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‘A writer’s responsibility after a tragedy like Grenfell’

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Essay | 15 minute read
This is one of the few times a poet is deemed relevant, tasked as we are with finding “the words to say it” when the usual modes and registers fail, argues Jay Bernard

A few months before the first anniversary of Grenfell, I sat in the archive where I work reading a copy of Time Out from 1975. “Inside,” the cover said, “the frightening possibilities of a real-life towering inferno.” The article cites the 1974 Steve McQueen film Towering Inferno (the same year Grenfell was constructed), the Sao Paulo fire that claimed nearly two hundred lives and the death of a man in a thirteenth floor flat in Willesden because fire engine ladders could not reach him, to ask what could be done to prevent a major disaster occurring in London. The conclusion? That “many of the problems of fire in high-rises are created by negligence and ignorance.” The article goes on to explain – with cartoon illustrations – things like the necessity of wet risers and the importance of fire doors being kept closed (both serious contributing factors to the number of casualties in Grenfell), followed by a warning:

“Where fire is concerned there is no room for complacency. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it never will.”

Forty-three years later, I am sitting in Mayday Rooms, thinking about writing. About how writing relates to grieving. About a writer’s responsibility after a tragedy like Grenfell. This is one of the few times a poet is deemed relevant, tasked as we are with finding “the words to say it” when the usual modes and registers fail. But I am racking my brains for weeks – at my desk, in the archives, at the base of the tower – for some time before I recognise that a year on, it is still too soon – to say anything particularly meaningful, to know what the impact has been or will be.  Therefore I have to start with something else, and I dwell on that word ‘complacency’. How its flip-side is ‘responsibility’. How I have seen these two terms revolve around each other in other parts of the archive with startling relevance, highlighting the resonances between Grenfell, now, and the period of racist, fascist terrorism – often by firebomb – from the 1970s through to the New Cross Fire in 1981.

What struck me about this article was not only the chilling question it gives (resonant of the Grenfell Tower Action Group’s chilling 2016 blog post) but the fact that in 1975 Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party – the first woman. The National Front held a rally against European Integration, but a referendum that year led to 67 percent of the population voting to join the European Economic Community – the EU.  Just a few years prior, the Immigration Act 1971 successfully halted the permanent migration of black workers from the Commonwealth using the concept of patriality (right of abode restricted to those born in the UK, women married to British men, and to those who had resided in Britain for five years previously). But my interest in this question of complacency and responsibility begins in 1973 when the Unity community centre in Brixton is burned down.

I unfold Black Life, the newspaper of the British Black Panthers. The headline reads “Council remain silent as community demand promises to rebuild Unity centre.” Another,  a little while later, reads “Another Brixton Bomb Attack!” referring to the Allardyce Centre in priory grove. A member of the collective at the time says (with exasperation palpable across all these decades):

It has taken two years and a lot of hassle with Lambeth council to get the house, and for the past six months we devoted our energies into the creation of this centre, only to see it go up in flames. We have seen an increase in unchecked attacks, which is part of a political campaign and terror campaign waged against black people in South London. WHO ARE RESPONSIBLE? (sic) Perhaps a letter in the current issue of the South London Press 20thApril ’73 might give a clue. R. S Pritchard the secretary of the National Front states “The NF will never cease in its campaign to repatriate black people to their country of origin.”

The comparison between Thatcher (May), the 1975 referendum (Brexit, the rise of fascism) and the 1971  immigration act (the hostile environment, the Windrush scandal) is clear. What resonates about the comparison between now and this period in the Seventies is the fact that although Grenfell was an accidental disaster, disasters often reveal the underlying attitudes towards the people they affect. The point is not that Grenfell was a direct, racist attack, but that it is part of a consistent attitude of structural and state indifference. Therefore it is traumatic not just because of its grisly reality, but because it is, on top of everything else, compounded by the historical trauma of minority communities being attacked with fire and the unwillingness of the media and the state to hold anyone – except the affected communities themselves – to account.

Elsewhere I have said the same thing. Having spent a year looking at the New Cross Fire in 1981, I was able to guess how Grenfell would play out. After Grenfell, I knew that the media would immediately try to blame someone inside the house for the fire; that the first people to be arrested would be victims/minor players in the events; that there would be a fraught, exclusionary and botched meeting between the authorities and the community; that it would be down to the community to provide the support needed by the victims; that the tension, disgust and betrayal felt by residents and supporters would spill over into large-scale demonstrations, actions and possibly riots that the media would attempt to disconnect from the root problem of injustice.

