the wise men and women of the disaster, had a long history of objecting to the council and its representatives. The objections took the form, first, of argument and blog postings and emails, later of denunciations in the media. What the group had to say would be worrying in any context, but now, retrospectively, it seems devastating, like deaths foretold. And the thing about warnings is that, even if they’re not totally on the nose, they create a defining context. Nobody was talking about cladding and nobody was talking about corrupt building regulations. Nevertheless: ‘It is our conviction,’ the action group’s blog said, six months before the early morning of 14 June,
that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high-density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! [We] believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.
Very early in the morning, as the tower still burned, people began mobilising these arguments and creating a high judicial platform for them. We wanted political scalps before the fire was out, even if it meant that the worst failures of the night would take a long time to be recognised. A game of political name-calling and blaming began, which appeared, for the better part of the coming year, to meet the needs of a world that demanded stock villains. It was a sign of the times: not only the fire but our reaction to it was relayed all over the world.
The firefighting operation at Grenfell was a huge and dramatic failure, though nobody wanted to say so. The national government’s role was cynical and opportunistic from the start, though everyone missed this in the rush to name local culprits. And journalism, hour by hour and day by day, showed by its feasting on half-baked items that it had lost the power to treat reality fairly. You saw it everywhere. Channel 4 News, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Sky News, the New York Times: from the middle of that night, they began to turn the fire into the story they wanted it to be. Reality wasn’t good enough, the tragedy wasn’t bad enough, it had to be augmented, it had to be blown up, facts couldn’t be gleaned quickly enough, and stories went without investigation, research, tact or even checking. In a world of perpetual commentary in which everyone and anyone is allowed their own facts, accusation stands as evidence.
III: The Aftermath
‘I went to the grass place outside the building,’ Sepideh told me. ‘I was shocked and I couldn’t breathe properly and I just sat down. The noise: everybody was crying, screaming. I didn’t even take shoes from the flat for my son.’ Ella, a social worker from Kensington and Chelsea Council, who had been working with Sepideh over several years, had gone to collect her and they went together to Rugby Portobello Trust, a local charity which had opened its centre in Walmer Road to help with the emergency. Ella was able to act for Sepideh, who felt too shocked; she had left her medicine behind and Ella quickly raised a prescription. The council worker spoke to some of her colleagues, all of whom, from early in the morning, had been engaged with the question of where residents from the tower were going to sleep. They quickly booked Sepideh and her son, Sepehr, into the Premier Inn at Earl’s Court. Sepideh had asked to be near friends. Ella would go on working with the Red Cross in the hope of bringing Sepideh’s family over from Iran to help her. (She arranged the visas with the Home Office. It was a painstaking process, but they came eventually and the council put the family all together in a temporary four-bedroom flat in Sussex Gardens.) While they were at the Rugby Portobello Trust they saw Naseem al-Washwei, Rania’s friend, who had missed her call when she put her phone on flight mode. ‘When I woke up to the helicopters I put on the TV and saw how awful it was,’ Naseem told me. ‘I gave my kids to a friend and began running towards the tower.’ She grabbed a fireman.
‘Where are the survivors?’ she asked. He just shook his head. The tower was completely engulfed in flames. He said many people who’d managed to escape were at the Rugby Portobello Trust, and some were at the Methodist church. ‘In the Portobello there were devastated people everywhere,’ Naseem said. ‘It felt like a war zone or like a hurricane. Children crying. People everywhere.’ Naseem saw another firefighter and stopped him. When she told him about Rania and what floor she was on, he looked away and was hesitant. ‘Do you have anyone with you?’ he asked.
‘No. What is it?’ She could tell he didn’t want to say.
‘We couldn’t get to the last four floors,’ he said eventually. ‘We didn’t manage to get anybody out from there.’ People say Naseem fell to the floor screaming. She was kicking on the floor, beside herself. ‘I knew they had gone,’ she said to me. A woman she knew came and took her into the church to eat something. ‘You can’t fast when you are like this,’ she said.
As she was leaving the rugby club Naseem took out her phone and saw the post Rania had left on Snapchat as the fire reached her flat. ‘Some people believe that if you die in a fire you die a martyr,’ Naseem said. Rania’s big sister, Rasha, hopes that is true. She hopes it is also true for Nura, who died with her whole family in the bedroom of the El Wahabi flat. ‘For us they lived together,’ Rasha said, ‘and they died together and are buried together.’ Nura had her books with her for her exams. Her chemistry, her Matthew Arnold, all of it going with her, as ‘the moon lies fair/Upon the straits’.
Many of the Muslim women I spoke to weren’t keen on retribution. Most of them had no interest in apportioning blame or fighting over compensation. ‘It is all in the hands of God,’ more than one of them said. At the rugby trust that night, many voluntary groups and community leaders had set up operations, trying to help people who were suddenly without soap, toothbrushes, clothes, car keys or bank cards. Charities would play a crucial role in the story of Grenfell, neighbourhood charities particularly, of which the rugby trust was the most prominent (people tend to call it the rugby club). Chris, the caretaker, and his wife, Jan, who does the cooking, opened the building at 1.25 a.m. when they saw residents from the tower wandering the streets. Mark Simms, chief executive of the trust, came in as soon as he got the message. ‘When I saw the tower I was aghast,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got to the club and it was pandemonium in there, but all our volunteers had turned out, our entire London team. We’d done the human thing and opened up and said: “Come and get shelter.”’ He said the police presence at the club at that point was nil. By early morning there was a great phalanx of reporters at the door and nobody to control them. Simms and his staff quickly learned that a number of the survivors were diabetic: they needed insulin and other medicines so they set up a GP surgery and brought in a local pharmacist.
At 11 a.m., Kensington and Chelsea Council sent over ten housing officers who immediately began the task of finding accommodation. ‘They were brilliant, I have to say,’ Simms told me a month after the fire. ‘They stayed right until the early hours of the next morning to make sure no one had to sleep on the floor, contrary to …’
‘To what was said.’
I didn’t follow up with him on this at the time, but it would later seem to me a crucial step in my experience of what happened in the aftermath of the fire. From the minute people started talking to the media, it was generally accepted that the council had done nothing at all to help the victims, that it had caused the fire, and that they, as Tories, hated people who lived in social housing. You see it in the earliest reports. It was a set of suspicions, or wishes, swiftly taken for granted. The community, and London on the whole, does well in a crisis: donations started immediately; very soon there were too many volunteers and too many items and not enough leaders. There wasn’t a coherent plan: nobody had ever expected such a fire on such a scale, nor the ensuing media attention. So the first thing that happened was that local voluntary organisations – many of them, though no one admitted it, maintained, supported or set up by the council – took on the role of frontline provision. A local car hire firm spent a week and a half transporting survivors from rest centres to hotels; another company gave evacuees a new mobile phone with free credit; there were laptops being given out, and money. Marks & Spencer, the White Company, Selfridges, all donated new clothes; Ikea donated bedding, and one of the high street chains provided bras. Questions about financial donations would come later, but the first wave of help was substantial, community and business-led. Of course, there was immediate anger at what had happened, and who could be surprised? The first wave of anger, ironically, was at the media, whose ‘intrusions’ people have become accustomed to both inviting and disparaging, sometimes in the same moment. Rugby Portobello understood this from the off, saying: ‘No press in the building, no politicians, and no pop stars’.
Kensington and Chelsea Council mobilised 340 staff on 14 June, some of them coming in from Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster. According to the action logs, they worked on the case from the morning of the fire, and the number of workers grew as the days passed. They came from Housing Services, Adult Social Care, Finance, Building Control, Children’s Services, Environmental Health, Transport and Highways, and Emergency Planning. I spoke to some of the social workers who’d immediately gone to the tower that morning. (I won’t use their real names.) David says his first thought was for some of the families he knew who lived in the tower. There was ‘an aunt and uncle and three children’ he had worked with; some of them had been approved as foster carers. David had family meetings with them and had spoken regularly to them on the phone. ‘I guess that was the first thing I was thinking,’ he said, ‘about any families that we knew or have known, and just checking, are they OK? Are they alive and what can we do to support them?’ Pairs of social workers went to the hospitals to identify families that needed help and what sort of help. David and Sally did a lot of running around – for instance, getting a government grant and a laptop for a family in hospital, doing lots of practical arranging, shopping, replacing lost items, and getting items to hotels. ‘But there was a narrative forming,’ Sally said. ‘It was becoming more and more narrow, with no real room for complexity or nuance.’
‘That we weren’t doing anything. But we were there doing everything that feasibly could be done at that stage. We had worked with lots of people in the community for a long time so everybody rang everybody. I got told that we had a number of children in the hospital and we weren’t sure if there were parents with them. It was St Mary’s in Paddington. I went with another social worker. St Mary’s was on lockdown, loads of journalists outside, loads of families and family members in the reception area, but we got through, we linked quite closely with our safeguarding lead there, and we were able to work closely with them through the morning. We went to their briefings and their emergency response meetings, we went to numerous wards. I went to intensive care, and at that point we had three children in intensive care, one of which, luckily, had family members around. Two different family groups, both families completely overwhelmed, and not sure what was going on, not sure where their remaining family members were, asking us all sorts of questions: “Where is my sister?” “Where is my husband?”’
‘Two of those children had lost their parents,’ Serena said. Serena is a young social worker who helped Karen Aboud and her children to come out of the building.
‘We didn’t have a job description in that situation,’ Sally said. ‘It isn’t a social worker, child protection role, it was a role of being compassionate, trying to offer information where we could, trying to support them. We had our phones on 24/7 for two weeks.’ Every social worker I spoke to said the needs got more complicated as the housing requirements kicked in. ‘Initially,’ Sally said, ‘we had a very basic grid of getting passports, getting identification for people, in some cases liaising with immigration, making sure they had money coming in, making sure they had healthcare, checking with GPs. Have they got prescriptions? Have they got appointments coming up? Going to school, getting kids to and from school.’ One of the social workers shook her head. ‘I remember wanting to say to people: “I do this job because I am on your side! I am motivated by injustice and inequality and I think everybody should be housed decently in this country. And I come in day in day out to achieve that and I am not on any side apart from equality, that’s what motivates me.”’ The assumption that everybody who works for the council is a Tory annoys her. ‘I rent somewhere in Tower Hamlets,’ she said. ‘I can’t afford to buy. And I travel 75 minutes to work, half of my wages go on rent, and I joined the profession to help people who need help not to ignore them.’
Workers in all departments of the council that morning set about compiling reliable lists of who was in the building on the morning of 14 June. There’s no easy way of knowing if tenants were home that night, or if they had friends or family staying, or if they’d let out their flat to somebody else. ‘Obviously the emphasis at that time was housing,’ a senior Children’s Services worker told me, ‘so, apart from contacting my teams and liaising with the hospitals and then sending workers off to be with residents, because by that time we already knew there were lots of bereaved, we were also staffing the rest centres. As it happened there were lots of centres, in churches and mosques and so on.’ They had to split their staff between all the different centres, and keyworkers were slowly attached to individual families.
‘You know what?’ another head of service told me. ‘On day two, we sent a ton of people out to the hotels to settle people. The housing officers were there and everybody was active. And at one point early on, one of my colleagues called and said: “Actually the families have said can you stop sending people.” That’s the irony.’
‘It doesn’t fit the narrative,’ another one said, ‘but in actual fact there were too many helpers. And there were too many donations. And there were too many crazies. But you won’t hear that on Newsnight.’
‘As often as possible,’ Frida from Children’s Services said, ‘we had to sit down and cross-check to see that every family had a keyworker. But families would then say to journalists and politicians, “Oh no, I’ve not seen anybody from the council,” because they didn’t associate the person sat next to them in the room with people from the council.’
‘One of us did a long interview with the Press Association and he had two or three sides of notes of things that Children’s Services had done and he put it out to all the newspapers and no more than one paper picked it up, it was just not what they wanted. It wasn’t the narrative. I think there was one small article in the Times.’ Nobody from those departments ever spoke to the press again. When I began to meet these people, I had been speaking to families, survivors and people in the community for months, and they were wary and many of them spoke anonymously. But they were relieved to speak, at last, and I set out to corroborate everything they said with documentary evidence.
The council found hotels for hundreds of residents that day. Everyone from the tower who wanted to go and everybody from the blocks below. Housing officers arrived at the town hall while the tower was still on fire, and some of them barely left the office for days. They had their own ‘emergency attack’ plan and they sent out ten or 12 officers to each rest centre. Everybody was desperate for a list of the missing, but it isn’t easy to provide that. For a start, it was difficult to be sure so early on, and while the media were desperate to know and busy accusing everyone who didn’t have the information to hand of being ignorant, careless or callous, you have to be very careful with lists of the missing. People can turn up and it’s out of order to release information that families might rely on. It’s the job of the police, but everyone wanted the housing officers to confirm names, although they couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t. ‘It felt as though we were doing the police’s job as well,’ an experienced housing officer told me. ‘That’s how we felt. Officers were being asked these questions, and the council was being blamed for not being able to say whether a family member was alive or not, but it was never our job. The council was being presented with an impossible task.’
But something strange began to happen. A feeling turned into a slogan, and suddenly the ‘narrative’ the social workers talked about later was in place: the council was on a mission to neglect. At one level, the narrative was connected with something both the public and the media wanted: a story of our austere times, a totemic unfairness myth. Then, as one of the housing officers put it, Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington, ‘starts saying to the press “the council isn’t here,” and it was absurd.’ Council workers on the ground felt she was treating the whole thing as if it were a political game. They say they’d brought in everybody they had and were working with all departments to provide support. ‘We were going from rest centre to rest centre, and we started to worry that people weren’t coming down anymore because of what Dent Coad and others were saying.’
‘That was the narrative,’ another council worker said. ‘It was the story they wanted: the richest borough neglects people in social housing. It was very difficult. We had officers here working 18 hours a day.’ I spoke to them about the Grenfell Action Group and repeated the allegations they had been making over the years, and the warnings they’d issued. I spoke to the officer who liaised with the TMO and she listened before sighing and throwing her hands up.
‘I can assure you I went through these emails. I’d check what was to be done. I clicked the links they sent, and there were thousands.’
‘So you didn’t ignore them?’
‘That idea is false. If I ignored anything it’s because I didn’t see it. And I’d feel guilty if I missed anything. But we were bombarded. I think the assumption is, if you work for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, you are posh, you’re a Tory, and you believe in everything they stand for when it’s quite the opposite.’
Respect for the narrative became a badge of honour and people who questioned any aspect of it were themselves deemed questionable. It’s an old tactic and it is still in play around the Grenfell disaster. As soon as Martin Moore-Bick, the chair of the public inquiry, announced that he would be seeking answers rather than taking dictation from those with passionate feelings, he was dismissed as a ‘posh white man’. It was reported that the community felt he had ‘the wrong background’. How could a man who hadn’t already seen the answers be a sound defender of the narrative? Theresa May wrote to Moore-Bick on 10 May to say she was appointing two members of the local community who recognised ‘the scale and breadth of issues to be considered’ to join the panel: she hoped it would reassure people in the group Grenfell United.
Several of the residents we spoke to – Antonio Roncolato, Karim Mussilhy, the Alves family – were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the council. Many of the survivors I spoke to had nothing to do with the group and didn’t feel that meeting with the prime minister would ease their pain or improve on what they’d had from the council. The group was secretive, slightly exclusive (‘Those people you mention aren’t necessarily involved in what we’re doing,’ their press contact said when I mentioned some activists I’d been speaking to), and soon became the kind of group that wants to know you’re on its side before it will answer your questions. When I sought Edward Daffarn’s response to some of the questions raised that involve him, he referred me to the Grenfell United press contact I’ve just mentioned. She wanted to see my questions for him and for Grenfell United, and told me they might reply and they might not. (They didn’t.) Daffarn’s days of writing to the council were long gone, and now he did half-hour interviews with Jon Snow on Channel Four News, unchallenged. (Many people liked being asked to provide opinions, but they didn’t want to be asked to provide evidence, and they gently slid away.) Grenfell United also had the prime minister to talk to. ‘What happened at Grenfell was an act of war,’ rapped one of Grenfell United’s supporters in a fundraising video. ‘Hundreds of deaths and you can bet there’ll be more.’ This was the ‘voice of the community’ the government was keen to appease. ‘This wasn’t Great Britain,’ the rapper says, ‘this is Grenfell Britain.’
Initially, like everyone else, I felt angered by the sight of the burning building. In time, hoping to get to the bottom of what happened there, I set up an office near the tower and took on researchers so that we could examine everything. I believed the public inquiry that May set up would be a whitewash and I decided to examine the council’s actions for myself. I imagined a Jeremiad would follow: I had grown up on a housing estate (it wasn’t called social housing then) and tower blocks were part of my life. I’d even written a novel, Our Fathers, inspired by Glasgow’s evangelical tower block planners, and I felt I knew what was at stake in the story. I came with my agenda and I wrote to everyone and I briefed my colleagues – ‘Let’s get the bastards who did this’ – and I felt enthused by the general outrage, and by the people on the ground who appeared to be saying the right thing. And then I listened more closely, and I began to notice the inventions, and I would check what was being said against the documents and emails, and I could see the manipulations, great and small, but persistent. I left the office after a while and ended up on my own again, testing everything that was said against what actually happened, such as the amount of council presence there was after the fire. And I saw something: a great many people, many of them appearing in the media every day, were spinning a series of beliefs and wishes into a great concatenation of ‘facts’. It was W.B. Yeats’s tower where we each ‘pace upon the battlements and stare/On the foundations of a house’, sending our imaginations forth to ‘call/Images and memories/From ruin’.
On Wednesday, 14 June, people in the community and some who worked in the media, along with certain MPs, began talking up the numbers of casualties, claiming that there ‘had to be’ four hundred or more victims, what with immigrants and others in the tower. ‘But they just weren’t the sort of secret asylum flats where people hid from the authorities,’ Mark Simms of the rugby trust told me. The local council had serious questions to answer, and from the beginning I could see that they had never done effective enough consulting in their wards. Rock Feilding-Mellen closed down the Tenants’ Consultative Committee, thinking it had only been overseeing vents, which were now statutory. But if you look at the minutes of the 1995 meeting that set up the TMO, you see that the Consultative Committee’s remit was larger than that: ‘The TCC will play a key role in the annual review of key performance indicators and in the annual setting of targets.’ Feilding-Mellen did not agree with me about this. ‘We did a ton of consulting,’ he said, ‘and no council is ever said to have done enough consulting.’ Still, even if I was right about that, it doesn’t explain why the council became such a locus of hatred after the fire. The answer may lie in what could be called the dislocations of compassion. It may seem right, in these times, to place compassion before composure, and to feel insulted by authorities who appear to think when they should be feeling. I’ve never met two Tories exactly the same, but I suspect that in North Kensington there is a deeply founded suspicion, among a small vocal group – a group that had lived with a Tory council for ever and were sick of it – that these posh individuals, the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names, their affinity with private development and their expensive educations, were sitting ducks. Seven years into austerity, and so soon after a close election, which the Labour candidate, Dent Coad, had won in Kensington by twenty votes, the climate was right for the storm of disapproval that was about to hit the council. Nowadays, when we hate the establishment, we accuse it of not caring. (‘Show Us You Care,’ the Daily Express entreated after Princess Diana’s death.) Before the sun had even risen on the devastated tower, an effort was underway to pretend that the council didn’t care about the victims, that it was doing nothing to help the survivors, that its leaders and officers were sleeping soundly through an unspeakable tragedy for which they were responsible. The story was about ‘them’, men and women of ‘their kind’, posh ingrates, white English toffs.
A toxic brand of cheap compassion threatened, from early on, to distract us from finding out what really caused those deaths. The clues to the tragedy were hiding in several tons of ash: the products used by those contractors, the fittings, the whole safety apparatus – the shoddy windows, the bad doors, the failed cavity barriers and the flammable cladding. It was a story of deregulation and industrial malfeasance enabled by the actions of several governments, Labour, Tory and coalition. The council made a mistake by not having its officers wear tabards the whole time they worked in public, and it made another mistake in not establishing its lead over all the voluntary groups active from the morning of the fire. But its biggest mistake was perhaps in not looking sufficiently guilty in front of the cameras. Not a single media outlet reported over the course of those first days that housing officers from Kensington and Chelsea went to the Rugby Portobello Trust (and the other centres) to help the victims. Or that more than three hundred staff were deployed immediately. Or that the council’s director of education, Ian Heggs, was in discussion on the morning of 14 June with the heads of eight local schools (I’ve seen the emails) about pupils from the tower. Nor that the education officers met with school heads and arranged for pupils to have psychological support and to be schooled elsewhere while the academy was closed, and organised transport as well as paying for uniforms. Or that hotel beds were supplied for hundreds of people and funds located immediately or that provision grew over the days. None of that mattered, it seems.
Inspector Mike Rumble, an affable, by-the-book policeman with white hair and a beard, is part of the Parks Police Team. He was woken up at 2.45 that morning. The call came from David Kerry, the borough emergency planning officer. ‘There’s a major fire at Grenfell Tower,’ Kerry said. ‘Nick Layton is there.’ Layton was one of those people, a bit like Rumble himself, trained as a local authority liaison officer, intended to be a point of contact between the council and the emergency services during major incidents, as well as co-ordinating with the TMO. Layton acted as the town hall keeper; he lived in a flat there, and was called first. Rumble lives in a job-attached cottage in Holland Park. On receiving the call, he immediately pulled his clothes on and jumped in his car. He had spent thirty years in the Sussex Police, and attended the Brighton bombing. He headed straight to the rendezvous point. There were vehicles, people and fire engines everywhere – it was 3 a.m. – and he had to abandon his car at Avondale Park and walk up Walmer Road to Silver Control on Bomore, just under the tower, where the fire commanders were based. ‘We’re here as the local authority,’ Inspector Rumble said: ‘What do you want from us?’ Tasks were allocated straightaway, meetings were held every hour, and Rumble was on the scene for 14 hours. Huge piles of equipment were set up by Kensington Leisure Centre. Police commanders were nervous about this location: it was too close to the burning tower, which many at the scene thought was about to collapse. There were tents, a Salvation Army truck, refreshment vans, fire engines, police cars and ambulances. The chief firefighters were desperate for information, and Rumble contacted the TMO to get floor plans of the building and a list of registered tenants. The fire commanders, he remembers, were keen to locate the man who occupied the flat where the fire started, but he couldn’t be found. Everyone who worked at the scene says that the demand for information was constant and overwhelming. How many people were in the block? Do we know if they were home? What are their names? Do we know what floor? Which flat?
