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The Great Fire of London

 

Chimene Suleyman

Photography by © Jess Hurd/reportdigital.co.uk unless otherwise noted
 

Some months on, it hangs over the west London skyline, almost interchangeable from the council housing blocks that surround it. Visible, its outer walls charred in entirety, black squares where windows once were.

On exiting Latimer Road Station, it will not escape you—if ever it could—that tragedy occurred here. On the block of flats across the road, draped from a balcony, the sign reads: “Justice 4 Grenfell.” A railway bridge hangs sturdily over the road to the left. A few steps to the right, it is business as usual in the Pig & Whistle, a working class pub with all the fixtures of a London local—too bright, too sparse, never uninhabited, empty pint glasses stacked atop each other. It feels perfectly English, perfectly fitting, to drink in the shadow of devastation. Pubs have always been the four walls of community. And here on Bramley Road, a short walk from Grenfell Tower, community has never meant quite what it does now. Nor has it felt more impenetrable.
On the corner of Bramley House, where Bramley Road and Blechynden Road meet, the telephone box is submerged in tributes that spread across railings and down the road. In front of the handwritten notes of love and prayers, a man holds a pack of toilet paper under one arm and points at the building in ruins. “My mate died in that, he fucking died in there, and I have punched people over it.”
Contradiction has always been the bitterest thing about this catastrophe. The tributes weave in and out of the railing, then stop as abruptly as the area’s demographic does. The graffitied-over newsagents, the car wash and motor shop beneath the arches, the red-brick rectangular community church, the chemist, all no longer belong amidst the tree-framed roads of masterful town houses. This is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, after all, the home of the richest people in the country.

***
 

In my Brooklyn local a man asked if the seat was taken. I could barely hear him, or the dozens of other sunned-out New Yorkers having down time. On my phone was the image of a building—a 24-story high-rise in London’s Ladbroke Grove—and it was ablaze.
A few minutes before 1 am local time on 14 June, emergency services were called to Grenfell Tower. Grenfell was social housing. It was ground-to-sky, 600 working class Londoners, made up mostly of immigrants and refugees.
A faulty fridge had started a fire on the fourth floor. A routine job for the fire department. They extinguished it, then took the stairs back to the ground floor. Only when they were outside did they notice flames licking the exterior, climbing the height of the building. They were engulfing it at a terrifying rate.
In the days that followed we would learn of 71 registered deaths. Many, however, believe the number to be much higher, with unofficial reports of only 250 survivors accounted for. Over forty people, it was claimed, died in just one apartment as neighbours took shelter together on the top floor.
In these early hours of 14 June, a single flame had left through an air vent, or open window, in this fourth-floor apartment in London W10, and was now climbing at full speed along the building. In a video taken by firefighters driving towards the tower block, they are heard discussing the tower as it first comes into sight: “Jesus Christ,” one is heard saying. “How the fuck are we going to get in that?” Another asks, “That’s not a real block with people in it? Is that one that’s being built?” It is as they arrive within full view that reality hits: “That’s a real block. Jesus. It’s Towering Inferno. It’s jumped up the sides. How is that even possible? How the fuck is that even possible? How is that happening?”

“June was the month of Ramadan, and a large number of Grenfell’s occupants were Muslim and not yet asleep as they prepared for Suhur, the first meal of the day. Muslim men returned from mosque and were the first to witness the flames. They ran into the building. They banged on doors and alerted residents where fire alarms had failed to wake.”

