Today I visited North Kensington. I wanted to see Grenfell Tower for myself. Up to this point, I had held back, convinced that it was too voyeuristic to intrude on people’s grief. Over the last three weeks I’ve followed the fire and its aftermath so closely, I felt it was time to go and pay my respects.
I drove the few miles from my home through Maida Vale and Notting Hill, down Westbourne Park Road, which cuts through Portobello market and the very top of Grenfell Tower loomed into view. It is familiar. It is shocking.
The roads immediately around Grenfell Tower are closed off and the nearby roads tricky to navigate so I parked and went on foot. I came across a church with flowers lying in piles by the railings, mingled with messages of grief, posters for those lost now browning in the sun, water damaged by the rain. The faces are so familiar from the media coverage but there is renewed poignancy seeing them first hand.
There were few people around; it’s a warm summer’s day and quiet apart from the distant sounds of school children. The few people that are walking around are like me. They have come to see, to bear witness to the sorrow and aftermath of catastrophe. We are all silent, thoughtful. I took photographs and it felt wrong. I was a tourist in other people’s grief.
Police officers were dotted around the perimeter of the roads near Grenfell. As I stood quietly, looking up at the charred tower, I asked one of them if a lot of people did this too. He said yes, they come all the time.
I worked my way around the streets that circle Grenfell and noted that Latimer Road underground station had reopened. I saw a tube train running in front of Grenfell and was reminded that those who live here and commute see this every single day.
I made my way back to my car and asked a passer-by for directions. She was helpful and I took the opportunity to ask her if she was a local. She looked at me wearily as if she’s been asked this a million times.
She is kind and said yes, she lives and works close by, for the council in fact. I shared my reason for being there and she said she understood my reticence but it’s important that people do come and see what it’s really like and not just rely on the press. She said they will get through this, concluding “we are a strong community”.
We parted ways and I found my car. Sitting there, I reflected on her words. She’s right, but I fear a normalisation of the image of the burnt out carcass of Grenfell Tower. The news cycle moves on quickly and people who are not affected by the fire will soon forget.
Sajid Javid, the Minister responsible for Communities, spoke to the LGA on the afternoon I made my visit to Grenfell. He said, “It is these kinds of communities we need to be much, much better at supporting. Above all else they must be listened to. They must be heard.” I really hope he meant it.