In the dark times,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, “will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Last Sunday, in a service at St Clement’s church, where many took shelter on the first night after the Grenfell fire, there was indeed singing. We sang the words of June Boyce-Tillman’s stirring hymn: “We shall go out, from strength to strength go on … We’ll make the tunes for those who sing no longer.” Over the past year survivors from Grenfell Tower, bereaved families and the communities around them have faced the very darkest of times. But in them they have also shown us a spirit of solidarity and resilience, of love and hope.
It was there from the first. Three days after the fire at Grenfell, in the chaos, heat and dust, a trail of hearts appeared in chalk in Ladbroke Grove. It led to Maxilla Gardens, where the local artist Sophie Lodge sat making heart-shaped frames out of willow, covering them with wet-strength tissue paper. Sophie would make 24 hearts, one for each floor of Grenfell Tower. Today’s regular silent walks feature large green hearts made from willow frames, emblazoned with the words “dignity”, “grace”, “justice”, “peace”, “truth”, “love”.
I walked past Sophie and her fellow heart-makers that day, and for many days afterwards. Near the Rugby Portobello club, where a crowd of mostly young people waited for news, I saw Susan Rudnik, a local resident I’d known before the fire, putting up posters for an art therapy centre she was setting up on her estate, where I used to work. A qualified art therapist, Susan wrote a powerful report titled “Out of the darkness”, in which she recorded how children from local schools drew spontaneous memorials on the streets. Every public space, every pavement was full of donations, and people just kept arriving.
A friend said to me recently that people bring what skills they have in a crisis. The residents of W10 and W11 brought love. At the makeshift memorials, people gathered to write names and messages of support on the walls. Someone spray-painted “strength” in huge capital letters. People tied ribbons on railings and put flowers in vases. They cut, sewed and crocheted. They cleaned up and cleared rubbish from the tributes. They tended plants. Later, when the cold weather came, they wrapped them in cellophane.
As we pause to reflect on the past year, we should remember all this: the role of the community, how it came together, how it was they who provided the humanitarian response when the government’s was so completely lacking, and how this extended into the weeks and months that followed.
As for me, I walked around looking for ways to help, trying to make out faces I knew. In the centres at St Clement’s, the Harrow Club, the Notting Hill Methodist church, the Al Manaar centre, Kensal Resource Centre, Acklam Village, donations were sorted and labelled. I checked social media groups to see where they needed help, then shifted boxes on Kensal Road, opposite the offices of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), where I had worked several years before. I half-expected to bump into ex-colleagues and face their disapproval for going public about the organisation’s failings. I needn’t have worried – KCTMO, like the council, was nowhere to be seen.
No, it was the local community who looked after the needs of survivors. Looking back, Andrea Newton, who lives on the Lancaster West Estate and is member of the steering group there, believes that it was local residents’ “overwhelming outpouring of love and generosity” that got people through the sleepless days and months that followed. “The concept of residents assisting residents is known to be the key to recovery around the world and residents of North Kensington seemed to instinctively fall into this role for each other. Caring for another person aided your own recovery.” It continues to this day.
There was, for instance, the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit. This new organisation, funded by the National Zakat Foundation, was one of those able to respond in a quick and dynamic way to the needs of those on the ground.
Everyone has been inspired by the dignity of bereaved families and survivors, and by Grenfell United’s quiet approach to seeking justice. That early community spirit has transformed into organising for the greater good, locally and nationally, urging the government to abide by the recommendations of the inquiry and campaigning to make homes safe across the country. We would do well to carry these qualities into other areas of public life, to learn from this community how to be kinder to each other.
Grenfell Speaks, a social media channel for the transparent broadcast of public meetings and the voices of the bereaved, survivors and the local community, has repeatedly held both local and national government officials to account. Residents have established gardening projects, childcare projects. They have co-designed health and wellbeing services and advocacy groups for better housing services across the borough and country. Artistic projects involving young people have helped them translate some of their experiences.
It would be a lie to say all this has been easy. Of course there has been anger, especially in the early, chaotic times. People have encountered extreme suffering and mental anguish. The NHS estimates that 11,000 people have been affected in the locality alone. And a new report from a local law centre, NKLC, says the delays in rehousing have added to the community’s suffering. Nevertheless, acts of solidarity and kindness continue to tend to the emotional wounds. Monthly silent walks bring people together to remember the reasons for this sudden traumatic tearing of a community’s fabric; on the loss of 72 lives and the displacement of hundreds more.
This week is a time of reflection. The green heart has become a symbol representing hope for all groups in the community. Carried on silent marches and now taken to other cities throughout the country, the willow hearts bring with them the spirit of the Grenfell communities – those who were bereaved and those who were displaced. Those who tended the memorials, day after day: changing water in the flowers, removing litter, cleaning the teddy bears. There is now a sign at Maxilla Gardens which reads, “Heart fixing”.
Those affected by the fire do not need anyone to speak for them. They are writing this story themselves – with their dignity, their actions, and in the way they live. For 12 months they have had to fight for justice and yet the inquiry, which everyone hopes will deliver a meaningful outcome (though many fear won’t), has only just begun. There are still so many issues that need to be resolved. But the community has demonstrated a strength, resilience and love that few of us will see the like of again. They deserve justice. They will not give up. And they will continue to exhibit the virtues so beautifully evoked by those green hearts. Dignity. Unity. Grace. Peace. Justice. Love.
• Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and academic researcher. She is a former neighbourhood officer at KCTMO