Jacqueline de Gier

The best/worst of times: London’s Dickensian response to Grenfell

Over here in Britain, we’re reaching our Summer of discontent. In the weeks after Grenfell, the poor masses are rising against the establishment that burned them.

 

How best to articulate the anger that smouldering plinth of ineptitude that stands over the streets of London? A four letter word? Maybe. But before you do, Google A Tale of Two Cities to up-cycle your anger muscle.

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

As we prepare for the Summer of Discontent, the term ‘Dickensian’ is back with a vengeance. It is not as if we are running out of Churchill quotes – there is always one – but Dickens does it better. And as such A Tale of Two Cities remains timeless, and its opening lines as poignant as ever. The story is set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, captured with the pen of the Victorian who knew social injustice.

Charles Dickens knew a toxic ‘epoch’ when he saw one. And with the inferno at Grenfell Tower, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest in the country, we have been kicked into a fresh epoch of incredulity. In French that is époque de l’incredulite. Tight fit.

The crow black carcass of Grenfell Tower is now a crime scene. Leave combustible cladding and building regulations to the experts and the forensic people. Not nature, or terrorism, or a derelict half-wit smoking a fag at the petrol station, but willful, institutionalised neglect. Or as the street understands it: Health and safety red tape is bad for business.

The Grenfell is fast becoming a new landmark, a perverse universal totem to the Politics of Contempt. Tourists take selfies, which is as psycho as it is understandable. Shit happens, but not this kind of shit, not in 2017 in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

As the tower burned, the Royal Borough switched on the answering machine. The mayor tried to call them, the fire people, the police, and those ‘horrible media types’ – no answer. I cannot just say that the Royal Borough mandarins were having cocktails at The Botanist, or were lap dancing a member of the One Percent at a private rooftop champagne guzzler. That’s too hardcore. But they have grown so aloof, that they are no longer aware; do not even care to be caught in traffic with the devil. When they do fall through the trap door, the red-faced indignation is actually hilarious.

It happened in London but has a universal applique. It has ripped the scab of something bigger – a culture of sneering disdain, of arrogance, of heavy-handed bullying. IT has been exposed. No spin, no sloganistics can save these bats. If you can, read the masterful and insightful observations by Jelani Cobb of an Uneasy America, in The New Yorker, like Taking IT to the Streets. As in the 1960-s, democracy can only be found in the streets. Bully gets owned!

 It is a worm that always finds its way to ‘foreigners’ and now of course ‘EU Citizens’, who have been turned into a human form of ransomware.

What jumps to mind is a line by James Baldwin: ‘The Dark is Light Enough.’ There is a nasty streak in the English mentalite that underwrites that the ‘little people’ out to be grateful. We hear that word a lot. Throw them the odd bone; outsource the State to the boot boys, chuck the complainers out of their social housing. Being white and poor is just as bad as being a refugee or someone seeking asylum in the belief that Britain has values. It is after all how they have always advertised themselves. It is a worm that always finds its way to ‘foreigners’ and now of course ‘EU Citizens’, who have been turned into a human form of ransomware.

The State that outsources wholesale, is the absent State. “Where is the State?” the people asked. No idea, doing other things. London turned, as it always does, to self-help. What is the State for? What is the point of a government for instance, when it is seen to be punishing its people? London more or less runs itself; it is effectively a city-state, but unlike New York, its soul mate, it has no devolved powers, it depends for money on the State. It was Prime Minister Theresa May, as Home Office Secretary, who savagely cut the police and fire brigade’s budgets. It makes the stupendous response of these services all the more remarkable. Heroes of the people. Believe it. She did not bother to turn up, and when she finally did, had to really, she did not want to talk to the victims.

There were six hundred and sixty, 999 (emergency) calls, some lasting up to an hour, as those trapped by the fire, pleaded for help and almost gave a running commentary to helpless operators, while they perished. Only Charles Dickens’ ‘incredulous’ will do. Only W.B. Yeats has the right poem to catch the mood.

Things Fall Apart.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon does not hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosened upon the world.

At last, a few of the floundering mandarins showed their snouts. They handed out tenners to those who had survived with their lives, and no more than the ripped clothes on their backs. Ten royal pounds! Three lattes worth. People gave them back. It was A Tale of Two Cities in motion. The coach of the much-hated Marquis St. Evremonde, recklessly driven at speed through the crowded streets, kills the child of the peasant Gaspard. The Marquis throws him a coin to compensate for his loss. The coin gets tossed back, to an outraged Marquis.

A coin for your child; a latte for your family.

 

 

 

Jacqueline de Gier

Jacqueline de Gier is a journalist and author with an allergy for pot-noodle journalism. She has written extensively on Turkey, Iran and the Middle East. Her other job is as Theologian with an interest in Early Christianity and St. Paul, and religious affairs in general. She lives in London.

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