Any one of a huge number of people online: “I demand to know exactly how many people died in the Grenfell Tower! It’s my right to know as soon as possible!”
Someone level-headed: “Err…did you live in the tower?”
SL-H: “Did you have any family members there?”
SL-H: “Do you know anyone who’s missing?”
SL-H: “Are you a reporter?”
SL-H: “Do you work for one of the emergency services?”
SL-H: “Are you employed by the council to concern yourself with such things?”
SL-H: “Are you a coroner?”
SL-H: “Do you even live in the area?”
SL-H: “So…what’s this pressing, prurient and rather macabre interest all about then? Isn’t it enough to know that lots of people died?”
AOOAHNOPL: “N…well, I saw a report on Press TV with someone who claimed to be a local resident (but didn’t want to give her full name, and (perhaps because she was clearly emotionally distraught) obviously hadn’t considered the difference between people having died and having been confirmed dead), and then the same interview was used on Russia Today, and someone posted a blog on Facebook which said that the Government had banned the media from broadcasting the death toll, and although that turned out to be absolutely unsubstantiated, entirely baseless, the same blog the following day printed a link to a tweet from a random person which linked back to the same story on Press TV, so…”
SL-H: “Right. Have you seen this story from Metro?”
AOOAHNOPL: “But Metro is MSM!…er, no. What does it say?”
SL-H: “It says that as of February this year Conservative ministers were boasting about having slashed fire regulations.”
AOOAHNOPL: “Oh. Er, that’s bad, is it?”
SL-H: “Yes. It goes a long way towards explaining the conditions that allowed the disaster to happen. What are you going to do about it?”
AOOAHNOPL: “Er…I dunno. It’s scary. I think I’m going to spend the morning reading Wikileaks and Infowars. I find it kind of comforting to think that the world’s run in secret and there’s nothing we can do about it except spread David Icke-style gossip all day on social media.”
SL-H: “Right. Are you at all interested in reading this?”
AOOAHNOPL: (glances briefly) “Er…no.”
- On your professional CV
- On your Guardian Soulmates dating profile
- On your personal blog*
Here goes my online street cred: I was, for a stint at university, a few years in Dublin in the mid-nineties and another short period in London about ten years ago, a member of the SWP. I embodied some of the most oft- and rightly-criticised traits:
- A simplistic view of the world. I used to write reviews for the party newspaper of cultural products, such as books and films, evaluating them solely in terms of their contribution to the building of the revolutionary party. I also believed that there could be a thing called a ‘revolution’, just like in 1917 (or at least in Eisenstein’s inspiring rendition of it), which would be over by teatime and would not inspire a phenomenally violent and complex period of post- and counterrevolutionary violence. As recently as 2013, when I was involved in the laudable but short-lived initiative Left Unity, I witnessed an actual non-tongue-in-cheek discussion in the pub between SWP members about what they would do “on the day after the revolution”. Luckily George Orwell was just out of hearing distance (buying some more crisps at the bar as I recall), otherwise he might have eaten them all alive.
- Sectarianism. I viewed members of similar political organisations as more significant enemies of the class struggle than the police and the army, regarding them as rival species to be wiped out in the struggle for survival and eventual (but inevitable) triumph. I was not so much an activist as an evangelist.
- My main political concern was with the growth of the organisation, evidenced by increased newspaper sales, better-attended meetings, larger and louder demonstrations called and led by us, and the visibility of our placards on media coverage of said demos**. Of course, all of these things waxed and waned, but I was encouraged to believe that there was a deeper historical trend at work, that people were angrier than ever before and that provided they would get on the bus to the demonstration we would be able, nay obliged to, recruit them so they would sell the paper to their friends and workmates and the whole pyramid would grow to the point where the working class would soon be gleefully hurling the heads of capitalists down it.
- Hijacking events, using demonstrations and meetings in a purely instrumental way to build the party rather than the campaign itself. Oh, how we got sick and tired of being accused of doing this. Oh, how I got sick and tired of actually doing it, until the point where I became deeply cynical and (repeatedly) left the organisation.
How is this relevant in June 2017? Because the organisation is reclaiming a certain protagonism. On demonstrations over the Grenfell tragedy its placards are ubiquitous. This is, I think, dangerous for the reasons suggested above and also because:
Firstly, the SWP tends to mislead. Its chief figures are articulate and very adept at getting themselves onto platforms, but their strategy and tactics will lead any given movement down the same garden path to where the fairies live, on smaller and smaller national demostrations until everyone just stays at home and shouts at the TV instead.
