For most of my life, I’ve assumed community was dead.
Community was something I saw only in black and white pictures, or smiling faces in flares and tank tops, when neighbours talked to each other, knew each other and looked out for each other. In my head, community was Billy Elliot and women chatting in the backstreets of terraces, looking after each other’s kids. Community was local pubs or churches or synagogues or mosques where everyone knew everyone else’s name. Community was a profound generosity, shared by those who know best how hard life can be.
But what I didn’t understand was that community hadn’t given up on itself. In the aftermath of the fire, the local community has been an emblem of hope and humanity and decency
Community, I thought, was something that *used* to exist, however, before Margaret Thatcher, before the arrival of the internet, when we started talking to screens instead of people; before millionaires built bunkers under their homes while thousands wait on lists for council houses that no one will build. It existed before the media went into overdrive, telling us our communities were being killed off by the Poles and then the Romanians and then the Syrians. It existed before the media told us Muslims are terrorists and those on benefits are leeches. Be suspicious of thy neighbour is the widely spread gospel of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch. And I thought it had worked.
I grew up in the 1980s in the Home Counties. In our leafy, middle-class white-washed suburbia, a sign of status and wealth was a Trumpian taste for gates and fences. In my sleepy cul-de-sac, people peered out of windows and avoided one another, even if police cars and ambulances arrived at houses late at night. And the posher the road, the quieter it was. There were some roads you weren’t even permitted to walk down if you didn’t live there. Trees and iron railings kept those people separated. Segregation was a sign of where you were on the pecking order – the more cut off you were, the better you’d done. A successful man was an island.
You can, of course, draw a line from the gated communities of the commuter belt right back to Mrs Thatcher, the woman who put a sledgehammer through community. Her thirst for deregulation and dismantling the welfare state made it very clear that it was every man for himself. And, in more recent times, David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity measures have followed in her footsteps, cutting funding from local councils, community projects and essential services like women’s shelters. Every single front-line service is in crisis – which means if you can’t help yourself, then no one can. We’re all islands now – whether we like it or not.
I’ve never left my south-east bubble – the home of media, government and the financial industry; the institutions that have done their best to suggest community is thing of the past – and so, and perhaps unsurprisingly, my opinions of community didn’t really change, even when I moved to Brighton and London. In this corner of the country, neoliberalism is king (although Corbyn’s surprise surge is admirably trying to topple that throne) and its stony silence and dislike of other people can be felt the very minute you leave your house. You avoid eye contact on public transport; you don’t talk to strangers. They probably want something from you, or at least that’s what you’ve been told. The closest I came to community was when a little old lady used to knock on our door and ask my boyfriend to change her lightbulb.
And so it felt like the community had faded away, like affordable housing and pensions and unions. It had been abandoned, like the working classes have been. It had been sold off, like Thatcher sold off council houses; it had become unobtainable and out of reach for ordinary people, as media and government seek to divide and conquer. Community, I thought, was a relic of a more equal past, when we thought about others and not just ourselves and our social-media profiles.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy of proportions that words simply fail to articulate. It is also novelistic – a hauntingly neat microcosm of the web of issues that defines our country now. And remembering, first and foremost, there are lives lost, the fire is also the story of how policies of the governments of the last 30 years have sacrificed community; how they have ignored the plights of the most vulnerable for the privilege of big business and the super rich. It is the story of deregulation and the drive for profit, whatever the human cost. It is the story of a state that won’t invest in people unless they are rich. With millionaires mere streets away, it is evidence that we live in a chronically unjust society, one whereby we value human worth by way of wealth, where poverty is not a failing of a society, but a failing of the individual – and the poor are just the collateral of the financial market’s ambition, swept away, out of sight, in unsafe tower blocks. It is the story of how we chose the economy and profit over society, over people, over community.
But what I didn’t understand was that community hadn’t given up on itself. In the aftermath of the fire, the local community has been an emblem of hope and humanity and decency. From the young Muslim men who were observing Ramadan in a nearby mosque and were the first on the scene, to the endless donations of clothes and water and money and food, and the community leaders who continue to organise relief efforts and comfort residents. And it has always been there – regardless of what narratives the powerful put out, or how cruel government policy gets. The Grenfell Tower fire is also the story of how community is always there when people need it – even if no one else is.
I’ve sat in awe over the last few days watching ordinary people – people who society has rejected and vilified – coming together, helping each other, being the best examples of what it is to be human. And from my middle-class life, segregated off, with my righteous opinions and retweets and privilege and my safely built home, I have realised that perhaps I gave up on community, too. Perhaps I stopped believing it was there.
And for that I am truly sorry.