 

In 2016 Grenfell Tower underwent aesthetic refurbishment. The revamp was not for its residents. It was, rather, an attempt to appease the wealthy neighbours who belonged to the luxury flats and town houses that surround these pockets of working-class habitation. The cladding, with no purpose other than to reduce the impression of social housing, cut costs and was flammable. The enhancement was superficial on all accounts.
Two-thirds of gas pipes inside the building remained exposed. Sprinklers and fire-alarms had not been reinstalled. Fire extinguishers had expired, "condemned" emblazoned across the apparatus, and still there remained only one stairwell. Tenants complained, yet there was no access to legal aid for their concerns. A disaster, they said, was coming. Society’s failings of its most vulnerable will start in negligence, then finally end in catastrophe.
In the absence of sufficient fire alarms and sprinklers, residents of Grenfell Tower remained unaware that a fire was spreading. Many, however, were awake. June was the month of Ramadan, and a large number of Grenfell’s occupants were Muslim and not yet asleep as they prepared for Suhur, the first meal of the day. Muslim men returned from mosque and were the first to witness the flames. They ran into the building. They banged on doors and alerted residents where fire alarms had failed to wake.
The majority of those who passed away in Grenfell were Muslim. That it was the holy month added not only to the pain, but to the number of people in the building. This meant visitors who would not normally be there at such an hour. Yet alongside the community’s devastating personal loss, they were simultaneously being heralded, and rightly so, as a lifeline during the initial hours of the tragedy and in the days to come. “Muslims played a big part in getting a lot of people out,” one bystander said. “Most of the people I could see were Muslim. They have also been providing food and clothes.”
The morning after the fire, a local woman shaded herself from the sun and told passersby, “They ran past the police, ran to the tower block and started screaming at people trying to help them. They ran into the building. If it weren’t for all these young Muslim boys round here, helping us, coming from mosque, enough more people would be dead.” Beside her another local shouted in agreement, “Big up! Big up! They wanna talk about [Muslims] when they do wrong and all these kind of things. But when they do good? They were the first people with bags of water giving to people.” The small crowd around her carried her sentiments. “Not just Ladbroke Grove!” they shouted. “Not just our estate! They came from all of London to help. We don’t care who people are.”
Despite such heroic efforts, not everyone in the building could be alerted. Nor would many on the top floors have time to leave. Although—and here is where it seems complicated—most residents were ordered not to. High-rises like Grenfell were built to contain a fire in one apartment. The fire department’s protocol was, until this point, consistent and foolproof: Stay in your apartment until the fire is out. Had the building not been altered with illegal cladding, the advice wold have been sound. And so, many of Grenfell’s residents did as they were told, remaining as smoke and flames reached all around them.
We know now that this was not a building responding to a fire as it should, nor how anyone was used to. Nearly 300 firefighters worked on the blaze. Eventually they did away with protocol. Firefighters were told, in no uncertain terms, that they would be risking their own lives if they entered the building. More than 100 did. Some removed their apparatus inside the burning building and gave it to those struggling to breathe. Outside, riot police waited, using their shields to shelter emerging firefighters and bystanders from falling debris.
At four in the morning, three hours after the fire initially broke, onlookers were instructed to contact anyone they knew inside Grenfell and advise them to try to get out on their own.
Neighbours, from their adjacent balconies, watched the inferno from miles around. Others waited at the base of the building. They watched their friends try to escape. Many were watching their friends die. Residents jumped from the building. Others, inside, phoned their loved ones to say goodbye.


"The people who had left working-class residents behind, the ones who had aided in painting a bleak picture—their politicians and government, their media—were now fetishizing the high-rise, turning its exterior into, ironically and disturbingly, money-making symbolism. The facade of these buildings seemed important—not those who lived within them."

 

