The full horror of the fire in west London this week has yet to be unveiled. In its smouldering ruins, Grenfell Tower holds the remains of many of the missing, and it almost certainly shrouds the answer to how such a grisly tragedy could have taken place.
As boss of ITV’s The London Programme for two decades, I learned the rhythm of public tragedy. It would often fall to our programme, on Friday night, to recite the litany of loss after a catastrophe like this. The King’s Cross fire: 31 dead. The sinking of the Marchioness that drowned 51 young partygoers; the Clapham Junction collision, where 35 died. Over the coming weeks, forensic analysis will reveal the failings that allowed a small kitchen fire to turn into an inferno.
But what we already know should shame us. Grenfell Tower showed us the best features of a diverse community – and we took them for granted. But it also tried to warn of the risks and we ignored its entreaties. We should never do so again.
Notting Dale, to the west of Notting Hill, symbolises London’s unique confluence of rich and poor, old and young, native and foreign. As a young chemist at nearby Imperial College, I passed many hours that I should have spent in the laboratory rubbing shoulders with pop stars in the Portobello Road market. But I also recall Saturday mornings teaching black teenagers the rudiments of O-level maths in the hope that it would be their path to a job in a garage or in construction.
The people who lived in Grenfell represent the multi-ethnic face of modern London. The Syrian refugee who came to Britain for a better life, the engineering student who fled a war-torn home of Daraa, and the young Italian couple recently engaged and who had moved into the 23rd floor. That should not be a surprise. Notting Dale was the place where the slum landlord Peter Rachman first gave shelter in war-damaged properties to West Indians like my parents; I was born into one such tenement a few miles along the Regent’s Canal. The 1958 race riots were sparked outside Latimer Road tube station, just a couple of hundred yards away.
Research shows that fewer than half of the households in the surrounding postcodes are headed by a white British person. This truly is a melting pot, a chaotic and joyful mix of strivers from all nations. But it may have been our political and bureaucratic incomprehension – indeed our suspicion – of this joyous chaos that left Grenfell Tower vulnerable. Much has been made of the residents’ predictions that it would take a tragedy of this enormity to shake the authorities out of their torpor. We will discover in due course whether the local councillors or ministers ignored the complaints; but my guess is that the landlords, the regulators, the local politicians and even the neighbours would have seen this community of immigrants and transients as a Tower of Babel: hard to understand, hard to reach and ultimately, here today and gone tomorrow.
The people who died here would have rubbed shoulders every day with the – predominantly white – people for whom they worked. But when they came home to the tower, they passed into a twilight zone out of the gaze of the Londoners who could have made a difference – the politicians, the business leaders, the opinion writers, the doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals. They think they live in a cosmopolitan city. But working at the next desk or sharing the lift with someone of a different background isn’t integration. In America they have a name for this: “sunset segregation”.
Here, a study for the Social Integration Commission shows that most people of minority background do not develop close friendships with the majority – and this uncomfortable truth remains the case in London. Analysis of census data by University of London academics shows that where there is residential mixing it is between minorities – Grenfell Tower illustrated the point precisely.
My concern is that after the spotlight of grief has shone on this tragedy it will pass on. The denizens of all those other Grenfell Towers will slip back into the darkness, condemned to rage from the shadows. The ghastly irony is that it has taken this tragedy for the rest of us to focus on their plight, if only for a moment. At least let’s use that moment to try and work out the plea. I suspect it will say “please, will you hear our prayer, at last?”
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.