Two years ago I watched the images of the fire at Grenfell Tower deeply moved, as most of us would have been, at the plight of the people trapped inside. No doubt all imagining the unimaginable, of how we would feel trapped on those upper floors wondering when or even if help would come. I didn’t know then, that family of my friend and colleague Rania had died that day, a wise elder woman lost to her community along with two of her children with the majority of their lives still to be lived.
Grenfell Tower is not so very far from us here in low-rise leafy Kew but people are people and the urge to make things “better” is part of the human condition in enough people to give us hope that we can learn lessons and support each other in situations like this.
I remember that week particularly well because it was so hot that I took a photo of the temperature in my car – it was 34 degrees. And posted it to Facebook as we all exclaimed in jest about the unbearable temperature. In hindsight the poignancy of that doesn’t escape me.
Impotence is a frustrating emotion, so I and a couple of parents from my son’s school decided to try and find somewhere we might be able to help. We ended up at Tabernacle Christian Centre doing what little we could – sorting through clothes and toiletries and laying them out in as sensible a way as possible. Apart from the heat and the daily drive past the smoking wreckage of the tower, it wasn’t without it’s humour. I could have written a book called:
“What not to donate to people rebuilding their lives after a disaster”
As a stalwart of the “working from Marks and Spencer’s cafe” crew, I called in favours when I discovered that the bizarre thing that the centre was short of was hangers. Thousands of clothes and no hangers.
“Marks and Spencer’s are my people” I thought, “they won’t let me down”. And I was right. I thought I might have to prove I was collecting for a legitmate organistion but on reflection I don’t suppose they get many crooks trying to con then out of hundreds of hangers. What struck me was the eagerness with which individuals wanted to help, from the staff at M&S who collected hangers and helped me load them into the car, who asked “what else can we do?”, who suggested children’s hangers which I hadn’t thought of and had to go back later for as they needed to call around and get some more. And so many other people who asked “How can we help?”.
It was a constant refrain “How can we help?”
I am convinced that the small efforts that Carim, Joana and I made, caused no dent in the pain and suffering of the people involved who were much better supported by their own community. I even knew that at the time. So why did we bother standing in a church hall glowing like Victorian ladies for hours each day? I can’t answer for the others but I believe there is great value in demonstrations of togetherness. In saying with your actions, “I will stand here with you as we both sweat and put endless clothes on hangers, to show you that we are all human, we are all part of this community. We cannot take your pain away, all we can do is be here and show you that we care by standing beside you.”
We are all Londoners.
And two years on, little progress has been made and I wonder how we get big business and politicians to feel the same. To move away from the culture of fear of litigation that we have all contributed to and of sound-bites to the press and towards a responsibility to community.
Teaching a child right from wrong and about responsibility and doing things for the greater good is for many people underpinned by their religion. In my position as a born-again humanist, some people have commented about how difficult it must be to try to teach those abstract lessons to a small child without a religious context. It really wasn’t. I taught my son that being a humanist was about each person taking responsibility and that the more each person chose to do the right thing, the more life would be better for everyone.
Humanism, I told him, was about doing the right thing – even though there is no-one watching.
But the Grenfell Tower disaster left me with a big question which remains unanswered. Why, when so many individuals tried so hard to do the right thing that day, do big businesses and politicians find it so hard to do the same – unless there’s someone watching?