“We don’t deal with people, we deal with bricks and mortar” Housing Officer, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
I will never forget those words. They were uttered at an event in North West London which aimed to get the various services utilised by people with mental health problems, to work together. The Housing Officer’s comment is now given extra significance by the fact that only a few years after it was said, the preventable deaths at Grenfell happened on her patch.
I write the week after the first anniversary of this outrage (I can’t use the word tragedy), and am recovering from the effects on my crumbling frame of walking silently and marching noisily with those affected – families of the dead, survivors, local residents, firefighters, mental health professionals, and others who, like me, care deeply.
I have been reflecting on why I involve myself every month in the Silent Walk and attend as many events as I can. The reasons are complex and intensely personal. I hope to unravel some of this in this blog. It would seem to be a mixture of empathy and fuelled partly by anger.
I have lived with the effects of extreme trauma most of my life but particularly after an incident in Belarus spun out of control and led to the death of my Manager and colleague. I have written about this in other blogs in detail. I was dispatched to “sort things” by my employer Aberdeen City Council whose primary objective was to avoid political fallout. There politicians were behaving extremely badly that day and this reckless behaviour led to unnecessary deaths. I entered a gothic horror mortuary to identify remains believing firmly in the narrative I had been given about this “tragic accident”. As Victor Frankl said:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
I will never forget the day the Leader of the Council turned up at my flat late at night drunk and told me what had really happened, that the meaning that had kept me going through it all started to crumble. We had been lied to. I had been manipulated. Before she had even known they had died but were simply missing she had a superhuman, or rather inhuman, drive to protect her position. She found my dead manager’s camera, took out the film, brought it back to Aberdeen and had it developed in a private lab. She showed the pictures to me that night and I felt vomit rise up to the back of my throat.
Then of course, I started to struggle to keep the myth of what really happened going. I was already warned I had an “over developed sense of justice” so I had a need to tell the truth. They had a need to suppress the truth. Inevitably this was going to end in destruction. It led to PTSD.
Much of what helps people with trauma is “Management of Meaning”. Frankl knew this. I feel the trauma rising in me when I feel powerless. When I sat up watching online the horror of Grenfell unfold, I felt powerless. This in a nutshell is my WHY. It is WHY I turn up and do the monthly Silent Walk. This is WHY if I can, I shake the fire-fighters’ hands and thank them. I look into their eyes. I can see the trauma in those who were there that night. This is WHY the key, I believe, is collective action which unites the strengths of the community so they are not consigned to a box marked “victim”.
I became a victim. I bought into the messages I was given that I had no right to participate, no right to a say, no right to claim assets while dominated by deficits. It took a very long time for me to break the walls of the box down.
Grenfell and the response to it has consumed me with anger. Quite simply, I need to channel that anger in a positive direction or it turns in on me.
And anger is a major part of the grieving. I know what it is to be negated for having the gall to speak inconvenient truths to those in power. I know what it is to see blame being distributed to anyone and anything other than those who were actually responsible. At one stage, I was summoned to the Chief Executive and made to swear in front of a Justice of the Peace, that I had properly briefed the colleagues who died prior to going to Belarus on potential dangers. I still remember the exact words of my reply:
“May I remind you my job was to provide information on safety in Belarus, not to advise officers senior to myself how they should conduct themselves when abroad”.
It was inevitable that Survivor Guilt set in as I absorbed on some unconscious level, that I was somehow responsible. As I started to become unwell, the truth kept spilling out of me. At this stage, I had to be extinguished. And they very nearly managed it. However, if there is such a thing as “recovery” from something as extreme as this, it is not about “getting a job”, it is about finding my voice. These days I choose to be a voice rather than an echo.
So much of this is familiar to me. Yet I am well aware I come to this with a degree of privilege. Despite my circumstances, I am certain the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea agreed so readily to house me and then did so in the “posher” end of the Borough as I was still able to come across as one of their tribe – white, educated, middle class. The first property that came up was in North Kensington. I was informed I was allocated that property in error and soon was headed to Chelsea. There there was just as much anti-social behaviour but it was carried out by a public school educated son of a barrister who had relapsed on crack and set up a drug den in his flat right above me.
Assumptions, including my own, bother me. Some of the ignorance around Grenfell, the hate and bile belching from the Twitter accounts of some (usually anonymous) individuals, has really affected me. I have been trolled online in the vilest of ways as have many of the others who speak out in support of the Grenfell community.
“They were all illegals” “They were scroungers” “They all had foreign names” “Green was chosen as it’s the colour of Islam” “Why were these people allowed to live in Kensington in the first place?” “Why don’t they just get a job”.
In fact, the people of Grenfell do not fit those stereotypes. Take for example the case of the super-talented Khadija Saye above.
