London, like many historic cities, forces rich and poor to live cheek by jowl. It always has. It is much less ghettoed than many more modern cities – although house price escalation is changing that. Thus the so-called Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is not unique in that incorporates some of London’s smartest and most deprived streets. The former contribute to the slick and stunning London of shows like Hustle, Spooks and Sherlock. The latter … not so much (except as hangouts for brigands and lowlifes).
And Grenfell Tower belonged very much to the latter – social housing for some of the city’s most needed but overlooked people: the cleaners, labourers, drivers, shelf-stackers, night guards etc etc. The post-war housing crisis meant the following years witnessed unprecedented demand for construction – and the tower block that compresses the maximum number into the minimum space came into its own. But these buildings are ugly and unforgiving intrusions on the skyline. They do rather lower the tone. Especially when less than a mile away, homes and apartments are selling for millions of pounds EACH. Not so good for investment values.
Who is the Cladding For?
These buildings need upkeep, of course – no small business at all. So if one is going to spend on them, we can at least make them look nicer. Hence the cladding. This can add some colour, a bit of character, dare I say it, a little bit of class. The evidence of money to spend because it goes beyond the purely functional.
How ironic, then, that the very thing that caused Grenfell Tower to become London’s worst fire since the World War 2 Blitz (!!) was the cladding. It had a plastic core which meant the flames rapidly spread around the tower once ignited. It was not fireproof – and it has been linked to similar fires in France, UAE and Australia. It is banned in some countries, including the USA.
Cladding – that hides the uncomfortable realities of a modern global city, the things we’d rather not see: the labour and lives of the invisibles. At a distance, smartly clad Grenfell Tower could almost have been passed off as yet another block of luxury flats that are appear every week.
But financial corners had been cut. So in common with many places, the sprinkler system was absent, and many of the fire doors were faulty or missing, the escape routes hopeless. How telling – invest in the building’s facade but not in the building’s inhabitants. Because they don’t really matter much. They can be replaced. We really noticed them anyway.
Who Gets The Name?
Jesus told a parable about a man who was so rich that he had everything. Apartments in New York, Dubai and Shanghai, large townhouse in Kensington, a beach house in Malibu and chalet in Zermatt. He never noticed the little people. He had made it. And the world knew all about it. But here’s the thing. Even though he was on the front cover of Time, Forbes and Investor’s Chronicle, Jesus never mentioned his name. He was anonymous. Like the flowers of the field, when he’s gone, he’s gone.
But Jesus did mention the name of the Big Issue vendor outside the luxury hotel where he’d put up foreign delegations. HE was given the dignity of a first name – Lazarus – in one of the most famous short stories ever told. The rich man never knew it during his lifetime. Why should he bother?
You can read the whole story here. It has quite the devastating punch.
As ever Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. We’d do well to remember that. Because Lazarus was the one who got a name.