As­sailed by ter­ror­ism, griev­ing over Gren­fell Tower, haunted by Brexit and swel­ter­ing in a heat­wave, London is dam­aged but de­fi­ant

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Denis Staunton in London

When a white van mounted a foot­path near Fins­bury Park Mosque early on Mon­day morn­ing and drove at speed into a group of pedes­tri­ans, it was London’s third terrorist in­ci­dent in as many months. The at­tack l eft one man, 51 year- old Makram Ali, dead and eight in­jured and it was front-page news – for just one day.

The fact that a sus­pect is in cus­tody means that the me­dia are con­strained be­cause they want to avoid prej­u­dic­ing any fu­ture trial. But the main rea­son Fins­bury Park was pushed off the front pages was that there is just so much else go­ing on from the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis at West­min­ster fol­low­ing this month’s gen­eral elec­tion, to the still-un­fold­ing tragedy at Gren­fell Tower.

Af­ter the at­tack at London Bridge three weeks ago, the New York Times out­raged Lon­don­ers by de­scrib­ing their city as “reel­ing” from terrorist vi­o­lence. Novelists JK Rowling and Robert Har­ris ac­cused the news­pa­per of do­ing the ter­ror­ists’ job, while oth­ers in­voked the Blitz, tweet­ing pic­tures of women drink­ing tea amid the rub­ble of the wartime bomb­ing cam­paign.

The em­blem­atic im­age from London Bridge was of a man care­fully car­ry­ing his pint as he was evac­u­ated. Once again, London was seen to take ter­ror­ism in its stride, de­ploy­ing its trade­mark cock­tail of in­sou­ciance and bloody-mind­ed­ness in de­fi­ance of the at­tack­ers.

The se­cu­rity re­sponse has been more low-key than in other cap­i­tals, with armed sol­diers on the streets for only a few days in a few lo­ca­tions af­ter the Manch­ester Arena bomb­ing. Last week­end, the an­nual Troop­ing the Colour went ahead in cen­tral London as usual, with Queen El­iz­a­beth in an open car­riage as she led her troops down the Mall.

The Palace of West­min­ster has more armed po­lice on duty since the at­tack in March which killed PC Keith Palmer and four oth­ers as well as the attacker him­self, but is oth­er­wise un­changed. The bars, res­tau­rants and high- end food stalls at Bor­ough Mar­ket, near London Bridge, were back in busi­ness soon af­ter the at­tack there. And Fins­bury Park was bustling hours af­ter this week’s at­tack.

But the at­tacks have left their mark, as par­ents worry a lit­tle more about their chil­dren com­ing home late, and every­one is a lit­tle more sen­si­tive to loud bangs or sud­den move­ments.

Spate of at­tacks

Above all, the spate of at­tacks has robbed London of its con­fi­dence that Bri­tain’s world-class se­cu­rity ser­vices and ex­em­plary com­mu­nity re­la­tions made the city safer from ter­ror­ism than other Euro­pean cap­i­tals. Af­ter the co-or­di­nated sui­cide bomb­ings on July 7th, 2005, which killed 52 peo­ple, London es­caped large-scale ter­ror­ism un­til this year. When Paris, Brussels, Ber­lin and Nice were hit by Is­lamist vi­o­lence, London was on alert too but it seemed to have been spared.

The Bri­tish pub­lic tol­er­ates state sur­veil­lance pow­ers that would be re­garded as in­tru­sive in other Euro­pean coun­tries and is proud of the ef­fec­tive­ness of agen­cies such as MI5, the se­cu­rity ser­vice, and GCHQ, which is re­spon­si­ble for elec­tronic sur­veil­lance. Com­mu­nity re­la­tions in London are in­com­pa­ra­bly bet­ter than in Paris, Brussels, Am­s­ter­dam or even Ber­lin, and Mus­lims are not widely viewed with sus­pi­cion. London’s Mus­lim mayor Sadiq Khan is the most pop­u­lar politi­cian in the city and one of the most pop­u­lar in the coun­try.