Did anybody speak to them? Did we check the hospitals? And in that situation, with press people closing in, there is a firm obligation to say nothing more than you know, and especially nothing that could upset a waiting family or give them false hopes. Facing a barrage of questions, members of the council often gave the impression of clamming up – or ‘hiding something’, as their opponents would say – but it’s more likely that they were trying to behave responsibly. ‘I was asked more and more complicated and intimate questions,’ one of them told me, ‘to which I either didn’t know the answer or that I shouldn’t answer.’ Information comes slowly and inaccurately in a disaster, everything blurs, yet questions are asked every minute that might take anyone months to answer. ‘How many people in the tower were on benefits?’ one journalist asks, quite legitimately, while burning material falls from the building. A councillor not ready with the information, and not willing to speculate, is seen to have revealed his incompetence. Into the gap rushed a battalion of ‘local experts’ and ‘community leaders’, quite a few from other areas, keen to speak on behalf of the victims before appearing on the news to denounce the guilty parties. Many of these ‘residents’ had nothing to do with North Kensington and had never been in Grenfell Tower. And many of them, with hearts in the right place, people for whom every day is a day of rage, were veterans of other disasters in which the Tory ‘perpetrators’ were equally obvious. These people were often denounced by local residents (and one another) for jumping on the bandwagon. But the press ignored this. ‘The story was in the bag before I even spoke,’ Nicholas Holgate, Kensington and Chelsea Council’s town clerk, told me. ‘As a civil servant for 24 years and a local government officer for eight and a half years I was trained to be impartial, objective and evidence-driven. None of that was evident in the stories that became conventional wisdom in no time flat. It was amazing that a terrible tragedy was made gratuitously worse by people rushing to judgment and using others’ grief to score points. To make matters worse, the government then goes into a pre-emptive cringe.’
Inspector Rumble spoke to his team and put them all to work. He got to Sergeant Helen Tilbury at 5.30 a.m. PC Emma Hicks and PC Kelly Hicks, contacted a bit later, went to the rugby trust building in Walmer Road while Tilbury and PC Dave Pullan went to another temporary relief centre, Clement James in Treadgold Street. ‘Because we were in uniform,’ Rumble said, ‘we were seen as authority figures, but people wouldn’t have perceived us as having anything to do with the council. But we are council. I was inside the cordon and my team were there all day.’ This team were present, according to logs, every day for more than a month, acting as local authority liaison officers and working with the Red Cross. ‘Then,’ one of them told me, ‘criticism of the council became the news and we were effectively banned from the site.’ These council officers, in truth, had been in charge of some of the grimmest jobs related to the tragedy. I spoke to the person who took responsibility for removing the body of one of the victims who jumped. The council workers were baffled when they saw what was being reported on the news. A great number of people – ‘people with decades of experience in public service’, a cross-borough official said to me, ‘employees who really cared for people in social housing, and worked for them every day’ – were distressed and, they said, ‘astonished’ by the picture being created.
What the council didn’t have was good public relations. There was a team of eight responsible for PR, several of them part-time, and it was overwhelmed from the start. You may wonder what PR has to do with a disaster, but if the entire world’s media are suddenly looking for information and interviews, your ability to help them to the truth is crucial. In major disasters, local councils have to play second fiddle to the emergency services – the council facilitates and enables – but at Grenfell the world had been alerted to watch for uncaring behaviour. Had the public relations people understood that, and understood it early, the council might have made more effort to be seen doing what it did. Instead, staff members just did it, while the hours ticked by and reporters went with the happy conviction that the council was entirely absent. ‘It was made more acute,’ another council worker said, ‘amid this pandemonium, by the way the voluntary groups had very quickly organised themselves in a phenomenally impressive way. Ironically, we were pleased to see this because we had supported those voluntary groups for so many years.’ A social worker who knows the area intimately told me it was quickly evident that a great variety of community leaders, some of them self-appointed, were ‘taking charge’. She told me their attitude was very much, ‘these are our people, you people fucked up, sit back and take the blame,’ even though all kinds of services were being provided by the council. I have many witnesses who recall Nicholas Holgate saying to colleagues: ‘Take what you need. Use whatever funds are necessary.’ After hundreds of hours of interview for this story, and examining receipts and records, I can confirm that the council provided cash, medical help, hotel accommodation, taxis, banking and immigration advice, visas, and took on the task of rehousing and social care, while overseeing the management of donations. Social workers and key workers were on constant call.
‘Nobody said “no” to anybody,’ one of the department heads told me. One survivor said he needed a pram for his one-year-old. ‘We said: “No problem: dozens have been donated.”
“No,” he said, “I want a new one.” The one he wanted cost £900. We bought it.’
Nicholas Paget-Brown, who was then the leader of the council, lives alone not far from the Fulham Road. His gentle manners precede him, in the style of a decently prepped, slightly fogeyish man of the 1950s, and he acts as if he might find the modern world fascinating were it not so loud. In the middle of the night his phone rang; it was Maighread Condon-Simmonds, a friend of his who was on the board of the TMO. ‘You should turn on your television, Nick,’ she said. ‘There’s a fire in one of our blocks. It’s bad. It’s Grenfell Tower.’ He put down the phone and did as she said. The pictures were shocking: the whole tower was in flames. He dressed and got into his car for the 15-minute drive to Lancaster Road, where he stopped. He thought by then the building would be empty of people. He looked up. Surely this was the burning hulk of an empty building. Wandering near the base of the tower, he found Robert Black, the head of the TMO. It was about 3.45 a.m. Paget-Brown spoke on the phone to Holgate, who said there would be a Gold Command meeting – the gold commander is supposed to provide strategic leadership in major public emergencies – and informed Paget-Brown that he was coming to the tower and would then go to the town hall.
Holgate would later say there was a group of local people who had ‘an ideé fixe’ about the council and the management organisation. That group was already speaking as if the fire was their vindication. It wasn’t obvious that what they had complained about before had anything to do with the fire, but Holgate came to suspect that their ‘deeply felt antagonism’ might well be seized on by the press. In any event, he joined Paget-Brown in thinking that every assistance must be provided to the residents. Rock Feilding-Mellen, the deputy leader of the council, lived in Bramley Road, in a house very near the tower. He was woken by his wife at 3 a.m. and went to the window, from where he could see what looked like a blowtorch of flame above the low-rise buildings and walkways at the base of the tower. He immediately sent a text message to Laura Johnson, the council’s director of housing, and to Holgate. Once he’d got dressed and gone outside he called Robert Black. The streets were full of people and blue lights were flashing everywhere. Black told him he was behind the police cordon on Whitchurch Road, under the tower. When Feilding-Mellen arrived behind the cordon he was told that three people had died. ‘I was shocked and devastated to hear of that loss of life,’ he told me, ‘at that stage not imagining there could be more people trapped.’ Paget-Brown soon joined them and they began walking round the area, seeing what they could do. There were camera crews everywhere and someone suggested that, as leader of the council, Paget-Brown should say something. So he spoke to some Australian broadcasters and then gave an interview to Sky News. ‘Several hundred would have been in there,’ he said. ‘It’s a question of establishing how many people were in there at the time of the fire.’ Mishal Husain, one of the presenters of the BBC Today programme, asked him what he thought of the advice given to residents to ‘stay in their flats and wait to be rescued’. He said that was ‘a matter for the London Fire Service’. He seemed more uncertain when he began to speak about the building’s safety regulations. ‘The council,’ he said, ‘will always ensure that its own properties are inspected by the fire service and high standards are set. There are national regulations about fire safety.’ It would later become clear that high standards were not maintained at the tower, and the council’s regulatory and assessment system was at best unreliable. It was not Paget-Brown’s job, but the building belonged to the council, and he ventured on some of these answers without a terrific understanding of the various mistakes that were made beyond his sightline.
But that doesn’t explain the wrath that was waiting for him. For that you have to attend to the perfect storm that was even then swirling around the tower. Journalists were already trawling the Grenfell Action Group’s blogs, looking beyond the smoke for a smoking gun. And it appeared that they had one. People in the tower had warned that it wasn’t safe, and, by daybreak, the public wanted heads to roll, or the media did. Several men were quickly identified who appeared to fit the bill, none more so than Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen. In a matter of hours, Theresa May and her ministers, seeing the way the wind was blowing, began to distance themselves from their local authority colleagues. With no evidence beyond a few blog posts and the converging astringencies of ‘public opinion’, the prime minister, according to sources who worked closely with her, ‘began falling apart’. So soon after a close election, ‘she thought the Grenfell incident could bring them down.’ So she sought safety by joining the national hiss against a handful of pantomime villains, the unluckily posh-seeming leaders of a rich-seeming council, who just happened to have the wrong names at the right time. ‘Journalists would ask about “warnings”,’ a friend of Feilding-Mellen’s said to me, ‘but how could he ask his housing officers, in the middle of the crisis, to go back to their desks and trawl through hundreds of emails from these groups to see what was done about supposed warnings? Those officers had been working since the early hours trying to find accommodation for people who’d been burned out of the building. Every hand was at the pump, desperately trying to deal with this unfathomable disaster. Yes, Paget-Brown and the others were under attack, but they couldn’t stop to defend themselves. How could they make it their priority, as politicians, to drag officers away to answer less important questions posed by vicious journalists?’
Paget-Brown attended the first Gold Command meeting at the town hall, chaired by Holgate. ‘Tomorrow we are going to be joined by two people from Southwark,’ Holgate said, ‘who were involved in the Lakanal House fire.’ Holgate felt the expert advice would be welcome. They also discussed a plan to make sure survivors had consistent keyworkers. Provision at the centres where the survivors were gathered was also discussed – by now they had opened a third one, at the Westway Sports and Fitness Centre – and Housing reported on progress with finding hotels for people not only from the tower but from the homes at its base. Paget-Brown had been up all night and he went home to wash. He appeared again a few hours later to check in at the relief centres and give interviews to the press. The anger had now become general, not to say universal, with commentators and ‘community leaders’ speculating that many hundreds were dead. It would prove to be one of the more sinister aspects of the story, that people close to the tragedy, or seeing themselves as close to it, continually inflated the number of the dead, as if the numbers could only make sense if attached to larger fears and limitless disgust. Pop stars seemed especially liable to confuse conspiracy theories with political engagement, and certain stars have what you might call perfect pitch for moments when the distance between their fame and the lives of others might speedily be narrowed. Some of them, Adele and Rita Ora, were simply moved and wanted to help. Others spotted a soft opportunity for the stoking of misunderstanding in the name of political progress. Lily Allen knew how people were feeling on the ground, she said. ‘So many community centres have been closed down,’ she said, wrongly. Pubs, she added, had been turned into homes for rich people, presumably rich people very different from Lily Allen. And ‘people are not encouraged to have a community spirit,’ despite the new leisure centre, the sports centre, the Rugby Portobello Trust, the supplementary schools, and the Notting Hill Carnival, each of which the council supports. She went on Channel 4 News to report that ‘people know the council don’t care about them. If we’re talking about reality, what people would really like is a more honest account of how many people have been killed.’
‘I’ve been a Labour voter for 35 years,’ a woman from the council who works in Children’s Services told me. ‘I used to love Channel 4 News. Now I hate it.’ On Wednesday, 14 June, with flames still billowing from windows in the tower behind them, Jon Snow interviewed Paget-Brown. ‘Can you guarantee that the poorer people who are moved out of here’ – Snow asked, pointing to the tower – ‘will not be replaced by rich people being built fancy new flats to replace it?’
‘Jon, I …’
‘Can you guarantee it?’
‘I really think that’s just an awful allegation and I’m not going to justify it with a response.’
‘I was merely asking for a guarantee for people who have lived in this building.’
All public tragedy now brings well-meaning colonisation. It’s the way things are. Jon Snow felt he was speaking up for the victims of an obvious case of corporate manslaughter, but what was obvious about it? Apart from the accuser’s zeal, what was obvious in that exchange? Journalism is in trouble because a rush of personal conviction has – for reasons of economic necessity – overwhelmed the essential dynamics of professional doubt. Newsfeeds don’t have time for doubt. ‘Go with your feeling’ is the motto. In the game of errors you can never be wrong about how you feel. (Or can you?)
Most of the real families in Grenfell Tower loved their flats and, when I asked them, objected to being characterised as ‘poor people’ living in undesirable circumstances or even in what we’ve come to call social housing. Many of them felt more oppressed by ‘the wider community’ and by ‘people jumping on the bandwagon’ than they did by the local council. They didn’t feel marginalised or pushed out or gentrified by the rich people of Kensington; they felt pleased to have lived in a nice part of London, with nice parks and a good mix of people. But none of this made it into the papers. Journalists preferred the story that the people in the tower were poor people kept to the margin, that the refurbishment was forced on them, that the council hated them, and that the Tories who’d ruled over them for more than fifty years wanted to harm their children and raze their homes in order to build more properties for their rich friends. Newspapers abounded with untrue stories, and I wondered if the general election, as well as Brexit and austerity, had left the liberal conscience estranged from reality, perhaps especially after an election in which the person who won appeared to lose and the person who lost appeared to win.
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham and a family friend of the artist Khadija Saye, accused the authorities of covering up the ‘true’ number of the dead in order to prevent a riot. ‘Trust is at rock bottom in the community,’ he said. ‘Failure to provide updates of the true number that died is feeding suspicion of a cover-up.’ ‘Residents saw dozens of people jumping out of windows to escape the fire.’ ‘Bodies piled up in stairwells and corridors.’ When Emily Maitlis of Newsnight asked Lammy to justify these comments, he retreated in a welter of compassion for those who ‘witnessed it’. ‘I wasn’t there,’ he said. ‘Ask Nick Paget-Brown.’
Antonio Roncolato, a rare beneficiary of the ‘stay put’ policy, was rescued from his flat on the tenth floor after six in the morning. ‘I could hear the noise of people trying to go down the stairs,’ he said. ‘I pictured myself in blindness.’ He had stopped answering his phone because people kept telling him what to do, but he was scared; he could see smoke coming through cracks around the windows. ‘I thought: “The company that did this obviously didn’t do a proper job.”’ Water began pouring down his walls from a flooded flat above him. At 6.20, he got a call from his son, Christopher, who was outside, saying that a fire chief wanted to speak to him.
‘Mate,’ the firefighter said. ‘Get ready. Someone is coming to get you.’ He heard a knock at the door and it was them. Two firemen.
‘How many are in here?’ one of them asked.
‘I’m going to be in front,’ the other one said. ‘You’re going to hold my jacket. My colleague will hold you from the back.’
‘I wouldn’t say I went down the whole ten floors without breathing,’ Roncolato later said, ‘but close to it.’ He was taken to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Fulham Road and his family came to get him at 1 p.m. ‘They were dressed up. I didn’t recognise them. They had no tears left to cry.’
A man in his seventies, Elpie Bonifacio from the Philippines, was the last resident to be rescued from the building. He had waited 12 hours, waving a tea towel from his kitchen window, before he was brought out by firefighters at 11 a.m. He was taken to hospital and spent a long time in a coma. During the hours he’d spent at the window, waving his tea towel and praying, cameras were on him, the breakfast shows seeing him as a symbol of desperation as the inferno raged. Neil Thompson, the editor of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, ordered that the cameras be kept on him. ‘At the point at which Elpie started to cry,’ he said later, ‘there was smoke billowing out from behind him, and I told them to cut off him. Anybody watching would have assumed – wrongly as it happened but not unreasonably – he was going to die.’ The man’s family argue that it was the TV coverage that alerted firefighters to his location. ‘But that’s not why we did it,’ Thompson admitted.
Many of those who escaped believe there will always be something of themselves left behind in the tower. Karen Aboud, the Lebanese make-up artist and mother of two boys, who lived on the 12th floor, made for the stairs after her social worker rang from the bottom of the stairs shouting: ‘You have to get out!’
‘And Karen was like, “It’s OK, the helicopter is sorting it out.”’
Serena, the social worker, had approached the policeman at the cordon, very anxious. ‘I work for the council,’ she said, ‘and I have a family up there.’
‘Tell them to call 999,’ they said.
‘And that’s what I was doing,’ Karen said. ‘Emergency services told me to stay in my flat and Serena and some friends of mine were like, “Run!”’ At 3.30 she saw that things around them had got too bad, people were dying, she had to get her boys out. ‘Why did you tell me they were coming?’ she shouted at the man on the phone, who was in the call centre at Stratford. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘it’s now or never. Stop wasting your time. Get wet towels and wrap them round your faces.’
She told me the stairs were silent as they made their way down. It was slippery underfoot and the boys lost their grip, but they made it out. ‘And the first person I saw outside was Serena,’ she said. ‘She was on my side.’
‘But the council as a whole,’ I asked. ‘Did they help you?’
‘Yes, they did,’ she said. ‘Any time we needed money – for a PlayStation, an Xbox, they bought them for us. They sent keyworkers. I read this stuff, people are unpleasant with what the council did, but for me they did it all.’ Karen and her boys lived in a local hotel for four months, paid for by the council, before accepting a brand new flat off High Street Kensington. Though she had rented privately in the tower, after the fire she was made a permanent social housing tenant. Her flat cost £1.2 million on the open market. She won’t have to begin paying rent or utility bills until July 2019. ‘It’s a relief,’ she said.
‘If this had happened in another country,’ I asked her, ‘do you think the response from the authorities would have been better?’
‘Well, if it happened in my country, in Lebanon,’ Karen said, ‘we would have been thrown on the streets, for the dogs.’ We discussed the problems with the cladding and the shortcomings of the safety regulations. We were sitting talking in her new flat and two of her friends joined us. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘we’re alive. People’s response to this crisis was so fulfilling because it touched everyone. But some people did use the tragedy for their own benefit.’
I asked the council’s severest critics for evidence to back their claims. ‘You are right to seek actuals not speculation,’ one of the Grenfell Action Group stalwarts wrote to me, but he found it difficult to supply them. His communications were colourful and provocative, damning and suggestive, but each of them depended on one’s mind already being made up before one considered what he supplied as ‘evidence’. Another activist I met, a writer and member of the Green Party, was damning about everything that wasn’t right in the area. We had a nice conversation about social ills. But she too supplied robust speculation without evidence. To be fair, I think they felt that what they were saying was self-evident, and that one species of negligence begets another, and some of them got bored or didn’t reply when you asked them to explain their case. My sources in those groups sent me a great deal of material, all of it characterised by a fundamental assumption of guilt, and many errors. The tower was a progenitor of myth, as well as sharp truths, usually both at the same time, and there was no guide as to how they might be sifted and clarified. People on the far right lost themselves in immigration theories that proved false. Tories bestowed on themselves a pure paternalism that forgave their remoteness from a portion of the people they were employed to serve. The Corbynites took every opportunity to make the tragedy exemplify their core message, but they had to be selective in order to do that. The firefighters, and the unions, argued that every failing on the night could be put down to government cuts, closures and privatisations. The ordinary punters meanwhile pinned their colours either to group heroism on the night or to individual acts of depravity – as if the tower was pre-eminently a locus of truth about Britain today.
Ikram Ahlam and her two daughters watched the fire unfold from their cousin’s house. ‘You could just feel the heat,’ Leeima, Ikram’s oldest daughter, said to me in a café off Ladbroke Grove. ‘You could hear the screams and it didn’t compare to what you could see on TV. People were jumping.’ A high percentage of local witnesses say they saw people jumping: ‘So many.’ ‘Everyone jumping.’ ‘All these people jumping.’ But we now know the number was three. The dreadfulness of it all became real to people when they thought of the jumpers. And not only were people jumping: several were throwing their children down into the arms of the waiting community. ‘It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie,’ one woman said, having witnessed a woman throw her five-year-old son to safety. ‘I think he might just have had some broken bones and bruises.’ The Press Association picked up on the story of a baby being caught by locals after being thrown from a window. Dozens of news outlets carried the story and many of the people I spoke to said they witnessed it. ‘A gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby.’ The only trouble is that it didn’t happen. Police have no record of any such incident and ‘witnesses’ later asked themselves whether they had, in fact, seen anything of the sort. It emerged they wanted to see it, wanted it so much they could describe the event in detail, even after Newsnight established that it hadn’t happened. ‘Everyone’s hearts stopped as she fell,’ the Sun said of another such episode. ‘We were all fearing the worst, but Pat managed to catch her like a rugby ball tucked in his chest and he just clung on to her. She had a pink dressing gown on.’ The paper had photographs to accompany the story, purporting to be of ‘Pat’ and the ‘dropped tot’; in fact the man was Oluwaseun Talabi, the man from the 14th floor who had tried to save his daughter from the burning tower by climbing down bedsheets with her clinging to his back. It seems that real heroism is never quite enough. When Samira Lamrani, one of those who claimed to have seen the baby thrown out of the window, was asked to reflect on exactly what she had seen, she said: ‘My memory of that night is fading.’
IV: The Narrative
When we were growing up, the only old framed photograph my brothers and I ever saw was of my grandfather Michael, a hero of the Second World War. And that’s always the way he was described to us, a war hero, the man who tried to save his Glasgow compatriots on HMS Forfar when it was struck by two torpedoes in December 1940. Except that story wasn’t true either. When I was grown up I went to see the man, very elderly by then, who had been the captain of that ship. ‘I’m sorry to state the truth,’ he said. ‘After the first torpedo struck, a group of men’ – the Glasgow compatriots of myth – ‘followed your grandfather down to the larder, where we kept the booze. They broke in and were down there when the second torpedo struck and they died there.’ We all want the story we want, for reasons we understand implicitly, but, given the chance, our imagination will take us out of chaos, and replace the randomness of disaster with the heroics of human will. At Grenfell, the community was desperate, amid all this chaos, not just for a happy story but for a story that showed the community at its best, and parents at their best, facing death in the tower but throwing the vulnerable child into capable arms.
During those first months in West London, I kept asking why the number of deaths was being inflated, especially by activists and those who’d been close to the victims. Wasn’t it bad enough? I was invited into family WhatsApp groups, where they were livid about the official figures. ‘Disgusting cover-up by the council and the media of the real number of the dead,’ one person said. ‘Much more like four hundred plus.’ And this was a family member. All over the community, to believe the official figures was to align oneself with the obvious criminals. ‘Accident’ was a banned word: more than anything people needed to believe there had been a cover-up. A final body count could not be countenanced because it would place a limit on the scale of the outrage. In fact, 72 people is a huge number of people to die as a result of negligence. Saying that number made many people angry, but, if you stuck around and asked more questions, you began to see that it was the anger that was limitless, not the number of victims.
