I’ve been helping to run one of the Grenfell relief centres for the last few weeks, at Notting Hill Methodist Church. I’m now co-ordinating a number of projects aimed at helping survivors and the wider community rebuild their lives. I’ve written a short piece about the contribution of one of your Big Issue sellers to the relief effort. I’d like to be able to say thank you.
In the days after the fire, we were inundated with clothing, bedding, toiletries and all manner of useful items. The overwhelming generosity of the local – and national – population was extraordinary. Volunteers worked tirelessly to sort through clothes and shoes, but we had to turn donations away in the end, and it wasn’t easy. People wanted to help, and it was clear that their act of generosity meant a lot to them. Distraught at the images they’d seen on their televisions they wanted or, rather, needed to help. When we told them we were sorry but we couldn’t accept that help, it hurt them. I began to dread the sentence that began, “But we’ve come all the way from…” But the truth was that every single available space in our community was full. We simply had nowhere to store these gifts.
We received everything from used socks and underwear (yes, really) to new clothes, designer trainers and expensive handbags. A young girl brought a pair of trainers that were clearly her most prized possession “because someone else needs them now”. She was one of many who stole our hearts. But there was one offering that meant the most to me.
He knows what it is to not have a home. He knows what it is to lose everything.
In those hot June days, I came out of the church for some air and sunshine whenever I could. I have a false memory of that first day or two after the fire. In my mind it was dark outside. This may be because I spent so much time either in the church basement or in the great long shadows of the Westway. Or perhaps it was the shock. But either way it wasn’t true, as every day was hot and bright with clear blue skies.
The sun came out for me though, when a man walked towards me with his dog, stood at the steps of the church and handed me a stunningly beautiful bouquet of flowers. “I don’t have any possessions,” he said. “I don’t have a home myself. But I thought these might help. I hope everyone’s ok.” I gave him a hug before he even introduced himself. His name was Alan, his dog was called Lexie and he showed me his Big Issue seller’s accreditation. He asked me to write a note with the flowers for him because he’s partially sighted. I tried to sneak some donated fruit into his rucksack and he joked about how he could still me doing this despite his sight difficulties. Alan had nothing but he made sure he gave us something. He knows what it is to not have a home. He knows what it is to lose everything.
More flowers arrived then. A solitary bouquet gradually grew into a stunning monument. People brought single roses, huge bouquets, teddies, cards, football scarves and shirts, and messages for the missing. Fire crews sent flowers and cards expressing their sorrow at not being able to save more lives. One man’s show of care grew into a beautiful, heart-breaking display of solidarity and sadness. Some people brought candles so we bought some more and held vigils. Firefighters working on the recovery operation would come at the end of their regular shifts and stand, tearfully and without any words, paying their respects. The square outside the church became a space for people to come together, to mourn, to sit in quiet contemplation. Local people came to water the flowers and care for the display. TV crews flocked to film it.
Nine weeks on, most of the flowers are gone. Some cards, candles and teddy bears remind us of those first weeks after the fire. But for me, a part of Alan’s spirit will always be there; the man who had nothing and gave us everything he could.