Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Grenfell Tower

The first thing that hit me was the smell as I came to the end of Lancaster Road. Strong, acrid. The second thing I saw was the cordoned-off road, off-limits even to cyclists. The third thing I came up against were the on-lookers. A better definition would be, the vultures. Mobile phone cameras at the ready, snapping away at the blackened husk. Shifting positions to get a better angle. Walking through cul-de-sacs to get a better view. What for, I asked myself? So that in our algorithm-rich world the survivors, two or three years hence, maybe more, would chance upon these images on their Twitter or Facebook feed? Images, I was sure, they would find painful to see? It was then I dared to look up. I remembered it then, from a previous time when I saddle-pushed my two-wheeler the length of Portobello Road and got lost trying to get back to Camden. On that occasion, I went further west by mistake and tried to catch my breath on the grounds of this building, this giant whose hollowed out flats cried out a never-asked-for tragedy. This building around which on-lookers had created their own panopticon. The single point that could be seen from up high in the air or down here on the ground, amongst the vultures.

I cycled on through Verity Close towards Dulford Street and it was then I was aware of another element: silence. Not the normal silence as in absence of noise, but Whitman’s silence: “As I ponder'd in silence/Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long/A Phantom arose before me, with distrustful aspect.” No matter where you stood or sat, this charred phantom followed you around. I, then, looked up for a second time. I counted the floors and stopped at number 15. There, on that one, I could have been on that one. I retraced my steps. Not my actual steps, but my mental ones. I travelled down memory lane more than sixteen years before, when my daughter had been born. On the 15th floor of a 20-storey-tall high-rise. A water birth in a pool we hired from a Mexican/Irish couple. The joy of bringing a much-desired and thoroughly-planned baby into the world and the thought that it could have been followed by death and destruction.

I came down Mary Place and turned right onto Sirdar Road. A sea of “Missing” posters lined up one side of the road, reaching all the way to St Clement’s Church, one of the emergency relief centres and where I had come to give my support. My offer to help was accepted although they weren’t really taking volunteers. The supply had outnumbered the need. My faith in humanity was momentarily restored.

I helped fold boxes and pack up clothes. At some point I was needed to take some stationery to another centre on Kensal Road. Since the streets nearby were heavily congested, the rational went, a bicycle would have found it less difficult to slalom around the traffic and cut through the back roads. I saddled up and fifteen minutes later I pulled up outside another centre with helpful-looking people outside. More volunteers. Please, go on the council website and register, a lady with a clipboard in hand said, you can then list your skills and wait to be contacted.

I turned around and decided to go back home. I returned to the Regent’s Canal, the same route I had used to get here. Along the way I could not stop thinking of the residents of Grenfell Tower. People with dreams and hopes. People whose lives had been turned upside down forever. And for what? For money. To save an extra £2 per square metre. And why? Because they were worthless. In the eyes of this class-obsessed society that likes to style itself as classless, these people lived on the wrong side of one of the richest boroughs in the country. It might sound strange but Whitman’s phantom pedalled with me all the way back home.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Wednesday 28th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 17 June 2017

London Cycle Diaries (The Surrey Canal Path)

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

© 2017

Next Post: “Grenfell Tower”, to be published on Wednesday 21st June at 6pm (GMT)


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