When I met Ashley Fegan-Earl, chief pathologist to the Grenfell fire investigation, the thing that stuck with me was his sense of the emotional problems. ‘There’s a limit to what we can do pathologically,’ he said. He thought hundreds of deaths were unlikely. In any case, accuracy of that sort is beside the point: the point is grief. It’s always one of the difficulties in the investigation of disaster, and now it’s a difficulty for the public inquiry’s investigations too: how to reach effectively for objectivity while allowing a proper place for strong feelings like grief and anger?
‘They went meticulously through every part of the building,’ Jason Payne-James, a forensics expert, said. But when it comes to establishing the truth, he worries that in this case political arguments take precedence. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘it’s the Twitter and the Instagram thing. You end up with so many opinions and the people who shout the loudest are the most heard.’ During those first days after the fire, high feelings and high fictions were running together, much of it relayed on social media. The exchange of ‘facts’ on social media was, even by normal standards, virulent, as if the tower had generated brand new notions – or passions – about right and wrong. The virulence of the commentary probably helped the community work at Grenfell, uniting people in outrage, but it also embedded the lie that the council did nothing.
Rajaa Shanaat, a relative of the El Wahabi family who died on the 21st floor, said she stayed away from social media during the week of the fire and for a while afterwards. There was just so much upsetting stuff, she said, in particular about her cousin Yasin. ‘People were telling different versions of his story,’ she said. ‘In many of the versions, Yasin survives.’ (He was the boy who ran up the stairs to help his family.) ‘They died together,’ Raaja said, ‘and people were just lying.’ In every situation pertaining to a public event, people, often with the best intentions, tell lies. They want the story to be the story they want it to be, and no group is more typical of that tendency than reporters. People want to disimprison the facts, as they see them, and division came very quickly to Grenfell over what was real and what wasn’t. Who was really helping the victims, and who wasn’t? Who actually was a victim, and who wasn’t? What was a real warning about the actual spread of the fire, and what wasn’t? And what do we really mean when we speak of culpability? Firefighters eventually controlled the fire in the tower at one in the morning of the second day, or, more accurately, that was when the fire burned itself out. It was perhaps the longest and most savage 24 hours in London since 10 May 1941, when 505 German bombers flew under a full moon and bombed the city relentlessly through the night. The destruction, William Sansom said of the air raid that killed 1436 Londoners, ‘was noticeable in the morning air, an invisible veil of plaster-dust hung its odour over the air of every street, bombed or not bombed.’ At daybreak on 15 June 2017, a large, malodorous cloud hung over West London. You could see it for miles, acrid and acrimonious, the whole country waking up with a sense of disorder. And people required an answer. So we dried their eyes and blamed the council.
One of the local government people I spoke to is called Clare Chamberlain. If you were to contact central casting and ask for a committed Children’s Services manager, you’d be hoping they’d send you a person exactly like her, a smart, Guardian-reading liberal. She is unsentimental about England’s social problems and has spent a lot of time engaging with them. She has a CBE for her work helping children and their families in London and is unsparing in her criticism of central government when it undermines, as she feels it very often has, local authorities that are trying every day to deal with the city’s housing problem. ‘Let’s be clear and not fall for the myths,’ she said. ‘Kensington and Chelsea may be very traditional but it’s also more generous than most of the councils I’ve worked for. Community groups have been funded in North Kensington where such funding was cut years ago by other London boroughs. Before the fire, Ofsted had just completed an intensive four-year assessment of social work, looking at 150 social work departments in the country, and of the three rated “outstanding” Kensington and Chelsea was one. So how is it a “failed council”? I went back to work at Kensington and Chelsea after working in a senior position elsewhere – and why? Because they give you money for frontline services.’
‘When it comes to adult social care,’ Nicholas Holgate told me, ‘we are pretty nearly the only council looking after elderly people with moderate needs. The attainment gap between children who have free school meals and those who don’t is impressively narrow. Who pays housing benefit faster than any other borough?’ Every officer of the council I spoke to said they were shocked not only by what they felt was the falsification of their record but by the eagerness with which it was taken up by the press. ‘After the fire,’ a senior officer said, ‘it seemed that a lot of people had turned against us. The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped. The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”
And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”’
I spoke to a former member of the press team who tried to explain why the council lost the story so fast. ‘The philosophy, if you like, of the Kensington and Chelsea communications team,’ he said, ‘had always been to get on quietly, don’t make a fuss – not like Westminster Council, who make a big splash about everything, getting everything on the news. We had a small team: we had always been discreet, and I think we carried on the same way that morning. A few people just taking calls. We didn’t put anything out.’
‘We got hundreds of people who were on the streets into hotels that night,’ another officer said. ‘We weren’t the most brazen leaders, and that was a fault. Huge piles of donations were accumulating by the minute. They piled up around the town hall so that you couldn’t see the courtyard. We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything, we were shit. The next day we were being confronted in the street: people who’d worked in social services for 25 years being spat on. We were given the advice to take off our badges when we went to the accommodation centres, and at that point we really did become invisible.’
I went to see Paget-Brown several times. He still seemed shell-shocked. ‘He is of his age and background,’ a friend of his told me. ‘He probably appears to many to be some sort of patrician Tory. But he has given thirty years of his life as a councillor, and you don’t do that out of some sense of noblesse oblige. You do it because you are deeply interested in the circumstances where you live.’ As a writer you try not to be swayed by people’s niceness – and besides, nice people can do terrible things. But self-sustaining decency was a commodity in short supply, and I found I liked Paget-Brown. He would be nobody’s idea of a bold and inspiring superhero, but he doesn’t want for self-knowledge, he knows his own faults, and he took a modest but fierce approach to maintaining local services. He never closed a library. ‘Yes, he did,’ the activists say. But we’ll come to that. He never closed a library without proposing a better one to replace it. He opposed supercars and rich people tearing up the streets of the borough to build private cinemas. (He opposed dozens of applications.) He built schools. He was a trustee of the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre and the Al-Manaar mosque for 12 years. He kept the council in funds. (The press always talk about the borough’s cash reserves as if it was money embezzled from the people. On the contrary, a council’s reserves are usually taken to be evidence of good management, and Kensington and Chelsea’s money was very clearly earmarked for capital projects in the borough, a rebuilt primary school in Barlby Road as well as a new special needs school, the first in the borough, and a new North Kensington Library and Youth Centre, as well as regeneration and investment schemes that local activists simultaneously demanded and denounced.)
Paget-Brown isn’t everybody’s cup of tea as a politician, but his dedication to the borough was total. And he was one of the least schmoozed councillors in London, accepting hospitality or gifts only 43 times since 2015, according to available records. By way of contrast, Robert Davis, the Conservative deputy leader of neighbouring Westminster Council, was entertained or received gifts 514 times in the same period. But in the days after the fire, Paget-Brown was portrayed, pretty much universally, as a greedy toff who was happy to put the lives of the poor in danger. He was deemed ‘personally responsible’, along with his deputy, Feilding-Mellen. When I asked Paget-Brown about this, he was clearly still hurt. ‘A few days after 72 people have lost their lives,’ he said, ‘you can’t go on one of those programmes and say to those MPs and others seeking to make an opportunity of it: “You know nothing about what we’ve done. You’ve never been near the borough in the thirty years I’ve been on the council.” I think if I’d come saying, “Actually, we’ve done some wonderful things in North Kensington and we care about all of these people,” there would have been a backlash. Instead, you apologise. I said sorry – and indeed I am sorry for what has happened. It happened on my watch, in my borough, and it’s terrible. I’m not apologising for the cladding I was blamed for installing, which has actually been installed all over the country, and which the TMO was told met building regulation standards.’
He regrets it, of course. It’s a regret he’ll take to the grave. And avid critics, even as they read these sentences, will be ripping the words ‘I’m not apologising for the cladding’ out of the context in which they appear. But Paget-Brown was actually saying something true: he can’t say sorry for installing something that everybody believed was perfectly safe, because the industry told them it was. To apologise for the cladding would imply he was aware it wasn’t safe. But nobody wants to hear that. The same cladding is on hundreds of buildings in the UK, and the leaders of those councils, Labour as well as Tory, are presumably not being accused of detesting the poor for being in power when their managers installed it.
Sources inside the town hall told me Gold meetings continued early on the Thursday morning. The fire had been out for six hours. When Paget-Brown arrived he was told that the prime minister intended to visit Grenfell at 9.30 a.m. He had received no direct communication about the visit from Number 10 and found that odd. At the first emergency meeting, methods were discussed for speeding up payouts to evacuees, and Holgate reiterated his view that nothing be spared in getting assistance and funds to survivors. After this, Paget-Brown, accompanied by Councillor Mary Weale, the cabinet member for Adult Social Care, went to the leisure centre under the tower. At the entrance they met several firefighters, who spoke to the leader about the difficulty they had experienced in getting to the top of the tower. A witness to the conversation told me one of the firemen was quite wound up. ‘It was wrong,’ he said, ‘the standard advice, telling people to stay in their flats.’ Around the same time that morning, Theresa May arrived at the foot of the tower and spoke to firefighters, but not to the media or members of the public. Later, there was criticism of May for not meeting survivors – her office cited ‘security concerns’ – but her own team said privately that the visit had gone very well, and that she was steering a much surer path than the council in reflecting public sympathies. Advisers were keen for her not to be seen with Paget-Brown.
After visiting the leisure centre, Paget-Brown made his way down Bramley Road, the black tower smouldering behind him. A cameraman from Channel 4 News sprinted towards him, followed by Jon Snow, who had a microphone raised. The council leader was still reeling from Snow’s question the day before about ‘fancy flats’. He avoided him and went to a pre-arranged interview with the BBC and then to the town hall, where he caught up with everything the council was doing, and noted that people were asking for more co-ordination. He and several others felt that people had no way of knowing who was and who wasn’t from the council. Yet he didn’t instruct council members to wear tabards or establish a central command over the three main relief centres. This might have helped matters, but I know from any number of sources that voluntary groups already felt they were the ones in charge of the centres. That afternoon Holgate and Paget-Brown both separately spoke on the phone to the chief executive of the Red Cross and approved the setting up of a charity appeal for the victims.
At 6.30 p.m., 25 people, including most of the Conservative councillors, met in Paget-Brown’s office. The leader wanted to know more of what they were dealing with on the ground. Feilding-Mellen was one of those present. Colleagues usually thought of him as quite a tough and uncompromising member of the cabinet – a man on the move, and sure of himself – but he was tremendously upset. ‘He was being presented as this cold-blooded capitalist,’ one of his colleagues told me, ‘but he loves North Kensington. He lived there. He had plans for improving it and he couldn’t believe this had happened.’ ‘Just the idea that we didn’t care,’ Feilding-Mellen said. ‘I mean, I lived there, I saw it, and it will be with me all my life. But do you really think that I – or any of the housing officers I work with in the council – do it because we don’t care about the people who need and who live in social housing? On the contrary, we had ideas about how to make it better. Why would I spend 11 years working in local government, rather than, for example, working at Goldman Sachs, if I didn’t care about the people I was there to help and didn’t believe in the improvement of their conditions? Let me be clear: we never planned permanently to displace anybody from the borough and it was never our intention to reduce the amount of social housing. We had ambitious and emerging plans to build a lot more affordable housing.’
Other London councils were making offers of help, which is normal in a crisis, especially when the borough affected is a small one with an international-sized problem. Holgate wasn’t sure he had the managerial talent to do all the work. That’s what he said without prompting, and on the Wednesday evening he had a conversation with John Barradell, the City of London’s extremely well-connected town clerk. Barradell has what you might call a leading interest in the operations of London Resilience, the set of protocols that go into action during a major emergency in the capital. At this point, Barradell or central government could have suggested to Holgate that Grenfell be classed as a major emergency incident, with Cobra meetings and central government in charge. But they didn’t. Kensington and Chelsea, which has a small stock of social housing relative to most London boroughs, and tiny resources in public relations, was left for those first crucial days to cope on its own. ‘We aren’t perfect,’ Holgate said on the phone to Barradell. ‘We are sort of managing. We will get better.’
Paget-Brown ended that Thursday on Newsnight. ‘I know who you are,’ Kirsty Wark said to him in the make-up room. Wark asked him about cladding, about sprinklers (there was a suggestion that fitting the block with sprinklers should have been considered during the refurbishment). She asked him about visits to the victims from council officers before stating: ‘The truth is – be honest – you can’t cope with this.’
‘I think that we have coped with it as well as we can after a tragedy of this dimension,’ he said.
Sajid Javid, then secretary of state for communities and local government, arrived at the Westway Sports Centre at nine on the Friday morning. People who were with him say he was immediately struck by the size of the challenge. ‘But he was the opposite of helpful,’ one Tory councillor told me. ‘He might have said: “Here’s my team of civil servants. We need to get the London mayor involved in this. London Resilience needs to be activated.” He was just in and out, talking about how we should buy more properties off Rightmove,’ the property website.
‘Did the minister understand,’ I asked housing officers, ‘how complicated it was going to be to buy flats for hundreds of suddenly homeless people, in a city with a housing shortage and terrible waiting lists?’
‘Not for a second,’ one of them replied. ‘He thought it was just a matter of spending money.’
Several people inside his own team made the point to me that Javid was highly strung and fearful for his own position. He was concerned, one said, ‘about the way the story was coming out’. He was reading too many columnists.
‘It was a vintage example,’ Holgate said, ‘of a minister’s desire to manage public perception.’ He had worked at the Treasury for many years but he had never seen anything quite like it. Javid and May began making promises that the Kensington and Chelsea housing officers knew could never be met. ‘I will never vote again after what I’ve seen,’ one of the officers said. ‘It was like House of Cards. Like we were all becoming political footballs in all of this. We were really making progress, then the government moved in to seek its own advantage.’ It was arranged that Javid should meet a group of seven at the sports centre, the family of Mr Jafari, the victim of the fire who had gone every day to the hardware store in Portobello Road. The Jafaris had chosen to sleep on camp-beds at the sports centre rather than take hotel rooms. Most of the camp-beds, brought in by the Red Cross at the council’s behest, were never used, but the Jafaris preferred to be there and stayed all week. Javid and the government housing minister, Alok Sharma, had been saying that as much housing as could be bought should be bought; the council should use its financial reserves. Then one of the ministers did an extraordinary thing: in conversation with the Jafari family, who told him they needed a four-bedroom house, he promised they would get one. He said he wanted it to happen fast. ‘So, with this particular family,’ a senior housing officer said, ‘the government got itself into such a situation that the government itself had to find a two million pound property for the family. They live there now. And of course when other families heard the story they were like, “Where’s my two million pound house?” And you can’t blame them. None of these ministers knew what they were doing and there was worse to come.’ Almost all the residents I spoke to brought this up with me. One of them printed off a list from Zoopla of four properties near Westbourne Grove at two to three million pounds each, and she wrote ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘four’ beside them in order of preference. She gave it to her keyworker and imagined the council would go ahead and buy one.
‘I mean, why exactly was the secretary of state there?’ one of the leading councillors later said in my hearing. ‘All these people drop in – leaving the queen to one side – and you wonder: are they there because they need to be seen to be sympathetic? Why was Javid there? The prime minister had visited the area the day before. He was worried about public perception, pure and simple. There was no summoning of all the forces to help us, no standing by us and saying: “We’re all in this together.” Not at all. Very soon it was, “the response on the ground isn’t adequate” and “the council isn’t visible.”’ Javid saw there was no advantage to be had in ‘standing by’ the council: his ambitions lay elsewhere.
‘It suited him to fall in with the story that the Grenfell fire was about white posh people ignoring immigrants,’ a Whitehall source told me. ‘He’s the son of a Pakistani bus driver and he wanted to take a stand on this. That’s all.’
‘But he knew the truth was more complicated, and that nothing had yet been proved,’ I said.
‘It is what it is,’ my source said. ‘He did his thing.’ When I contacted the home secretary he asked for my questions but then declined to answer them.
As Javid left the sports centre, the queen arrived, accompanied by Prince William. Sue Harris, the head of the borough’s Environmental Health Department, took them round. As soon as the queen appeared in the main hall, Mrs Jafari, the dead man’s widow, let out the most chilling howl, as if the terrible fact of what had happened had suddenly registered with her when she saw that the queen had come to see them.
Even before then, the narrative had become part of the common air. Paget-Brown stopped to speak to two Somali women he knew. As he did so, a man suddenly stood in front of him followed by a group of photographers. ‘You’re a murderer!’ the man was shouting. ‘You’re responsible!’ Eventually, the leader made it down Bramley Road. A man in a passing car rolled down his window to shout ‘Murderer’. Other drivers started sounding their horns and lowering their car windows. It was around noon on Friday. The mood had now turned full-throatedly against the council. Paget-Brown was heading to the town hall when he was suddenly rung and told he’d better not come. There was going to be a march on the town hall that afternoon: he should go home. He took the advice and headed back to the Fulham Road. That afternoon, John Barradell arrived for the Gold meeting, where they were joined by a member of London Resilience, a press officer from Westminster and a loggist from the City of London. It soon became clear that Holgate would hand over leadership to Barradell whenever Barradell chose to assume it. Holgate was an admirer of Barradell’s panache but not everyone was. What came with his increasing authority, some of the council officers told me, was an immediate demand for more information and more statistics. ‘They made huge demands,’ one officer said. It was terribly slowing of the relief effort, stopping actual aid in order to compile research for outside executives who felt (no doubt correctly) that it was important to be seen to know the answers to crucial questions. London Gold Command appeared to see its first goal, in the age of media realpolitik, as managing the press – and Barradell was thought to be clever at this. ‘They wanted to control the image of what was happening,’ my witness said, speaking also for others who were there, ‘and it was important to them to be seen as rescuers.’ There was recognition that communications had been a disaster, and a private PR firm, Newgate, was quickly taken on. Its first job was to draft a personal blog by Paget-Brown. ‘I feel deep sorrow,’ it read, ‘for all those affected, and will do everything I can do to help them repair and rebuild their lives.’ In 2017 and 2018, this is the reason we hire private PR firms, to tell us to start public pronouncements with the words ‘I feel’.
Holgate, though, was pleased to have Barradell there. He brought with him a well-briefed understanding of central government. ‘I’d only had between three and four hours’ sleep a night and was beginning to flag,’ Holgate said. But there’s some doubt whether the cavalry’s arrival actually improved things for the victims. In their own version, it indubitably did. But most of the crucial services had already been put in place by the council’s own staff. Only one thing was missing: an effective media strategy. The day after Kirsty Wark said to Paget-Brown on Newsnight that some families in hotels were still waiting to be seen, London Gold came into the town hall demanding information about visits to survivors. It took up time, but more visits were set up. (Several families later told me they had too many.) But word went out and was heard – especially by the chief believers in London Gold – that the council had lost the plot. ‘The story had the government’s imprimatur,’ the Whitehall source told me, ‘which was obvious from Javid’s behaviour. He was quick to believe in the council’s culpability, because that’s what the press believed and what the community believed. And he mobilised on that basis. That’s what politicians are like, or what that politician is like anyway.’ It would have taken a bigger MP, and in the end there wasn’t a single one, to come out and advise caution.
Holgate was due to take part in a telephone meeting with the prime minister, Sajid Javid and other ministers that Friday at 3 p.m. It had been arranged by Number 10. Just before it began, Barradell warned Holgate that one of the ministers, probably the prime minister, was going to suggest in the course of the call that the Grenfell survivors be promised that they would be rehoused within the next two or three weeks. Holgate was gobsmacked: it wasn’t possible for any council anywhere to find homes for so many people in that time. ‘You can’t reject this,’ Barradell said. According to my sources, the telephone conversation – May and Javid speaking, Holgate assumed, from a cabinet briefing room; Holgate and Barradell gathered around a box on a table in the town hall – was about what could practicably be offered to the victims. The prime minister was keen that action should be decisive; it was put to the two town clerks that people should be told they would be rehoused in either two or three weeks. Laura Johnson, the borough’s head of housing, had made the point elsewhere that day that victims would not feel ready to make a decision about housing for some time yet. It was too big a decision and many of them were very traumatised. She had decades of experience with tenants. Rock Feilding-Mellen said that experienced housing officers had told him the same thing, ‘that the people who’d lost their flats would quite rightly need time before reaching such an important decision, and they had every right to have that time.’ But the ministers insisted.
‘Perhaps three weeks would be more sensible,’ Holgate said, adding: ‘We shall have to say they might be rehoused in Brent or Hammersmith or Westminster, not only in Kensington.’ He knew the properties within the borough ‘didn’t exist’.
‘All right – three weeks,’ the prime minister said.
As the call ended, protesters were already gathering outside the town hall. The crowd wasn’t made up of survivors so much as people who thought like the survivors, or like they thought the survivors ought to think. The people’s concerns about the fire had lent fury and weight to other concerns, some going back years, about inequality and racism. The rage that day travelled under one banner – ‘Justice for Grenfell’ – but it related to a hundred other important causes. There is a moment in the trajectory of organised dismay when the crowds want to voice something much larger than whatever they set out with. The people outside the town hall weren’t going to take it anymore: they were people at the end of their tether. The march generalised the significance of the tower, making it stand for austerity and the immigrant’s burden, and why not? Everything shown on the news, and everything we’d lived through, considered in a certain light, confirmed the view that privileged white men were murdering ordinary people.
The sun was beating down as the crowd went past the window of Chestertons, the estate agents, where the average house price was £3.6 million. ‘We want justice!’ ‘We want Paget-Brown!’ ‘Murderers!’ They got to the town hall and gathered round the entrance. ‘Get them out!’ they shouted, many of them with their phones raised. ‘This was murder by central and local government,’ said a young black man holding onto his bike. A phalanx of police in yellow jackets spread across the entrance, but were soon jostled out of the way. Some of their helmets toppled to the ground. Now and again the young men would turn on the ‘official media’ crowding in behind them. ‘Stop filming!’ they said, gathering round the BBC’s Dan Johnson while he delivered a piece to camera. ‘Social media can show better than this,’ someone said. ‘Shame on the media. Liars.’ The piece of text running under Johnson’s report said: ‘Sajid Javid promises support.’
A man in a black T-shirt stood on the steps and shouted down towards the crowd. The council, he said, ‘will not send down a person to speak to us because they are frightened’. ‘If we go inside, sit in the lobby,’ he advised them. ‘Behave like respectable people, because they think we are animals.’ A man beside him in an Adidas T-shirt was shaking his head; he and many others wanted to storm the building. ‘The world is watching,’ someone said. Then a woman holding a skateboard went up the steps.