But nei­ther the se­cu­rity ser­vices nor these good com­mu­nity re­la­tions have been able to pro­tect London from the lat­est at­tacks, two com­mit­ted by rad­i­cal Is­lamists and the third an at­tack on Mus­lims. London may not be “reel­ing” from ter­ror­ism but it is dazed and swel­ter­ing af­ter the long­est, most in­tense heat­wave since 1976 pushed tem­per­a­tures into the 30s for days.

Hot weather means long af­ter­noons in Re­gent’s Park, Pimms on the ter­race and pints on the street. It also brings scary de­lays on the Tube, sweaty suits, sleep­less nights and short tem­pers.

It was dur­ing a hot night last week that Gren­fell Tower started to burn, slowly at first but then at great speed, the flames ap­par­ently car­ried up­wards by flammable cladding that sur­rounded the build­ing.

A few hours later, the up­per floors were still burn­ing, pump­ing out thick clouds of smoke across west London. A wide area around the tower block was cor­doned off, and in­side the perime­ter the po­lice and fire ser­vice were do­ing their work with courage and ef­fi­ciency.

Out­side the cor­don, no­body was in charge, as neigh­bours and other vol­un­teers cared for sur­vivors and evac­uees in church halls, mosques and a lo­cal gym. For days af­ter the fire, the state seemed to have aban­doned the res­i­dents of Gren­fell Tower, just as it had ig­nored their re­peated warn­ings about the build­ing’s safety.

Most vul­ner­a­ble

I was re­minded of New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, where I wit­nessed the same sense of aban­don­ment and be­trayal. In New Or­leans, it was the poor­est who were left most vul­ner­a­ble when the lev­ees broke and who were stranded in the Su­per­dome for days with­out food and wa­ter as they waited for the govern­ment to res­cue them.

At Gren­fell Tower, an en­clave of poverty in one of the rich­est bor­oughs in Eng­land, no­body doubted that their warn­ings about safety were more eas­ily ig­nored be- cause the res­i­dents were rel­a­tively poor and pow­er­less.

And al­though the re­sponse of the emer­gency ser­vices on the night of the fire was ex­em­plary, the lo­cal coun­cil was in­vis­i­ble in the days that fol­lowed. In New Or­leans, the dis­tress was height­ened by a lack of in­for­ma­tion about the fate of loved ones as fam­i­lies were sep­a­rated and of­ten dis­persed to dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try.

Big­gest cri­sis

At Gren­fell, the sur­vivors’ an­guish was com­pounded by the glacial pace at which in­for­ma­tion about the dead was re­leased and the fact that the in­for­ma­tion was some­times wrong, with the dead or miss­ing marked on some lists as hav­ing been ac­counted for. Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina cre­ated the big­gest cri­sis of Ge­orge W Bush’s pres­i­dency as he faced crit­i­cism for re­main­ing on hol­i­day at his 1,600-acre es­tate in Texas while his govern­ment did lit­tle to help the vic­tims in the days af­ter the storm hit. When he fi­nally de­cided to re­turn to Wash­ing­ton to deal with the dis­as­ter, Bush was pic­tured look­ing out of the win­dow of Air Force One at the flooded city of New Or­leans be­low.

Theresa May vis­ited Gren­fell the day af­ter the fire but she met only emer­gency work­ers, with Down­ing Street cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns to ex­plain why she met none of the res­i­dents of the tower block. A grainy, long- lens, still pho­to­graph of her talk­ing to the emer­gency ser­vices be­came her Air Force One im­age, fu­elling charges that she lacks em­pa­thy.

Soon af­ter the prime min­is­ter left, Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn ar­rived at Gren­fell, meet­ing vol­un­teers and res­i­dents and pic­tured hug­ging a wo­man who had lost a rel­a­tive in the fire. The fol­low­ing day, Queen El­iz­a­beth and Prince Wil­liam were there, chat­ting to res­i­dents and tor­pe­do­ing May’s ex­cuse about se­cu­rity.

As crit­i­cism mounted, May scram­bled to re­spond ef­fec­tively to the dis­as­ter, tak­ing con­trol of the op­er­a­tion from Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil, promis­ing a pub­lic in­quiry and en­sur­ing that all Gren­fell’s res­i­dents had money and shel­ter.

