On Grenfell, on foot

Once upon a time I worked with colleagues on a piece of research about social capital in rural areas. It was full of good stuff but it was years ago and I only remember one thing from it: that ‘social capital’ - particularly the disorganised, hard-to-spot stuff that evades both statisticians and other authorities and which is called by said authorities ‘informal social capital’ - this ‘informal social capital’ is always more prevalent in places where people regularly walk around compared to places where people are usually in their cars.

I’ve long been intrigued by walking. I wrote a blog a few years ago about the philosophical and political and psychogeographical and health and environmental and sundry other aspects of walking and concluded that it was pretty much the most sustainable thing a person could do. On all fronts.
And I was pleased last year when, wearing my Brook Lyndhurst hat, I had the opportunity to do some proper research into the evidence about walking (and cycling). The report was published back in April, alongside the new national Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

But it wasn’t until Grenfell that I made a connection that had hitherto eluded me.

I visited the area on Friday, three days after the disaster. It’s a bit of London I know well. Thirty years ago I lived at the top end of Ladbroke Grove, just half a mile east from Grenfell Tower. Since then I’ve lived south, towards Hammersmith, and west, towards Chiswick. I’ve cycled and driven and walked past and through and around that bit of the world more times than I can even begin to count. A week or so before the fire I sat outside the pub, just a couple of hundred metres south of the tower (and in sight of the great edifice that is Westfield) where I occasionally play pool with my son or my best mate.

So I felt I had no choice, really, than to be a witness to whatever was or is or might be going on in the strange rectangle described by the Westway, Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park Avenue and the A3320. I made a special journey. I was on my bike. I rode around. From time to time I got off and walked.

I don’t want to spend much time describing what I saw. What I saw has been widely and accurately described in innumerable other places. It was awful and amazing and upsetting and overwhelming and incredible and painful. I didn’t take many photos; it didn’t seem right, somehow. But this one landed:

It’s something to do, I think, with the juxtaposition: normal homes, normal kids after school, normal car – devastated edifice in the background, appalling symbol of so much. Of too much.

This one, too, makes a similar point: in the foreground, the Westfield-related development taking place opposite the old BBC building at White City, new homes and jobs for the people who are as mobile and prosperous as the financial capital upon which they depend; in the background, the dark, dark symbol, glowering and castigating us:

I don’t particularly want to make any political or quasi-political remarks about what happened, or what I saw, either. Again, plenty of that elsewhere.

But as I wandered streets I’d known, and encountered those that know them now, I remembered the report I’d worked on all those years ago. If you live a life on foot – as you pop out to the all-night shop, as you join the others on the way to school, as you stroll to your church or your mosque or your temple, as you dash for the bus or the tube, as you wait for the elevator on the 20th floor – you inevitably and unavoidably and incredibly bump into all the other people on foot.

Some you nod to. In time, maybe you chat. Your baby and my baby have something in common. Those of us in this queue at the corner store will share a joke. The group of people over there are doing pretty much what we’re doing over here. Look: you can see them.

And somehow, magically, a fabric of connections and interconnections, of shared experience and common sense, of – to use Ivan Illich’s great word – conviviality develops.

It has a physical extent, this invisible stuff: you can sense its perimeters very easily. (It’s a bit like dark matter: we can’t see it, but it’s the only way to explain what we can see.) Just walk south along St Anns Road and you can feel it evaporate, its essence extinguished by the ever bigger and more distant homes, the ever more expensive cars, the disappearance of people that ever venture out on foot.

And the power of this physical, bodily, ambulatory, corporeal reality is illustrated, too, by the experience of the politicians and celebrities as they visit Grenfell: look how much trouble Theresa May got into by not walking about.

So I want to say: yes, we need a full enquiry into what happened; and, yes, we need to learn the lessons and to make sure nothing like this ever happens again; and, yes too, we need to question the deep and pervasive political and cultural and economic assumptions that have led us to this place.

But let us also acknowledge the lessons we need to learn from the response to this disaster. We need to stay on our feet. We need to keep bumping into one another. We cut ourselves off from one another at our peril. We need to stay in touch, not just through social media, and not just through the formal channels and institutions, but with our smiles and our nods and our hands and our bodies.


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