Sunday 19 January 2020

Tale of two cities living side by side

The Grenfell inferno is emblematic of the social division between west London's 'haves' and 'have nots', writes Julia Molony

People look at tributes outside Notting Hill Methodist Church, close to Grenfell Tower in west London after a fire engulfed the 24-storey building on Wednesday morning. Picture: PA
People look at tributes outside Notting Hill Methodist Church, close to Grenfell Tower in west London after a fire engulfed the 24-storey building on Wednesday morning. Picture: PA

Julia Molony

First came the emergency services. Then came the politicians. Finally, it was the celebrities who showed up at Grenfell Tower, as it continued to pour smoke over the London skyline.

Adele was there, hugging survivors at a vigil held less than 24 hours after the building lit up like a Roman candle. Then Rita Ora, who grew up nearby and played in the tower as a child, was helping to sort through bin bags of clothing. Brooklyn Beckham brought his siblings with him. Jeremy Clarkson donated "everything that was clean in his wardrobe". Jamie Oliver opened the doors of his nearby restaurant to those affected. Lily Allen was on the scene, being interviewed for TV.

They came because, though they are famous, they are as susceptible to the feelings of horror and helplessness that come with bearing witness to tragedy of this scale as the rest of us. But they came too because this calamity is particularly close to them. Many of them are near neighbours of the Grenfell Tower residents. They might occupy a different world entirely, but they all share the same patch of west London.

It's hard to imagine there's a more eclectic melting pot anywhere in the world than Ladbroke Grove, where the tower is situated. Every nation of the world is represented, and every social demographic, from the ultra-rich, who occupy the mansions in Kensington, to London's forgotten residents, the low-income families, the ethnic minorities, the single mothers and the unemployed.

A few roads away from the sprawling Lancaster West Estate, which houses many of the borough's poorest occupants, are exclusive streets clogged with Chelsea tractors, where construction workers are a constant presence, digging up pavements to furnish the wealthy owners with super-basements. These stately Victorian terraces back onto leafy, wrought-iron-enclosed private gardens and the houses are worth several million each.

For those who love the area - and I count myself among them, I lived there for the best part of a decade - its diversity is part of its charm. On weekend mornings, A-list actors mingle with troupes of hoodie-wearing teenagers on their bikes.

But as the Grenfell Tower disaster has illustrated starkly, there is a darker story behind the colourful street life and vibrancy. Kensington and Chelsea is the UK's richest borough. Property there was valued last year as being worth £11,321 per square metre. The land that Grenfell Tower stands on is the sort of potted gold that developers claw to get their hands on. But anyone trying to access public services in the area tells stories of agencies that are massively overstretched.

It's no surprise that Grenfell Tower has quickly become an emblem of modern Britain's most pressing political issue - the growing division between rich and poor, and the whole swathes of the population left floundering in the wake of austerity measures. It stands now as a charred symbol of the establishment's callous indifference to the plight of the working class.

As each heartbreaking story emerges of the victims, it's a glimpse inside a world populated by people never usually represented in the mainstream media: the Syrian asylum seekers, the Ethiopian taxi driver, the ordinary hard-working Muslim families who were awake when the blaze broke out as it was Ramadan and they were breaking their fast.

And the narrative we are now seeing couldn't be farther from the 'benefits scrounger' cliche often trotted out about council-estate dwellers. Grenfell Tower, it turns out, was a hive of human striving.

We've heard about Ines Alves, the GCSE student who went in to sit an exam the day after the fire, still wearing the clothes she'd put on to escape the blaze; Khadija Saye, a black female artist whose work was due to be shown at the Venice Biennale; and Mohammed Alhajali, the refugee who had fled Assad's regime and was studying for a degree in civil engineering.

While the celebrities and financiers of Kensington and Chelsea - the 'haves' of the area - are well used to having their voices heard, now, for the first time, this awful event has turned the spotlight on the 'have nots'. It's about time they were listened to.

Sunday Independent

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