Throughout the year since the Grenfell Tower disaster, political activists, many journalists and a pack of social media agitators have been telling the world – and each other – a story about who was to blame, much of it formed from ignorance, prejudice, ideological zeal, a longing to pin guilt on convenient targets and a hunger for easy applause. Within it has been a thread of condemnation of London as a Bad City, with the fire characterised as shamefully symbolic of its failings.
Now, the fact-finding stage of the public inquiry into the fire has at last begun. Already, those proceedings are helping us to see that black and white, grand narrative explanations of whatever kind are not going to explain what happened on that desperate night last June, won’t provide justice to the fire’s victims and their loved ones, or ensure that such horror won’t be repeated. And as the inquiry continues throughout the months to come, a subtler, more variegated picture of what London as a place can learn about itself, how it is run and how its people are cared for may emerge.
It feels right to once again remember to keep an open mind. Last week, the London Review of Books (LRB) published a very long and very impressive investigation of the fire and the many issues flowing from it, written by Andrew O’Hagan. His work has come under attack, mostly for the very reasons it should be admired: even if some of his conclusions eventually look flawed, O’Hagan, unlike so many others who’ve written and pontificated about Grenfell, was not prepared to simply accept at face value explanations and accounts that became established as received wisdom even before the fire was out. As he so rightly put it:
Journalism, hour by hour, day by day, showed by its feasting on half-baked items that it had lost the power to treat reality fairly. You saw it everywhere. Channel 4 News, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Sky News, the New York Times: from the middle of that night, they began to turn the fire into the story they wanted it to be.
Integral to that feverishly-constructed story, so neatly aligned with those broader and equally simplistic London-focussed grand narratives about gentrification and “social cleansing”, have been a refusal to accept even the possibility that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) made mistakes under pressure, the seemingly uncritical elevation of the Grenfell Action Group to the status of infallible prophets representing “the community”, and repeated accusations that the Conservatives who run Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) enabled the fire to happen because they didn’t think “the poor” worth spending enough money on to keep them safe and that its administration was inept and indifferent when the blaze occurred.
No strand of that story should ever have been so readily and completely accepted, let alone eagerly perpetuated, by privileged, London-based journalists. Yet there’s been precious little deviation from it. Until the LRB published O’Hagan’s work, this website was, as far as I’m aware, alone in pointing out the inconvenient fact that the blog of the Grenfell Action Group never said anything about the cladding added to the building as part of its refurbishment, let alone that it, or the way it was installed, represented a fire risk. Two years before the disaster, I reported for the Guardian that RBKC had long had a social housing policy that would have been hailed as highly “progressive” on the left had a Labour council been implementing it, though no one at that news organisation appears to have noticed this relevant item in its archive when covering Grenfell. As for the LFB, it now seems clear that the inquiry will be looking closely at the “stay put” policy and the length of time it was kept in place.
None of this means that none of the Grenfell Action Group’s warnings had subtance, that the council did everything right, or that the LFB won’t emerge from the inquiry in a good light. But it does underline that some of the most pervasive assertions about Grenfell might not be as firmly rooted in reality as is routinely claimed: that it might yet turn out that some bad decisions were made by London’s fire service; that RBKC tried hard to do right by residents of its housing stock before, during and after the fire; and that a small number of local activists fervently opposed to just about any regeneration policy pursued by the council, have been given far more time and attention than their allegations have merited, rather than fatally less.
Another fixed component of the hegemonic version of the Grenfell story is that the fire was an indictment of the gap between the most and the least prosperous Londoners – a proximity until lately regarded as a cause for pride has, since the fire, been re-characterised as a grotesque social failure. The accusation is that blocks containing largely social housing are fobbed off with cheaper, more dangerous cladding than those which are privately owned in a city where developers and politicians conspire to “push out” the least well off. Yet recent government figures say that, in England as a whole, almost as many private sector residential buildings are unlikely to meet current building regulations guidance as those owned by councils or housing associations. Again, the picture is not black and white.
The same, I suspect, will be true of the Grenfell inquiry’s ultimate findings, as they dig deeper into the morass of regulations, contracts and decisions where the key explanatory details may lurk. Bad things about London could well be exposed along the way – but they might not fit the verdict on the city and some of its institutions that so many have already been encouraged to reach.