Countless words will be spent on the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower over the coming weeks and months, together with many tears, much anger and an overwhelming desire for this never to happen again. The media, politicians, experts and others will analyse every moment , every inch of the building and no doubt at some point there will be legislation to ensure everyone living in highrise housing a safer future. All this will be necessary to move on from this catastrophic event, to answer the questions from the residents and the families of the dead, missing and injured and to prevent further such disasters involving seriously underfunded and neglected public housing.
I, along with everyone else, watched with horror and felt the panic rising in me for those trapped and dying. It is everyone’s worse nightmare and we cannot begin to imagine the horror.It is equally a nightmare for the rescue services whose sole motivation for choosing such a career is to help and save lives and who, in a tragedy of this scale, cannot save everyone. They will see things that no person should have to witness in civilian life. It is probably only paralleled by the witness of those in war zones. I can relate to the need to rescue, to help, even if as social workers the term rescue does not sit easily. It is however what we sometimes do and the desire to help is the reason we join the profession. As I watched the great and good come forward to visit and to offer condolence I recalled my own experience of being flooded out from my home and reflected on what may really matter to each individual in these grave circumstances. Way behind the media pictures and the high profile visits are individuals struggling with unthinkable losses, grief and desolation. It is pain that thankfully few of us ever have to experience and that in the normal framework of our lives we cannot imagine. Under all the hours of media coverage and bags of aid are individual stories , lives that have been lived and that have to be lived.
My own closest experience is now at some distance in my life but there are a few things that stay with me. I lost no one, only things. It is the small personal moments that mattered not the grander gestures. I recognise the need in everyone to feel that they want to do something or is it that some fear censure of they are not seen to respond. Sorting through the remains of my music memorabilia irretrievably stuck together with a mixture of mud and water;the soundtrack of my life heading to the skip, I was not about to go out to see the Environment Minister and the local MP walking through town in their new wellies. Of course they had no answers and would have new jobs by the time any promises ‘to do something’ ever come to fruition. What did matter was the army of local people whose names I will never know who appeared with brooms and buckets to help clear the mud, water and debris from my home before moving on to the next home. What mattered was the lady I met in the park while walking the dog and who having listened to my story about the dog’s toys floating off to be lost left a small bag of dog toys tied to my door handle. The note saying they were from her dog reduced me to tears. I still have that note. But during those endless midwinter days of clearing and cleaning with no heat or electricity the pizza man who was giving away food free in the first few days was nowhere to be seen!!
I was not found accommodation by officials, the dog proved a problem and I needed to declare myself homeless by going to the nearest council office some ten miles away. I was offered free wipes and masks to help with the cleaning though!! Another chat with another dog walker produced the offer of a dog friendly holiday cottage belonging to his friend. I hear the complaints that the local community should not have been left to sort the immediate response to this current disaster but thinking back that is nearly always the case and isn’t that what our communities are about and do best. Isn’t that why we spend much of our time creating and maintaining a sense of belonging , of partnership, cooperation and friendship within our community? We are our community and they are us. We are together in both good times and bad, when we celebrate with street parties or open community centres in a disaster we are together. No statutory body can do what we can do. Their role is different and limited and we need to be clear about that. Later they provided flood doors to my house at no cost and made me feel much more secure but it took time. We need them to help us create our communities and to support our efforts by listening and understanding to what we need. There are many things that require statutory and official intervention and many that are best left to the people.
I have some reflections for the media too. I know you have a job to do. But I still have a picture in my head of the arc lights and cameras lined up waiting like vultures for high tide to come and demolish our medieval bridge. Waiting for that picture, that moment , the competitiveness between the networks; it would have been such a moment of sadness for the town but that was not important the story was all. I remember clearly a Sunday morning, cold miserable December and Christmas approaching, emptying dehumidifiers and cleaning , then hearing a live radio broadcast outside my house and a reporter saying that the town was back to normal and that all signs of the flood had gone. I wanted to scream out of the door…You want to come in here! You are a pretty insensitive bunch. If you can’t work with empathy then go away and remember that for those involved the trauma and tears go on quietly behind closed doors for years and for some for ever.
I have forgotten the material things I lost, much of the days events and the Environment Minister’s name but with me stays the sense of community, of neighbour helping and supporting neighbour, the broom and bucket army. The worth of recognising what is important to every individual cannot be over emphasised. It may seem small, insignificant and unimportant in the midst of the chaos. The dog’s toys meant nothing to anyone except me. The recognition of that detail for me was priceless. And when the public clamour of anger and grief has died down and the media have moved on the struggle to overcome and survive goes on behind the closed doors of the those caught in the maelstrom of such horror.