Here too, the prime min­is­ter was fol­low­ing the Bush play­book, which saw him take de­ci­sive ac­tion even­tu­ally – but too late to ex­punge the first im­pres­sion of of­fi­cial in­dif­fer­ence.

Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina per­suaded many Amer­i­cans that, in the words of Kanye West, “Ge­orge Bush doesn’t care about black peo­ple.” Gren­fell has re­in­forced the im­pres­sion that the Con­ser­va­tives don’t care enough about poor peo­ple.

The Con­ser­va­tive- con­trolled Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil has re­serves of £209 mil­lion, £42 mil­lion more than pro­jected, partly due to cost sav­ings. Three years ago, the coun­cil gave those who paid coun­cil tax at the full rate a re­bate of £100, ex­plain­ing that care­ful man­age­ment of re­sources meant there was money to spare. There was none, how­ever, to in­stall sprin­kler sys­tems in Gren­fell Tower, as a res­i­dent of the bor­ough wrote in a let­ter to the

Guardian last week.

“As the toxic ash of Gren­fell Tower’s van­ity cladding falls over the neigh­bour­ing streets, we are left with the acrid truth in our throats: re­gen­er­a­tion in the Royal Bor­ough is in fact a crime of greed and self­ish­ness. I took the refund. At the time, I felt un­com­fort­able with this de­ci­sion and the ways in which I jus­ti­fied it to my­self. And then I for­got about it, un­til the smoke drift­ing into my flat in the early hours of Wed­nes­day woke me up. To­day, I gave it back. It wasn’t ever mine to keep. I handed it over in cash to a vicar run­ning a refuge for the vic­tims of the fire in a lo­cal church,” the let­ter said.

Terrorist at­tacks re­mind Lon­don­ers of what they like about the city – its di­ver­sity, ro­bust­ness, good hu­mour and sheer sang- froid. But Gren­fell has high­lighted the un­der­side of a city fu­elled by the in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of cap­i­tal with an acute hous­ing cri­sis and spi­ralling in­equal­ity.

Sta­tus quo

Dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the sta­tus quo has seen London give big vic­to­ries to Labour, with Khan’s elec­tion as mayor last year and in this month’s gen­eral elec­tion, when the party won 39 of the city’s 73 seats, cap­tur­ing three from the Con­ser­va­tives.

London voted to re­main in the Euro­pean Union in last year’s ref­er­en­dum and al­though an eco­nomic study this week found that the cap­i­tal will be less ad­versely af­fected than ar­eas which voted Leave, the prospect of a hard Brexit is alarm­ing, es­pe­cially for the mil­lion EU na­tion­als liv­ing in the city.

May’s pro­posal to EU lead­ers in Brussels this week would al­low most EU na­tion­als in Bri­tain to be­come per­ma­nent res­i­dents but the sta­tus of that of­fer is un­cer­tain if Brexit talks end with­out a deal.

Mean­while, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple work­ing in fi­nan­cial ser­vices in the City fear for their jobs as one com­pany af­ter an­other makes plans to move some op­er­a­tions from London to cities such as Frank­furt and Dublin.

Fri­day’s an­niver­sary of the ref­er­en­dum passed al­most un­no­ticed in London but Brexit haunts the city with fear of an eco­nomic down­turn, a fur­ther de­pre­ci­a­tion of ster­ling and an­other squeeze on liv­ing stan­dards.

As May strug­gles to put to­gether a mi­nor­ity govern­ment propped up by the DUP, it’s not just the heat­wave that brings back mem­o­ries of the 1970s. There is an edge of anx­i­ety in the air but the bar­rage of terrorist at­tacks and the Gren­fell dis­as­ter have left London punch drunk, slightly stunned but still stand­ing and wait­ing for the next blow to fall.


Main: the shell of the Gren­fell Tower block as lo­cal res­i­dents look on in North Kens­ing­ton; left, from top: London is swel­ter­ing af­ter the long­est, most in­tense heat­wave since 1976; an anti-govern­ment protest on Wed­nes­day; Fri­day’s an­niver­sary of the Brexit vote passed al­most un­no­ticed but the EU exit haunts the city.

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