It need not have happened

CONSTRUCTED IN 1974, it was 221 feet tall. It overshadowed the homes of many people including many of the wealthier inhabitants of West London’s Kensington. And I imagine that the wealthy inhabitants of the elegant crescents and other thoroughfares near it did not appreciate the views from their windows being spoiled by this Brutalist block of flats containing less well-off people, about whom they would rather not think. Between 2015 and 2016, the block was refurbished and made less of an eyesore by the addition of cladding – ostensibly to improve insulation – to its exterior.

On the afternoon of the 13th of June 2017, I was walking around North Kensington, taking photographs as usual. I stopped to take pictures of the recently built Kensington Leisure Centre and its near neighbour the Kensington Aldridge Academy – both are interesting examples of contemporary architecture. While I was taking these photos, I had my back to the tower block I have just described.  Had I looked at it then, I would have thought that it would have been of little interest to me. How wrong I was.

Just after midnight on the following day, a fire broke out in that tall block – Grenfell Tower – that edifice which overlooked the homes of the wealthy residents of Kensington. The fire spread rapidly because of the highly inflammable nature of the cladding used to make the tower more attractive to its neighbours. Seventy-two people died in the conflagration; many were injured; and all the surviving residents were not only badly scarred psychologically, but also lost their homes and possessions.

From wherever you looked in a large area around Grenfell, including from the homes of the prosperous residents of Holland Park and Notting Hill, one could see the horrifically charred tower block – a fear-inspiring eyesore – the result of local government officialdom ignoring repeated warnings about the already known potential fire hazards that the cladding presented and inadequate planning for escape during a fire. I felt – and I am not alone in thinking this – that the local council hardly cared for a few impecunious residents in a tower block. What was more important was to save money so as not to impose high local taxes on people who could have easily afforded to pay them.

Soon after the fire, the charred tower was covered with protective wrapping to assist forensic investigations and to contain debris, which might otherwise have flown away and dropped in the neighbourhood. It also removed from sight the scarred, charred remains of the building – a 24 hour a day reminder of the avoidable, tragic loss of life, which was not altogether disconnected with civic and possibly criminal negligence. The remains of the tower are still covered up.  Before the heart-rending remains of the conflagration were covered up, filmmaker Steve McQueen (born 1969 not far from Grenfell Tower) made a short film about the tower. It is currently on show at the Serpentine South Gallery in Hyde Park until the 10th of May.

The film is without words in its soundtrack and without any captions. It looks as if it might have been filmed with a drone or a camera held within a helicopter. It begins with a flight over beautiful countryside far beyond the edge of London. The camera moves above the scenes of rural serenity and slowly the city of London comes into view. We pass over London’s sprawling suburbs, and then the charred Grenfell Tower begins to be seen in the centre of the screen. The camera moves closer and closer to the blackened building, and then slowly circles around it many times. Each time the tower is slowly encircled, and the camera moves closer to it, more and more details of the destruction entered my consciousness, and my understanding of the horror of what had befallen Grenfell and its inhabitants gradually increased. As the camera moved around the wreck, you could catch glimpses of the parts of London surrounding it – the houses and flats of those who must have witnessed the fire, but were not affected by it, at least not physically. As the camera moved, one could see trains moving on nearby tracks and vehicles travelling along roads. I felt that I was witnessing life going on as usual at the same time as witnessing the horrors of a disaster. The absence of commentary added to the powerful impact that seeing these images of a lethal incineration simultaneously with scenes of normality made on me. There was a soundtrack, which consisted of recordings of everyday sounds – both natural and man-made. However, while the camera encircled the tower of death, there was no sound at all. I wondered whether this signified the fact that the victims, who had died, will no longer be able to enjoy the sounds of everyday life.

McQueen’s film is a sophisticated and solemn memorial to an event that could easily have been avoided. Without a soundtrack or explanations, the viewer is left to ponder the tragedy in his or her own way.

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