This is becoming something of a habit, I fear. Once again, I appear to have been a purveyor of fake news. In the last post, I plied you with false information about a species of squirrel that I imagined to have been a red squirrel. I therefore issue an unequivocal apology for such a figment of my imagination and displaying my zoological ignorance in semi-public. Notwithstanding the bright splash of what looked to me like red fur, I should have known and do know now that among other things, the ears were the wrong shape and the fur of the red squirrel is not just tinged red but is truly red. This rectification comes as a result of an email — two, in fact — from one Mrs. J. R.
J, in addition to her many organisational talents, is also an avid amateur sciuriologist, and she spends far more time walking the hills and dales of Britain and other countries than I have ever done and as a consequence has therefore had many more opportunities to observe these bushy-tailed rodents than I have. J has now accepted my expression of deep regret over the display of cluelessness with the comment that “I remember red squirrels from my childhood and they were proper red!!” And I add that she should really know what “proper red” is!
Nevertheless, I might also add that much as I like to photograph these small mammals and think they’re quite cute, I’ve never quite been able to reconcile how people find them so endearing while their cousins, the rats, are regarded with such opprobrium. There must be a stink in the tail! Is that what they say?
Now, apologies and confessions over, down to the last week’s business.
On Thursday, I met up with Roger, who, over the past four years, has been a regular photo companion. We select an area of the city in which we then spend a few hours with our cameras taking photographs and chatting about the state of the world and other such weighty matters. On occasion, we even talk about photography and families. Sometimes, we choose well and are excited about what we see; on other occasions, we are a little disappointed with what our choice offers us in terms of photographic material.
This time around, I suggested that few have a look at the great shame of Britain 2017, i.e., Grenfell Tower in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This was a rather ugly 24-storey concrete, primarily residential, tower block in North Kensington built in the mid-1970s. Originally, the top 20 floors contained 120 flats with the bottom four storeys non-residential. A refurbishment in 2015–2016 converted two of these to residential use and the building also received new windows as well as new cladding with thermal insulation.
However, a disastrous fire broke out on the night of 14 June 2017, apparently started by an electrical fire caused by a faulty refrigerator in a flat on the 4th floor. Moreover, it turned out that the cladding was faulty; the fire spread rapidly, too swiftly for many of the people in the upper floors to escape and as a result, according to the Metropolitan Police, at least 80 people were confirmed or presumed dead. The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are the landlords of the building — it was Council housing — and, it seems, the bureaucrats and elected officials in charge had been negligent in so many ways. (Complaints from residents over the years about problems with the building had, at best, only been partially dealt with.) In 2017, this is something that should never have happened.
We had agreed to meet at Ladbroke Grove Underground Station in mid-morning. In the event, I hadn’t looked at the last email from the evening prior and I continued on to the next station, Latimer Road, which is actually closer to the building. Alighting from the train, I looked around to see if there was anything to see — and there it was, right in front of me. Now, I remember watching the reports on the progress of the fire as it unfolded on that day two and a half months ago and remember being utterly horrified by the images that had appeared on TV and in the papers in the days following.
However familiar I was with these images, nothing really prepared me for the three-dimensionality of what I saw perhaps 200m from me when I got off the train. The blackness of the charred ruin that stood in front of me, gaping holes where windows had once been. The utter desolation, especially of the upper storeys of the building was absolutely shocking. The thought that prior to the fire this is where over 120 families had once lived was simply numbing.
Having surveyed the scene, I got on the next train and rode one station back to Ladbroke Grove where we met up. Walking along Lancaster Road back to the charred remains of the tower building, Roger’s face said it all, a repeat of similar emotions that I had had a few minutes earlier. And as we walked around, looking at the building from various angles, and looking at the low rise Council houses in the area, we wondered about the emotions of the people living there, people who had physically been untouched by the fire but who, at the same time, much have been emotionally scarred by it, and scared by it, too.
The contrast between the burnt out remains and the placidness of the Notting Hill Methodist Church couldn’t have been greater.
However, a closer look at the church and its surrounds illustrated the extent to which it was involved in aftermath of the disaster. The area is festooned with yellow ribbons for the missing whose remains will probably never be identified; the pathetic notices pinned to the doors and railings asking for information about the missing. And this, already two and half months after the this terrible accident.
We left Grenfell Tower not exactly feeling great but as we had planned to walk a cross-section of Kensington, we set off in a somewhat sombre mood.
Later in the day, Roger emailed me: ” I feel that Grenfell Tower should be left as is to prevent any amnesia and to offer a statement of the rottenness that is the UK right now.” I’m inclined to agree. However, I did read somewhere that demolition of the tower is scheduled to start towards the end of 2018, so I suppose that others have different ideas about what should be done. I suppose that the reports will inevitably be written and one would hope that they will also be read. But will they be acted upon? And will those who are responsible—directly and indirectly—own up or be forced to own up and be punished for their negligence. Time only, will tell, I guess.
