Andrew O’Hagan’s Grenfell ‘novella’: truly a class act

The Tower: London Review of Books, 7 June 2018
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The Tower: London Review of Books, 7 June 2018

The 60,000+-word essay published by the London Review of Books just one week before the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, by novelist and reporter Andrew O’Hagan, shows the kind of establishment backlash we can now expect against those fighting for justice for the 72 people who died. O’Hagan’s ‘novella’ does a hatchet job on activists and campaigners – ‘agitators’, in his words -  patronises survivors and absolves the local council and Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation that oversaw the lethal recladding of the tower of blame. In O’Hagan’s through-the-looking-glass world, the council leaders are in fact the misunderstood heroes of the hour; the villains of the piece become, instead, the firefighters, campaign groups like Grenfell Housing Action and Grenfell United and,  crucially, any survivor or bereaved relative with the temerity to complain or demand adequate redress, rather than being grateful for everything that’s been done for them and their luck to have even had the opportunity to live in the richest borough in the country. Make no mistake, this appalling, dishonest, self-indulgent extravaganza is an opening sally by the ruling class to roll back the wave of popular sympathy for the victims of Grenfell and rehabilitate the council, no doubt with an eye to the public inquiry and ensuring they do not face criminal charges for their role in the murder of 72 working class people.

O’Hagan set up in an office near the Grenfell Tower shortly after the disaster and, first with the help of hired assistants, then on his own, investigated the fire and its aftermath in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for a year. This is his report. His main conclusion is that the council responded quickly, sympathetically and with generous practical help on the night of the fire and for months after. He claims that the Tory council leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown, and Deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen are concerned, committed people with the interests of the community at heart.  Furthermore, it’s not their fault they are rich and have double-barrelled names and it’s typical of the nasty-minded agitators and popular press to have thought these details worth dwelling on in the aftermath of the fire. Indeed, O’Hagan claims, it’s precisely because Paget-Brown – a thoroughly decent chap, as he tells it – refused to engage in mudslinging after the fire that he was forced to step down and now heads a private consultancy advising companies that wish to work with local authorities instead.

Meanwhile, O’Hagan tells us that it is the London Fire Brigade, which gave what turned out to be disastrous but standard instructions for residents to stay in their flats, who are directly to blame for the deaths.  He writes: ‘We don’t like to say these things, but events on 14 June show that, regardless of our affection for them, the professional fire services’ response to the fire at Grenfell Tower was anything but strong. The biggest weakness, all my sources agreed, was the slowness in telling residents to evacuate. Quite simply it caused nearly all of the 72 deaths.’ These are the first group of people he blames – well ahead of companies Arconic which provided the flammable cladding and Celotex the flammable insulation which together allowed the fire to engulf the whole building within 15 minutes, belching toxic black fumes and burning at temperatures of over 1,000C.

O’Hagan says that the Prime Minister, Theresa May and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid rapidly conformed to the prevailing view that RBKC had failed the people of the Grenfell Tower, and moved to distance the Tory government, which had just won a reduced majority in the general election, from the Tory council.  He sets out to discredit local housing activists such as Joe Delaney and Edward Daffarn as being ‘thorns in the side of the council’ fuelled by prejudice rather than facts. Grenfell Action Group – on whose blog Daffarn, who himself narrowly escaped the fire, warned of the fire hazards facing the tower – is snidely dealt with: ‘the group had never been very popular on the estate’. Organisations like Grenfell United and the Grenfell Action Group are side-lined as ‘secretive’ and anti-council. Finally, O’Hagan roundly denounces the media for its populist response to the fire tragedy and modern journalism in general for its ‘go with your feeling’ motto. That doesn’t stop him from spending the first five pages or so of his essay reconstructing a mawkish and patronising narrative about some of the victims, as though – in the best traditions of tabloid journalism – he has befriended friends and families only to establish his own credibility before using them to trash any campaign for justice or accountability.

As a corrective to the accepted narrative about the fire, O’Hagan introduces what he claims are 37 facts. Some of them are just plain wrong, as the New Statesman, Inside Housing and others have pointed out. In the online version, O’Hagan has been forced to retract deeply damaging allegations – peddled last year by some newspapers – that Behailu Kebede, the man in whose flat the fire started, failed to raise the alarm and left the building with a ready-packed suitcase. Mr Kebede has been forced to seek police protection and call on the public inquiry to absolve him of such lies. At the same time O’Hagan’s own childhood, family, judgments and feelings are as central to his story as any other media commentator. 