On the 23rd floor an Italian architecture graduate, Gloria Trevisan, called her mother to tell her that she was sorry she would never hear her again. “I don’t want to die,” she said. “It’s not fair. I wanted to help you, to thank you for all you did for me. I am about to go to heaven. I will help you from there.” Her mother could not, at first, believe it. Many of us couldn’t.
Explosions and blue gas ripped through exposed gas pipes. Christos Fairbairn lived on the 15th floor. A few hours into the inferno he took a risk and began the journey down each flight of stairs, eventually collapsing on one of the lower floors where he was rescued by a firefighter. He recalls tripping as he turned one corner. Lying on the floor, he was face to face with a Middle Eastern neighbor who was no longer alive. The ground beneath his feet was soft. “At first I thought it was the pipes of the fire brigade.” Later, he realised these were bodies, endless, in an environment he referred to as “lifeless”.
On the floor beneath, Oluwaseun Talabi tied sheets together and planned to escape from the window with his four-year-old daughter. Convinced not to, he waited with his child and girlfriend inside their flat. Several neighbours from their floor joined them. One boy, he recalls, was sat on Talabi’s bed reading the Q’uran.
The smoke grew harsher and, terrified, he tied his daughter to his back, grabbed his girlfriend and made a run for it. He recounted the darkness, the smell. He remembered choking. “I swear to you, at the tenth floor I already gave up.”
Still in Talabi‘s apartment were Zainab Dean and her son. Outside the building, Dean’s brother was on the phone with her when a firefighter took over to reassure Dean that they were coming. As the fire began to engulf the flat, the fireman returned the phone to her brother. “Tell her you love her.”
On the 20th floor lived twenty-four-year-old Khadija Saye and her mother Mary Mendy. Saye, an artist whose photography explores identity around her Gambian heritage, has had her work showing at the Venice Biennale since May. The show, Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe, draws not only from the Gambian relationship with higher powers, but with the artist’s relationship with being raised both Muslim and Christian. Her photographs—self-portraits—are more textured and resin than simple black and white. They are faded and layered, giving the sense of an old and treasured image. The work is spiritual, traditional, and with a strong sense of the individuality and nowness of the artist.
As a teen, Saye was awarded a scholarship to board at the prestigious Rugby School. In an interview with the BBC she described her time at Rugby as “a culture shock at having to adapt to a very different lifestyle that I felt very much on the outside of, because everyone grew up in this opulence and opportunities and the sky’s the limit.” It is impossible not to think of the roads around her home in Grenfell, the vast affluence that surrounds and suffocates the humbler streets of Ladbroke Grove where she lived.
“I’ve become a lot more cautious and aware of the power the camera holds,” Saye tells the interviewer. “So even looking at my area and how much it’s changed in terms of the building developments—I can look back on photos and see how quickly the space has changed in a matter of ten years.”
It is a powerful reminder of the impact of gentrification and the potential misery of placing wealth and consumerism ahead of community: what this does to the landscape, psychology, and the safety of its locals. As the camera pans from the window of her Grenfell home and studio, out across the tower blocks in the streets around her, you know that only a few weeks later the lens would turn, and it would be their high-rise at the center of a nation’s gaze.
At 3 am Saye posted her final message on Facebook. “Please pray for me. There is a fire in my council block. I can’t leave the flat. Please pray for me and my mum.” Two days later she was one of the first to be identified.
Historically, this was not the first London fire that would shake the city to its core and hold a mirror up to political negligence. The famous fire of 1666 stretched far further across the city but held an exact likeness to the environment that caused and continued after Grenfell. Crowded living spaces and careless construction caused London to be a fire hazard of great proportion. The taller buildings that housed the poorest inhabitants were of themselves the most at risk.
The verified death toll in the Great Fire of London was only six people. But, much like Grenfell, the number has been heavily disputed, with the likely erasure of the deaths of the poor who had not been recorded. Add to this the many bodies that were disintegrated in the fire or perished beyond recognition, not to mention the fatalities caused by the exposure to homelessness that followed, and the refugees who died in improvised camps.

 
 

In 2003, having won the Mercury prize for his debut album Boy in da Corner, musician Dizzee Rascal told a BBC camera, “That is Canary Wharf. It’s in your face. It takes the piss. There are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell they’re not living the same way as us.”

