Never Forget the Victims of Grenfell
On June 14, 2017, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Peter Apps’s Show Me The Bodies is the best account of the tragedy and an unsparing indictment of the disregard for working-class lives that made it possible.
On the evening of June 14, 2017, an electrical fire broke out on the fourth floor of a West London high-rise apartment block. This fire grew and took hold on the cladding that had been added to the exterior as part of a revamp a few years before. The cladding had a core equivalent to “pure petrol” and the fire spread up the building, burning with a speed and intensity that rendered the usual tools and tactics of the London Fire Brigade all but useless. Seventy-two people would die horrible deaths, and many more would be injured, made homeless, and lose friends and family members.
The Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy; the case made in a new book by housing journalist Peter Apps is that it was also a choice. Apps, the deputy editor of Inside Housing magazine, had been reporting on the dangers of flammable cladding before the fire. He has subsequently covered the inquiry into the events at Grenfell in meticulous detail. Show Me the Bodies is the culmination of many years of reporting into what Apps calls “the worst crime committed on British soil this century.” It is the best account of the Grenfell disaster and one of the most important books about British politics to come out in recent years.
Early on in the book, Apps quotes one of the lawyers for the victims and survivors of the disaster: “Grenfell is a lens through which to see how we are governed.” Apps has written a book that uses that lens to great and devastating effect. Grenfell Tower was mostly social housing, with some of the properties privately owned or rented, having been sold through “right to buy,” a scheme allowing tenants to purchase their homes from the council at heavily discounted rates.
Apps’s chief claim is that people who lived in Grenfell died because of a series of choices consciously made by political representatives who “deliberately ran down, neglected and privatised arms of the state,” something they did hand in hand with “a corporate world that evinced an almost psychopathic disregard for human life.” It is impossible to read Show Me the Bodies’ immensely moving account of the Grenfell tragedy and finish without a strong sense of moral outrage.
The book is structured chronologically, taking us through the night of the fire minute by minute. As this timeline progresses, Apps explains the choices that lead to each failure. Why were the first firefighters who reached the tower delayed in getting to the fire? It was because of issues with the system used to override the elevators, which was more complex than necessary. The more complex system was chosen “because of a perceived risk of anti-social behaviour”; there were fears a simpler system might be misused. “Prejudice against social housing residents appears to have actively undermined the safety features of the building,” Apps writes.
Show Me the Bodies is littered with accounts of incidents like these. Why did fire doors fail? Why was there no plan to evacuate disabled residents? Why did the building’s smoke control system malfunction? For every one, Apps provides a clear explanation. The explanation is always, in the end, that the people in charge were not interested in the input, and consequently in the lives, of the residents of the tower. They were only interested in costs.
Show Me the Bodies takes its title from the response, reported by a number of witnesses at the inquiry, given by civil servant Brian Martin when asked about dangerously permissive regulations on cladding and fire safety: he would believe the dangers when he was shown the bodies. It was the flammable cladding that most contributed to the fire’s deadly nature, and it is the cladding and the way in which it undermined the fire safety of the whole building that receives the most attention in the book. It would be easy to let the apparently dry nature of the topic (building materials regulation) undercut the outrage of what happened. Apps’s clear writing, however, ensures sight is never lost of how ideology, arrogance, and contempt came together to cause the fire.
We Had Already Seen the Bodies
British fire safety strategies have their roots in the Great Fire of London, where fire spread between wooden buildings. The idea that arose from it was “compartmentation” — building from strong materials and partitioning dwellings from one another, with the aim of ensuring fires do not spread. Coming from these ideas is the principle of “stay in place”; if your building is on fire, you should stay put and wait for fire services rather than attempt to exit yourself, because the fire will not spread. The Grenfell inquiry chair termed this strategy “an article of faith [for firefighters] so powerful that to depart from it was to all intents and purposes unthinkable.” This is what residents of Grenfell were told when they called emergency services that night: stay in place. No fire alarm rang out across the building, because like all UK high rises, it had no central fire alarm.
A strange hubris animates the way in which Britain conducts itself in this area: British buildings are sturdy, almost axiomatically so, and so our strategy is sound. This compartmentation strategy might have worked in the past. It no longer does.
