Monday, 16 October 2017

Walking With Grenfell ~ a Silence Louder Than Words




Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi




On the 14th of every month since the Grenfell fire the community of North Kensington have been holding a silent walk to show unity in the face of tragedy and to ensure that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and those who loved them, aren’t forgotten. We do so easily forget. The news moves on and something else takes our attention. We think that someone else is ‘dealing with it’; the Inquiry has begun, much money was raised and so surely the survivors have been rehoused (they haven’t been and there is some question about where the money has gone). But we would do well not to forget, because Grenfell was the worst fire disaster on our soil since the Blitz, and the community around Grenfell isn’t going to go away until they see justice done. They invite anyone of good heart to join with them, knowing that they can’t do it alone. Community. Come Unity.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

They say…

“As the months go on, we grow stronger and stronger. This will not stop and we will carry on being united by such tragic events. Please come and join us on the 14th of every month and walk in silence to remember those who are sadly no longer with us.

We can not fight this alone, we are more powerful together.”


Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

And so, on the day that our nine days of Novena prayers for Grenfell ended, my friend Jennifer and I went to join the silent walk in community and solidarity. This month the 14th fell on a Saturday so there was a real push to encourage people to come along. It is hard to. I felt that we were intruding on people who have been so brutalised by intrusion already, not just by uncaring bureaucracy before the fire happened, and then by the fire itself, but also by the large numbers of ‘grief tourists’ who have gone to Grenfell to take photographs and, even worse, ‘selfies’; so much so that local residents have attached signs to the barriers surrounding the tower asking them to stop. At the end of September a Chinese tourguide was sent back to China and a driver suspended when they took a coach full of Chinese tourists to Grenfell to take photographs of the tower. I found it very hard to go there without feeling that I was doing the same, especially as we got lost on the London Underground on the way there, and again when we arrived at Latimer Road. And so we had to keep stopping people and asking, “Do you know the way to Grenfell Tower?” Only one person was obviously suspicious of our motives; a young man who, when we asked, gave an exasperated sort of a smile, “Why are you asking? Are you residents?” When we had explained he was lovely but it can’t be easy living in the shadow of a tragedy that people have made into a holiday destination before all of the dead are even buried.

But it was in the getting lost that, for me, the blessing and the kindness came. We wandered for an hour, unable to find the walk (it was silent after all) or Grenfell Tower. When we did ask someone it happened to be someone who worked there as a security guard. He gave us directions. We immediately went wrong in the dark. We explained to a teenager that we were lost and he told us that we had gone in completely the wrong direction and kindly took us across the road where we could see the tower back the way that we’d come and he could give us further directions. He didn’t have to do that. I thought that he was an angel, but there were many angels around Grenfell that night.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

And, even though we were lost in the dark, I was glad that we weren’t there on a day with sunshine and a blue sky. I can’t imagine how it must be to see that blackened husk of a building in the light, day after day, how it must be for a community of people to see the place where their friends and loved ones died because no one cared quite enough to make them safe. In the dark it was just a shape against the night; you couldn't see that it had burned, and even then every time I have seen a block of flats since I superimpose Grenfell onto it. And the dark did another thing. It let us see those leafy, quiet little streets as they would have been that night. It is Kensington, even if it is North Kensington, and, apart from the few tower blocks and the maze of little estates, it feels as though people who are well off live there or near by. A woman driving a new looking Range Rover stopped for us so that we could cross the road. That was kind but it made me feel just a little bit ill. And the narrow, curving, streets that seem to all come back in on each other until you don’t know where you are, are lined with parked cars. Grenfell seems to be in the middle of all that. How would the fire engines have gotten through?

And the other effect of walking round and round in the dark, later finding that we were circling both the silent walk and the tower, is that thinking of it now I have the feeling that we were spiraling into sacred space, as you do when you enter a Hindu temple, or our own stone circles, or the caves that our ancestors would crawl in to leave hand prints in the dark as a prayer. You aren’t meant to see the centre until you have made your journey, paid your respects, earned it. It isn’t supposed to be easy. This is a holy and hallowed place. The dead awaiting justice are there and there are people on the street weeping.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi


We had almost given up when another angel appeared out of the dark, and we knew that she was one because she was holding a sign with a pair of shiny red angel wings pasted onto it, lit by fairy lights. And she was wearing denim hot pants at, what some foolish people would say, was an unseemly age for such clothing. Only angels do that. She saw my friend’s pink rose, brought from her South London garden to leave as an offering, and asked whether we were on the walk. We said no but we had been trying to find it. She told us that her friends were on it and seemed to have hope that she could find them. She scampered away at some speed, turning at one point to call, “I only stopped you because you had the flower!”, and we tumbled after her as best we could, despite our by then aching legs. At the end of the next road she saw some policemen and it turned out that they were blocking the junction because the silent walk was slowly moving along it. We had been walking with them but one street along. Our angel disappeared before I even had a chance to see her go, and my friend and I joined the end of the walk for the last fifteen minutes or so. The silence was full of meaning, speaking louder than words ever could.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

We made our way very slowly in silence to the Westway, an urban flyover carrying the A40 into London. On the way we passed memorial after memorial, names, faces that I recognised from media reports; real enough before but now so much more so. There were Bible verses written on the concrete, “Blessed are those who mourn”, and, I think, verses from the Quran, which I was sad not to be able to understand. There were candles burning everywhere and, on a concrete pillar, the most beautiful and intricate image of Mary in prayer. If Our Lady of Sorrows is needed anywhere it is there. There seemed to be memorials along every fence, every lamppost topped with a huge green heart with ‘Grenfell’ written in the centre. Signs of bent willow and paper; ‘Come Unity’. We walked with people on crutches and in wheelchairs, people carrying children, and all completely silent. In solidarity.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

And then the Westway. Under the flyover the community have created a wonder; somewhere for the displaced of Grenfell to go, when the authorities would have them scattered. On the huge concrete 'Wall of Truth', the ‘People’s Public Inquest’; a place to gather evidence, write testimonies, share what happened on that terrible night, piece it together. 

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

We gathered and we were thanked for being there. There was a minute’s silence, and then a minute’s wild applause and cheering for the lost. The sound was shocking and more moving than I can explain. The sound got louder and louder in waves as we sent love and respect to the dead. And then it was over and that was right. It was the walking that was the prayer and the call for justice, the silence and the waves of sound. There was nothing more to say, not then.

The crowd began to move away and then we saw the extent of what has been made; not just a wall and a memorial but a home, or it felt like one to me; I saw the word ‘Phoenix’ written here and there, a community risen from the ashes of the fire, supporting one another. There are wooden benches and comfy sofas, all made into intimate little areas so that there can be sharing in, what might feel almost like, the living rooms that the survivors of Grenfell once sat in in their high tower. There is a book exchange, board games, people feeding the homeless and refusing to accept money. It is a testament to all that is good in humanity, what we can be, and what we can be for each other, when everything falls down. 

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

There must be justice for the people of Grenfell and for their community. There are fears that the Public Inquiry, which many feel isn’t truly independent from the Government whose policies are implicated in creating the conditions that allowed the Grenfell Fire to happen, will never reveal the truth of what happened that night, or what led up to it. That the rich and the powerful will win again, and that the poor, the invisible, will lose...again. But what the people of the Grenfell community perhaps can’t see yet is that, in their pheonix rising from the ashes, in their keeping together what was torn apart, in their refusing to stop caring and loving and seeing what’s real, in their inviting in when they would have every reason to close down, build walls, they have already won.

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

Silent walks to honour the dead and the survivors of the Grenfell fire, to express solidarity for their families and their community, and to continue the fight for justice, will continue every 14th of the month at 6.30pm. The walk gathers outside Notting Hill Methodist Church at 240 Lancaster Road, London, W11 4AH. The community have asked for as many people as possible to come and walk with them in silence, because the silence will be heard. Alone, they will become invisible. It is growing in numbers each month and I know that it would mean a lot to them if that growth continued. Please do think about joining them if you can. It matters. If you are unable to be there on the night please think about holding your own silent vigil, with others or alone, publicly or at home, and send photos and/or messages to the Grenfell community on the Silent Walk Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Grenfell-Tower-Silent-Walk-122708985093572/ . It will show them, and the people responsible who need to know that we won't forget, that we care. 

No justice, no peace. 

Thank you so much to Natasha Quarmby for allowing me to use here photos here. You can find more of her wonderful photographs here https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi
Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi

Photo: Natasha Quarmby Photography, used with kind permission ~ https://www.facebook.com/NQdocumentaryphotography?hc_location=ufi


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