Thursday, 16 November 2017

Walking with Grenfell, November’s Silent Walk ~ When Everything Just Feels Wrong

Last month I shared my first experience of ‘Walking with Grenfell; a Silence Louder than Words’. I have just had my second. There are times when you would rather be anywhere than where you are, and yet couldn’t possibly be anywhere else and, for me at least, the monthly Grenfell Silent Walk feels like that. The Grenfell community have asked for as many people who can to be there and so I feel invited and welcome, and yet at the same time that I am intruding on private grief and imposing my own thoughts on something that I can’t possibly understand. And I think that I am probably right to feel both. It is the same as seeing film cameras and photographers there. It matters so much that the Grenfell fire isn’t forgotten, that those in authority know powerfully that people still care, that the walk and the ever-growing number of attendees is reported, especially whilst the Public Inquiry is taking place, and yet what could be more wrong than to film people taking part in such a raw act of remembrance. Often there are people hugging and crying on the pavement as the walk passes by. These are intimate moments not to be shared by a scavenging media which seems often only trying to sell newspapers or get clicks on a website, or with a voyeuristic public addicted to watching suffering but often little engaged in what caused it. And the banners. On this walk there were two types of banners being shared amongst the walkers; one, white with simple black lettering, calling for ‘Justice for Grenfell’, but another, more colourful, declaring that ‘The Tories have Blood on Their Hands’ and including the Socialist Workers’ Party address. It just feels not the time for such statements or self-regard. And I wanted to take photos, so that others might be encouraged to go along or see what can be achieved by human beings standing together in support and solidarity, but taking photos feels like a brutalisation. I did take a few after the walk had ended, because it matters to make it real for others who haven’t been there but the thing is that none of us should have to be, and that we are is an endlessly open wound. Everything just seems to come back to that. Over and over again.

But there is such sweetness too. This time, because I arrived before the walk set out, I was given a jar with a t-light inside to take with me on the walk. I saw that all the jars had been beautifully painted, mine with delicate daisies. There is such an atmosphere of being kind too, allowing for different responses to all that has happened, allowing those who live in the community to have different ways of thinking about what might happen now. And so many people come along, even on a dark and rainy edge-of-winter Tuesday night in November. It is heartening.

I have never seen the remains of Grenfell Tower in daylight, which I am quietly thankful for, but it has a magnetic pull no matters which way you face in North Kensington. Somehow it has become the blackened star that everything else orbits around and it felt so as we walked. We walk slowly, stopping every few minutes and just standing in quiet reflection and personal thought. You could hear a pin drop. The silence is something powerful, especially in the midst of busy London. It feels bigger than this small group of people, as though it becomes its own creature; something breathing for those who no longer can. And I feel that we have become ghosts. Towards the end of the walk we passed under a railway bridge close to the tube station. There were two fire trucks parked there, one on either side of the road. The leaders of the walk had stopped by them, remaining in silence. I was too far back to know what happened but the flashing blue lights on the fire trucks suddenly sprang into life and any firefighters who had been out of the vehicles got back in. I suppose that there had been a call. Imagine in that moment being perhaps called to another fire. I don’t know how they have the strength to do what they do but, of course, they do it for us. We were accompanied by police throughout the walk but they had little need to do anything and, as the fire trucks began to move off, we stepped silently aside to let them through. As they passed we applauded, just as I saw the community do after the fire. The silence held even then. It was deeply affecting.

When we got to the Westway where the walk ends a few words were said to us all by the walk leaders and other members of the community, mostly to call for more people to be there next time for the six month anniversary of the fire. In a high tower block I could see someone looking out of their window and a light flashing, probably a camera but it looked as though they were signalling for help. It feels that nothing happens there now that isn’t about the fire or a reminder of it, and I know that I have no personal connection with that place so I can scarcely imagine how it must really be ay after day. But the community cafe was still there twinkling with t-lights and a row of smiling women were serving free food. One day I might eat some but I still feel as though I shouldn’t be there. I am sure that many people feel the same. And it’s not that more people haven’t died all at once in bombings in Syria and Yemen, and in so many other places. Of course, a number of the people in Grenfell Tower that night had fled such wartorn places, which seems so deeply and horribly ironic. I don’t know why Grenfell feels so important but it is as though, on the night of 14th June 2017, the Earth slightly shifted on her axis and we have become trapped on the wrong side of things. I don’t know what will mend it and I’m not sure that I believe there will be justice, not really. How can there be? Because it isn’t just that people died. It’s the attitude that put them in such danger and which pervades every layers of our society. It’s that so many there warned of the likelihood of fire over many years. It’s that so many of us, without having ever heard of Grenfell, knew that what was unfolding in this country through the Government’s Austerity agenda would kill people and so it has and continues to do. My friend told me that she was weeding the other day and was clearing some of a particular plant from a patch of earth. She hadn’t realised that, unseen beneath the surface, the plant was putting out long roots, creating a thick web taking all the moisture from the plants around. She said that the roots were so strong that you could follow it through the soil as you pulled it up. Grenfell is like that; you pull at one of the ‘roots’ that might have caused it and then you see how far it goes, that it reaches into everything. But whether justice will ever come or not, it matters to be there. In solidarity and community.

On the way back to the Underground station I visited a walkway that has been turned into a place of remembrance, the walls covered in photos of the dead of Grenfell and a shrine filled with flowers, candles, and religious symbols at the end of it. As I stood there, I heard a tiny voice and looked around to see a little boy of around three with, I imagine, his dad. The little boy said to his dad in his sweet little voice, “Where is Hajiid?”* and his dad, sounding very calm and reassuring, led him into the walkway, pointed to a photo and said, “Here he is, here is Hajiid.” The little boy asked about another someone and his dad pointed to another photo, “Here he is. Look, he’s here too.” The boy was pleased, happy to know where his friends were and they left. As they did so, he turned and waved, “Bye bye, Hajiid. See you soon.” How could anyone’s heart not break? Sometimes I wonder how this country didn’t just crumble into the sea that night…

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, either publicly with others or at home, and send photos or messages to the Grenfell community on the silent walk Facebook page at . It will show them, and the people responsible who need to know that we won't forget, that we care. 

No justice, no peace.

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