When Grenfell Tower caught fire back in June I started broadcasting my show on talkRADIO from the area once a week because I wanted it to remain a national news story. My bosses backed me to keep focusing on Grenfell because they understood it was a local story that reflected all sorts of national issues: the profound risks of deregulation; the dangerous flaws in putting private interests in charge of social housing; the huge shortfall in mental health funding; and the paramount importance of community. Since the fire broke out the government has commissioned a safety inspection of similar tower blocks around the country. Every single one has failed.
The Royal Borough Of Kensington and Chelsea sounds like a posh person’s Shangri-La. The reality is rather more complex. It is the borough in which Grenfell Tower still stands, now a black skeleton on the skyline, a disturbing reminder of the 71 people who were burned alive in their homes.
'I've not been offered a thing six months on'
— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) December 14, 2017
Grenfell was just one of the worn out and neglected council buildings that sit incongruously amidst rows of neat, multi-million pound houses in this wildly diverse part of West London.
I’ve lived in West London my whole life. People who don’t know the city think of West London in the sense it is portrayed in Richard Curtis movies or on Made In Chelsea. Yes, there are lovely bits with big houses on tree-lined streets and it’s got its fair share of braying Sloanes, rich kids with names like Binky and gigantic white stucco houses owned by foreign oligarchs and hedge fund managers who leave them largely unoccupied all year round.
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But that is just a fraction of the story; a larger chunk of west London is made up of the social housing I grew up in; it was one of the first truly multicultural parts of the country – Notting Hill was where the first wave of West Indian immigrants settled in the ’50s and places like Hounslow and Ealing remain some of the country’s most Asian-populated boroughs. Some people have said that the fire in June helped highlight the toxic divisions between rich, poor, black, white, locals and immigrants in these sorts of areas.
In actual fact, it highlighted the opposite. It showed that a truly diverse community, that has been living alongside each for decades and has had time to bed in, can come together in harmony when it matters most. The relief effort that sprung up spontaneously after the fire (and filled the void left by the utterly useless council) was comprised of all colours, creeds and classes.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire I wrote my first-hand account of broadcasting from the scene, and suggested that the wealthy white folk from up the road were conspicuous by their absence. I regret that a bit now because, in the weeks and months that followed, I saw those people help in all sorts of ways – from donations to mental health and legal support. Some even offered their own homes as accommodation to the victims.
I’m not saying West London is like that Coca-Cola advert where everyone holds hands and says they’d like to teach the world to sing. But when the shit goes down like it did back in June, the community proved ready and able to muster up the closest thing to the blitz spirit this country has seen since the war.