I also compare this hate-filled narrative with the story of Bassem Choukair – a very popular and hard-working member of the great team at M&S in Earls Court Road. He died, his wife – a nursery teacher – died, her mother died, and their three beautiful daughters died. Bassem was so devoted to his team that he phoned from the tower at 2.30 am to leave a message for his manager that he would not be in to work that day and he was sorry for letting them down.
This, and countless other individual stories of the human beings who were incinerated in their own homes that night, just does not fit the picture the haters would have us believe.
The book of condolence signed first by his colleagues then members of the Earls Court community and beyond gave a picture of a funny, friendly, dedicated family man. I know they miss him terribly.
Once again, the haters choose to ignore facts like these.
In essence, Grenfell just like Chernobyl in which I was involved, Piper Alpha, Hillsborough and so on brought out the worst in humanity, but also the best. When Chernobyl happened, people were kept in the dark and were out rehearsing for the annual May Day march. M’aidez. Save Our Souls. First they took the officials to safety. They even got the sheep out before the people. It was easier of course to keep the lid on information in those days. It is not so easy now.
I have been showing solidarity with the North Kensington community since the day of the fire. The Devil may well be in the detail, but so are the Angels. Here are some small examples of things I have heard or witnessed personally over the past year which restore my battered faith in humanity:
- The rise of Leadership in a community that previously believed no-one would listen to them. This already started with the renewed confidence that started to develop when Emma Dent Coad was elected our MP. The winds of change had begun almost imperceptibly to blow. When people from the Grenfell community were finally admitted to give testimony in the first Council Meeting after the fire, I heard them speak with such eloquence, dignity and power. This was community leadership being revealed before our eyes. I have never seen Leadership as being about hierarchical power but something citizen-led that was familiar to Lao Tzu:
- The courage of all kinds of people who went towards the fire to try to help. I am thinking of the nurse at St Charles Hospital close by. He was up early for the Ramadan tradition of pre-dawn meal Suhur. He ran towards the tower along with other Muslims and started to do what he could. He distributed water along with the group to which he belonged who are all from Sierra Leone. After that, he went to work and did a full shift on a ward on which I have been a patient many times. That group from Sierra Leone lost one of their number in the tower.
- On one of the silent marches I noticed a small boy with his Mum. He was sticking a picture he had drawn of his best friend Mehdi who died in the fire, on a pillar which had personal messages written on it. I spoke to his Mum. She told me of the support he was getting at school, but that his older sister also lost her best friend. She was at that stage still too traumatised to come out of the house.
- Members of the CNWL NHS Foundation Trust Grenfell Support Team told me how one of them was working with a small boy who had lost his father. A tattered item of his Dad’s clothing was found in the wreckage. That staff member made a blanket from the tatters for him to hold close.
- The firefighters of Red Watch Paddington ran the London marathon in full kit. Some were still traumatised from having been first responders on the day of the fire. At the Justice4Grenfell march on the 18th I spoke to a number of firefighters who were either directly involved in the incident or who had been impacted upon particularly by the blame that was being dumped on them from a great height. Every Silent Walk I do, see the firefighters on parade and I feel in my gut the intensity of the emotions they are feeling.
- On the day of the anniversary, I met a number of survivors. I met a friend of Bassem Choukair, who was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the six members of the Choukair family who died that day, pushing another survivor from the 9th floor in his wheelchair. To me this signified a great deal.
- The space under the Westway where the Wall of Truth is situated and from which you can see the Tower, has evolved into a meeting place and a sanctuary. There is a library. There are sofas set out. There is a chess club. There are candles. There is art. There is a piano. There is always someone on hand to listen, to chat to, or simply to sit in silence. These were not provided by some Social Services team, but came from the community members themselves, the grass-roots from which something about hope, about strength, repair and yes, justice, has tentatively started to grow.
Thursday was about grief, about mourning and commemoration. The crowd of an estimated twelve thousand people marched from the Wall of Truth, up Ladbroke Grove, past St Charles Square where I was once housed in a homeless hostel, to St Marks Park where there people of all faiths and none joined the Muslim community in Iftar – breaking the Ramadan fast.
The highly emotionally charged silence spoke in many ways louder than words. In contrast, we marched through Whitehall on the 17th of June to demand action. We chanted, we shouted, we demanded. Of course it gave us a channel for anger. But among the chants there were again those tiny shoots of hope. In one of the many impassioned speeches, I heard words which are music to my ears as they sum up my own motivation in life.
“It is time to stop doing ‘for’ and start doing ‘with'”
And my favourite chant resounding through the streets of Whitehall:
“What does Community look like?” “THIS is what community looks like”
This Community has empowered itself and the genie is out of the bottle and once this has happened it is impossible to stuff it back down. The days of being at best passive recipients of the largesse of the privileged, at worst, the silent victims of their prejudices are over.
Provided they do not succumb to the divide and rule that so often those at the top of the hierarchy utilise but combine strengths, there is hope for the survivors and families of Grenfell and the local community.
RIP Bassem Choukair, Khadija Saye and the seventy others in whose name change will come.