‘They are a system,’ she said. ‘They are a computer. They do not care. So, fuck them. Fuck the system.’
Inside the building, on the second floor, a Gold meeting was taking place with 15 people present. They could hear the shouts from below: ‘Get them out! Get them out!’ While Holgate was going through the minutes of the morning meeting, the police at the front door had been overrun and a crowd of protesters had rushed up the stairs. They smashed through a door and got into the civic suite, which contains the mayor’s ‘parlour’, a rather silly, blue-carpeted room with display cabinets, framed photographs of former mayors, and heraldic crests and shields on the walls. The protesters smashed a glass cabinet that contained a bowl presented to the council to mark one of Thatcher’s anniversaries. They tore several crests from the walls and crushed them underfoot. Paget-Brown’s personal assistant heard the roar as more protesters ran onto the landing. They broke into his office, throwing water jugs and coffee mugs at the walls and smashing up a TV. One floor above, at the Gold meeting, the door was locked. Holgate was trying to get through the items for discussion. ‘Nick, we can’t go on,’ one of the officers said. ‘I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying. There are people screaming outside.’
‘You’re perfectly right,’ Holgate said. ‘Let’s …’
‘Wait a minute,’ Barradell said. ‘I can assure you it’s perfectly safe.’
And at that moment the police came through the door. ‘We’re evacuating the building,’ one of the police officers said. ‘Get out now.’ Holgate and Barradell agreed the meeting would reconvene in Westminster at 6.30 p.m.
‘I don’t think my legs can take me there,’ the head of communications, Martin Fitzpatrick said. ‘I’ve spent the whole week trying to get something in the mainstream media. I cannot get a single line out. I can’t get a hearing.’
Fitzpatrick resigned the next morning.
On the second day, Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn visited the Clement James Centre and received a warm reception. He was admired for his easy ability to hug people. ‘Thank you for your support,’ he said, shaking the hand of a vicar. ‘It’s great that all the faiths have come together to give that support.’ Emma Dent Coad introduced Corbyn to a variety of interested parties, among them several local ‘housing campaigners’, but no one from the council. Odd, given that she was a local councillor for so many years. Or is it? Piers Thompson, a friend of the Grenfell Action Group, and Ishmahil Blagrove, a social justice advocate, each shook Corbyn’s hand. ‘The country needs you,’ Blagrove said. ‘Someone has to be held accountable. Someone has to be held responsible. We do not want the government to hide this with some platitude about “lessons will be learned.”’
‘We have to get to the bottom of this,’ Corbyn said. ‘The truth has got to come out and it will.’ Inside the building, he showed some sense of the scale of the problem when he was told how many people would need to be rehoused. ‘But Kensington as a borough wouldn’t have vacant properties for anything like that number.’
‘Many millionaires have vacant properties,’ Dent Coad said.
‘There’s plenty of those, yeah?’
‘Sitting completely and utterly empty,’ she said.
‘Well, maybe it’s time to put some of them to good use,’ said the leader of the opposition. ‘The last time I looked, this was one of the richest boroughs in the country.’
‘And one of the most polarised,’ the woman from the Clement James Centre said. As he was leaving the centre, Corbyn was applauded and he could be heard saying: ‘The strength of community is in adversity.’
Theresa May got her own lesson in adversity when she visited the same centre the following day. Police and security men were jostling locals and holding them back as her car arrived. ‘Coward!’ Joe Delaney, a resident, shouted. ‘Go home!’ someone else shouted. ‘Murdering scum!’
That evening, not long after his office was trashed, Paget-Brown received a call at home from the prime minister. She told him she had just been to the Clement James Centre and was told the people there had had no communication from the council. ‘We know Clement James very well,’ he said. He thought it very odd. People inside her group who know of the call say that May was disgruntled by her reception, was floored by its contrast to the reception Jeremy Corbyn had received, and was determined to find the reason. ‘I’m hearing that people aren’t seeing the council,’ she told Paget-Brown. ‘How many families need housing tonight?’
‘At their own request, there’s one large family of seven still in the sports centre,’ Paget-Brown said. (This was the Jafari family.) May then said that a support group from the Department of Communities and Local Government would help locate accommodation for others who wanted it. Paget-Brown did not tell her that everyone else who wanted temporary accommodation already had it.
‘I had a list,’ one of the officers informed me, ‘of every hotel that people were in. All the families, with the flat number, everything. But on Radio 4 they reported that a family had allegedly been sent to Preston with £10. Absolute nonsense. I was swearing at the radio: “I’ve got the list here! There’s nobody further than Acton! Nobody had been sent outside West London! And we gave people a lot of money. The council had said straightaway: “Give people as much money as you can.”’
The prime minister asked Paget-Brown on the phone if the families were receiving money. ‘Five hundred pounds for immediate needs,’ Paget-Brown said, ‘and £5000 from the Department of Work and Pensions is being paid into survivors’ bank accounts.’ May, it seems, wasn’t happy with how things were being handled but couldn’t really point to anything, except that ‘the community’ wasn’t happy. When I asked Paget-Brown about this conversation he didn’t dispute the facts, but he tried to be kind about the prime minister, saying that it was very soon after a close general election and she had cause to be nervous. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘she didn’t say: “I realise this is an enormous challenge for you and the council: you have the full support of government; here’s my private number if you need help.” The mood was clearly to isolate the council rather than support it.’
Many of the survivors don’t remember how they got to the hotels. They remember someone offering them a room, someone giving them a mobile phone if they’d left theirs behind in the rush to get out. Most of them talk about the brilliance of the community, about the number of people willing to help, the kindness of neighbours and people on the street. An argument about the virtues of civic life cannot easily be made in the middle of a disaster, so what gets noticed are the errors, the failures and the lack of ‘respect’. Civic duty doesn’t hug. What it does do, while few notice, is call every head teacher and visit every school, carefully answering the educational and psychological needs of people who may not even register that what is being done for them is being done by their local authority. For the record, I don’t see this point as a defence of the council, but as a description of the way local authorities work every day in Britain, often demonstrating grace under pressure, without getting everything right, of course, but making a good effort. If you talk to people who work in councils, and I’ve now spoken to hundreds, you quickly see that it is a culture of low appreciation generally, so when something goes badly wrong – off-the-scale wrong – the culture is already in place for total execration.
It wasn’t always like this. I grew up in a council house, as we called it then. My mother and father both worked – she was a school cleaner, he was a joiner – and we went to the local school, and they rented a house from the council. I’m not saying we were grateful – my parents paid their taxes as well as their rent, and weren’t grateful for anything – but we did feel, and continued to feel, quite privileged to have a new council house. My parents had grown up in houses with outside bathrooms, and so it made sense (and makes sense of our sense of privilege) when we arrived at our new house to find the council had tied a red ribbon round the bath taps. It was 1970 and we felt we had won a prize. Councils and housing corporations were good news to people who could remember private property factors. I can still see all the mothers (as it was then, unfortunately), painting the steps outside their front doors, sweeping their own path, washing their own windows, feeling so lucky to have a house. We were every bit as political as people are now – which we saw ten years later when Thatcher started selling off those same houses and social cohesion came to an end overnight – but we didn’t fight a general war with the council. On the contrary, our parents believed the council was on our side. It was the council that cut the grass and fixed our boilers and educated us, and which tried to do its best when life threw something horrible our way. After Thatcher’s arrival, I noticed that the people left in ‘social housing’ were much quicker to complain. More often, they said the council didn’t care about them and took for ever to fix the streetlights. (This is my mother talking.) Suddenly they only pick up rubbish once a week and everything seems to be about money and I dread to think what would happen in an emergency.
After the Grenfell fire, life in the hotels wasn’t easy. ‘I had to make food on top of the television,’ said Zanya, whose father-in-law had died. ‘There was no space to move. No space to pray. No space for the children. You had to climb over the beds.’ At first, the families in the hotels were given food vouchers, then £300 a week to spend on food. ‘Of course, people found it hard after the fire,’ one observer said to me, ‘but others, just as understandably, are finding their new life hard to give up.’ There have been allegations of abuse. ‘Fraud investigators have been called in,’ the Sunday Times reported, ‘after 15 members of the same family received public aid worth up to a million pounds and at least three new homes by claiming they lived in a single flat destroyed by the Grenfell Tower fire.’ These allegations are not typical, so I won’t go into any more of them here, but we may ask why it is always open season on the council, which has an actual record of helping people, as opposed to alleged criminals who may have a record of helping themselves? Our instinct is to police the people we don’t like, as if that alone proves our moral valour, while turning a blind eye to the bad behaviour of those we designate their victims. It happens everywhere, not just in the tower, but the trend is exemplified there. Not one activist I met ever wanted to speak about fraudsters in the community, as if injustice were a play with only one actor, the one with the upper-class accent whose wrongs eclipse all others.
Theresa May now had the line she needed – she told Parliament she had ‘fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home nearby’ – but it was a line that threw the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to the dogs. They had told her and her ministers that the deadline was impossible to meet and that the promise ignored the realities. May was vulnerable, and in her own circle it’s said that she felt the accusations of failure at Grenfell played to the strengths of her opposite number. One key Conservative told me she was ‘having a bit of a breakdown … was getting bad advice and had no real hold over her colleagues’. Sajid Javid, too, was fighting a small political battle masked as a humanitarian mission. May and Javid never possessed the detail of what the survivors required and what was being provided; as politicians, they were taken up with an even keener problem: what ‘the country’, i.e. the media, was saying.
The last time I spoke to Hamid, the fish-seller who’d escaped from the 16th floor, he told me he’d been in a hotel with his mother for seven months. ‘We are Muslim,’ he said, ‘so we accept what happened and we have to get on with our lives.’ He said he would not take a flat until they could find him one on the ground floor – his ninety-year-old mother is in a wheelchair – and one that is not facing Grenfell Tower. Some of the families fell out over money. One victim’s brother told me he would never speak to his brother-in-law again. The mother of one of the largest families to be lost in the fire, who had lived abroad, ended up with a quarter of a million pounds in charity money and leave to remain in the UK. ‘You know something: good luck to her,’ one of the community leaders said to me. ‘She lost her family. People from her world hardly ever get anything.’ Helping people in an emergency is an inexact science. But again, the deep anti-establishment anger over the fire caused people to ask where the money had gone, just as it was being distributed to the rightful recipients. The question was everywhere, and everywhere applauded, as if the mere asking of it indicated wisdom on the part of the speaker. The short and not very controversial answer was: ‘It’s gone to the people it was intended for.’ But the pop stars weren’t having it. ‘Yo, Theresa May,’ Stormzy sang at the Brits, keen to embody some real feels for the kids, ‘where’s the money for Grenfell?’ The words got a big cheer and an even bigger cheer all over the internet, but there wasn’t, in fact, a single pertinent syllable in them. It was just another rich pop star taking advantage of people’s pain to sound relevant. According to a clear breakdown provided by the Charity Commission, of the £24,993,386 raised in public donations – from newspaper appeals, the Red Cross, the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation, as well as dozens of smaller charities – £23,726,876 of it had been distributed directly to survivors of the fire and victims’ next of kin by 25 April this year.
‘That sounds like a lot of money,’ the Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg said when I called him, ‘but it’s not really.’ Feinberg was the formal administrator of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and he did the same job after the Boston Marathon bombing and after the mass shooting at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. ‘We had $68 million to distribute after Boston,’ he said, ‘and after 9/11 there was $7.1 billion of taxpayer-funded money.’ It took two years fully to distribute the Boston money. ‘In my experience, after a tragedy, donors want most of the money to go to the victims and their families. Once that decision is made, putting a value on a human life is not a particularly complicated endeavour.’ In Feinberg’s view, charitable funds should go out more quickly than they usually do. He designed a protocol making it possible for donations from different sources to be banked together and then distributed at speed to the people affected. ‘At Aurora, we got the money out in sixty days,’ he said, ‘but there was only $5 million (and 13 dead and 100 physically injured). I drafted a protocol and I held a town hall meeting in Aurora. “Now, look,” I said, “this is what I propose to do with this $5 million. Very transparent, no secrets. I propose to take 80 per cent of the $5 million and give it pro rata to the families of the dead. Not very much money. The other 20 per cent will be reserved for physically wounded victims, based on a simple formula: how long were you in hospital? Hospitalisation is a pretty good measurement of the seriousness of someone’s injury. Now, for you people who were not physically injured but suffered mental anguish, I’d like to do something but I don’t have enough money.’
‘And how did people respond to that?’ I asked.
‘Oh, nobody was very happy,’ he said. ‘People are angry about life’s misfortune. People are frustrated. People are in grief. Don’t expect gratitude. It won’t happen. And when I hear people say, “You provided the victims with some degree of closure,” I query that word “closure”. They’re bereft, they’ve lost loved ones in a fire or a crash or in a terrorist attack: they’re not going to get any closure. Just get the money out and close down the fund.’
In the days after the fire, there was a shambolic and heartfelt spree of giving. It’s an aspect of communal grief, like laying flowers and teddy bears at those roadside shrines set up where someone has died. It’s a way of coming together, but also, perhaps, of engaging in an idea of collective responsibility: this happened on our watch, where we live, and it could have been my child, my husband, or my mother, but for the grace of God. Money in these circumstances isn’t an end, and many report it bringing about a different sort of anguish: giving can be complicated, an expression of dread – I give because I can, because this terrible event didn’t happen to me, I have been spared, so I get out my credit card and I dial this number because I feel guilty about the thing I am actually feeling, which is relief. All over Britain, the sight of the burning tower gave people a horrible sense of dread followed by a sense of relief. Then comes shame, the shame that curdles into blame, as we hurry to appoint the baddies who made us feel such complicated things. The white middle class of Notting Hill went into overdrive: every old shoe, every forgotten dress, was pulled out of cupboards for the Grenfell victims, who didn’t want them. After three days, the council had to arrange transport and storage for the equivalent of three football fields’ worth of donations.
V: Whose Fault?
By the weekend after the fire, the focus of conventional resentment had passed quite subtly from Nicholas Paget-Brown to his 38-year-old deputy, Rock Feilding-Mellen. To some extent, this was merely an outward signal of an inward need: Paget-Brown wasn’t quite doing it for the haters. He had been in public service for thirty years. It’s true he was a clubbable, old-style Tory, but he didn’t quite fit his media billing as a property tycoon and a fire-slinging capitalist. So the role fell for a time to the more divisive Feilding-Mellen, who appeared to those who take stock of such things to be more disgustingly of the upper class. He was also the council’s cabinet member for housing, property and regeneration, so had been in charge of the brief that covered Grenfell Tower.
If you enjoy clichés about people, there is much, on the surface, about Feilding-Mellen that will please your inner navigator. He has the name, for a start, the bearing of a man who might cope on a horse, and he is a Tory. Not serial killer territory, you might say, but enough, in the folkloric atmosphere of this particular story, to turn him into a villain out of Dickens: Ralph Nickleby with bells on. If Feilding-Mellen hadn’t existed, they would have had to invent him, curly hair and country seat included. In the end, they invented him even so, and said of him what they wanted to say. Out of the cardboard cut-outs and digital memes of the era, a modern housing villain was required to appear. And there he was, entirely in place if not in character.
One of his mother’s oldest friends told me Rock was good at everything as a child. ‘He was just perfect,’ she said, ‘and from a young age he wanted to be prime minister, and Amanda wanted that, too.’ Amanda Feilding is the countess of Wemyss and March. Her first husband, and the father of her children, is Joe Mellen, a man with a colourful past as an habitué of Morocco and Ibiza, lost and found in the 1960s counterculture. Joe’s father had been a stockbroker who came home every evening on the train and had a martini before supper, and the son grew his anti-establishment character in the traditional English way, first at home, with droll and elegant parents, then at prep school, Eton and Oxford. As Mellen reveals in his memoir, Bore Hole, he became interested, via Aldous Huxley and other excitable depressives, in expanded consciousness, and he started smoking pot, taking speed and listening to jazz. (His family disinherited him.) It was the whole upper-class bohemian quarter of early 1960s England, the Beatles and the Stones and a hundred gurus who had beads and pretty girls dripping off them.
When Joe met Amanda Feilding she was a beautiful sculptor living in a flat on the Chelsea Embankment, ‘a centre’, he writes, ‘for all the lunatics in London, pop stars, artists, speed-freaks, junkies, smokers and acid-heads’. He got interested in trepanning: boring a hole in the skull to increase the volume of blood going to the brain, and thereby, supposedly, restoring consciousness to the much-yearned-for childhood level. Mellen tried it and he had a good accomplice in Amanda, who wanted her own life and her own freedoms. So she trepanned herself too, before donning an antique kaftan and a headscarf. She later stood for Parliament on the platform ‘Trepanation for the National Health’. ‘We got a fair amount of press exposure,’ Mellen said, and ‘after our first son, Rock, was born, more with him. I remember one caption, “Baby Rock with Hole in the Head Mother”. When the count was announced on the balcony of Kensington Town Hall, we got 49 votes.’
‘My parents were eccentric and wonderful,’ Rock Feilding-Mellen told me, ‘and I’m incredibly proud of them.’ After the fire, and the way he was spoken about, he was initially reluctant to give an account of himself in public, but I kept at him, feeling he was an important element in the narrative that was stacked up around the tower. I encouraged him to talk about his past and the kind of world he comes from. He told me he admires what he sees as the classic English modus vivendi – letting people do their own thing. ‘I grew up in that world,’ he said. He spoke about his grandmother on his mother’s side, and has a feeling, he says, for that generation, the one that survived the war. One day, weeks after I started speaking to him and to people who knew him, he sent me an email after hearing an elderly classicist, Joyce Reynolds, speaking on the radio. Reynolds was born in December 1918. She is a scholar of Roman epigraphy. ‘I love her no-nonsense and no gush attitude,’ he said.
When Feilding-Mellen was being roundly hated in the press before any of the evidence had been presented, and vilified by the activists I spoke to, I wanted him to explain to me what had happened and what he knew. When eventually I sat down with him, he said he no longer recognised the person he was publicly held to be. He had stopped giving interviews a day or so after the fire, and the New York Times ran an article full of what he says are false accusations. ‘I decided that I must wait for the public inquiry to have a chance of a fair hearing and for more of the truth to come out,’ he said. ‘There seemed little point in speaking to journalists who had already decided what they wanted to hear, or not hear.’
‘Rock isn’t your typical Tory,’ according to someone in a London Labour council who has worked with him. ‘He can come off as arrogant, sure of himself, but he’s interested in real housing problems. Anybody who thinks a guy from his background goes into housing because he hates poor people is just insane. He cared about housing and wanted to get it right. I remember him once talking about the Thatcher era and saying it was her, and her Housing Act of 1985, that messed up social housing provision by shifting the eligibility for state housing onto “vulnerability”, as if a person had to be a victim to get a council house. He believes that normal working people are not victims, unless you turn them into one.’ My Labour contact added that Feilding-Mellen ‘thinks Brexit is a disaster, but he feels you can’t just accuse a granny of being racist because she worries about her grandson never being able to get a council house. That’s a legitimate worry. He’s a fan of England’s racial mix. He lived in that community. But he doesn’t pretend that immigration since 2006 hasn’t exacerbated the housing crisis. You can’t bring in more people without building more housing. Simple. None of us denies the problem if we know anything about it.’
The crucial moment for Feilding-Mellen, in relation to this story, comes towards the end of July 2014. Two separate sources spoke to me of emails between Peter Maddison, director of Assets and Regeneration at the TMO, and Feilding-Mellen and others, discussing the colour and type of fixing for the proposed cladding on Grenfell Tower. At the time, residents were putting some pressure on the TMO and the council’s Housing Department to get on with the refurbishment, so these emails were chiefly intended to resolve planning issues as quickly as possible. It was not Feilding-Mellen’s job to make the decisions about the cladding and at no point does he seek to determine the issue. On 15 July 2014, Bruce Sounes of Studio E, the architects appointed to work on Grenfell Tower, sent an email to Feilding-Mellen attaching a link to the George House flats in Kilburn which showed the cladding they wished to use. ‘It uses the same brushed aluminium material and finish proposed for Grenfell Tower, but folded into cladding cassettes which conceal almost all fixings.’ Feilding-Mellen replied to say he could see the ‘look’ they were going for and he expressed a view about the colour. Maddison replied later the same day, saying the planners preferred the champagne-coloured finish. He adds, as perhaps any director of assets would, that ‘any savings would be a benefit in terms of value for money and risk management of the budget.’
The suggestion that Feilding-Mellen and others at the council pushed for cheaper and less safe cladding – a hallmark of media coverage since the fire – is flatly disproved by the string of emails between these individuals. In any case, the question of who chose the cladding is a red herring: hundreds of councils made similar choices, believing that cost and colour – not safety – were the issues they were being asked to adjudicate. Flammability was never mentioned. (It would have been taken for granted that the suppliers had successfully tested the different materials.) In fact, Feilding-Mellen, far from wanting to save money, states in his email of 18 July that he would support the more expensive option. It is Maddison who raises the issue of costs in his next email, three days later. Again: one should not be surprised by this – it’s his job. ‘We were hoping to achieve savings by negotiating with the Planners over the cladding material (aluminium instead of zinc),’ he writes, ‘and fixing method (face-fixing instead of cassette).’ The kind of cladding is never mentioned by Feilding-Mellen. Maddison writes again, on 24 July, copying in David Gibson at the TMO and Bruce Sounes from the architects, to say that the TMO ‘have worked with the planners to try and reach a consensus’. Costs aren’t discussed any further. Feilding-Mellen, having previously given his opinion about the colour and having encouraged them to spend the budget, does not reply. There is no suggestion that anyone believed or knew that the choice of aluminium over zinc would compromise the tower’s safety. How would they know that if none of the experts had told them? In any case, Feilding-Mellen did not get involved in the decision. The inquiry will eventually make clear what combination of factors – architectural, planning, managerial or otherwise – contributed to the disaster. But it’s unreasonable and unjust to accuse people of knowing things they were never expected to know. Councillors make arguments and oversee budgets: they don’t decide on the relative merits of one metal as opposed to another.