I suppose, however, that one needs to put everything in perspective. This is Britain in the 21st century; it’s not a war zone. It’s one tower block and it happened over a single day and the story is of an event of great suffering, one that should never have happened. But it’s not Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, Hama, Damascus, cities in which vast sections have been totally destroyed, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives and millions have been made homeless and become refugees over a period of more than six years. There’s disaster and there’s disaster. There are many degrees of evil. Notwithstanding the apparent negligence in Kensington and Chelsea, it’s not the true evil of either the Assad regime in Syria or ISIS.
However, that does not really detract from this calamity, which occurred in a part of London that houses some of the wealthiest people and has some of the most expensive properties in the country. The proximity of the site of this devastation and the spaciousness of the streets around Notting Hill, perhaps no more than a kilometre away is almost as shocking as the results of the fire. (Incidentally, the parliamentary constituency of Kensington, traditionally a safe Conservative seat, elected a Labour MP at the General Election three months ago, with a majority of 20 in a turnout of 38,677 voters.)
Notting Hill was really such a stark contrast to what we’d just seen. Portobello Market was almost devoid of stalls—it was Thursday and we were late. There were, however, some scenes that yielded a decent picture. The bass player was singing his heart out and in a “dum-dum” one-two rhythm, up and down. It was only when I stopped to look at the image I had recorded that I noticed that there was something missing—actually two of them—from the contrabass.
Further along the street, I noticed these voyeuses espying the dance troupe that was on display for all to see.
And then there was the courageous Indian gentleman who took a plunge, pressed a button and caused the door of this public loo to slide open. He obviously wasn’t absolutely desperate as it took several seconds before the door slid closed again. I didn’t hang around to see whether we was able to escape his fate post-pee.
We followed this by walking through Holland Park, which neither of us had previously visited. In terms of topography and greenery, it reminded us somewhat of Highgate Cemetery, which we walked to on our outing in early June to visit the late lamented Karl Marx and his expired acolytes.
We continued our trip along Kensington High Street, past Kensington Palace and across Kensington Gardens, which are all spacious and attractive. I think we were both wondering whether we should enjoy the experience of what we were seeing and passing through given what we had seen a couple of hours earlier. However, London really is unique among cities in that it has so many green spaces, large and small, from tiny squares to larger squares, to private parks and public parks and Royal Parks and other open spaces. It thus seems as if the campaign to have London designated a National Park, led by a geographer, Daniel Raven-Ellison, doesn’t seem so far-fetched (see below).
We eventually ended up at the Albert Memorial, looking quite magnificent if not a little overdone, recently re-gilded after several years behind scaffolding. I assume that Donald doesn’t know about this because if he did, there might be one of these erected outside Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Opposite the Royal Albert Hall, which is currently undergoing exterior refurbishment, we boarded a bus and parted ways at Hyde Park Corner.
The photography for the day didn’t quite end there, though. As the bus trundled towards Green Park Station on Piccadilly, I noticed the ambulance to the right of the bus. It looked like a regular ambulance but it caught my eye because of the spelling on the right-hand side. “What on earth was a Welsh ambulance doing in Central London?” I wondered.
Then, as I took a bus from Finchley Road on the last leg of the journey home, I managed to take the most flamboyantly coloured photograph of the day. I was sitting near the front of the bus when a large woman boarded. Nothing unusual there but as I sat behind her, I remembered that I had seen her on the same bus last year some time, or perhaps even the year before. This lady had the longest, gaudiest, loudest, most stand-outish, outlandish false fingernails I have ever seen anywhere. I tried photographing discretely from where I was sitting and she gesticulated, having an impromptu conversation with her neighbour on the seat. All to no avail, however, as she performed her gestures too rapidly for me to take aim and fire. However, as luck would have it, she alighted at the same bus stop as I did and we ended up waiting for the traffic lights to change so that we could cross Haverstock Hill. It was then that I summoned up sufficient chutzpah to ask her if she minded if I were to photograph her hands. My quick mental reckoning at the time was that nobody wearing claws like that would object to someone taking a photograph of them. In fact, why else would she be wearing them at all if she didn’t want people to see them?
And so it was. I requested; she responded to my entreaty in the affirmative and then she posed with her hands on her ample belly for me. Especially for me! Success! It was only when I looked at the photograph later in the day that I realised how delicately poised these talons were on her rather tiny real nails.
Oh well, everyone to her own.
Back to a very hot Tel Aviv soon before the next post comes due.