In London, where I live, we’ve had so much bad news over the last few weeks.
Already the Manchester suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert shocked us all. How anyone, least of all someone who was the child of a refugee, could do something like this to innocent children is beyond our understanding.
And then suddenly it was close to home. Borough market and London Bridge – places we know and love and went out to in the evenings. It’s the last thing you’d expect in those hazy summer evenings spent at after work drinks, that people would go on a rampage. Just too close to home. And not long after the Westminster bridge attack.
And then Grenfell tower. A large tower block of residential apartments, many or all of them social housing, up in flames. Hundreds presumed dead. A “stay put policy” the reasoning behind why many stayed in their homes whilst the building burned around them. But also the impossibility of escape when so far up.
I live in a block of flats. Not so high up but we don’t have a lift (elevator) and we are right at the top. It makes me think. I think our building has better fire proofing than Grenfell. We have fire doors and dry risers. And it’s an old building, lots of brick and stone. But still.
It’s the human stories that get me. With any of these, it’s the little things. I’m not saying I didn’t have the capacity to feel before. But since becoming a mother there is something primal I feel whenever I hear about children.
At Grenfell, someone threw a baby out of the window from the 9th or 10th floor. The building was burning. Imagine what it must take, the terror in your heart, to throw your child out of a window in the chance they might be saved. Knowing that you probably won’t be. If either of our lives end, I want B to be with me and yet… a parent has chosen to be separated from their child at the point of likely death in the hopes that their child will live. I just can’t imagine the pain. (The papers are reporting the child survived. But nobody knows what happened to the parent.)
Another story: a 12 year old girl calls her mother in a state of fear and terror. She’s trapped on the 20th floor. Her mother is a cleaner working night shift. She rushes back to the tower and people hold her back. It’s too dangerous to enter. But her little girl, her baby is trapped up there. The smoke is too thick. She doesn’t get out.
Grenfell is so terrible because it was not an act of terror – which is terrible in itself – but an act of negligence. Someone, somewhere approved the cladding that apparently created a chimney of inflammable material. Instead of the hour or so expected that residents would be safe in their flats, the entire building went up in a matter of minutes. The fire started on the fourth floor which meant those in the upper floors had little chance of survival.
And the residents of Grenfell were from the poorer ends of society. Immigrants, Muslims, social housing, a diverse set of people living in a tower block just a stone’s throw from some of the richest. Kensington is one of the richest parts of London but side by side with some of the poorest. The great paradox of London – wealth and poverty side by side.
The inflammable cladding was probably an aesthetic decision to try and protect the rich neighbours from the “eyesore” of poorer people on their doorstep. Part of an apparent £6m refurb project that didn’t fit the building with sprinklers or fire protection or alarms. Those people were often living with multiple occupants in flats, with larger families, which is why the death toll is predicted to be so high. Many of the residents were Muslim, and this happened during the holy month of Ramadan, which is why many were still awake at 1am when the fire broke out, otherwise the death toll might have been higher.
In London everyone pulls together. People galvanised within hours to offer shelter, and bring food and drink and clothing and toiletries to the Grenfell residents who survived. Their immediate material needs can be met. But their emotional needs cannot. The horror of anyone who escaped dwarfs the horror of those who had to watch, helpless, as a tower block full of innocent people burned. And yet all any one of us can feel is horror. The stories of people trapped in their own homes, where they should feel safe.
Today is the fifth anniversary of my friend’s husband’s death from cancer. He fought bravely through limb amputation – he was amazing, doing sports without a care in the world. But five years ago he passed away in his sleep. My friend now has a new husband and baby and she talks about the pain of knowing that her husband wanted her to be happy with someone new – and she is – versus wishing he was still here. It’s a painful paradox.
My other friend who has cancer has finished chemo and first surgery and she’s recovering before her reconstruction surgery in a couple of months. I’m glad they caught the cancer but I hate what she is going through. It’s so taxing on her body. And it’s the second time she’s had cancer. I don’t know how she gets through it. Somehow she does. I try and let her know I’m thinking about her every day. But really I wish I could just take it all away and there was no such thing as cancer.
It feels as though there has been such horror lately. It hurts to think about it. On a personal level I know I live in immense privilege, the fact that I have a roof over my head and a longed for baby and a great partner and dog, and I’m healthy. I am lucky to be here. And in any of those disasters we think: It could have been us.
We have to be thankful for what we have. And I truly am, but in the past weeks I have been even more. With these horrible things happening all we can do is hold our loved ones a little tighter and enjoy every single moment. I thank my lucky stars every single day for what I have. Life is short and you never know what’s going to happen. Be happy.