This scurrilous piece is offensive from beginning to end, despite its occasional accurate (if unoriginal) point about, for example, the scrapping of building and safety regulations that has taken place under both Labour and Conservative governments, or interesting diversions into the history of housing in north Kensington.

It is offensive because, in the tradition of English liberalism, O'Hagan implies that, unlike everybody else, he is ‘above the fray’, has no prejudices and is only interested in the facts. He claims not a moral, but a philosophical superiority to all other protagonists in the story of the Grenfell Tower fire. In fact, he is very partial in his reporting. His description of the occupation of the council building on the Friday immediately after the fire is of a ‘riot’; he speaks of smashed offices and councillors having to be smuggled out through the back door. This is a visceral class hatred, a historic characterisation of the ‘mob’, irrational, violent, fuelled by prejudice – not of desperate, grieving, angry human beings who had been failed by the people who were meant to help them.  O’Hagan is like the Conservative councillors who at the next council meeting could be seen desperately mouthing ‘Don’t let them in!’ when survivors and their supporters came to address the council about its failure. No wonder that – however many thousand words O’Hagan wants to use to try to persuade us of the council’s exemplary response to a national tragedy – the government’s own Grenfell Fire Response Team found the council to have been ‘chaotic, sluggish… distant.. and painfully slow’ in its response.

He ignores the Wall of Truth, under Westway, and the people who have tried to take a stand there for a year against bureaucracy and buy-off from charities and NGOs so that they can provide a direct voice for the people on the ground. He ignores the contribution of Architects for Social Housing (ASH) who have scrupulously examined the fire and context of estate regeneration for London. He must have often walked out of Grenfell’s nearest, busiest underground station, Ladbroke Grove, where every Saturday for a year Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has had a stall, literature, banners and placards petitioning about Grenfell, social housing and construction companies talking to hundreds of local people and collecting signatures to present to RBKC. He accuses the council’s detractors of avoiding uncomfortable facts but in fact he himself has set out deliberately to ignore or vilify the voices that refuse to play the role of silent or grateful victim and demand justice and truth.

O’Hagan briefly mentions studies on the housing crisis and privatisation only to brush the argument aside: ‘All of this is true and all of it is crucial, but I wonder whether it has a defining part to play in our understanding of the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath’. With these words O’Hagan dismisses all class hostility and all antagonism between the property-owners and the property-less. He will not allow reality to stand between his loyalty to the social order, capitalism, and his story. He endorses the actions of the ruling class; a service of remembrance at St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the Royal family, an apology from the Prime Minister for not speaking to survivors, as good enough. It is implied that the victims of the fire have not been victimised but have been served well, suggesting that they and their lawyers are now playing the system. The article ends with an idyllic picture of the ‘white bungalow surrounded by rosemary bushes’ in Twickenham, bought for £900,000 by RBKC for an Iranian survivor and her son. He repeats a story about a survivor demanding a £900 buggy for his child rather than a second-hand donated one – to what end, if not to castigate the perceived greed of the poor who refuse to be grateful for what they’re offered? These are all, remember, people who lost everything – not just their homes and all their possessions, but in many cases members of their own families – not just, as O’Hagan would have it, because of poorly implemented safety regulations and lax builders and subcontractors, but because of the negligence, cost-cutting and contempt of a ruling class he seeks to defend.

This reactionary publication has already been widely criticised and denounced, quite rightly. There will be more such attempts to divert anger away from the guilty and, after this year’s peak of public mourning, with a city bathed in green and a 72-second silence, many more people who will say to the survivors and bereaved: ‘There you go, that’s your lot. Now shut up and be grateful’. O’Hagan is just the first hack off the block. Meanwhile, the real struggle, for criminal charges to be brought against  those responsible  for the fire,  continues.

Grenfell Tower was named after one of a powerful conglomerate of bankers and landowners, Junius Morgan, HR Grenfell and George Peabody, who became owners of thousands of working class homes throughout London in the 1860s.  Their legacy is the housing crisis of today. The Grenfell fire must not become a brand, put in a box and separated from the housing crisis that millions are living through at this time.

Susan Davidson


  • See: Whose Land is it Anyway? Housing, Capitalism and the Working Class, an FRFI pamphlet 2018.

For a much longer but excellent, point-by-point demolition of Andrew O’Hagan’s review see Architects for Social Housing https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com

 

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