In an effort to politicise this, activists and media observers, both engaged on a prolonged mission to simplify, speak of the council as if it were the only organisation involved, and speak of the ‘cladding’ as if it were the only issue. Yet, of all the organisations, the council was the only one happy to spend (rather than to make) money. It was the least involved in nuts and bolts decisions about the refurbishment, as we have seen, and all the big decisions came quite appropriately from the TMO, which commissioned the project; from Rydon, the builders; from Artelia UK, the project managers; from Studio E Architects, the principal designers; and IBI Group, which acted as planning consultants. These organisations between them made the tower what it became in the early hours of 14 June, when fire escaped from a kitchen and was funnelled rapidly upwards through the wide cavities and across the unstopped boundaries between the flats, combusting the Celotex insulation which in turn combusted the Reynobond aluminium panels. (The insulation was made by Saint Gobain UK and the panels were made by Arconic.) This pile of names will no doubt irritate the simplifiers during the several years it takes for the inquiry to provide an answer. But their existence supplies us with one answer now: the tower’s vulnerability lay in a network of negligence that was beyond the capacity of any one man, and beyond the failings of any one material. Some truths are just too long to put in a headline.
There is no evidence that Feilding-Mellen ever aimed permanently to displace the residents of the tower: on the contrary, he had just said yes to a refurbishment programme costing £10.3 million. He doesn’t think everything was perfect in North Kensington; he knows there were deep problems and that society is nowhere near being equal. Feilding-Mellen has ideas about ways to solve London’s housing problems that some people would argue with: I don’t believe, for instance, that private developers will ever reserve a high enough proportion of their new builds for affordable housing, but that’s not really the issue. In this story, people wanted him to embody their certainty that a political outrage had taken place. ‘Something is missing in that young man,’ a charity trustee said. ‘He’s evil,’ one of the Golborne Road activists said to me a few weeks after the fire. But he’s not evil; he’s just a Tory. The press raced to join in the tarring and feathering because they, too, needed figures who could embody their wish for a clear culprit, a culprit with a sinister cause. In order for us to make sense of the tower, we have to identify causes commensurate with the outcome; that is the reason we call people ‘evil’.
They are not really talking about him. They are paying their dues to the scale of the horror and the feeling of hopelessness it gives them. And part of that is finding a name, just to show it was anything but an accident: it was a symptom of something intended, something created, an unholy event rising from a real human malignancy. It helps people to think of it that way, even if there is no evidence for anything of the sort. And so ‘there’s something about him I don’t like’ becomes – after a few swirls of the media soup – ‘there he is, the arch-developer, the social cleanser who wants to imprison poor people in flammable buildings.’ You think that sounds extreme? Perhaps you haven’t attended as many public meetings and vigils as I have. In the Grenfell story, Feilding-Mellen wasn’t a person anymore, he was a figure of speech, someone who stood for everything that had gone wrong in civic life, a one-man austerity machine, and a repository for all the fears and frustrations caused by the fire. But when you take the hate out, you’re only left with a difference of opinion about how to improve housing.
‘I believe in estate regeneration,’ he said. ‘A lot of those Brutalist postwar buildings are not fit for purpose, and our tenants were always telling us that. So I wanted either to improve them or build them again, with guaranteed housing for existing tenants, and with more affordable homes on the same sites. But what does gentrification mean? If it means social cleansing, I’m not for it; if it means making places nicer, then I am. In that period the council spent £70 million on that one small area of North Kensington.’
I put it to him that some critics believe he only agreed to the refurbishment of the tower to make it look nicer for those in the expensive houses nearby.
‘I just don’t know what to say to that,’ he said. ‘I’ve got letters from people in the tower thanking us for the job. Residents took me round their flats and it breaks my heart to think of it. They asked us for this refurbishment. The request was coming from them. And I can tell you there wasn’t a single appeal from anyone in the likes of Portland Road asking for the refurbishment of the tower. Not one.’
Enter the Daily Mail:
The wealthy Tory councillor who was in charge of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment has fled his £1.3 million home after allegedly receiving threats from angry residents. Rock Feilding-Mellen, who is deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council and the cabinet member for housing, was seen leaving his house with a suitcase and a holdall on Saturday morning. A council spokesman confirmed that he had relocated his family ‘at his own expense’ following ‘threats and vandalism outside his house’.
After a day or two, repetition makes the story, and all reports are configurations of other reports, and ‘facts’ become embedded by being used every day and never examined. By the first weekend after the fire, the council’s ‘shambolic’ response to the emergency had become a given. By Sunday there was no questioning it: the council was ‘callous’, ‘cruel’, ‘uncaring’ and ‘unaware’; it was ‘out of touch’ and it ‘didn’t listen to the residents’.
‘That’s the narrative. And the government was keen to establish it too,’ one councillor said to me. On Tuesday, 20 June, Javid phoned Paget-Brown and told him he had to get rid of Holgate. It was what he and Number 10 wanted. ‘In any other circumstances,’ a Kensington and Chelsea Council employee said, ‘the council would have told Javid to bugger off. It’s not the minister’s job to select or deselect executives. It’s completely improper.’ (Ed Balls, in 2011, was reprimanded by the appeals court for ordering the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith, a former head of Children’s Services. ‘Shoesmith was brutally removed from her job,’ the Guardian commented, ‘without warning and on live TV by the former children’s secretary, at the height of the Baby Peter hysteria in December 2008.’ The appeal judges in 2011 ruled that she had been unlawfully dismissed and ‘summarily scapegoated’.) Paget-Brown, by this point, had offered his own resignation to the cabinet and been turned down. He then offered it to his fellow Conservative councillors and was turned down again. They felt they needed as many experienced hands as possible during the crisis. The reason, many told me, that emergency response often falls into chaos is that people start demanding you sack the very people who know the institution and its capacities.
At 5.45 p.m. Paget-Brown walked down to the town clerk’s office. ‘Mr Holgate,’ he said, ‘I’m very sorry but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to resign.’ Paget-Brown was very upset at having to do this, and Holgate immediately agreed to go.
‘It doesn’t matter if the secretary of state is right or wrong,’ he told me. ‘It simply matters that he holds the view that he does.’ In order to do its work and help the victims, the council, he felt, needed the support of the minister. ‘One can’t work around that,’ he said to Paget-Brown. He then phoned his wife, who said: ‘Don’t agree to anything. Come home now.’ It had become clear that Javid and his civil servants wanted to ask the Local Government Association to ‘fly in an immediate successor’, as one of them put it. ‘Javid was highly strung,’ one civil servant said, ‘and was on a sticky wicket within the cabinet, keenly aware that the febrile atmosphere around what happened at the tower was such that he could easily be out on his ear. The council came to his assistance by taking most of the criticism, and he saw a tactical advantage in keeping the focus on them.’ A source in Westminster told me that Barradell said ‘Good!’ when he heard about the Holgate resignation, but was cross that Paget-Brown didn’t go with him. It was understood by those there at the time that he was reflecting the government’s view.
On Wednesday, 21 June the town hall was boarded up and closed. Another march – ‘Day of Rage’ – had been organised by the Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. Irony alert: the workers in the building who were there 14 hours a day – trying to solve housing, education and social work problems for the victims – had to work from home or from other less convenient places (or take a day off from their tasks) to make way for a protest saying they weren’t doing enough. A statement was soon released. ‘On Tuesday, 20 June,’ it said,
the secretary of state for communities and local government required the leader of the council to seek my resignation. Serving the families so desperately affected by the heart-breaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.
That afternoon, as Paget-Brown made his way to conduct interviews for a new head of communications, two youths at Holland Park tube station shouted ‘murderer’ at him. At the same time, Theresa May met with Grenfell survivors. A witness told me she was strongly affected by what they had said about the council.
Lord Porter of Spalding, chairman of the Local Government Association, phoned Paget-Brown to tell him he had to appoint a new town clerk immediately. ‘Otherwise,’ he said, ‘the government is planning to put in commissioners.’
‘This is the big stick that the government was wielding in the background,’ my source at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said, ‘based on the assumption that Kensington and Chelsea weren’t coping.’ It should be said that among the people the prime minister was listening to, with the churches by Grenfell Tower acting as conduit, were people whose disaffection with the council went back years. The wider group had legitimate concerns over a whole spread of issues, not just the tower, and whether she understood it or not, May was being drafted into a political war against the council, in which the fire was a pretext. As part of the government’s ‘distancing operation’ from the council, she never spoke to Paget-Brown about the locals she was talking to. She just used them as a ‘sounding-board’ for the ‘community’.
‘Jeremy Corbyn overtakes Theresa May as voters’ favourite to be the next prime minister,’ it said in the Daily Mail. And in Parliament on Wednesday, 21 June, May formalised the separation she and Javid were keen to make between the Tory council and the government. ‘The support for the families in the initial hours,’ she told the Commons, ‘was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, without even basic information about what had happened, what they could do, and where they should seek help.’ (There are three lies in that sentence alone.) On hearing the speech, Paget-Brown and colleagues naturally felt they were being hung out to dry. ‘The signal was given to the pack that they could keep on hunting,’ one of them said. But what was May talking about and who had written that speech for her? ‘Without a roof over their heads’? Every family that needed one had a hotel room right away. ‘Without basic information’? The rest centres were doing that work immediately, with council staff handing out money, and pharmacies in situ. The prime minister went on to say that it was right that Nicholas Holgate had resigned, that the council was not coping, and that she had set up and was chairing something called the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce. Paget-Brown didn’t know what this was: May had made no reference to it when she spoke to him on the phone the previous Friday. She said that Barradell would be heading up a ‘command centre’– this was already in place, and Barradell had been working with Holgate since the previous Thursday – and then she announced the policy she’d already forced on the council, that everybody displaced by the fire would have an offer of rehousing within three weeks. Job done.
‘The really amazing thing,’ my Whitehall source said, ‘was her saying governments had not given enough attention to social housing. What a gas. For years her lot had sold off social housing stock and left councils to pick up the pieces and deal with the housing shortage. George Osborne did more harm than any British politician for a generation when he cut rent revenues and imposed austerity measures. In her rush to be sympathetic, May must have forgotten the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which did yet more to undermine councils in their attempts to manage their stock, borrow for investment, and house the homeless.’ After May’s speech, someone drafted a statement and Paget-Brown signed it off, though he later wished he hadn’t. It said it was clear there had been ‘a failing in our collective response’.
That week, council blocks all over London were sending samples of cladding material for fire testing and in every case they failed. Something was obviously wrong with the safety testing regime. It would later become clear, in a report published by the Association of British Insurers, that building materials’ manufacturers and regulators were gaming the housing industry for profit. There are currently 306 tower blocks in Britain that have failed the new safety tests. But in that first week after the fire the criticism of Kensington and Chelsea Council was so overwhelming that there was no point trying to respond. In any case, Paget-Brown felt it would have been ‘undignified’ to say anything when victims were still grieving. Yet truth does not just appear, it doesn’t just install itself, it requires advocates, and nobody stepped forward to give a full account of what the council’s officers were doing. The silence very much helped the fiction that they didn’t care. At one point, the Evening Standard – second irony alert: edited by George Osborne – suggested the council was paying the PR firm Newgate £250,000 for media advice. This was nonsense: the firm wasn’t paid a penny. But if this story tells us anything at all, it tells us that, under certain conditions, with certain players, an accusation can be every bit as sore as a conviction.
In the aftermath of a disaster we’re liable to think disastrously. The spores of chaos enter the bloodstream and addle the brain: you were OK before, but now, since the disaster, you find you are incapable of doing anything right. ‘By that point,’ Holgate told me, ‘we were all just frazzled and out of our minds, not thinking straight.’ And that is when the council appeared to fall in on itself, or stagger to a halt. The meltdown came over the issue of a cabinet meeting due to be held at the town hall on Thursday, 29 June. The Evening Standard ran an article wondering why the meeting was slated to take place in private. Paget-Brown had received legal advice that it should be, following the previous week’s invasion. ‘Our view,’ he told me, ‘was to hold it in private, but to invite every councillor of all parties. They could come and have a discussion about what they think needs attention, and we were advised to do that in private.’ Such meetings would normally happen with the public gallery open, and it’s hard to understand why none of them questioned the legal advice – it was bound to be controversial – but they just weren’t thinking clearly. ‘I mean, I didn’t agonise over it,’ Paget-Brown said, ‘I had many other things going on.’ To those on the inside, his position was beginning to look untenable, and his predecessor as leader, Merrick Cockell, came to see him privately. It seemed to Cockell that the leader was on borrowed time, and he told him so. ‘You know you’re going to have to go,’ he said.
‘Well, I suppose I will, yes. But we need to get through this. It’s been a hideous week. Let’s get through the Notting Hill Carnival.’ August is always a very big month for the council.
Cockell looked up. ‘I don’t think you’ll make it to Carnival,’ he said. Paget-Brown had the impression he was being faced with the proverbial ‘man in the grey suit’, that someone had asked Cockell to tell him to get his coat and leave.
In the days before the meeting at the town hall, Paget-Brown spent much of his time trying to protect the immigration status of Grenfell residents. Home Office staff on the ground were quite often ignoring the prime minister’s promise of an amnesty for people who lived in or near the tower. He drafted a letter to Amber Rudd’s office arguing their case. On the Thursday afternoon, before the town hall meeting, Paget-Brown was interviewed by Tim Donovan of the BBC, who wanted him to say sorry. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was now saying the fire was the result of ‘years of neglect’. Paget-Brown stuck to his belief that it would be demeaning to the victims for him and other councillors to begin defending themselves, but more than any other disaster, more even than Aberfan or Hillsborough, the public discussion of Grenfell was political from start to finish, and the fact that Paget-Brown refused to get involved in political mud-slinging, or tried to rise above it, was about to bring his career to an end.
In his office before the meeting, where cabinet members met as usual to discuss the agenda, no one was particularly exercised about the complaints about the meeting being held in private. To Paget-Brown, there was only one item of business: the tower. ‘This was the most serious thing that had ever happened in the borough,’ he said. ‘I wanted to get all the councillors in and hear what they had to say. And I wanted to give them some basic facts.’ He had prepared some notes. He intended to talk about there being 373 families in temporary accommodation, and to apologise for what could have been done better. He would then talk about school and immigration issues, plus further financial support for the victims. His notes refer to the ten thousand people who had volunteered to help – he wanted to ‘acknowledge the huge contribution made by community groups and voluntary organisations’. He was going to announce a cabinet subcommittee to look after all matters relating to the tower, a specialist scrutiny committee to be chaired by the leader of the Labour group, and a new, dedicated unit of council staff, to be assisted by other boroughs. ‘The name of Kensington and Chelsea stands tarnished and diminished,’ he intended to say. ‘Our tenants and lease-holders have questions for us and the TMO. We are under sustained media criticism for a slow reaction to the fire, non-visibility, and for failure to invest in North Kensington. I believe many of these criticisms need to be challenged, and over time they will be.’
‘Why are we doing this?’ Feilding-Mellen asked. ‘There’s nothing on the agenda requiring a decision. You could just issue your statement to the press.’
‘We’ve got to demonstrate that the show is still on the road,’ he replied.
‘What show, Nick?’ Feilding-Mellen said.
As they took their seats in one of the meeting rooms, Paget-Brown’s phone buzzed. It was 6.28 p.m. and the caller was Nicholas Holgate, who was still handing over to his replacement, and asked Paget-Brown to leave the room. He was met outside by a delegation of the council’s law officers. ‘The high court has granted an injunction to the Guardian,’ one of them said, ‘requiring that the meeting be held in public. You must therefore stop the meeting if they arrive.’
‘Yes,’ the officer said. ‘If journalists and the public come in, they will be recording and televising what is said, and this could prejudice the public inquiry.’
Then Paget-Brown made his big mistake: he went ahead with the meeting. There appeared to be no press in the room when he started, though the injunction had been granted at 5 p.m. He held a minute’s silence and then started on his prepared statement. After four minutes, the door opened, and a few people entered. Paget-Brown paused in what he was saying and a note was passed to him, a message scrawled by the head of the legal service department. ‘The meeting cannot continue,’ it said. Paget-Brown was confused and says he was feeling emotional and exhausted. It might have been in order for someone to adjourn the meeting or for Paget-Brown to discuss the legal conundrum and the advice he was getting. Instead, he froze. Feilding-Mellen froze beside him. The atmosphere in the room was volatile and tense.
‘We cannot have an unprejudiced discussion in this room with the public inquiry about to take place, if journalists are recording and writing things down,’ Paget-Brown said, ‘therefore I have to declare the meeting closed.’
‘What are you so afraid of?’ someone at the back shouted. At this point, Robert Atkinson, leader of the Labour group, got to his feet.
‘So what you’ve done,’ he said, ‘is use this as an opportunity for you to make a statement, and nobody else gets to say anything at all. You should have issued that statement eight days ago!’
‘I would like to have had a conversation,’ Paget-Brown replied, ‘but I am advised …’
Atkinson was now red-faced and pointing his finger. ‘This is why I’m calling for your resignation,’ he shouted, ‘not because of what happened in the fire but because of the sheer and ongoing incompetence that this council has shown ever since it happened.’
‘My advice …’
‘You keep telling us you’re taking advice. You’re taking the wrong advice.’
Feilding-Mellen stood up and scratched his head, before walking out with his colleagues. It was extraordinary that, after receiving word of an injunction, the council’s law officers had not gone immediately to the chair to say the meeting couldn’t go ahead. Now, on top of everything else, the leaders appeared to be censoring the facts. It was a shambles. Paget-Brown erred in trying to present his own statement despite the warning, but he was anxious to put something on record about the work the council had been doing. He should have taken the Labour leader aside and adjourned the meeting the second he got that note.
The reaction, across the media, national and social, was savage. And from that moment the leadership that had been in place during the fire was finished. Paget-Brown would later feel that the council had never stood a chance against the press and the government. ‘We were going all out to look after people whose lives had been destroyed,’ he said, ‘and all the time we were doing it there was this tremendous noise: “tell us this!”, “explain that!”, “apologise!”, “show us you care!”’ The next morning, Friday, 30 June, two weeks after the fire, was Paget-Brown’s last in office. Daniel Moylan, a Conservative councillor, called him at home at 7.45 a.m. ‘I will be calling publicly for you to go,’ Moylan said, ‘for trying to hold a meeting in private.’ Paget-Brown listened politely before saying he’d been put in an impossible position and had no plans to resign. A BBC crew caught him outside his flat an hour later. As he tried to walk to the bus stop, the journalist asked him if he was going to resign. ‘Please call the press office at the town hall,’ he said.
‘Was it right for you to cancel the meeting?’
Sources inside the Gold Command centre at Westminster – where officers had decamped after the riot outside the town hall – told me Barradell was much better briefed about the government’s intentions than anybody at Kensington and Chelsea. ‘Theresa May liked speaking to him,’ one of them said. He had, after all, had the foresight – or the political nous, I’m not sure which – to advise Holgate to ‘fall in’ with the three-week rehousing promise, even though Holgate and his colleagues thought it ludicrous. But in other ways, too, Barradell seemed to some of them to be in touch with the government’s anxieties. ‘Barradell is very effective,’ one insider told me, ‘and he doesn’t give much away, but he saw very well how the wind was blowing.’
On their last day, the two council leaders went to the Westminster command centre and were amazed at the number of people now working on jobs – many of them advertised as being done for the first time – that had been started at the town hall in the hours after the fire. ‘I remember them coming in,’ one worker said, ‘and the feeling at Gold Command was very much, by then, that they didn’t want politicians giving out orders and muddying the waters.’ (Local politicians, that is.) When Paget-Brown got back to the town hall at 1 p.m. he was phoned by Greg Hands, the minister for London. ‘Sajid Javid feels, after last night’s meeting,’ Hands said, ‘that you have to go.’ When the call was over, Number 10 issued a statement saying that all council meetings have to be held in public, as if the councillors had broken some sacred rite of democracy. It’s not true, by the way, as any local authority worker will tell you: many council meetings are held in private, but the statement shows, once again, how responsive Theresa May is to the sudden absolutes of public opinion. Paget-Brown accepted that he would have to go and he rang Feilding-Mellen. ‘It was a devastating moment,’ he said.
The council leaders did not cause that fire. Like many councillors all over Britain they were in office when cladding was installed that we now know to be unsafe. They were not on a mission to cut costs: in fact they raised the amount spent on the refurbishment by £4 million. The emails from the TMO to Rock Feilding-Mellen, discussed here for the first time, make clear that the TMO was responsible for making decisions about the cladding. But the TMO should also be given a fair hearing. What diligent project manager doesn’t ask for good costings from subcontractors? And what effective head of department wouldn’t expect good costings when spending public money? It becomes an issue if someone chose the cheaper cladding – as councils all over the country had done – because they were led to believe it was just as fire-retardant as the more expensive version. That ‘led to believe’ is the big reveal in the Grenfell tragedy, because it points to regulators and fire-safety regimes in the UK which allow those lethal products to be available, to be sold as safe and installed with impunity. Despite all the headlines and all the cries of murder directed at the local authority, the only people who could have known that the cladding was a potential fire risk were the people whose financial advantage lay in selling it, and passing it off, up and down the country, as safe. But as headlines go that’s not as sexy or as memorable as accusing two posh men of mass murder.
On the housing estate where I grew up, nobody felt like a pariah, a poor person, or a charity case. We knew who we were and a community existed, based not on our low incomes, but on shared resources of other sorts, to do with place and habit. We fought for the miners not because we loved the pits – they were horrible – but because we valued the communities built around them. You didn’t require a mortgage to have dignity. It wasn’t perfect, but you weren’t left to yourself, and it wasn’t resentment that got you through most days. The road to ‘social housing’ was always going to be one on which many mansions would appear, and many slums. The day was yet to come when people on low incomes were once again a nuisance, the road sweepers and Uber drivers whose cases we take up when their house burns to the ground. We want answers, but we don’t want to look for them in ourselves, so we look to cardboard cut-outs, to a few stage villains from the old order, whose guilt is ‘clear’.
A bomb goes off in a football stadium or on a tube train, a building erupts and people can’t make it down the stairs, and suddenly row upon row of faces stare at us from the newspaper, the people who live at the edge of our minds. We live with the imminence of disaster. Don DeLillo once said that there is ‘an element of catastrophe tacit’ in everyday life. But the thing he didn’t say, and that Grenfell shows, is that we are also exhilarated by it, by the constant dread and then its fulfilment. We ‘know’ it must be worse than ‘they’ said, that the numbers are higher: ‘I just know it.’ And in among all that terror is the relief that this time (again) it wasn’t us. What a feeling of aliveness to wake up and check your phone and know it wasn’t you.