Canary Wharf is a financial district in London’s East End, the other side of the city from Grenfell. Built on old docks, the surrounding neighbourhoods of Poplar and Tower Hamlets have historically housed immigrants and the working class. Dizzee Rascal, then a young Grime emcee, had grown up on the Crossways estate only a few roads from the towering, dazzling mass, which seems better suited to a 1980s envisaging of Hong Kong.
I lived in the foothills of Canary Wharf for many years. But the smart, neatly gridded layout of upmarket restaurants and bar chains, the suited city workers, the expensive black cabs, did not resemble the roads that gazed up to it. There was simply no link between such wealth and the vast Bengali community whose children played in the streets, the Chinese take-away and fried-chicken shops, the old white men who drank in the same pub for decades, the young black boys who were writing music in their bedrooms. Nor the estate that stretched across my road, the dark doorways where men and women arrived most days to acquire anything from weed to heroin, to talk, to laugh, to watch the greening canal opposite.
Another Grime emcee, Tinchy Stryder, recalls, “Everything in Canary Wharf felt fresher and cleaner than where we grew up. It felt like a different world. It felt really close, but far away at the same time, like it wasn’t really anywhere for us to be.”
When unvarying surroundings become synonymous with a city’s most underprivileged, the treatment and impression of immigrants and the working classes will too become interchangeable. There is a communal routine to the moods of those who are the poorest, surrounded by immense and grotesque affluence. The artistic work that comes from such communities has often been the most vibrant, visceral, and socio-politically on-point. The neighborhood—as seen with Khadija Saye—becomes a part of one’s creative DNA. In an iconic black and white photograph, Dizzee Rascal and fellow emcee Wiley sit in front of the Crossways estate where they lived—three tower blocks that look no different in height or stature to Grenfell’s 1970s brutalistic form. Before the inferno, you might almost be looking at the same building.
In cities that lack space, you build upwards. The utopian socialist ideals of architects in the first part of the 20th century created homogenous community housing, intended to be classless in its uniformity. While London’s gentrification moves with intense speed, the process has not reached the high-rise, which rapidly became entrenched with immigrants.
This overt dismissal of immigrant spaces contributed to an almost impossible head count of residents at Grenfell Tower, many of whom disappeared under the radar. An accurate death toll is impossible when there is no actual known number of persons residing there.
Only a few miles from where Dizzee and Wiley were photographed in front of their Crossways estate is Balfron Tower. A 26-story brutalist tower block with an unmissable corridor extension that grows from the side of it. From the late 1960s, Balfron was associated with the violence and low-level crime that came with badly managed intense living, like so many buildings of its kind. Yet Balfron has since featured in music videos by Oasis and the Verve, and in television shows and films including the apocalyptic 28 Days Later. In 2014 a Turner Prize–nominated artist planned to drop a piano from the top of the building until residents petitioned angrily against a project they deemed fraught with “danger and utter stupidity.”
Only a few miles from Grenfell Tower, Balfron has a twin, Trellick Tower. Much like its counterpart, Trellick has stimulated popular culture. It inspired J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise and appears in Martin Amis’s London Fields. It became an icon as one might understand the London Eye or Tower Bridge to be, with its image appearing on t-shirts and merchandise.
Take, then, south London’s Aylesbury Estate. Having featured in several British television shows, it is most popular for being used in 2004 as a Channel 4 ident. The camera turns through outdoor corridors of scattered litter, billowing wet laundry, and abandoned shopping trolleys before the Channel 4 logo, comprised of floating concrete structures, glides into place.
Such is the typecast between social housing and filth, working classes and negligence, that the shopping trolley, washing lines and litter did not, in fact, exist. These were artifacts added by the filmmakers who had wanted urban decay, a view where the estate may be “a desolate concrete dystopia, which provides visual conformation of tabloid journalists’ descriptions of a ‘ghost town’ estate.” For many years, the residents would complain of what this enforced portrayal had done to the image of their home.
This was not, however, the first time Aylesbury would be subject to populist projections and appropriations. For it was here that Tony Blair made his first speech as Prime Minister in 1997, in what was expected to read as a statement on looking after the nation’s poorest.
Where boys and girls who had grown in these high-rises were making music and work about the places and lives that had otherwise been invisible, the middle and upper classes had access only to the shell of it.
Young working-class men and women had seen what living like this could do to you: they had experienced the negligence of their councils and government, then the snobbery and disconnect of their wealthy neighbours. From this place they would make pointed, astute, and incensed work about these areas and the structures that towered within it. Alongside it, of course, came their words about community love and brotherliness, a balance that arrives only of having lived within the walls they were canonizing.
The people who had left working-class residents behind, the ones who had aided in painting a bleak picture—their politicians and government, their media—were now fetishizing the high-rise, turning its exterior into, ironically and disturbingly, money-making symbolism. The facade of these buildings seemed important—not those who lived within them.
The high-rise stood for something: poverty tourism on one end, sustenance and community on the other. Grenfell Tower would also find itself embodying every possible side of this.