Secondly, the prominent presence of the SWP is off-putting in at least three ways. Firstly, to the public. Someone once waggishly pointed out that the largest political group on the British Left is made up of ex-SWP members. Even for people who’ve never read the paper or attended a protest, Socialist Worker placards are a sign that the usual suspects are up to their old tricks again. Then there’s the fact that it allows the media to misrepresent the protest as a rentamob, as happened on Twitter last night in relation to the protests in Central London. Thirdly, it alienates potential campaigners and activists in the longer-term, in that very many people who come into contact with the organisation become, like me, cynical towards all forms of radical political activity and deeply undemocratic in their attitudes to the organisation of political campaigns.
Now, there remains an important thing to say, which is that for all the faults of the organisation, individual members of it should not be demonized. Despite the sometimes horrendous and often shameful antics of some of its leading members over the last few years, which have left many to abandon their political home (to be replaced each September by a new cohort of fresher-faced footsoldiers), most long-standing SWP members I’ve known have been heartfelt in their belief that the party is the best thing for society. To call them all ‘rape apologists’ is counterproductive and wrong. They’re mistaken and possibly morally compromised, but they are sincere***. Nevertheless, their attempts to play a leading role, whether in the Grenfell campaign or in Momentum should (continue to) be rejected. If other activists in the movement don’t tell them, to use a phrase that’s been doing the rounds, to ‘get stuffed’, the right-wing media will use the presence of the party to discredit all those involved.
The SWP is a bureaucracy and as such its aim is to survive and thrive, regardless of the success or failure of whatever cause it attaches it to. My past involvement in the party tells me that as an organisation (just like one or two very similar parties) it does not have the best interests of any given campaign at heart.
*Although I hope its obvious that I’ve only mentioned it in one of those contexts, I do admire the example of a perma-unemployed friend of mine who, when forced to produce a resume in one of those “HANDS OFF ME PENS!” job clubs mandated by the DSS came up with a piece of paper with his name, address and the details of his erstwhile role as local SWP branch secretary.
**Basically a branding exercise.
***It was meeting some very impressive and charming individual activists in East London in around 2007 that led me to briefly become a member again.
Sawsan Choucair doesn’t know if her family are alive or dead. The Guardian reports:
She stood at the tribute wall at Latymer community church, talking to as many reporters as she can. Choucair said she is “devastated” and is desperate for information from the authorities, which she said has been lacking to non-existent.
She is missing her mother Sirria; her sister Nadir; her brother-in-law Bassem; her 14-year-old niece Mirena; her 11-year-old niece Fatima and her three-year-old niece Zienab.
You might think that in a free and democratic society she could turn to the press to help her find out the truth. There are, of course, reporters of integrity trying to do exactly that. However, the editors and so-called journalists at two leading British newspapers (The Daily Mail and The Daily Express) don’t care about whether her family are alive or dead. If they died in the fire then so be it. The role of those newspapers is not to investigate and publicise facts in the public interest. It is to promote a political agenda based on self-interest by scapegoating the victims of political corruption.
The owners and editors of the Express and the Mail have an intimate relationship with the Conservative Party. They (to use the phrase of the day) ‘rub shoulders’ with those same ministers who refused to countenance the notion that people in the UK should live in houses fit for human habitation. The Prime Minister even met with Paul Dacre, the spectacularly vituperative and staggeringly snobbish editor of the Daily Mail, during the election campaign to receive her instructions directly. His newspaper is a mouthpiece and an attack dog for Conservative Party interests.
The facts as they stand suggest that the fire happened because of cost-cutting in a variety of areas, some of which was not just encouraged but actually mandated by government policy decided by ministers and voted for by MPs who themselves profit directly (as landlords and shareholders) from the atrocious lack of regulation in private and public housing. But as I say, the newspapers, both of which employ hundreds of people who tell themselves and their friends and families that their profession is ‘journalist’, are not remotely interested in facts. What they produce instead is pure propaganda.
The political agenda of this Conservative Party is anti-‘red tape’, pro-Climate Change (as in, against anything that might mitigate it) and anti-EU. If they are given half a chance they will walk away from the Brexit negotiations, plunging not just the country but the entire continent into absolute chaos. They will then use their newspapers to point a burning finger at whoever the most convenient scapegoat may happen to be. Both newspapers also habitually lie to their readers about the most basic facts regarding the climate, repeating verbatim absolute lies and smearing anyone who professes to care about such matters which whatever shit they can muster.
They’ve used today’s front pages to ‘speculate‘ that EU environmental regulations were responsible for the fire. The editors who commissioned the stories and the journalists who wrote it know that it’s not true. They know that it’s an absolute lie told to deflect the huge and absolutely legitimate anger at the causes of the disaster, which (taking as true what has been published and broadcast by serious news outlets) can almost certainly be traced to British Government policy.
