A Dickensian 21st Century Disaster
The Grenfell Tragedy
Grenfell Tower was that giant pillar of public housing on the West side of London that went up in flames a year ago. Suddenly it was a smoky chemical torch in the night, fueled by the building’s own flammable insulation and cover-all cladding. Hundreds escaped but 72 mostly hard-working immigrant residents of the Tower died inside the definitive disaster of 21st century London. Britain’s Katrina, people said. But more than a public-sector flop, more than a warning to tower dwellers around the world, the Grenfell story feels a year later like a Dickens novel waiting to be written about varieties of poverty in palatial post-imperial London, richer than ever but just as mean as Scrooge ever was before the dream that woke him up.
The first question about London’s Grenfell Tower – up in fire smoke and death a year ago – was: how could it have happened? An apartment block for 350 people with no sprinkler system; just one exit at ground level; 23 floors served by one staircase; and just two words of advice “stay put,” spoken by police and firemen to people baking in their sealed flats.
Then come the moral questions: Grenfell’s poorest lived just across the way from the richest oligarchs in the capital of capitalism, in the single royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, just north from Harrod’s. Can post-Thatcher Britain — open disdain for “social housing” like Grenfell Tower — be charged with “social murder” in a horrible accident like the Grenfell Inferno? And who, by the way, is up to telling the London story of our lifetimes as Charles Dickens distilled the Victorian versions in the 1850s and 60s?
Andrew O’Hagan gets the Dickens duty this radio hour. O’Hagan is Glasgow born and Scots-accented as you’ll hear. He’s a novelist and essayist and stalwart all-purpose mainstay of the London Review of Books. He has been relentless in searching and sifting the Grenfell evidence for a year now – including the record of social media, Facebook entries from inside the towering inferno, TV coverage and media debates that Dickens did not have to contend with. The LRB editors have given Andrew O’Hagan a full issue of the magazine to bring his story to a point – to many points, in fact. And he’s giving us his experience of it all — a horrific modern sequel to the ancient Great Fire of London that remade the city in the 17th C.
novelist and journalist