 

As a Londoner born to immigrant parents, there has always been this sense that London becomes yours when nowhere else can be. Growing up, I felt I was raised by the corner shops and late-night chip shops, the mosques alongside synagogues, the high-rises and shops tucked within council estates. To be a Londoner has always felt to move collectively. Our joys are collective, as is our pain. I know many who have lost loved ones to Grenfell. I know many who live in high-rises and have continued to worry for their own safety.
The morning after the fire broke out, a friend messaged to ask if I remembered running a writing workshop with her, for young people, only a few years back. Some of those youngsters, she told me, lived in Grenfell. I have never followed up to learn the fate of those teenagers. I cannot bear to. That is my own cowardice in a tragedy that has, in equal measure, tarred and revealed the city I still regard as home. I had always felt that as Londoners we looked after ourselves and each other. In the aftermath of Grenfell this felt different. I wondered if perhaps we had created this sense of an impenetrable community because of a deeper understanding of what was at play. Many of us, like myself, grew up as immigrants or the children of immigrants, as people of color, and working class. Our bond to the city was that it housed so many like us; people who were either overlooked or resented by our government. We learnt to run the streets. To tear it down and build it back up again, simply because it had always felt ours.
When the London riots of 2011 took place, I was still living in my home city. I understood it. I understood the desire to boldly fight for what a city like London needs: to protect the bodies of young black men; to preserve the education system for our youth; to rise against a government that would not stand for its minority communities, of which London is made. The same anger surged through Londoners after Grenfell. The veneer was gone. The country’s most disenfranchised were left to die and still, over half a year on, nothing has been done for its surviving residents. Yet the pain was too great and an uprising occurred, but it wore a different face. Londoners from across the city showed love and humanity where government and local council continued to fail. From across the city, London’s residents brought food and clothes. They took to social media to offer their own homes to displaced residents.
I cried for many days. Many of us did. It felt as though what we had known all along about being seen as little value, had now been proven in the cruelest way. It is bittersweet: I’m still proud of a London that comes together in its darkest hours, but sad that I now believe we have had no choice all along but to take care of each other when no one else would.
I always disliked West London. It had always been too rich, perhaps too white, too expensive, too green. But I knew Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park, for this was where the Arab boys and girls of our friendship groups lived. As the years went by, as London changed and grew more gentrified by the years, these pockets of West London stayed fixed, trapped by the overwhelming wealth that surrounded it. There is a strong sense of identity here for this very reason. The yearly summer carnival that fills the streets around Grenfell is impermeable. The unmissable accent, the slang, the toughness that survives a place like this. When I returned to the area in the months after the fire, this was all still there. Only now, there was a thick anger that filled the air. I had never thought it possible, but in this place I had now become a tourist in my own city.

 

On the 14th of every month, locals and fellow Londoners silently march past the outer shell of Grenfell Tower. It begins at the Methodist church on Lancaster Road, turns down Cambridge Gardens, and on to Bramley Road. In the first few months the congregation were a few hundred. By December, the march walks with several thousand.