I’ve met a few people who worked for the Daily Mail. They were generally genial people who (understandably) enjoyed a drink and felt that what they did for a living didn’t define them as individuals. Like most people in their profession, their personal opinions were to the left of the stance of their employers (how could they not be?). They saw their job as an unfortunate compromise on the path to doing something more worthy (some of them had got stuck along the path. Maybe they had a blister or something). To compare them to concentration camp guards might be a tad unfair. But given the suffering occasioned by their highly-paid work, and the fact that they are not driven by fear for their own lives but by professional ambition, if there is any sort of divine justice at the end of the rainbow, they full deserve to suffer all of its wrath. In the meantime, the frankly satanic political organisation on whose behalf they practise their trade but be kicked as far away from power as soon and as firmly as possible.
When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.
When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.
The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.
Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh.
Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.
Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.
This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.
Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.
The fire is the Grenfell tower block is still burning more than 24 hours later. Dozens have been killed and hundreds left destitute because the ‘market’ decided it was worth the risk.
The outpouring of solidarity and charity shows that pretty much everyone in the country has imagined themselves in such a situation. There’s also rage and revulsion at the economic forces and social structures that the fire lays bare. Those Conservative Party defenders criticising the ‘politicisation’ of the disaster resemble Isis supporters demanding that no one hold it responsible for bombings and beheadings.
Then there’s the slow apocalypse of individual homelessness. Is it wrong to imagine the frustration of people already homeless upon seeing the attention this catastrophe has generated? No wonder destitute people from other parts of London have apparently been turning up at the disaster site looking for food and shelter. Who wouldn’t? In Kensington and Chelsea itself one out of every 29 people is homeless. Those displaced by the disaster might count themselves lucky that their council has not followed the example of neighbouring Westminster in its proposal to make feeding them illegal, or various other boroughs in fining people more than the price of a hotel room for sleeping rough. Everyone in London knows how easy it is to find oneself between flats, stretching the hospitality of friends and family to the point where a night in a park starts to seem like a more comfortable option. It’s fair to say that probably most of London’s population lives in conditions of mild to extreme housing insecurity. It’s a slow-burning, invisible conflagration.
A sudden loss of home like that experienced by the Grenfell residents must be traumatic almost beyond repair. We help others in such situations partly in the hope that if something similar were to happen to us our neighbours would look out for us and give us refuge. The fact that similar things are happening on a global scale might give us pause to reflect on the irony that so many British people, in the wake of the Brexit vote, immediately started looking abroad for other options. Doing so is never a bad idea but our history should teach us that our plight doesn’t make us a priority for resettlement.
Nobody lives a more precarious existence in London than council or former council tenants in areas of high demand. Those out on the streets in West London right now are exactly the kind of people being turfed out of the ‘Golden Postcodes’. There’s an irony in the use of the hashtag #IamLondon in response to terrorist attacks, for only a dwindling minority of locals can afford to live there. Thanks to the hard work of Boris Johnson and central government, the city is becoming almost medievally exclusive. When we rented out our flat in East London the prospective tenants mentioned to the letting agent that it was a shame we didn’t have a better view over the (council) block opposite. Don’t worry, he said, it’ll be gone soon, oblivious to the fact that there are no current plans to get rid of it and the hundreds of people who live there. There’s a deeper logic at work, a bizarre but serendipitous seismic anomaly that only brings down those buildings which ordinary people can afford to live in. As it happens, the company which developed our building and those on adjacent streets did so with the enthusiastic support of one Brandon Lewis, then Housing Minister and proud advocate of Letting The Market Decide. The use of cheap (and apparently inflammable) cladding to cover the Grenfell Tower obeys a similar logic: if you can’t push the poor out through legislation, purposeful neglect or repossession, disguise their very presence. It’s worth the risk.
Just up the road from our flat there’s a Tesco Express with an ATM outside, next to which one or other homeless person is permanently stationed. Talking to them is always a deeply enraging experience. Any of those we step over on the way to work may have been left on the streets by a fire or kicked out by a landlord who refused to carry out essential repairs. As we pass such people, it’s easy (and understandable) to blame the media for cultivating our indifference to their plight. Actually there are ways in which we’re complicit, as the political philosopher Louis CK explains in this clip:
It’s noticeable that those who claim that people begging make thousands of pounds a day never do so themselves. There’s also the sandwich response, those who insist on buying people begging for money food instead, as though becoming homeless were the result of individual failure, rather than the result of a crime on an enormous scale, a crime which goes by the name of the market but is actually much more recognisable as the highly profitable operations of a mafia-style cartel. Complicity also means voting for parties that say that mass homelessness and near-universal levels of housing precarity are an acceptable price to pay for the prosperity of very few, or accepting without question an ideology that says the insatiable appetites of the global ‘market’ must be appeased at all cost. Taking it for granted that the lives and homes of others are worth the risk, little more than plastic chips in a giant, members-only casino where the owners always win. We need an immediate mass movement to join those left out on the street, to confront power and argue that decent, safe and affordable housing is a basic human right, not a prize in a game of Russian roulette.