VI: The Rebellion
Kensington has always been a place where people arrive hoping for something unexpected. When I first came to live in London I lived in Notting Hill, in a rooming-house in Bedford Gardens, just off Kensington Church Street. My friend Alan worked for a travel company and their office was just round the corner. It was a different London then. Notting Hill was still a place of independent pubs and bookshops, and it had more danger and less of the gentility featured in the film Notting Hill. There wasn’t a Starbucks, so far as I remember, and coffee was taken in little cafés with net curtains. In the rented place where I lived with three other young men, we shared the same green suit for interviews. (I wore it to meet the editor of the LRB.) The scene was a slightly more male and slightly more working-class version of the May of Teck Club, that Kensington hostel for young ladies in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. The novel opens with a few sentences which summon the old ragged world before the internet. ‘Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all … All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.’
North Kensington was more shifting and more anarchic: it appeared in Clash songs and had the Windrush energy as well as the 1960s vibe and the sense of class rebellion of one sort or another coalescing on Portobello Road. Heathcote Williams and his friends wrote graffiti around the streets. ‘We teach all hearts to break,’ it said on the wall of the Isaac Newton School on Lancaster Road. ‘Squat Now While Stocks Last’ on Marsh and Parsons, the estate agent on Kensington Park Road. ‘Nothing was simply one thing,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, but nowhere is ever one place, either. The joy and the trouble with North Kensington is that no type and no tribe ever had it to themselves. Many people love that, but for others it’s part of the inequality that divides the place. People want a mix so long as it’s the sort of mix they want. Rebellion is a keynote in that part of London, and the presence of £10 million mansions next to tower blocks is a complex source of dismay.
One night I arrived at the Maxilla Club under the Westway. You would only find the club if you saw the beer sign outside. There was no one on the door. The hall has white painted bricks all round and fairy lights overhead. There were old pictures of Notting Dale high on the walls above a busy bar, beer and cider on tap, lots of rum, with mixers in big plastic bottles on the counter. A local comedian was on the stage. A lot of her jokes were about the gentrification of North Kensington, about everything becoming a coffee shop. ‘I got a job in one,’ she said, ‘and that way my kids can go in there!’ The audience lapped it up. ‘One of the other things about being poor near rich people is that you get “guilt charity”. But they can’t just give it to any old pov – you gotta be able to write a good letter’ – the audience whooped and cheered. ‘“Please assist me with your string of zeroes!” I say, “because I’ve got a nice middle-class accent!”’
‘Oh, yeah!’ a woman standing next to me shouted.
‘When I’m not talking to you lot, I have,’ the comedian said. ‘I become a bit plummy and they give me money. So long as I fill the right form in. Anyway: we got rehoused to Holland Park. When the kids get caught by the police they just tell them their postcode and they be let go!’
She was followed onstage by a rap artist called JC 101. ‘Talk loudly and slowly and they will understand,’ he said, ‘like Paget-Brown and The Rock did.’ I noticed cups and trophies on two shelves above the bar, some of them won by people from Grenfell Tower, for boxing, football and dancing. Evidence of darts-playing (‘stems, 80p, flights, 80p’) reminded me of Martin Amis’s London Fields, with its darts-addicted ne’er-do-well, Keith Talent. ‘Really, the thing about life here,’ the narrator says of the Black Cross, the pub in the book, ‘was its incredible rapidity, with people growing up and getting old in the space of a single week … Guy always thought it was life he was looking for. But it must have been death – or death awareness.’
The club is right under Grenfell Tower. Standing outside, I could see its cold black form against the September sky. The area under the Westway was done up then with sofas and bookshelves. An old piano stood against a concrete pillar. Along the wall someone had written in giant painted letters: ‘The Truth will not be Hidden.’ Three women sat talking on one of the sofas. The bookshelf was packed with novels, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Leon Uris’s Trinity, The Fall of the House of Usher. We could hear cars and lorries whooshing over our heads on the Westway. ‘One woman from the tower,’ Bev said, ‘it had taken her nearly fifty years to get to where she was just before the fire, getting her life together, at peace, loving her home. Her life in the tower was exactly as she wanted it to be. And then: gone.’ As she spoke, an elderly man from one of the other towers came and sat down at the piano and played ‘Abide with Me’. They told me one of the men in the tower had spent his life accumulating African art and cataloguing it on his computer. Floor by floor and flat by flat, I was slowly writing down what I could about the dead, just to relieve them, or myself, from the brutality of the statistics. Two of the women sitting with me said that on the night of the fire their noses streamed and their eyes smarted from the toxins in the air. Bev said she could still smell it as we sat beneath the tower.
One of the women had lived in the block at the foot of the tower. Her name is Amanda Fernandez and her mother sat with us too. The council had moved them into the Holiday Inn Express on the North End Road. Amanda said she was exhausted from all the coming and going. Her feet hurt. She said that many of the people from the tower were struggling to get on with life in the hotels. Her family had tried the day before to have a child’s birthday party in one of the rooms. ‘I understand that we’re poor now,’ the kid said. The women complained about the way the charity money was being distributed and about what they called ‘authorised fraud’: people from other streets and buildings coming to the scene and helping people, then suddenly being subject themselves to the relief effort. ‘I hate feeling this way,’ Amanda said, ‘but all of a sudden people who were looking [at the fire] from their window in a different building are “traumatised” and being rehoused.’ The old man stopped playing the piano. He made his way slowly past our open-air sitting room and stopped to look at the chess set that was on the bookshelf beside us.
‘Do you think we are all pawns,’ he said, ‘or are we kings and queens?’
I asked the women if they knew what had happened with Theresa May’s promise to rehouse everybody in three weeks. ‘The council offered it outside the area,’ Bev said, ‘in places like Kennington. A survivor from the 13th floor is offered the 14th floor of flats in Kennington. “We know it’s one floor higher,” they said, “but it’s got carpets.” This woman is ninety years old. She’s going to Roehampton for cancer treatment. They are preying on vulnerable people.’ One of the people they knew – he didn’t want to be identified – had saved up for 25 years by putting his money under his bed. He woke up with his flat on fire and had to run for the stairs and he lost everything. ‘He just stood on the grass over there,’ one of the women said, ‘watching the flames take everything he had.’
I often met families of victims at Westfield Shopping Centre. It is near the tower and many of the Muslim women felt safe there; it was familiar and bright and there were always lots of people around and places to sit. Many of them found it easy to recall their dead loved ones at Westfield, walking between the shops and travelling up and down the escalators, living their lives under the glass ceiling. Each victim had her own narrative and her own back story, her own tale of origin and path towards the tower on 14 June, but for some reason the tale of Rania Ibrahim and her two girls came back to me every day. Some people were the missing of Grenfell, very present in life but invisible in death; some of the dead went out of the world without speaking to anyone or even waking up. But Rania met her end on social media. She took us right to the brink, and demonstrated how an iPhone can be a witness. One evening I met her friend Samia Bashir on the ground floor near the Disney Store. She came with her eight-year-old son and some other children. We sorted them out with ice cream and they went to the play area while Samia and I talked. She wore a black hijab with silver sequins woven through it and she was very particular in her speech, underscoring points that were important to her by chopping the air with her hand. She showed me pictures and texts on her iPhone. ‘I pray five times a day,’ she said, ‘and I have this new App that reminds me of the times when I have to stop and do it.’
Like so many people that night, Samia spent hours going from place to place, from the church to Rugby Portobello to all the hospitals. People kept saying they had seen Rania or the girls, but they hadn’t – they just wished they had. Samia, too, I later noticed, was always imagining she saw survivors from the upper floors. ‘We found three women in Rugby Portobello,’ she said. ‘They were from Syria. They had no shoes. They were Rania’s opposite neighbours from the 23rd floor, women in their late fifties, early sixties. When we saw them we hugged them and asked them where Rania was. They were close to her and they would often eat together. Rania was Egyptian and they were Syrian and they would help each other. They didn’t wait to be taken down. They spoke no English and they didn’t pick up the phone and dial 999 to ask what to do.’
I never worked out who these women were. They weren’t on Rania’s floor; everybody died on that floor except Mrs Neda and her son, Farhad, who carried her to safety. But it didn’t matter: people tell the stories they need to tell, ones that match their own disbelief, and it doesn’t matter if they’re true. ‘We refused for a week to believe Rania was gone,’ Samia told me. ‘We were hanging on to anything that would bring her and the girls back.’ Often when I spoke to men, they would stare at the floor, shaking with suppressed emotion. For many Muslim men there is shame in weeping, but in Westfield, with all the reassuring optimism around them, they often held their cups with both hands and cried. Karim Khalloufi, whose sister, Khadija, died on her way down from the 17th floor, railed not against the council or the press but against a family member who had become obsessed with money.
‘He is not a man,’ Karim said. Kensington and Chelsea were keeping him in the Radisson Hotel on the Cromwell Road; they gave him a keyworker and a family liaison worker while the family dispute was sorted out. Karim was struggling to get his sister’s body back to Morocco. ‘The Al-Manaar mosque gave me £100 to keep me going,’ he said, ‘another church gave me £150.’ As he told me this, a voice on the public address system at Westfield announced a security alert, then just as suddenly announced it was over. Karim rolled his eyes. ‘It’s always like this now,’ he said. He showed me messages from his sister. He told me his mother had come to the UK hoping for support. Khadija had supported her for many years from London. As he explained this, his phone rang. He told me as he answered it that it was the immigration people. ‘I have to repeat everything over and over and my mother is threatened with deportation … Hello.’
The people on the phone began to go through the routine.
‘Every time we speak I have to give you dates of birth and everything,’ he said to the person on the phone. ‘Would it not be possible to have a reference number? Do you mean she cannot get a visa extension? Is that what you are saying? But the visa runs out in two days’ time. What do you suggest I do? She has to go back?’
National politicians, like the media, had stories they liked and stories they didn’t, and they weren’t shy of bolstering their preferred narratives via ‘contact with the families’, which often turned out to be handshake opportunities with what civil servants had taken to calling ‘eligible victims’. When you studied it up close, and had sources inside reporting the whys and wherefores of what was happening, you began to see it was open season on the council as the government went about reconstructing its image. Meanwhile, the families and friends of the victims were to be found wandering around Westfield to get away from their hotel lobbies, hoping not for a dalliance with political power but for the right offer from the council, so that they could recover their lives and get back to work.
Rania’s husband, Hassan, wanted to know the real reasons his family died: why they weren’t rescued; why they were told to stay put; why manufacturers were allowed to sell that cladding and how it passed the safety tests. These were the real questions. It was strange to observe the contrast: Hassan had lost everything but he didn’t want to be on any committee or join any delegation; he didn’t want to meet the prime minister or make the fire be about something else. He just wanted answers to his questions. I sat with him in the Radisson Blu in Portman Square, talking about Rania and how, when he first met her in the mosque, he thought she ‘was the most amazing woman I’d seen in my life’. A huge Christmas tree with silver baubles stood in the foyer beside us. It was Christmas Eve and people were rushing past the window with shopping bags. My eyes kept drifting to a children’s corner stocked with crayons and paper that had been set up by the front desk. On the little plastic table was a snow-globe with the word ‘London’ inside.
Hassan put his head in his hands and the full weight of it all seemed unavoidable. ‘If I live five hundred years I will never forget them,’ he said. He pointed to my notepad lying between us. ‘I want you to say there were no homeless people in that building,’ he said. ‘We were respectable people.’ Hassan wasn’t sure who to blame or who to forgive. He just remembered all the details and wanted them to be set down, as if a fresh understanding had been reached. And for him all the details included the years before, the immigrant’s dream of London and the history of what they had wished for. ‘I remember coming here for the first time,’ he said, ‘to live with my cousin in Ladbroke Grove. I remember coming in January. It was the same as now: winter. Very dark at four o’clock. I was confused about why it was like that. Raining, and so cold. I worked at a grocery shop. I went to Westminster College for one year. My life is … I don’t know. I had a beautiful wife and two daughters.’ He pulled his black hoodie around his ears and he wiped his face. He recalled his first days in London as if it was a dream he’d once had, the tall buildings and the people everywhere, the future a stranger too in this enormous place. Some of the buildings were old and some of the people were poor but with his children around him he knew he’d arrived. In the tower he would sometimes look out and see for miles and wonder at his own luck.
‘In a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions,’ Charles Dickens’s sub-editor W.H. Wills wrote in Household Words in 1850, ‘Bayswater and Notting Hill, in the parish of Kensington, is a plague-spot, scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London.’ A workhouse stood near the site where Grenfell Tower would be built 125 years later. The soil was yellow clay, ideal for brick-making, the stuff from this quarter supplied the building industry then rapidly expanding Victorian London. One observer described Notting Dale, the area near the railway with the Hippodrome racecourse at its heart, as a place that seemed ‘to have been lifted bodily out of a Yorkshire mill town’. London’s original gentrification forced farmers and Gypsies to the margin, the former to Notting Dale, where they set up piggeries, and the latter to squalid encampments near what is now the site of the Westway. There was ‘a putrid expanse of clay sludge and pigswill’, another Victorian observer reported. ‘Shanties multiplied. From 1846 to 1848, life expectancy in London as a whole was 37 – here it was 11 years and seven months.’ A street name and a pottery kiln in Walmer Road are all that remain of a place a medical officer in 1856 called ‘one of the most deplorable spots in the whole metropolis’. People lived in hovels and worked 16 hours a day in conditions of filth and misery. There was no drinking water. A huge stagnant pool just south of what is now the Lancaster West Estate was called ‘the ocean’. The local school backed onto it and it was surrounded by streets of overcrowded houses. ‘As long as there are people unconscientious enough to erect such dwellings,’ the campaigner Mary Bayly wrote, ‘it must surely be a right and proper thing for the legislature to step in and say: “We will not stand by and see our people degraded in this way.”’
It was called the Kensington Avernus – after the lake near Naples, ‘the effluvium of which was said to kill over-flying birds’ – and the area was described as ‘irreclaimable’ after the 1848 cholera epidemic. London County Council, seven years after that, declined to provide any help on the grounds that the problems in that part of London were brought about ‘by the vicious proclivities and evil habits of the people themselves’. (Now, there was a council that believed in social cleansing.) Kensington proved to be a testing ground for private philanthropy and housing trusts, advancing the cause of decent housing well ahead of local government. After the cholera epidemic, it was the rector of St Clement’s who ensured that the ‘ocean’ was filled in. The social reformer Octavia Hill established the first housing trust in the area, the Improved Tenements Association – her emphasis on ‘dignified independence’ would not be out of step with many housing reformers today. The Kensington Housing Trust was set up in 1926 by a group of wealthy local residents. The Survey of London’s volume on North Kensington (1973) says that private agencies had built almost twice as many houses as the council by 1930. The social separation between the north and south of the borough was well established: in 1936, a survey showed that 2529 families were living in overcrowded conditions, of which all but 187 were in North Kensington. The housing trusts were keen to show a way forward. Lloyd George may have placed the task of building decent homes with local authorities, but here, from the start, some of the housing trusts acted like arms of the council. In today’s environment, when people speak of rich residents wishing to ‘socially cleanse’ Notting Hill, it may be as well to recall that good low-income housing, in this area at least, was pretty much invented by good citizens who also happened to be rich. Kensington Calling, a documentary film made in 1930 by the Kensington Housing Trust, was an appeal to other well-off citizens to tax themselves a bit more and help build decent dwellings in the area.
After the Second World War and the Beveridge Report, the new Labour government placed much more onus on state provision. The municipal mindset would give inside bathrooms, more gardens and better parks to the working class, but there were never enough houses. In fact, London has never not had a housing crisis. Even in the 1950s, the old world of grime was still in evidence, the piles of bricks left over from the Blitz, potato sacks over windows as a substitute for curtains, and too many inhabitants in every bug-infested house. Into this came a new wave of Britons. The government was attentive to the labour shortage, while not quite understanding the dearth of adequate rented accommodation. As SS Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948, with 492 people from Jamaica onboard – or ‘500 unwanted passengers’, as the Daily Express preferred to call them – Parliament passed Attlee’s National Assistance Act, under which local authorities were obliged to provide emergency temporary accommodation for families who were homeless ‘through no fault of their own’. Until 1950, we had a secretary of state for the colonies, plus a minister and an under-secretary, but no minister of housing. Nevertheless, Labour created a temporary boom in the building of council properties, providing local authorities with subsidies to keep rents down as well as giving them compulsory purchase powers. Attlee built more than a million affordable homes, but it wasn’t enough. The war had seen one million homes destroyed or damaged. New citizens arrived, but councils were often reluctant to offer tenancies to the new arrivals. Slums were cleared and people moved around, ‘but these opportunities bypassed new arrivals,’ Chris Holmes writes in The Other Notting Hill. ‘Across swathes of inner London low-income tenants were living in multi-occupied, poorly equipped and insecure flats, mostly rented from private landlords.’ Overcrowding was worse in North Kensington than in any other area of the country – thousands of families, Holmes reports, had ‘only a single room for parents and their children’.
You begin to understand the ingrained resentment in Notting Dale when you hear stories of terrible treatment echoing down the years. Grenfell Tower is situated in a place where poor people have always had a hard time, and where immigrants, in particular, have always been subject to ill-treatment, lack of choice, and racism. Whatever else has gone on, the memory of ‘No Irish. No Blacks. No Dogs’ hasn’t been erased. The shade of Peter Rachman and the experience of landlord thuggery still haunt North Kensington. Even before the fire, the tower was a concrete embodiment of inequality going back two hundred years. In that sense, for many immigrants, it was an old local problem that met its darkest hour in the early morning of 14 June. It doesn’t matter if you don’t yourself detect such things in the urban ether: others do, and many did that night, feeling that the fire was the latest and most terrible manifestation of a familiar negligence.
In May 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year-old Caribbean man, was murdered by a gang of boys in Golborne Road. It was a racist murder. The previous August, 350 white youths went on the rampage, attacking houses in Bramley Road occupied by West Indians for six nights in a row. It was also in North Kensington that Oswald Mosley put himself up for election, the year Cochrane was murdered, standing for the Union Movement on a platform of forced repatriation for people from the Caribbean and a ban on mixed marriages. He lost, but the fact that he stood there tells you something. White suspicion was a fact of life in the area. In 1958, ITN made a documentary about the Notting Hill race riots and sent its cameras to North Kensington. The presenter interviews a girl whose boyfriend got four years in Wormwood Scrubs for attacking a black man.
‘You don’t like black men here?’ the interviewer asks.
‘Not really, no,’ the girlfriend says.
‘Why not? Any particular reason?’
‘They cause too much trouble.’
‘Do you disapprove of coloured people?’ he asks the girl’s friend.
‘Well, I’m not very fond of them,’ she says. ‘I just don’t like them. I don’t think we should mix with them.’
Notting Hill Methodist Church answered the fear and loathing with an argument for better and fairer housing, the lack of which was seen to be at the root of the racism. ‘Housing today, Housing yesterday, and Housing tomorrow’, as one campaign had it. But the late 1950s had been a savage time in the formation of local divisions, and it has lived long in the public mind, those Teddy boys in league with traditional prejudice, all of it compèred with malicious brio by ‘gentlemen’ such as Oswald Mosley, who set out from a rented office in Kensington Park Road to harness the stupidity of white boys. All of these places – Bramley Road, Notting Hill Methodist Church, Kensington Park Road – stand in full or partial view of where Grenfell Tower was built only 15 years later.
I kept returning to a photograph of Roger Mayne’s entitled Latimer Road, North Kensington, 1957. Two black men walk towards the camera, elegant and wary, carrying their anger before them. The white people around them are oblivious to their passing; the black men wear hats, one of them carries a shoebox; they are making their way down the road and making the road theirs, as much as anybody’s. That is the way it should be and for me the photo carries the spirit of Notting Hill. Perhaps the swagger is their own but the wariness is general: the people I’ve been talking to, the Syrians and the Moroccans, the Poles, the Iraqis, all of them came in the wake of the West Indians, whom 90 per cent of landlords in 1956 would not accept as tenants or lodgers. The men in Mayne’s photograph could work, could buy shoes, but they couldn’t find decent housing. The arrival of black immigrants in Britain changed the workforce and it could have changed attitudes. ‘Through the eyes of strangers Britons could look at themselves,’ Clair Wills writes in her recent book Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain. ‘They could see themselves from the point of view of others, and even try to live up to outsiders’ expectations. It was a test of the values and organisations of British society, and society – in large part – failed the test.’
And yet, change happens anyway. The Syrians and Moroccans I spoke to did have homes. Despite racism and inequality they had arrived at a place where they felt safe and sometimes grateful for their good fortune. There were other issues, but it would be a lie to pretend these tenants see the tower as a burned-out symbol of corporate hatred. Nearly all the survivors I spoke to had loved their flat and felt glad to be in a city where they could have one. That is what they told me. A symbol is a symbol is a symbol, and it may be true and untrue at the same time. In the eyes of some, the tower blocks are the continuation of the old habit of keeping minorities poorly housed. But, as always, it depends how you measure it. If the yardstick is the white people’s mansions on Elgin Crescent, then yes. If it’s Victorian pigsties, however, then improvement has definitely occured, albeit too slowly and for too few.
In the 1960s and 1970s as in the 1930s, a shortfall in decent housing was made up by local housing trusts. Some would argue that a well-run society shouldn’t have to rely on private money or Christian charity to house its people, but the Notting Hill Housing Trust blazed a trail in the art of buying and renovating local properties for the benefit of low-income families. Part of the problem was the incredible slowness of British institutions to accept and to implement change. When Richard Crossman was housing minister he was frustrated by this inertia, which persisted despite Harold Wilson’s campaign pledge to build 500,000 new homes a year. ‘I am beginning to discover,’ Crossman wrote in his diary in 1966, ‘that “Ministry of Housing and Local Government” is a misnomer. In fact, the ministry does no house building at all. [It] is a ministry for permissions, regulations and administration.’ But at least they did regulations. Lynsey Hanley captures Crossman’s frustration in her book Estates: An Intimate History. He ‘saw that the provision rate was too slow and instructed authorities to exercise their compulsory purchase powers and construct large overspill estates’. A Housing Survey report from 1969 shows how much was still not being done. In North Kensington, two-thirds of children lived in flats without enough bedrooms. ‘The worst conditions were experienced mostly by black tenants,’ the report said, ‘paying high rents for insecure furnished rooms.’ When the report was launched at the Methodist Church on 5 May 1969, it was clear, Holmes informs us, that people expected much more of the local authority.
