Monday 20 January 2020

Anger on social media doesn’t make it on to the diverse and dignified streets of London

Solidarity: A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Solidarity: A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Fergal Keane

We are becalmed in a city where the air is thick with heat. Calumnies and promises stream across the airwaves, computer screens and newspapers, and through our open windows. These are such angry times. Leaders are denounced as fools and liars or hailed as the champions of a brighter future.

We are asked to have no faith and all faith. Venture an opinion on social media that offends any consensus and attack dogs rise in ravening packs.

I am so sick and tired of the angry brigade that I increasingly resist the temptation of Twitter with its 140-character capacity to rob every argument of nuance while offering a forum for the loud-mouthed and ignorant.

Such nights. I pray for cool air with the windows open and my ears alert for sirens. I switch on my radio in the morning with a feeling of dread. What next?

Down the centuries, this city where I was born has seen fire, plague, flood, civil war, the execution of a king, the Nazi blitz, the terrorism of the IRA and Islamic fundamentalists. But endurance is part of the DNA of this place and its people.

I was born here in January 1961 when Harold Macmillan, the last of the great Tory grandees to be prime minister, was telling the British that "class war is obsolete". It wasn't. But at the time Macmillan had reason to believe his country was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

He was a veteran of the Great War and a One Nation Tory whose political consciousness was shaped by the experience of the trenches and the Great Depression.

Although caricatured as a creature of the Edwardian age, Macmillan anticipated the need for social change in Britain as the 1950s, with their grim burden of post-war austerity, drew to a close.

He was not a root-and-branch radical reformer in the mould of Clement Atlee back in 1945 but he was governed by a sense of duty and a canny awareness that the Conservative Party needed to adapt or fade away.

Two years later, his government was engulfed by the Profumo scandal and Macmillan shuffled off into retirement. The class war would be pronounced dead on many occasions since but always showed a stubborn resistance to interment.

My parents were temporary exiles in those days. My father was acting in a West End production of The Playboy of The Western World and my heavily pregnant mother bided her time in a flat in Camden Town. He had already experienced the hardship of Britain in a less prosperous time, picking hops as an agricultural labourer in Kent and sorting furs in the storerooms of the Hudson's Bay Company in Covent Garden.

My mother arrived in time to enjoy the benefits of the National Health Service, speaking to her children years later of her wonder at a society that provided free orange juice and nappies to mothers, as well as free medical care from cradle to grave.

My parents loved London. I came back with them in the late 1960s. Again, my father was appearing in a play, this time in The Dandy Dolls, a work written by his fellow North Kerry man George Fitzmaurice.

We stayed in a guest house on Ebury Street, Pimlico, close to where WB Yeats, George Moore and George Bernard Shaw had once discoursed at number 121 and where I ate curry for the first time, walking to the takeaway with my father through a London night full of lights and strange faces. But I did not feel afraid. I was awestruck.

In Dublin we saw few faces that were not white or Irish. Here was a man with a turban, a group of black men chatting near the National Army Museum, in Chelsea, and the energy of millions of souls surging past us on trips into town.

I believe that my love for the city was born back then. It has never left me. When the city is attacked or when it suffers a tragedy like the fire at Grenfell Tower, I feel that I, and my children, owe some debt of solidarity.

We have been made welcome in London. My offspring have thrived in this diverse and open society. Yes, it is overcrowded and cranky at times but there are green spaces to which we can escape, parks and old cemeteries that meander for miles and the "sweet Thames flowing softly" through our boroughs. Nobody is ever short of a place of escape. I can go out this morning for breakfast at my local Swedish cafe, walk across Richmond Park, with its red deer and mad parrots, to Kingston, buy a cheap lunch from the cuisine of several continents at the open-air market, take a train from there to Waterloo to watch a sunset and walk east along the river to Greenwich for dinner.

Every step of the way, I will be grateful that, in reality, the crazies are few and the real world is nowhere near as intolerant as Twitter.

In all the talk about "taking back control", people have scorned the existence of malign powers, external and domestic, which control their lives. This urge to blame is endemic on both left and right. But the biggest malign power is within. It is our addiction to blame. Nothing is as enervating as dreaming of a life that would be better if only, if only, if only.

I recently went with my kids to place a small tribute to the dead near Grenfell Tower. We live in west London and this tragedy happened a short drive away. I went as a Londoner, not as a reporter.

The best of our great city was there in the mounds of donated supplies, the church workers offering advice about accommodation, the police and fire brigade officers quietly and patiently working through day and night, and the open expressions of solicitude between neighbours. There has been some anger directed against politicians, the media and the local council. But there were none of the feared riots. People have behaved with dignity.

I never speak for my children but I will risk it this once. Standing in the shadow of that immense tragedy, we felt proud of our city, an uncomplicated pride that goes with feeling you belong in this place, and would not want to be anywhere else.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

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