I was interested when I read that the disastrous apartment house fire in London happened in North Kensington, because for about a year I lived in that peculiarly unattractive chunk of London, not far from Wormwood Scrubs prison. You reached our street by going north on Ladbroke Grove, but if you went south on that same street you came before long to one of the citadels of Britain’s exclusionary, snobbish form of culture.
It was 1951 when my wife and I arrived in London for the first time, a couple of green youngsters who had previously exposed ourselves to the intense (and, for us, personally valuable) culture shock of having passed from the placidity, calm and prosperity of our lives in New Zealand into an India in which millions of people were homeless, hundreds of thousands were sleeping on the pavements under ragged cloth shelters, and in which it was common to observe children, their bones almost sticking out of their emaciated bodies, in the process of dying as we watched them.
As we settled into a small apartment in North Kensington, where we shared the bathroom with a student doctor living downstairs, we took with us the assumptions of our upbringing in a country which, if it had its faults, class-consciousness was certainly not one of them. My wife had no trouble being taken on as a supply teacher, moving from school to school as needed, and I settled in to trying to work as a journalist, from which my reward was a file of more than 80 letters of rejection, until I finally surrendered and took a job as a labourer in a food factory. This --- along with the problem of struggling with the strict food rationing system that allowed us a mere morsel of meat each week, beyond which one could only buy a sausage that seemed to be made of sawdust --- gave us a fairly abrupt schooling into the nuances of British class. The fact that one could move from a world of impoverished workers to one of prosperous nobs in fine houses just by travelling the No 11 bus down Ladbroke Grove has always remained with me as a template for the things I have never liked about British life.
I learned a great deal from my workmates in the factory: we agreed on supporting the Labour Party, which virtually all of them did, but I silently parted ways with them over their intense prejudice against foreigners, especially when one old dear confided in me that “there’s one good thing that ’itler done, you know.” Oh, yes, and what was that? “He got rid of all them Jews.”
We were still in London when the Labour government was tossed out in 1951 to make way for Winston Churchill’s extremely conservative brand of governance, so I never had any further hope that North Kensington could ever expect to be dragged up towards the standards of living of their southern neighbours, a few miles away.. We moved to other parts of the Kingdom after our year in North Kensington --- to Dalkeith near Edinburgh, then Coventry, where I finally did get a job, and after three years we decided to head back home to New Zealand by way of Canada. We entered Canada as immigrants, but six years later I was sent by the newspaper for which I worked, The Montreal Star to London to represent them as a correspondent.
This time, as luck would have it, I lived in South Kensington. Of course, nothing had changed during those six years of Conservative Party rule. We lived in comfortable apartments, surrounded by comfortably off middle-class people. Our children, though they went to State schools, received in their first years an education as good as any that could have been provided by private schools, simply because the parents expected it. I remember a young teacher coming from a school in the east end, working class area of London, who told us that the difference between the children she was teaching and those in our schools made it seem like they were from different countries. Our children had all the advantages of their parents' prosperity; her pupils had all the disadvantages of their parents own poor education, and lack of the resources that would have been needed for them to rise above their station in life.
I was not surprised, therefore, this weekend, on watching TV to hear that angry neighbours were invading the premises of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, to demand that a complete audit be made immediately --- as had been demanded years before --- of all the council-owned apartment buildings in the neighbourhood with the object of improving he quality of these particular premises. I was not surprised to hear an economist professor who said she had been raised in a council flat, describe the disastrous fire as “a political question.” Why? Because the dangerous conditions that had been allowed to fester in the destroyed building were the result of the rigid austerity politics practised for so many years by the national governments. For the most part, these protesters blamed the two major political parties equally: the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown New Labour government as well as the David Cameron/Teresa May Tories. Nor was I surprised to read that Ms May, when she visited the site, did not even bother to meet the families who had been stricken by the horror of the fire. True to her behaviour in the recent election, she appeared to have no compassion for them, none whatever. Typically Tory, I would say. Even conservative commentators mentioned how, when Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, got among the survivors, he was hugging them, and talking to them, and trying to ease their pain. Someone said a few days ago that the Grenfell fire is Teresa May’s Katrina (the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans) in that it illustrates nakedly how the poor are treated, somehow as if they are not really full citizens whose needs must be taken into account.
Nor did it surprise me to read in today’s Globe and Mail a report by Paul Waldie, that people in the area believe that “people here have been ignored for years simply because they were poor,” or that “today Kensington is one of the wealthiest boroughs in Britain and the burned out shell of Grenfell stands just a few blocks from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, not far from Kensington Palace, and close to mansions for the super-rich that regularly change hands for up to $40 million.”
A resident of a neighbouring building told Waldie: “the money is not spent on the north side of Kensington, it’s only spent on the other side where the rich people are. And a young woman said: “This is one of the richest boroughs in Europe. You have affluence right next to poverty.”
It was like this when I lived there in 1951, sixty-six years ago, and it hasn’t changed. Of course, the customary outpouring of support, of gifts, of used clothing and food has occurred, just as it does after every disaster. But surely the lesson of the economics professor that “this is a political question” must at last be learned.
To someone like myself who has spent years as a journalist, it is salutary that the media today is one of the major obstacles to the election of a government that really would be concerned about the welfare of the people. For proof, see the barrage of ridiculous headlines with which the British voting public was confronted on the morning of the recent election. The Labour leader, they said, just as they had said since his election to leadership 20 months before, was hopeless, and no one would, or should, ever vote for him. Somehow or other, that proved not to be true, and those among us who are optimistic have interpreted the vote for him as the end of austerity and the return of the old, socialist Labour Party whose basic concern is the welfare of the people.