London is a series of villages. Londoners all know that, it’s a series of connected but not inter-connecting villages. A village may cover a large area or it might just be a street or two. There’s not much inter-village migration or mutual empathy. Londoners are highly tribal.
Goldborne Road is a village and in many ways it is London – it’s a mirror of London. A significant second or third-generation ethnic minority largely from North Africa, an indigenous white working-class population, a sprinkling of very new migrants and the posh hip white ones. The posh hip white ones who spend a fortune buying old wine crates in the junk, sorry, antique, shops. Crates that you could find in France probably for nothing. It’s a great area to sit, people- watch and to eat North African food. It also happens to have one of the best Palestinian restaurants in London and it was there that I headed to eat some lamb and drink some tea.
I didn’t go to Goldborne Road to see it – I knew it was there somewhere but I tried to keep it in the back of my mind. In fact I suppose I’ve been pushing it to the far reaches of my mind ever since it happened. I saw it as a tragic event that had nothing to do with me. It happened in another village of London to different people who are not part of my world. But when I sat sipping my mint tea on Goldborne Road I realised it was indeed very near. Of course I’d known that when I’d left home that morning, but now I was sitting a mile or so away trying not to think about those events. And totally failing. How could I not think about them as I shuffled out of the restaurant, a belly full of lamb and mint tea still making its way slowly down my gullet, wondering where I could go next. Should I get some cake, look at some overpriced artefacts in one of the shops or would I just do a little bit of candid street photography. But it was clear that I was only walking in one direction, the direction where something inside me told me it was. I crossed a couple of roads and began to understand that I really didn’t know the area that well, but to look on Google Maps for it seemed wrong. I walked a little further, I had to find it. Looking left, looking right, lots of people I could have asked. No, no, no, wrong to ask, but yes it was on Google Maps – I’d actually tapped it in and saved it the day before. I’d now remembered that I had gone there not to eat lamb or drink tea but to find it. I’d been kidding myself again. I followed the map, speeding up as I walked, and saw million-pound-plus houses, good-quality cars of a certain age, Vote Green stickers in the windows. Yeah, the liberal middle class of North London living here close to it.
I stopped and looked at one possible it from a distance but it was still occupied so that wasn’t it. I walked under a railway bridge and instantly knew it was close by – flowers, scrawled names on the walls, names followed by the initials RIP. So they had names those people, they had children, had parents and friends, and their children, parents and friends had come to the railway arch to try and remember them. Everywhere street art expressions of anger, real anger. “400 dead” written on walls, gates and doors. I’ve no idea if 400 is correct or if 72 is correct but clearly any thought that the number of dead has been underestimated is going to be a significant part of the anger. I dwell under the bridge a little, examining their names, examining the flowers, but as I walk and turn a corner into a side street the sense is edgy, very different from the millionaire houses a few metres away. It’s edgy but it’s silent, an eerie silence seems to pervade this small side street, an unremarkable street. Unremarkable except that on virtually every tree, every lamppost, every street sign there are yellow ribbons for those who have gone, those who are missing, those who will never come back. I looked up, I didn’t want to look up but it’s there. I somehow thought it would be black and charred and naked, in fact it’s pristine, covered in some kind of white tarpaulin with a smart new red lift on the outside allowing whoever needs access to have access.
I froze, eventually took a photograph, ghoulish maybe, I don’t know. Something draws me towards it, I didn’t know it was right next to a school, right next to a sports centre, surrounded by other buildings thus embedded in the community, then and now. What I think was the main entrance is boarded up with a notice over the makeshift wooden gate telling me it’s a ‘construction site’. I guess it’s the only sign they had, as ‘deconstruction’ may have been more appropriate, I walked towards the gate but turned. I didn’t really want to approach the building any more closely as, by an odd juxtaposition, there was a small group of giggling teenagers smoking a joint literally in the shadow of the tower. Life of course goes on, life has to go on.
I found a bench 20 metres from the entrance and sat there to take a breath. I didn’t know what to say I didn’t know what to think. Grenfell Tower was nothing to do with me; yet I felt ashamed that nearly a year after the event I had never visited the site. I’d never heard of it before the fire as it’s not my part of London, not my village and not my problem. But of course Grenfell is London’s problem. It’s a staggeringly dramatic symbol of so many things that have gone wrong in the city and in the country around it. So many things we knew, we suspected, but we did nothing about because we had been socialised into accepting them. We assumed nothing bad would ever happen, but something bad did happen. Grenfell is now a bigger symbol of London then almost anything else and no, life must not go on; we need to stop, consider and act.
I’m part of London, I am London, Grenfell is part of London, Grenfell is London and now finally I am Grenfell.