The Lancaster West Estate and others like it were the result. Grenfell Tower was born of a sense that the borough had to up its game. The local authority’s low-income housing had been rotten and in short supply for too long. Funnily (or not), it was an old Etonian in his mid-forties who took up the challenge, Sir Malby Crofton. Yes, he had the accent to match, but he was determined to make ‘a significant change of ownership from private to other hands’. Some of the other hands were still to be found among the local housing associations, but the council, under him, showed a willingness to change the lives of low-income tenants.
Crofton no longer believed that private landlords in North Kensington could be relied on to meet the needs of ordinary citizens. A member of the London Stock Exchange and a baronet, he was not your average social reformer. But he tried to end the enslavement of poor individuals to unscrupulous landlords in the area. ‘The policy approach of Kensington and Chelsea in its early years,’ Tony Travers wrote in London’s Boroughs at Fifty, ‘included setting council house rents that were proportionate to tenants’ incomes, thus creating a cross-subsidy between more affluent and poorer tenants.’ In 1970 Crofton approved the building of a 24-storey tower block to be named Grenfell Tower; the first tenants moved in in 1974. By international standards, the 120 flats were light and clean and generous, each offering between 553 and 813 square feet. The new homes were immediately offered to large numbers of local immigrants, which is the reason it was known locally as the ‘Moroccan Tower’. Even before the fire, people were quick to see planners of tower blocks as deluded, but the utopian dreams of those house builders look pretty noble to me, perhaps because I grew up around them and never saw them as being so otherworldly. We are too quick to denounce them when the housing alternatives in big cities are so miserable.
In 1979, a third of people in the UK lived in council housing, but after Thatcher introduced the right to buy the figure soon fell to 12 per cent. A faint stigma attached to those applying and the housing stock shrank as councils were not permitted to spend what they made from the sale of council houses on new council housing. The actions of Dame Shirley Porter in Westminster would dog the reputations of Tory councillors for thirty years. Worried about Conservatives losing seats on the council, she advised it to ‘test the law to its limits’ and move the homeless to ‘property outside Westminster’. She wanted to ensure – and here’s the killer phrase – ‘that the right people live in the right areas’. But Grenfell Tower told its own story. It was built to relieve an age-old housing deficit; it welcomed all sorts of people from all sorts of worlds but, right next to the Westway, overseeing London, with a social mix and a proximity of rich and poor that you don’t see in most European cities, it was never a ghetto. People would demand that it represent something else when the dark hour came, but Grenfell was built from a sense of improvement and it carried that for many of those who lived there despite a few activists making out it was Avernus Revisited.
A genuine sense of estrangement, however, arrived with the super-prime boom in London real estate. In the inner city, social tenants feel squeezed, even when their tenure is secure, by the mania for private development. Since 1965, when London’s 32 boroughs were born, a sense of municipal order has existed, with rented and private properties sitting cheek by jowl without too much ghettoisation. Compared with cities such as Paris, the urban landscape of London has been a demographic heaven. North Kensington was residentially mixed, a place where Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist masterpiece Trellick Tower, in those days full of social homes, was within minutes of some of the most expensive terraces in London. But the excellent habitational mix, along with people’s sense of who ‘owns’ the land, has altered since the banking crisis of 2008. Too much overseas ‘hot money’ poured into Kensington and Chelsea, as investors sought safe places to put their money. There are more than 44,000 properties bought solely as investments in London. People don’t live there. ‘Whole blocks in Kensington are dark at night,’ Simon Jenkins has written. The influx of new money and the fetishising of London’s prime real estate was distilled, for many, in the famous blue door in the film Notting Hill. Tourists now take photos of it, as the ‘ultimate’ London address, a pretty house in a vibrant area, but selling at £5 million.
In London, a new politics of space has come about which makes social renters at best uneasy and at worse pushed to the margins as land values price them out. Local politicians in London who are over-responsive to the anxieties of private investors – and there are many people who feel Kensington and Chelsea’s leadership fall into that category – are apt to squeeze social housing out of the picture. ‘Although it has always been a contested term,’ Anna Minton writes in Big Capital, ‘“gentrification” adopted positive connotations associated with improving areas. But the speed of capital flows into places between the 1960s and early 2000s bears no comparison to what is happening today.’ Minton goes on to analyse ‘the unintended consequences of a market-led approach to public goods.’ It is a persuasive thesis, recognisable to anybody who has lived in London over the last few decades. The housing boom has created a democratic deficit, and people feel, with great justification, that recent British governments have behaved as if social housing is toxic. David Cameron and Theresa May’s administrations in particular have acted as if land use is merely a capitalist conundrum. ‘The zeal with which so many councils are embracing the demolition and rebuild agenda,’ Minton writes, ‘means a rapid reshaping of London is underway … The combination of global capital, government policies designed to kill off social housing and failures in housing benefit are configuring the city. The politics of space is replacing the traditional politics of class.’ All of this is true and all of it is crucial, and I wonder whether it has a defining part to play in our understanding of the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. Some people saw the fire and thought it was about the politics of space. There are toffs aplenty in Kensington, there are thousands of absent landlords, land use is a constant squabble, poor people are ill served by this new super-prime bonanza. But does this amount to a case for mass murder?
Amid the accusations of social cleansing and profiteering, official housing figures suggest that Kensington and Chelsea Council has a pretty good record of protecting social housing. In fact the social housing stock has actually gone up over the past twenty years by about two hundred dwellings. Compare this to Islington, where the number of homes for social rent has gone down by more than 4500 in that time. The difference can largely be accounted for by Right to Buy. Islington Council has historically preferred to build its own social housing, rather than rely on housing associations: in Kensington and Chelsea, by contrast, housing association houses aren’t for sale, with the result that its housing stock has remained protected almost by accident. But it isn’t just an accident. Kensington and Chelsea Council has actively protected social housing, too. In 2016, it denied permission to the Sutton Trust to demolish large parts of one of its estates in Chelsea because the redevelopment plans didn’t include enough social housing. The Greater London Authority’s report ‘Housing in London 2015’ reveals that Kensington and Chelsea had an unusual focus on social housing. It has a graph showing the amount of affordable housing delivered by all London authorities over the previous three years. ‘Affordable housing’ here includes three types of housing: social housing, aimed at those most in need, then ‘intermediate’ and ‘affordable rent’ homes, aimed at those on higher incomes. The report found that on average, across London, there was pretty much an even split between these three types of affordable housing. But not in Kensington and Chelsea. There we find that 78 per cent of affordable housing delivered between 2012 and 2015 was social housing, with hardly any ‘affordable rent’ homes delivered at all. In the actual amount of social housing delivered, they did much better than many Labour-run London councils. This apparent neglect of housing aimed at those on middle incomes, in favour of those most in need, has intensified the sense of inequality in the borough, as much of the housing is completely unaffordable to those on middle incomes. This is a historic problem that Feilding-Mellen was particularly anxious to redress. ‘There was definitely a change that he was focusing on, on working young people being able to live in RBKC, because they simply can’t afford to live here, or live anywhere near it,’ the Conservative councillor Catherine Faulks told us. ‘The young doctors, young professionals, [with] nowhere for them to live … I know that was one of his aspirations, to be able to provide housing for this group of young professional people.’
VII: The Facts
As the shadow falls on the sundial, so the charred reality of the tower seemed to engulf the Notting Hill Methodist Church below it. There were flowers and pictures stuck to the railings on every side. Candles flickered on the pavement. Every disaster shrine now is a locus of bereavement but also of estrangement: the faces of the children, the grandmother on holiday, the uncle and his two dogs – they all shine with the moment gone, while also seeming oddly destined for this display. That is the way of ordinary photographs when they come to advertise the human face of sudden disaster: the person is caught in the middle of her life and we inspect her eyes to see if she knows what is coming.
For months, tapes of conversations with survivors would unspool in my mind, texts from victims’ families and friends would arrive and be stored, one more piece in a mosaic of sadness. I’d walk around the tower, sometimes at the crack of dawn, trying to work it out, listening to new voices or veteran complainants or going into bunkers with the council, taking trains to sources and specialists, and staying up late with maps and plans. Looking for facts: asking what they meant and what the opposite meant and going back to the start. It seemed pointless sometimes, as if I was rehearsing an old way of doing things, hunting for facts, believing in them, when the news was all fiction and the story was sorted. One day I counted the steps on a stairwell to see how long it would take to reach the turn. One night, trying to get away from it all, I went to see the new Spielberg film, The Post. It was a liberal fantasia, a fairly enjoyable one, in which all the people with the right opinions move slowly to a point where their courage is recognised. But I was quite confused about what it said to the audience about the complications of truth. ‘Most people going to see The Post,’ Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, ‘will, I suspect, be heartened and flattered by the warmth with which it endorses their own convictions. Is that all we desire from a movie, though – that it should agree with us, and vice versa?’
Inside the Methodist Church, the opening of the public inquiry was to be shown on a big screen. The person I came in with was agitated by the numbers of press outside and by the security on the door. ‘I’m a resident and a community leader and I just need a good seat,’ she said. A Bible was open on the altar and the seats were salmon pink. I sat with two women I’d met before, one black and the other white, who had been moved out of their homes in the low-rise housing at the base of the tower, and they cried as they spoke. ‘People feel guilty for speaking about their feelings about losing their house. We feel selfish. We’re trying to look out for our own kids but it’s hard.’
‘My son can’t go to the toilet,’ the other woman said. They were living in an Ibis hotel. ‘The toilet in our flat looked onto the tower and my son can’t go to any toilet without fear. He can’t stand it.’ Another resident said her son kept going on Amazon, wanting to buy ropes and trampolines, ‘things that would save us if there was another fire’. The boy’s friend had died. ‘Mummy, I want to be in a catastrophe,’ he said to her, ‘but I want to show I can survive it, like Medhi might have.’ The women were upset that their children were not being helped at school, and they got more upset after Martin Moore-Bick, the chairman of the inquiry, appeared on the screen, saying he wasn’t planning to have people from ‘the community’ on the panel.
‘How do we know he didn’t just select a few of his friends?’ one asked. Distrust in the authorities was now total; history played its part, but new forms of refusal were born in those months after the fire. At one point, as we sat there, a keyworker with an NHS lanyard came up to the women.
‘You’re not from the council, are you?’
‘No. I’m NHS. I’m just another person.’
‘That’s fine, then.’ Council workers had long since stopped wearing their ID badges because they were being spat at.
There were mixed feelings about the media. ‘What are the cameras doing in here?’ one of the mothers said in the church. ‘I don’t even know what he’s saying when they’re filming in here.’ As we were leaving, the women, still upset, said they wanted to avoid the press gathered outside. ‘We don’t want to go out there,’ the black woman said to the security guard. ‘It’s just too much.’
‘Are you a survivor?’
‘Yes. We’re residents.’
‘OK. Give me two seconds.’ A policeman soon appeared and led the women out of a back door to a side street that looked out onto the tower. But after a few minutes the women went round the front of the church where all the cameras were. It seemed they both didn’t and did want to be with people like us. I was talking to residents about the council – ‘They take your number just so’s they can say they have your number,’ a man called Ishmael said – and then the TV cameras came over and the interviews began, including with the women who had gone out by the back door.
‘Maybe they should have some new faces,’ Ishmael said. ‘I’m going to seem like a professional antagonist.’
‘I’ll speak,’ another person said. ‘I’m speaking for Berkti.’ Berkti was one of the dead.
‘I’m speaking for Fethia and Hania!’
‘And I’m speaking for Steve Power,’ Ishmael said, ‘my first ever babysitter.’ He looked up at the charred building through the trees. ‘That’s my tower,’ he said. ‘It’s my tower. I grew up there.’
‘You’re real,’ the community leader said, taking out her camera. ‘You’re real, Ishmael.’
Near the beginning there was a funeral every other week. Jessica Urbano Ramirez was taken to Gunnersbury Cemetery in a bright pink casket with her pictures printed on top, next to a Bible, a tiara, and a Colombian football shirt signed by her family and friends. Khadija Khalloufi was taken back to Morocco and Ligaya Moore to Manila. The London funerals were usually packed with survivors and members of the wider community, who felt, they told me, that each funeral was another bit of Grenfell gone. A large crowd came to the funeral of Raymond ‘Moses’ Bernard, who had lived in the tower for nearly thirty years and played the steel drum at Notting Hill Carnival. ‘We don’t want to remember him as a man who died in a fire,’ one of his nieces said from the pulpit. There were 66 more such events, some no more than a hug and a prayer, others involving relatives flying in from Ireland or Syria, held in mosques and churches and funeral homes throughout London. The Al-Manaar mosque in Acklam Road saw many coffins passing, most of them as light occupied as they were when empty.
I went with an Eritrean man called Jamal to the collective funeral of the El Wahabis. Rows of young men kneeled on prayer mats outside the mosque. Their shoes lay in a huge pile in the road. As they prayed, stood, kneeled and bent over in the autumn sunshine, a huge, prayerful humming filled the air by the Westway. Above us, the trees had turned yellow and golden brown. But on Acklam Road the men faced Mecca and prayed for the souls of the dead family. Jamal introduced me to a man whose relatives had also died on the 23rd floor. We just looked at each other as a tube train passed overhead. A funeral car stopped and the coffin, covered in a bright green flag, was passed over the heads of the men, a single coffin for the whole family. Some of them reached out to touch the green cloth and said prayers and said goodbye. The first long season of mourning was over and a new darkness lay ahead.
On Monday, 11 December 2017, on Radio 4’s Today programme, it was made clear to Elizabeth Campbell, the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, that the Grenfell victims didn’t want council members to come to the national memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral three days later. Campbell was on the back foot the whole time, seeming to understand that anything she might say to defend her colleagues would immediately be taken as an insult to the grieving and the dead. ‘It’s so important,’ one of her friends told me, ‘that the country discovers what went wrong at Grenfell Tower, but that won’t happen if everyone just accepts the un-factual narrative that was spun in the immediate aftermath and is still being spun, either for political motives or out of laziness, or even from a sense that it would be disrespectful to question what has become the official story.’ This had been the position taken by the much battered Paget-Brown, who felt all along that to answer back was wrong ‘when 72 people had died’.
Campbell spoke about the three hundred extra staff, about the hundreds of new properties being sought for the victims – though the pace was slower, i.e. more realistic, than the prime minister and Javid had counselled – but she knew that quite a number of tenants were turning down the flats they were offered. She may even have known about the solicitors who were encouraging tenants to wait for bigger offers. I have evidence of several lawyers advising their clients to reject flats in the expectation that down the road they would be permitted to buy new, expensive flats at the same Right to Buy prices as obtained when they lived in Grenfell Tower. Campbell may have known of this, but the newspapers clearly didn’t, as every day they ran articles criticising the council for not yet having rehoused all the residents. (As Laura Johnson had predicted, many of the residents just weren’t ready to be rehoused. They were still traumatised and they wanted time to think.) In any event, Campbell said little. The only thing she was allowed to do was apologise, which she did. But before she was off-air, the famous generosity of Twitter had greeted the day: ‘Still has no shame.’
It was odd suddenly to be in the company of so many people who hated councils. A council is a body of the people, elected by the people and paid for by them, and Britain has generally believed in town and borough councils. I began to wonder if it really was the council that people were angry with, or was it authority in general or unfairness in principle? Were they visiting their frustration about the global order on a well-spoken mother of four? Meanwhile, the media were in a state of excitement at the idea that the council was effectively banned from St Paul’s. ‘It’s perfectly understandable,’ Campbell said. ‘It is only right that we respect the wishes of those involved.’ Listening to all this, and speaking to people close to the events, it occurred to me that if one is going to be fair, one is not fair to someone, one is fair to everyone.
So many people who share your city don’t really count. You have nothing against them but they don’t count in your version of life. Seeing the tower on fire was like an alarm going off, waking up all the good people as well as all the bad and negligent ones, but could we tell them apart? Oh yes: the good people were the ones who distinguished themselves by blaming other people. But what if the cause of those deaths wasn’t a few conveniently posh people, but our whole culture and everybody in it, the culture that benefited some but not others, and supported cuts and deregulation everywhere? Not so comfortable now?
There was a meeting at the town hall the day after the Today rout. ‘Why are we being so supine,’ one of the old guard asked. ‘Why are we not standing up and defending ourselves against all this? Have we got nothing to say?’ The council by this point had split into two factions: the old and the new guard. By December, with the inquiry gathering steam and the entire council under attack, many of those who had been there at the time of the fire felt they had been thrown under a bus. The new chief executive, Barry Quirk, appeared to offer a clear message, and it was this: ‘We’re not like them.’ At one point, he sent round a message to all council staff, with the subject heading ‘Grace, Courtesy and Respect’. A copy was passed to me by a junior officer. ‘None of us leaves our personal selves at the door when we arrive at work,’ Quirk wrote. ‘We not only bring our talents and experience with us, we also bring our personal values and humanity.’ It was important to him that ‘we act differently and be seen to act differently. Only then will we begin to renew our moral purpose of improving the lives of all residents of Kensington and Chelsea.’ The assumption was clear: the previous leaders were of a different moral fibre. But was Quirk addressing the media image of the staff’s ‘uncaring’ nature at the expense of everything the borough’s officers had actually done during the crisis? In his 2011 book, Reimagining Government: Public Leadership and Management in Challenging Times, he argues that leaders need to be ‘personal, authentic and appreciative of others … At the deepest level, leadership requires sympathy for others combined with the courage to choose in the midst of uncertainty.’ He chose to go along with the notion that the previous regime was out of touch. This is understandable as a strategy, but it left the council out in the cold. Ministers expected him to reinforce the ‘before and after’ position as part of their ‘effective leadership’ of the crisis.
More than three hundred employees knew differently. But a handful of people with the ear of the government and the ear of the press had created the narrative, and those responsible for the report did not find it necessary or expedient to ask the workers. And Sajid Javid, having played his part in forming it, was only too happy to parrot its wisdom in the House of Commons. ‘Mr Speaker,’ he said, ‘the people of North Kensington have been failed by those who were supposed to serve them. The council today is a very different organisation from the one that failed its people so badly back in June.’ When the present home secretary made these remarks to Parliament, and mentioned rehousing, he failed to give a full account of the ludicrous three-week deadline he’d pressed on the council, which he knew was impossible (because they’d told him it was), but which had helped his image back in June. (He now said the three-week promise had referred to ‘temporary housing’; so why had he suggested houses be bought on Rightmove?) ‘There can be no doubt there are families who desperately want a new home,’ he said, ‘but for whom progress has been painfully slow.’ The opposition sat across from him like plums. Some of them may have known about the deregulation of fire safety, about the under-resourcing of the London Fire Service, about the excesses of the construction lobby – once upon a time we might have relied on Labour MPs to jump to their feet – but they all sat there nodding, cosseting their ‘natural outrage’ and their ‘heartfelt sorrow’, assenting by their dumb-show of ‘empathy’ to Javid’s political land-grab.
Headlines seem like wisdom to those who rely on them. ‘Fire Victims Left in Lurch by Chaotic Relief Effort’, ‘Grenfell: The Net Closes In’, ‘Grenfell Fury Spills onto Streets’. When I sat down with the council’s critics they didn’t feel it necessary to examine the detail; all that mattered was in the headlines and on the news: ‘Callous Council’. On Friday, 13 December, Elizabeth Campbell, having been mauled on the Today programme, made a stronger showing on Nick Ferrari’s LBC show. She tried to explain the difficulty of conjuring new homes out of nowhere. ‘When we started,’ she said, ‘we thought we were rehousing 138 households; we are up to 210.’ She said some families, previously living with grandmothers or grown-up children, now wanted separate flats. Ferrari challenged this: why wasn’t the council simply replacing the lost flats with the same number? ‘In these circumstances,’ Campbell replied, ‘when you see what people have been through, that some of them have lost children, spouses, neighbours, it behoves us to behave generously.’ Magnanimous, sensitive, right? But nobody saw it that way, even if this was exactly the outcome they had hoped for. Campbell also used the interview to see off accusations that the tower contained great numbers of illegal immigrants. Yet the headline news from the interview was that the ‘out of touch’ leader of the council hadn’t met the prime minister since the fire. If Theresa May hadn’t met the new leaders of the stricken council, that wasn’t a matter for her to answer.
I met with countless activists, and recorded what they said, checking it as I did with every witness. They had loud voices and good causes but what they didn’t have was facts. I have quoted from their blogs and referred to their accusations, but I had trouble substantiating them. At times they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding, but when I tried to follow them up, I couldn’t prove them right. Perhaps the public inquiry will do better. In fairness, even the groups themselves began to suspect each other of using the fire as an excuse to do politics. The Times quoted the prominent Grenfell Action Group blogger Edward Daffarn: ‘This tragedy is being used as a focus for people’s discontent with lots of things … [and it’s] an absolute disservice to everybody who perished in that fire.’
One person I met several times in Golborne Road, an intelligent and helpful man who loved the area, would send me reams of data that turned out to be skewed and jumbled. It was all ‘evidence’, for manslaughter, for social cleansing, for negligence on the part of the council, and for a depraved attitude towards the poor people of North Kensington generally. When I asked him to corroborate it he made yet more free-ranging remarks. ‘It should all come out,’ he said. One day I convened a lunch for him and several Grenfell activists at the Galicia restaurant on Portobello Road. No evidence was presented at the lunch, just repeated assertions, most of them defamatory, of extreme criminality on the part of individual councillors, and expressions of contempt, often on class grounds, for people they thought were ‘evil’.
What they wanted – and this is where they lost me – was to place a smoking gun in the hands of the men they hated. ‘They had a scheme to close North Kensington Library and sell it off to private developers,’ one of them said. But no. The council planned to open a new library across the road costing £18 million – it was in the budget – and rent out the old library building to a local prep school, which would bring in more than a million pounds a year to support front-line services. They kept using the words ‘sell off’ and ‘privatise’ and never mentioned the new library when speaking about the closure of the old one, and got more and more excited and certain that they were right. They accused Feilding-Mellen of supporting the scheme because his children’s names were down for the prep school that was making a bid for the old library building. But the deputy leader had his children’s names down for all the local prep schools and there was no benefit for him in conspiring over it, and no evidence that he did. The council was accused of not doing enough consulting – a perennial problem that caused it no end of bother – but the truth is that a brand-new library was planned at a time when most boroughs are closing libraries, and the council was attempting to generate revenue from the old one. But every time the issue came up with the activists it was always about the ‘closure’ of the library. At a public meeting after the fire, a loud cheer broke out when Kim Taylor-Smith, the new deputy leader of the council, announced that the plan for a new library had been scrapped. A big cheer from all the activists. I’m sure the mothers bumping their buggies up the stairs of the old library will be grateful.