Danny Ras has lived in Ladbroke Grove for half a century. He moved from Jamaica as a youngster and lived on Blechynden Street at the base of Grenfell Tower, where the tributes to the building begin. He will march past his old home every month like this. Now he is a just over on Portabello, only a few minutes walk from where his father had a house. He gives talks at the marches and has organized fund-raisers for the residents.
On the night of the fire, Ras recalls that he had been irritated by a friend’s phone-call, which had woken him. It was warm, the beginning of summer. He pulled on a tracksuit, shoes without socks, and ran. In the street he came across others. “I met a white friend of mine, and he asked what was going on. I tell him, and he says he’ll come with me. We both ran down together—he went one way, and I went the other.”
Cladding fell from the building in flames. He wouldn’t know at first if this was debris or his neighbors jumping, falling, from the building. He was screaming, shouting, swearing as he raced to it. There were others on the road, each headed in the same direction.
Ras ran the Market Bar on Portobello Road in the late 1990s, as well as a business selling items mostly to do with Rastafarian culture. Retired now, Ras is a man who knows his community and his place within it. “My role in this is that I am an elder. I give advice.”
Like many in the area, he has lost people he knows. “You can’t escape it. It’s what people talk about. You wake up, you go outside, the first thing you see is the tower.” Some people in the area still refuse to go towards the direction of the building until it is knocked down. It is unknown how long this will take as extensive forensic work continues to be done.
Yet, the reminders of that night’s tragedy do not always come in what is still present. “You know the people I used to see every day—you don’t see these people now. I’m looking around, and you don’t see the faces you used to. On a Saturday you would see them in shops, or Portobello Road. Now you just don’t see them no more.”
Absence and erasure have always sat too uncomfortably close. One day, Grenfell will go too. A stark reminder of the invisibility its residents, and others like them, always faced.
What is now new to the area is a kindred spirit between Ladbroke Grove and the fire brigade. At the most recent silent march two fire engines parked either side of the road, firefighters in formation, standing to attention, as the march passed.
In the week after the blaze, rows of local residents stood beneath the arches near Grenfell and cheered as the fire brigade left. One fireman wiped a tear as they drove through the crowd waving.
But where new relationships have been built, others remain strained. “We still don’t see the wealthy,” Danny Ras says. "We never did. But when you look at people on these marches—it aint about black, white, Moroccan, Muslim. It’s just community. School kids, mums, grandmothers. All race. It could have been anyone dead, and it is anyone.”
In the shops and pubs around him, Grenfell still dominates conversation. Revisiting the tragedy has since been replaced with discussions of the politics that create and consequently abandon a building like this. Would it have been different, they ask, if they had been rich or mostly white? What if they had they not been Muslim, black, immigrants?
“There are young guys drinking underneath the flyover now,” Danny Ras says, “I know some of these guys. I ask them if they know anyone lost in the fire—they should talk rather than turn to the drink. These boys all lived in Grenfell. Some are waiting to be deported. These are nice boys, but they get aggressive when they drink, sometimes. I ask why, and they say to me nobody cares about them.”
The anger is as much a protectiveness of what little they have left. There is a feeling of take-over in these streets now. A sense that if no one helped them before Grenfell, they will do it for themselves—and better—now. Danny is careful with how much organizational work he’ll do. “I let the people from Grenfell carry the mast. If I have an idea I let them know, but they carry it.”
People from other parts of London and the country have been present during the tragedy. A welcome presence in the first few days, as people brought food and clothes, and helped to organize. The support in numbers is also welcome at the marches. But many times the outside interest has been problematic. Some have traveled to see the site as a tourist destination. Some have taken selfies in front of the building. Others come to gawk at what is for Ladbroke Grove everyday life. Others show up with their own views on how to push forward.
“They have these ideas. Going around and smashing up the Town Hall isn’t going to make it easier, it makes it longer. If you want to come around, come and help, because otherwise you are encouraging our boys to go to prison, and you’ll just go back home.”
It feels almost impossible to imagine Ladbroke Grove’s DNA without Grenfell scarred within it. It had always represented a society that treated its working classes, its immigrants, its people of color as eyesores. The failing of Grenfell came long before the fire, engrained in a society that has weaponized the notion of keeping to yourself.
Taped to the telephone box on the corner of Blechynden and Bramley Road are the photographs of missing residents. There is love here, that previously few from outside these streets had cared to see. In the darkest of spaces, the residents of this corner of West London have carried an unvarnished sense of community for seven months. They have been their own politicians, their own charities, and their own caregivers.
“I asked one of these guys trying to tell us what to do if he was local,” Danny Ras said, “and he said no. And I say to him—this W10. W10 deal with W10.”