At the back of each Black Life newspaper,very deliberately I think, is a case of heavy-handed or wrongful treatment in court or by the police. Nineteen-year-old Satnam Kane has a false confession beaten out of him over £50 he did not steal; Tony Soares is given a life sentence for “inciting readers of Grassroots Newspaper to make molotov cocktails”; a benefit is advertised for Brother Roddy Kentish, “who is almost at the end of an eighteen months prison sentence after being attacked at his work place by the police.” I come across a later article from 1980 that shows the grim irony of four black boys being sentenced to six years each having been caught with molotov cocktails after a National Front demonstration.

And we can believe it: not a single officer has been prosecuted for a death in police custody since the 1990s. Even now, we are very used to police, government and media impunity. These papers strike me, perhaps anachronistically, as a kind of proto-Twitter. They are not traditional papers and, like Black Twitter, the use of black (British) vernacular is crucial to how this reality is mutually understood and accurately described. For instance, under the headline “How I Escaped Death”, Brother Al, who was a guardian of the centre speaks. Nested within his own testimony of having been firebombed is another story of wrongful arrest:

I especially love the bold statement below that goes against the traditional form of the newspaper. It shows that these radical papers were both mimicking and customising the techniques of the media to be both a vehicle for information and a clarion call for community action – “New Information is the Ammunition for Unity” it reads. A play on the term “unity” – referring back to the unity centre; an insightful nod towards the understanding that knowledge is power; a realisation that the open sharing of knowledge embarrasses state silence and police complacency.

But the word “new” is interesting too; overleaf, photographs of other sites that had been bombed. Two shops on Mitcham road, Amin’s general grocers in Streatham, the Coach and Horses pub, Kingston foodstores, an establishment on Balham high street, Sunderland Road, in Lewisham. So this information is not necessarily new to the readers of the paper, but its constant repetition and re-presentation as valid information makes it new – makes it news. And it is also making history. The almost incantatory repetition of the locations and dates of the fire-bombings, the circulation of the images and the recording of testimonies makes these largely ignored events truths, as shown again, later, in an incredibly moving poster publicising a memorial event for the family of Yunus Khan, who were murdered in their beds by a petrol bomb through the letterbox. Even as the community mourns, they keep the memory of the victims of the New Cross Fire visible, evidenced, and in mind:

This is further demonstrated when I unpack a heap of files relating to the Bookshop Joint Action Committee (BJAC). Between 1973 and 1979, parantheses to the towering inferno article, black and leftist bookshops and cultural institutions in Britain were under targeted attack and the BJAC actively fought back. To sift through the letters and minutes is to feel the production of alternative, radical knowledge and to touch a part of history that, had the fascists got their way, might have gone up in flames.

1977 was a particularly vicious year. A five page letter from the Joint Action Bookshops lists 22 separate incidents, some of which detail a period of time in which the shops were attacked.

Bogle L’Ouverture, the bookshop co-founded by activist and campaigner Jessica Huntley, was daubed with paint, KKK, Enoch, White Power daubed on the walls. Later that year, National Front stickers pasted on the shop window and a threatening phone call made: “Move out or we’ll get you tonight, you black bastard.” In August 1977 Centreprise is set on fire and so is Unity Bookshop (a separate establishment to the Unity community centre torched in 1973). Soma books receives a phone call saying their shop will be burned down that night. In Newcastle, Cradewell books has its windows smashed “at least six times” and flammable material is pushed through the letterbox. Fourth Idea bookshop is threatened – “We’ll burn you to the ground you Jewish bastard, Heil Hitler!” – while the Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham has an incendiary device pushed through the door. Luckily, it fails to ignite.

That same year, the Moonshot Club, a youth club for black teens started by community activist Sybil Phoenix, is burned to the ground. According to this same letter, a woman had asked at a meeting only a few weeks before, “Why can’t some of the NF bother-boys blow up the Moonshot Club?” A year later, the Albany Theatre in Deptford, which had hosted numerous anti-racist events (and a place I have often attended) is burned to the ground. A note saying “Got you” is reportedly pushed through the door the next day. The police do not treat this as a racist crime.

In contrast, there are notes about concrete actions the BJAC could take. The warmth of the worn orange paper almost conjures the warmth and urgency of that meeting – the ideas, the sense of solidarity among literary people.

I leaf through a different letter. It is signed by Sarah White, wife of the late activist John La Rose, both of whom founded New Beacon Books, the first black bookshop in Britain. Addressed to the then Home Secretary Mervyn Rees, the letter confronts his inaction: “Are you and the Home Office going to wait until someone is killed before you take your responsibility seriously?” Later, I spot the unmistakeable pen of John La Rose underlining a section of text discussing telegrams sent to the Home Office: “The response once again has been total silence.”