The critics never agree with the council about what progress means. To the critics, the ‘closure’ of the library was the only reality. The same happened with Kensington and Chelsea College. There were really two issues here. The first was the sale of the college building on Wornington Road in Golborne ward (the joint poorest in London) to the council in 2016, and the council’s subsequent plan to demolish the building and replace it with flats and a smaller building they would lease back to the college. The second issue was the planned merger with a much larger college in a neighbouring borough. According to the college governors, both these measures were necessary to save the college, which was in desperate financial straits. Local campaigners say the opposite: that these measures, deliberately or not, would mean the end of an institution that had served the community’s needs for decades.
At the root of the anger was the lack of consultation over the sale of the building to the council. It’s not clear that the council needed to consult on this, but they certainly didn’t make much effort to tell anyone about it – the Labour councillors for the ward say they knew nothing about it until it was a done deal. Feilding-Mellen had overseen the decision, and after the fire it was taken as further evidence of the council’s arrogant approach: it had a plan for the site which it was sure would benefit everyone, and it didn’t feel the need to discuss this with those who might be affected. From the council’s point of view, it was saving the college, but it’s a measure of how little its leaders seemed to understand the community connected to the institution that they didn’t anticipate how all this would go down. In the months after the fire there were several packed public meetings about the future of the college, all highly charged with the memory of Grenfell, of course, but the fury about the way the affair had been handled was real.
A spirited and well-organised local campaign called ‘Save Wornington College’ gathered momentum. It had two goals: to stop the existing building being demolished, and to stop the planned merger. Protests were organised, blog posts written, a stand set up on Portobello Road to raise awareness, and the borough covered with posters and flyers depicting councillors and college governors as ‘Wanted’ criminals or zombies. But the campaign also had a new, key weapon: Edward Daffarn. One campaigner told us that councillors and even government ministers were terrified of Daffarn, the articulate and energetic ‘prophet’ of the Grenfell disaster. It was Daffarn who managed to secure a meeting with the education minister Anne Milton, who then instructed the college governors not to go ahead with the merger.
It was a great victory, but a somewhat hollow one. My colleague Anthony Wilks, who was gathering video material, was at a campaign meeting shortly after the minister’s intervention, and his footage shows the occasionally muddy side of triumph. The campaigners acknowledged that it was the ‘Grenfell context’ which had got them their victory, and there was some apprehension about what to do with this foothold. How to proceed? ‘Shouldn’t we ask the community?’ someone said at the meeting. ‘We are the community, aren’t we?’ someone else offered.
‘It made me think “the community” is always the people who aren’t there,’ Anthony said, which is what I had found again and again.
These were the absurdities, as well as the victories, achieved in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. For many, the fire gave the opportunity to say boldly – with new, terrible evidence – what they’d always been trying to say about the Tories. But after nearly a year’s work and any number of moles in every committee and in every department (many of them Labour-supporting), and after scrutinising volumes of minutes and looking at hundreds of documents, I could find nothing to support the view that these councillors were corrupt or were trying to harm residents. Yes, they often behaved like Tories, and, yes, they very often pursued housing policies popular with people affiliated to the Tories and New Labour. For this there is a mass of interesting evidence. Not long after the fire, Claire Kober, the Labour leader of Haringey Council, felt under pressure from the left of the party to resign her position as a result of her support for a £2 billion public-private redevelopment scheme. ‘She was close friends with Rock Feilding-Mellen,’ my friend in Golborne Road said. ‘Claire Kober and Feilding-Mellen’s very thoughts, schemes and manipulations create Grenfell.’ I wrote to him saying I needed to have evidence.
He wanted me to have specifics, ‘actuals’, but the trail went stone cold after he sent me a long email with links to articles in a number of newspapers and links to publicly available council documents, all of which showed the councillors he named behaving like Tories, and Feilding-Mellen behaving like a man who made decisions about housing. ‘Evidence’ for true believers gathers in the space between assertions. It grows there, whispering ‘everybody knows,’ as if moral arithmetic were just a matter of stringing random bits of ugliness together and calling it a case. My correspondent ended one of his last emails by attaching a press photograph of Feilding-Mellen at some event with Boris Johnson. I was tempted to write back ‘case closed’, but it isn’t, and no activist would ever want it to be – it’s too much fun this way. I liked my cups of tea with the activists and was sad to disappoint them. But I knew they’d be OK: public opinion, that great and ceaseless legislator of fairness, was on their side.
In the run-up to the memorial service at St Paul’s, it became clear to the organisers that there was ‘considerable unease’ in the local community at the idea of official representation from the council, ‘regardless of party’. Graham Tomlin, the bishop of Kensington, was disappointed by this: he had hoped everyone could be present. But the councillors weren’t wanted. He went ahead and informed them of ‘the hostility that their presence might provoke’. When I contacted him, it was obvious he had passed on the advice more in sorrow. ‘I made it clear they were not banned from coming,’ he said, ‘that from the church’s point of view they were welcome, but that they needed to be aware of the feelings of significant parts of the local community, and it was entirely their choice whether to come or not in the light of such feelings.’ A memo then went out to Conservative councillors suggesting they should stay away, though that message came from the party, not the church. The media packaged it as the bishop banning the Tories. ‘It’s not about me,’ Campbell told the Today programme, perfectly accurately. A number of victims told me they had wanted their social workers to come to the memorial. Some of these professionals had been working with the same victims since the night of the fire, and some of the families said they would feel more comfortable with them there. Again: not reported.
The National Memorial Service – ‘Remembrance, Community and Hope’ – was intended to mark a coming-together, but it had politics sewn in. ‘Six months on,’ Seraphima Kennedy wrote in the Guardian, ‘what has been accomplished for the survivors and the bereaved, the local and the wider community? . . . Grenfell is, in many respects, a tragedy about listening.’ I think that’s correct. Given the way it was covered, the Grenfell tragedy can be understood as a crisis for the right and all it stood for, but it was also a crisis for the left, and those it had failed to stand up for. In all the loosening of cares and controls and emergency services, it’s not just the current government but a succession of them that lie behind those deaths, and who, if not all of us, voted such vulnerability into existence? No one did well. If civic life is dead, with a 24-storey tombstone beside the Westway, it died in the times in which we too lived, and by the values we lived by. The point of a society, if we have one, is that when bad things happen, it’s everybody’s concern.
I arrived early at St Paul’s. Outside the tube station, the headteacher of Oxford Gardens Primary School was speaking to some of the families. Two of her pupils, Medhi El Wahabi and Biruk Haftom, had died in the fire, and a great many others had watched the fire from the street. In the days afterwards, a book was made that they could all draw in. ‘What can you remember about the person who died?’ it said across the top of the page. At the cathedral, many television cameras were set up behind a barrier. The journalists leaned forward, microphones in hand, and asked each of the families as they passed if they wanted justice.
They came in black dresses and best coats, and they hugged each other, Africans and Syrians and Italians, as if to recognise their common bond in catastrophe. We went through the metal detectors and someone introduced me to a family from the 20th floor. The younger members were recovering now and they were excited, as well they might be: this was a national event and they felt special. St Paul’s that day felt like a place for everybody, at least on the surface. As the Grenfell families made their way up the aisle, beneath them in the crypt were memorials to Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, Viscount Wolseley, who served at the Indian Mutiny, and Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, who in 1868 distinguished himself in a punitive raid against the Ethiopians. John Donne was down there, too, and maybe his ‘Epicedes and Obsequies upon the Death of Sundry Personages’ would travel up through the floor. ‘Language, thou art too narrow and too weak/To ease us now; great sorrows cannot speak.’
The music of the Ebony Steel Band, the sound of Notting Hill Carnival, gave way to the Salvation Army Band. And as the last of the families came through the Great West Door, the Prince of Wales, with the Duchess of Cornwall and Princes William and Harry, went to the front to sit near the chief mourners, among them Theresa May and Sajid Javid. ‘Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side,’ were the words of the hymn, ‘bear patiently the cross of grief and pain.’ As the congregation sang, an imam from the Al-Manaar mosque and a Catholic priest from the Lancaster West Estate carried in a banner. I’d seen it many times at marches and meetings: a large, green heart containing the word ‘Grenfell’. The dean of St Paul’s welcomed the families and ‘those who served others as front-line responders or volunteers, or who assisted with the immediate tasks of coping with the losses of lives, homes and livelihoods’. Thirty metres above our heads there was silence in the whispering gallery, and above it, the oculus appeared not only to light the scene but to see everything.
An oud sounded and a montage of voices played through the cathedral. ‘Insha Allah, Insha Allah,’ the girls of the Al-Sadiq and Al-Zahra Schools sang: ‘You’ll find your way.’ There are moments when you realise what great churches are for. The children raised high the roof-beams, and for a second all disputes were quieted by the sound of their voices together and the way it reached into the dome and into the mind. ‘My hope, my prayer,’ the bishop of Kensington said, ‘is that today we will pledge ourselves to change – from a city where we didn’t listen, where we didn’t hear the cries of our neighbours because we were too wrapped up in our own interests and prosperity, to create a new type of life together, where we are turned not inwards to ourselves, but outwards to each other.’
When the Westway was completed in 1970, it was agreed that the area underneath it would be given to the community, and a trust has run it ever since. (The new overpass erased 700 homes and 1600 residents had to move.) The Westway is mentioned in ‘London’s Burning’ by the Clash and a punk attitude is bred in the bone. ‘Punk’ because that’s how it feels and those were the records I liked, but pop culture generally has always found a home around Portobello Road (remember the Teddy boys), and the sound systems and dub records and reggae artists of All Saints Road are synonymous with the place. North Kensington in the 1970s and 1980s, after all the housing shenanigans, was a squatters’ paradise, and Freston Road, just by the tower – the home of Ear Studios, where the Clash recorded Combat Rock – made an excellent bid in 1977 to secede from the United Kingdom. With Heathcote Williams as ambassador to the UK and the actor David Rappaport as foreign minister, the Republic of Frestonia (state motto: ‘Nos Sumus Una Familia’, ‘we are all one family’) had a very fair national newspaper, the Tribal Messenger, and over time became a housing co-operative. The republic foundered, but the values underlying it didn’t. A love of the renegade is part of the air in Notting Hill, despite the oligarchs’ mansions, and people have that in common, though today’s renegades would deny it.
This occurred to me the first time I met Niles Hailstones, local statesman, drummer, rasta and refusenik. He is quoted by everybody – skate-kids and millionaires – as the local man of integrity. He is treated as a kind of folk hero, the opposite, on the surface, of Rock Feilding-Mellen. But Feilding-Mellen is a scion of refusenik bohemia too, with those nice parents who wanted to free the mind. They are all part of a republic of argument that used to live in Notting Hill, and is still there, although the headlines with thundering clarity see it as a Manichaean battleground. Hailstones may see it that way too, but at least he brings a sense of humour and a sparkle to his disdain. I met him under the Westway in a yard at Acklam Village. I’d actually come to see his friend Elvis Burke, who had been evacuated after the fire, but Niles was there too and he said more than Elvis. We sat on an old burst couch in a covered yard. A piece of chipboard lay to one side bearing the words ‘Eat the Rich.’ The yard had been used to store donations after the fire: there were still rails of clothes and baskets of shoes waiting to be transported, and cardboard signs saying ‘women’, ‘kids’, ‘bedding’. Elvis is a big gentle guy who wears the Vegas-era sunglasses that gave him his nickname. We spent an hour talking about the fire.
Then Niles came over – he had been tuning a guitar – and began a different discussion. I’d seen him do this at public meetings, harassing bureaucrats, as he might see it, and guiding them towards a larger truth. By then, it had become commonplace to refer to what happened at the tower as an ‘atrocity’ – the lawyer Mike Mansfield often did this, putting paid to any thought of it having been an accident – but the way Hailstones expressed it reminded me of the old commonalities as much as the divisions. A tradition of outrage found a big occasion in this terrible fire. ‘They want us out of the area,’ Hailstones said. ‘With the Westway Trust, we’ve finally managed to get enough people on the inside that the CEO had to resign. These protocols: they are broken weapons.’ Hailstones had been working for years with the Grenfell Action Group, encouraging them in their resistance to every manner of authority. ‘They’d been doing that for years,’ he said. ‘We were all working together. Now there’s like three hundred Grenfell groups … all the groups that have come about since they threw all the money in the air. There’s been a lot of problems with people suddenly appearing and saying: “This is what I’m going to do.” And the community is saying: “What are you doing?”’ We spoke about activism and what it could and couldn’t do. He told me he’d been reading The Art of War since he was 12. He sees racist assumptions everywhere he looks. ‘When I saw Grenfell was on fire I thought it was a declaration of war,’ he said.
Joe Delaney, the most vocal figure associated with the action group, was both generous and fierce. He’s a logical speaker, and I found myself nodding along with a lot of what he said, at first anyhow, but then I noticed he only had time for the convenient end of any argument. This makes him a politician, which is fine: he is a resident who speaks up against what he feels is a systematic wrong. Most of the people who lived in the tower itself are not activists, and never were. In any situation where local activism has a part to play, in any workplace, on any housing estate, it is the more vocal and radical figures who attract the media. Delaney has lately come under fire himself from the media – ‘it’s a version of feasting with panthers,’ one of his friends told me – but he’s robust enough to stick to his original line of attack, which is that the council is and always has been and always will be bad news. When I asked him if he thought personal manslaughter charges should be sought, not just corporate ones, he said: ‘Ideally.’ His strongest suit is to do with fire safety regulations. He thinks that the TMO and the council will have to slug it out to see what was delegated to whom, and who failed to ensure that all fire safety checks were fully in place. He says that insurers were not keen to underwrite the tower because of concerns about safety.
At the time of the power surges, he wanted the case to go to court, but there wasn’t enough support among the residents. This was a consistent problem. There were always a few residents who were unhappy and they were the ones who wrote blogs and emails to the council and who went on the news after the fire. Delaney has worked in local government himself and is tenacious in his efforts; he appears to enjoy being a thorn in the side of councillors and officers, and the evidence he showed me demonstrated several instances of rudeness and slipshod behaviour and minor incompetence on the part of the council, but no homicidal intent. He moved into his flat in Barandon Walk, one of the low-rise buildings around the tower, in March 2010 and thought it wasn’t quite ready for him (it had previously been occupied by a disabled tenant). He threatened legal action and soon afterwards was involved in many issues to do with the estate and the building of the new academy. Later he had multiple issues with the council’s plans and behaviour, as well as those of the TMO – he sent me a nine-page document detailing his involvement as well as his personal trials – and in 2011 he began helping the Grenfell Action Group defend itself against a threat of legal action by the council (some thought their blog posts were libellous). The litany of accusations against the council covers everything from ‘social cleansing’ to ‘asbestos’, and reached a peak with the response to the fire. Delaney claims, contra what I later found, that the council didn’t help residents into hotels after the fire and didn’t prove easy with financial payments and other support. He provided no evidence. ‘All of this has taken its toll on me,’ he wrote. ‘I have found myself withdrawing more often and suffered breakdowns.’
One day he took me inside his block to show me the exposed gas pipes. There has been a persistent claim that exposed pipes in the tower may have hastened the progress of the fire. The pipes were indeed exposed and were marked along the walls with yellow tabs. Many months after the fire, we stood under the tower watching the workers on the upper floors. ‘Do you think they’ll pull it down after this?’ I asked.
‘They’ll have to,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing else they can do with it. Apparently certain flats were burgled after the fire.’ Like Hailstones, Delaney’s journey towards truth goes on a single track; it passes through the places you know, speeds past inconvenience, stops only to pick up the usual suspects. I mused over his suggestion that workers had stolen from the intact flats on the lower floors. ‘Workmen. Dodgy workmen. There’s no one else could have done it.’ These men had been in one of the grimmest places imaginable. The pathologists established the identities of victims and returned their remains to the families, the builders removed debris and made the structure safe, and I thought these people’s work among the most admirable undertaken as a consequence of the tragedy. But I never heard that said by anyone because it didn’t fit with the general distrust of authority. Those ‘disgusted’ by pathologists ‘falsifying’ the numbers of the dead never apologised when it was shown that such allegations were false. That was forgotten. They came back to life when a man was indeed arrested on suspicion of theft. ‘The man is neither a police officer not a member of the London Fire Brigade,’ the Met told me (somewhat defensively).
‘I can’t tell you how personally devastating these reports of theft are,’ Detective Chief Superintendent Fiona McCormack said, ‘for the victims, for me, and everyone involved in the investigation who is working so hard.’ Reality has a devastating way of rewarding the cynic: if you depend on news of atrocious human behaviour to support your argument, you’ll never have long to wait.
When I’d gone looking for the story of Faouzia El Wahabi, who died with her family in Flat 182 on the 21st floor, I was directed to the Westway Trust and the supplementary school where she learned English. I found a notebook with her work in it, pages where she’d written lists under the heading ‘Elements of Clothes and Accessories Vocabulary’. She was determined to know all the words to do with dressing up and looking nice. ‘Jacket’, she wrote, ‘Zipper, Boots, Collar, Gloves’. ‘Excellent work!’ the teacher wrote underneath. Faouzia was also part of a sewing group that met every week in a room overlooking Portobello Green. She loved it there, sitting by the window making clothes and catching up with the other women, all of them talking about their travels and their lives. ‘She was the loveliest lady,’ Asia Benelbaida said. They used to sit together. ‘These ladies can talk,’ Esther Ngo Mangoung, who led the class, said, gathering the material of her skirt and shaking it in time with her laughter.
‘Faouzia was so good at knitting,’ Asia said. ‘She would spend weeks making things and just give them away. She was happy here.’ Asia was working at a huge Bernina sewing machine. She stared into it and then left the room for a moment when tears overcame her. The tables were loaded with patterns and pincushions, bolts of bright material, specs and rulers. ‘It’s hard to think of the good people gone,’ Esther said. ‘Good people. And London is different now, but you make what you can.’
At the entrance to Gunnersbury Cemetery you are greeted by palm trees. It is not a quiet place – lorries and cabs go roaring up the North Circular Road to the M4 – but it is peaceful nonetheless, perhaps more so, given the contrast. In the newest part of the graveyard I found the place where Jessica is buried, the young girl from the 20th floor who just missed being rescued by the fireman who went to search for her. She was out at the edge of a brand-new piece of ground that had very few other crosses. There were flower arrangements in the distance saying ‘Grandad’ and ‘Grandma’. But her territory was new. Fresh-scented roses covered the grave and a circus of glitter hearts and hummingbirds made it magical, and candles burned, suggesting that someone had been there before me that day.
Jessica Urbano Ramirez
Died 14 June 2017
Aged 12 years
Rest in Peace
The tree over her grave was sturdy. I know trees aren’t really reassuring or loyal, but that one seemed so. When I walked away, I paused to see an elderly man, a deckchair set up by his wife’s grave, tilling the soil and sorting out plants and getting on with managing his day.
Grenfell Tower is a place where past crimes and present misdemeanours struggle for ascendancy, never one without the other. ‘For many in this community,’ one volunteer told me, ‘the tower used to be a place to live, now it’s a way to live.’ The space opened up by the tragedy may be one into which no British political party can currently fit: somewhere new and ethically arresting, where the distance between rich and poor is addressed, and where the notion of society is reconsidered, not merely along the old class lines, but with a new tolerance of different truths, as well as true differences. People living at the same time require their own ways to be happy. Different habits of family and community. Different notions of belonging. But we have nothing if we don’t have safety.
Before I left her new flat in Kensington Row, Karen Aboud gave me a tour. She told me she liked this flat much more than the one in the tower. She had chocolates set out in bowls and the carpets smelled brand new. Her youngest son, Adam, was crouched on the floor of his room with a brand new games console in his hands. Light was coming in from the window and the whiteness of the walls appeared to bleach everything out. Adam was online with his friend. They were playing a virtual reality game on Roblox, where you can buy pets and improve your house and create a life of niceness. ‘Bye, Adam,’ I said. He smiled and waggled his thumbs and moved on.
Sepideh Minaei Moghaddam, the Iranian woman who escaped with her son, Sepehr, was given a new house to rent from the council; it cost the council £900,000, a white bungalow surrounded by rosemary bushes out in Twickenham. She didn’t want to look at any tower blocks and had hoped for somewhere without stairs. When I went to see her, the council was fitting the house out with floors she’d chosen and was putting new doors in. I walked round with her into the back garden and she almost hugged herself, she was so pleased. ‘Ever since I came to see this place I’ve felt relaxed,’ she told me. ‘You know – it’s over.’
‘I promised him a house with a garden,’ she said. ‘I still can’t believe it.’ The planes were coming in to land at Heathrow and I thought of all the people looking down and seeing the endless houses and hoping for safety in London. The garden had trees at the end and a vegetable patch where Sepideh thought she might grow okra. The evening was coming and people were making their way home and Sepehr bounced down the new garden on a yellow space-hopper and he smiled for the whole world. When I went to see the tower for the last time the street was quiet and a full moon was behind the building. On the top floors, the empty windows were full of light, as if the people were home again.
Section VI: The Rebellion, image by Charlie Phillips showing graffiti on Silchester Road in North Kensington, 1968.
Since this piece was first published on 30 May, the following alterations have been made to the text:
The date of the Aberfan disaster was changed from 1967 to 1966.
‘Dickens wrote in Household Words in 1850’ has been corrected to ‘Dickens’s sub-editor W.H. Wills wrote in Household Words in 1850’.
An ellipsis has been inserted into the quotation from Seraphima Kennedy.
‘Maxilla Children’s Centre’ has been changed to ‘Golborne and Maxilla Children’s Centre’.
The following sentence has been removed: ‘One of them noticed that Mr Kebede had packed a suitcase; it was standing in the hall, as if he was prepared to leave after raising the alarm.’
‘Avondale Park Nursery School’ has been replaced by ‘Avondale Park Primary School’.
‘Elgin Avenue’ has been replaced by ‘Elgin Crescent’.
The name ‘Malieka’ has been corrected throughout to ‘Malikah’.
Jason Garcia tried to ‘get to’ the base of the tower, not to ‘get in at’.
The words ‘two of the Urbano uncles, Carlos and Fred’ have been replaced with ‘two of the uncles, Carlos and Manfred Ruiz’.
A reference to ‘Associated Press’ has been replaced by ‘Press Association’.