By Anna Chen
A poem for Grenfell Tower marking a month since the disaster
Today marks a whole month since the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, yet the conflagration that killed at least 80 people seems ever present, still fresh in the mind and the heart. This is more than an accident, a natural tragedy — call it gross negligence, call it murder, someone had to make a buck. Only £2 per panel of cladding separated the chances of survival from inevitable death. Then there were the absent sprinklers, the single stairwell, the lack of adequate firefighting equipment, the destruction of regulations designed to keep us safe, and all the other corrupt, mendacious, money-grabbing decisions taken that led us to this point.
While the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took £55 million a year in rent from the remnants of its social housing, only £38 million made it back to the property that yielded so much loot that the borough was able to amass £274 million to spend on council tax rebates for the better off and flashy opera events in Holland Park. The poorest paid for the amusement of the wealthy. Funny how there’s always money for those who need it least.
Artists are engaging with events. Here is my attempt to make sense, reflect and refract. I hope my readers get something out of it.
At the hot point
Of the turning world
A spark lit the flame
That caught the cladding
That burnt the facade
And threw a light
On the burned-out shell
Of the state of the State,
By Lucifer’s light,
A glimpse of hell
Roiled and erupted.
Two pounds of flesh
Per shake of dice
No values known,
Just the cheapest price
In modern Britain plc.
A giant with his fiery sword
Sliced and smote from the flash at four,
He slashed the night to twenty-three,
Dividing the world, rich and poor.
He made his mark, he slashed the dark
On the bias to the roof and higher,
Earth to sky, sheer cliff of fire,
Sliced the tower to light and ash
On one side life, the other a fire of flesh,
A cash-fuelled slomo waiting-room of death,
Each poisoned breath counting down
Lives extinguished but not the flames
Blackening air with soot and cinders.
That is my neighbour, this is a mum,
There is the artist, those are children
Unto the last babe in turbulent dreams
Such horror wreaks and wrecks.
This is the state at the top of the heap,
What power sows, the weakest reap.
Another giant slashed and burned for years
And turned a world upon its head,
A bonfire of red tape set in motion
A cascade of events, invisible, minuscule,
Each piling onto each in spidery increments.
Action group Cassandras screamed murders in waiting,
Grievous bodily profit with intent.
Lift a rock and see what crawls,
So many in the frame, your head spins,
The shitlist lengthens with every trawl,
Cash is cruel, cash is king:
National Grid gas pipes, KCTMO, austerity,
Stay Put, politicians, the construction industry …
Even Maggie Thatcher takes a bow
Her dishes are all cooked by now,
Her high rise cladding on simmer the year the miners struck,
No law now, just luck and the gift that keeps on giving,
She slashed and burned faster than the FR60
One-hour fire-hold rule she flamed,
Halted building, sold off social housing,
Health and safety not gone mad. Just gone.
Aberfan, Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower,
Who had the cash also had the power
To wrap Babel in plastic, for the view palled,
No thought for the living when the opera calls,
A class event, a bagatelle paid for with Grenfell rents,
Rip off the poorest, the system bent.
Gas pipes up the stairwell, smoke in the vents,
Alarms on the fritz, saved a few pence,
Water pressure failing, too little spent,
Retrofit sprinklers too high an expense
And on ignition, stay put was their best advice.
Two pounds of flesh per shake of dice
No values here, just the cheapest price.
The giant scrawled in smoke and flame
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
But the firefighters came in all the same
Through Bosch’s vision, the scorching Hotpoint near,
Over bodies they clambered, up clogging stairs
Barely three feet wide, on a wing and a prayer
And an underfunded gulp of air.
The sullied air chokes but the horror is pure,
Breathe deep and inhale fury and fear,
Cyanide, asbestos and your neighbours.
Which is the most toxic?
Down in your lungs even now
The death clock ticks, reset
Time was the enemy.
Fire was the enemy.
Mammon was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea council was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea TMO was the enemy.
The industry was the enemy.
The government was the enemy.
They sprung a trap, a trap was sprung.
Yet still we lived. Watching from an outer circle,
We were resourceful in those hours.
In our heads, at least, perhaps a car could provide a landing.
Could a mountain of mattresses soften the fall?
For these were no princesses on the pea
But cheeky, boisterous girls and boys.
We wished a man could fly.
We wished for Superman, iced chunk of Thames in tow.
We wished a child could bounce,
That they weighed a quarter of an ounce.
We wished we could put gravity on hold
Stretch this moment til an escape was found,
Slow down damn time til they reached the ground.
A thousand people prayed a million wishes:
For a Star Trek transporter to beam them away,
A fakir’s rope dropping as the gentle rain from heaven,
For wings to sprout, something miraculous to get them out.
A ladder! A tall ladder, a platform with a high pressure hose,
No, too fanciful when the giant slashes and fire stations close.
Did those knotted blankets lead someone to safety
Or a dead end?
“I had my whole life ahead of me,” Gloria Trevisan told her mum.
And it was.
Six and a half minutes with Rania Ibrahim
Is to take a trip to a dark side,
Her voice rings out truth everlasting.
Walk with her, it’s the least she deserves.
Walk with the Grenfell dead and soar with the angels.
A bonfire of people followed the bonfire of regulations
As surely as night followed night followed darkest night of the soul
Cry cruellest murder, the tower can never be put right.
Over the main route into London from Heathrow,
Looms a burnt-out colossus:
A coked-up Tory wideboy in a cheap suit with a pocketful of loot;
We all learnt the meaning of metaphor that night
In Tinderbox plc.
by Anna Chen
12th July 2017
The author was born and raised in Hackney in east London and lived at Hackney Downs and the Gascoyne Esate.
Apologies for not being able to find the photographers who took the photographs on this page. Please let me know if you took the photographs and if I have your permission to use them with a credit (or if you’d like them taken down). By the same token, please feel free to publish my poem with a credit and link to this page. Thank you.
EDIT: More poems are turning up. I’ll link to some of them here.
Grenfell Tower, June, 2017: a poem by Ben Okri. ‘If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.’ Video here
This video of “No Alarms” by Sana Uqba made me cry with its haunting rhythms and powerful imagery
The Merited Moral Remembrance Of The Wilfully Massacred Residents Of Grenfell Tower – Poem by Stanley Collymore
“Grenfell” by Olga Dermott-Bond
“Nowhere”: a response to the housing crisis by poet Tony Walsh – audio
“A Hope for the Future” by Angi Holden
On the Liturgical Poetry website, “Grenfell”
“Grenfell Tower” by Lisa Rey
“Towering Shame” by Sarah McGurk
Video of “Grenfell Fell” by Rakin Cisse Niass
“Grenfell Tower” by Maxine Black