I went my normal way home from school this morning. Through the park, over the hill, with its views across London.
There it was, on the other side of the city. A rising grey column from a narrow point, turning gradually into wisps blowing northwards, like a soft-focus tornado. ‘That’s it’, nods a dog-walker to me. That’s Grenfell Tower, the block of flats that was engulfed in flames in the small hours of this morning.
The home of hundreds of people is now belching toxic fumes and particles into the sky. The smoke is so dense that it forms a clear shape from even here. It’s that smoke that met people in their corridor of their home, forced its way into flats, into the lives and the lungs of sleeping residents.
I think of children asleep on a warm summer’s night, one arm thrown out of bed, the other still clasping a toy train or cuddly panda. Teens, homework done, friends said goodnight to. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, lovers, colleagues, neighbours. People who yesterday celebrated a birthday or good news, or who went to bed bowed under the weight of debt or loss. The people who, at best, have witnessed everything they owned being eviscerated. And at worst – well, there is the smoke.
A young man comes up. Maybe in his early 20s, black, with a hoody and earphones, white sports kit under his jacket. We’re probably the kind of people the other one would normally just pass by. He stands there, on the grass, his feet still, watching. ‘Is that it?’ he finally says. ‘Yes,’ I say. And we start to talk. To find some way of expressing what it feels like to be watching people’s lives turned into the chaos and terror of black smoke.
Between us and the fire we can see dozens more tower blocks. We can see almost all of London from here.
How many of those could this happen to, we wonder. How is this possible?
We talk about 9/11, about polystyrene tiles and aviation fuel, about building regulations and accountability. We don’t have any answers – of course we don’t.
‘Oh man,’ he says, ‘I’ve got such a busy day, and this has really got me. But I needed to come up here.’
I want to find something for him. I want to look for gratitude in the situation, because this is where I always try to turn. I know pain doesn’t help. At least, I say, we live in a city where this isn’t ok. Where people will be held accountable. Where we say, we will not accept this.
Yes, he says. We shake hands. ‘Alexander.’ ‘Joanna.’ And we both want to believe it.
Culture is what makes us human
Back at my desk, I’m writing about how all creation and culture comes from a fundamental need to connect with others. I find myself wondering how this fits.
Is there any point in trying to draw any lessons beyond a desire to believe that this can’t happen again?
But I’m a writer. Words, in various forms, are my medium. And culture underlies our whole identity as humans. The evidence points to the very survival of Homo Sapiens being due to the development of a culture – probably including, in some form, music, dance and visual arts as well as language – that allowed connections and the building of bonds that Neanderthal man didn’t have.
We do know this, instinctively. At times of tragedy, shock and challenge, we have conversations we wouldn’t normally have. We organise concerts, hold vigils, we create murals and monuments and gardens of remembrance. We share Facebook posts and social media memes. They help us, somehow, to make sense of our emotions, and to hold them in a shared space.
I don’t have any wise words on what we need to learn. I hope, like everyone else, that the news will be less bad than we fear, and the recovery will be less traumatic than it seems it could be.
But I do know this. Culture is what makes us human. It’s what connects us to others. Culture isn’t a part of our lives. It’s something we do, instinctively, continually.
Use your medium, whatever it is. Use it to build bonds. To connect. To make change, or to change minds. Believe that your medium can comfort or agitate. Campaign for building regulation enforcement, or improve a school playground. Tend a garden. Join a flash-mob or a choir. It won’t restore a building or a life. It won’t combat toxic, chemical smoke. It won’t give food or shelter, today. But it will make all of our lives that bit more, simply, human.