But of course that silence was not universal. I find a beautiful record tucked away among these files – a bright blue envelope from Malaysia, with the old fashioned fold-out leaf, so that the message could be written directly into the envelope then posted. It is a simple statement of solidarity: “I support you! I abhor racism!” and it is tangible proof of the internationalism of the day, which was later manifested in the form of International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books. You might say was the first regular black literary festival in Britain (1982-1995) – an urgent riposte to the politics of terrorism, barbarism and extermination. Worse, the complacency and silence of the media, the police and the government.

And that urgency would form the Black People’s Day of Action, March 2nd 1981, at that time the largest gathering of black people Britain had ever seen, in response to the state indifference shown towards the thirteen young black people killed in the New Cross Fire. Although no cause of the fire has ever been established, many people felt that given the context, it was likely that the children were killed by a racist attacker. Even if they weren’t, the aggression and insensitivity of the police, compounded by zero response from the queen or Margret Thatcher offering condolences, confirmed to the black community where they stood.  I come across another article, exploring exactly this point, entitled “Why Black People Feel Threatened”:

“The police may well consider that there is not yet sufficient evidence to support the claim but the facts of life in a number of areas of London, and other parts of the country, have led black people to believe this tragic incident was the latest in a catalogue of violent racist attacks that have gone undetected.”

The monthly silent marches for Grenfell strike me as a powerful inversion of that historic silence. The march takes up physical space – as carnival does, as the Black People’s Day of Action did – and makes public grieving an intimate, repeated, political action. Every month we learn of new errors, failures and oversights that contributed to the deaths of so many people, so that we are not only mourning that initial fire (as the authorities would prefer) but the on-going attitude of indifference, and the thousands of people still living in known fire-traps clad with the same material. Memorials – like archives – can often be acts of closure and forgetting. The silent march refuses to treat Grenfell as a piece of history, instead it acts as a pre-emptive warning against future disasters as it highlights the still-unhoused, the uncompensated, the unwanted and the preferably unheard. Every month, a living memorial is created out of anyone who wishes to publicly mourn. You don’t need any words, you don’t have to think of anything to say, and in that way it addresses the question of how to relate to such a major tragedy when you did not suffer any personal loss. Here our silence is an act of responsibility, not a sign of complacency.

A final point of similarity. In July 1981, shortly after the New Cross Fire, the Black People’s Day of Action, the Brixton riots and the heavy-handed police operation Swamp 81 (which saw nearly a thousand black people stopped and searched in just two days), Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. In a copy of the Daily Mirror dated July 11th 1981, the front page reads “Riot Frenzy: Brixton Mob Batter Police”, and page five reads, “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, with Diana wistfully holding a bouquet.

Her tragic death would generate a spectacular outpouring of grief and marked a significant shift in British culture: 2017 saw the royals attend the memorial of Grenfell, and two months before the first anniversary, Diana’s son Prince Harry married a mixed-race American and had a black pastor at the wedding. That same queen who met the burning to death of thirteen black children with near-total indifference in 1981, bowed her head for the victims of Grenfell. This is not so much progress as a reconfiguration of the same power, held in the same hands.

And so this is the history conjured when I look at the remains of the tower and think about what to write and the role of writing. For one thing, the records I have explored only confirm to me the urgency and necessity of the many schemes aimed at improving diversity in the arts and media. To see these initiatives as merely about representation is to forget that there was a prolonged, violent, racist attack on institutions of knowledge reproduction in this country; that black and leftist booksellers were deliberately targeted for extermination by the same fascism receiving sexy write-ups in major publications today; that fascists were given a platform at the same time as marginal people were being terrorised; that, for all the progress made, we are dangerously close to repeating this history unless we honestly acknowledge it.

Yet, in the press, it often feels like this moment is separate from the past or that its nearest equivalent is the 1930s. It’s much, much closer than that. This history is there in the archive, on yellowed paper and in bold newsprint, and it has helped me to see the present more clearly. It’s important to approach these documents not only as a  researcher, but in order to sit and listen; to see the archive not only as a place for academics or historians, but as a place of tactile remembrance and contemplation for its own sake.

And the crucial difference between relating to Nazi Germany and 1970s to 1980s Britain, is that many people of the latter era are still with us – as in they’re still walking around their own archival records. Sarah White, aforementioned signatory, is there to lock up that afternoon.

I ask her about the hate mail she received in 1977, saying she had been “singled out for death” for selling books, and which threatened her newborn baby too. It’s a strange document, seemingly written with a knife, on black paper. She describes her big, protective cousin staying at the house for a few days because John was in Guyana. But after a while she just sort of forgot about it. “One has to carry on,” she says. “It was frightening, but one has to get on with life, as it were. You can’t spend forever looking over your shoulder.” And she locks up and we leave. She heads out into the big bright afternoon and I go into New Beacon Books, which of course, is still there.

Jay Bernard is the winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2017