An ideological commitment to deregulation, lax standards, and cuts to local government enforcement and maintenance powers mean that British buildings are not presently good enough for this strategy to be the only approach. Standards on flammable cladding are lower than those of the EU; as a result, cladding of the kind that fed the fire in Grenfell pooled in the UK primarily because it was not salable in many other countries. The material, the use of which is at one point described by an industry insider as like “attaching a 19,000 litre oil truck” to the walls, ended up encasing a residential building. A stay-in-place approach combined with the flammability of the cladding had devastating results.
In 2009, a fire fueled by cladding at Lakanal House, an apartment block in south east London, killed six. Residents were told to stay in place as the fire burned out of control. Had the blaze not happened in the middle of the day, as opposed to late at night like Grenfell, many more would have been killed. We had already seen the bodies; standards were already dangerously low.
In 2010, a new Conservative government came in with a new prime minister, David Cameron, promising to “wage war” on what he termed “health and safety culture.” A “one-in, one-out” policy on new regulations was brought in; this was subsequently increased to “one-in, two-out.” Low standards got lower. It would not be Cameron and his “Notting Hill set” that paid the price, nor any of the West London oligarchs or the upper-class types who spring to mind when the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is mentioned. But it would, in one of the most starkly unequal places in the UK, be their neighbors: the residents of Grenfell, who were not rich and mostly not white.
Kensington and Chelsea council administered the building through an intermediary company, but Conservative cabinet member for housing Rock Feilding-Mellen had ultimate responsibility. Residents felt the council viewed them as a nuisance and had let the building fall into disrepair. One resident, Eddie Daffarn, kept a blog on which he documented the dangers in the tower. Among them was the risk of cladding-assisted fire. Rather than responding to Daffarn’s concerns, the council looked into whether it could bring libel proceedings against him.
Apps reports that, between 2010 and 2017, Kensington and Chelsea council went from twelve building control inspectors to five. Between 2013 and 2017, fire authorities lost a quarter of their staff; the London Fire Brigade alone saw £100 million in cuts in the eight years Boris Johnson was mayor of the city, between 2008 and 2016. Considered against the backdrop of Cameron’s austerity agenda, the Grenfell fire appears as the most violent of many predictable tragedies.
Show Me the Bodies is, throughout, deeply moving. Drawing on interviews and materials presented to the inquiry, Apps follows the stories of a number of residents across the night of the fire. The book is full of details about these people’s lives and descriptions of relationships that illustrate just a few of the many vivid, meaningful lives that were being lived in Grenfell. An elderly man describes how he thought his wife was “out of his league” when they first met; a family expecting a new baby says they were feeling close as the due date neared; a mother talks about how special her relationship with her adult daughter was. As the night that the book recounts unfolds, transcripts of phone calls and social media posts are used to heartbreaking effect; in one instance, Apps reproduces the transcript of a London fire service operator on the phone with a man who has lost sight of his young daughter in the smoke-filled stairwell and is refusing to go on without her. “Anyone would like a dad like you,” the operator says.
It would be easy for this book to have good guys and bad guys, and while it does not shy away from apportioning blame — naming companies and individuals who overlooked or deliberately deceived or simply did not care about the factors under their control that led to the fire — it is a book too interested in the truth to seek heroes and villains. Easy heroes would come in the form of the London Fire Brigade, whose firefighters saved many from the tower at great risk, but Apps is unsparing about the strategic failures of the fire service.
The easy villain of the piece is Brian Martin, who failed to take action on woefully inadequate cladding safety regulation. His name comes up again and again, including during a bizarre exchange when he asserts that a former fireman with a commitment to higher standards being placed in charge of certain regulations would “bankrupt” the country and that “we would all starve to death.” But Apps rejects Brian Martin’s claim, made at the inquiry, to being a “single point of failure” in his department; clearly, this was not the case. Show Me the Bodies is committed to documenting what happened, eschewing easy narratives that detract attention from the structural causes of the Grenfell tragedy. Martin, in Apps’s account, gets neither damnation nor absolution, although it is clear which he deserves.
Apps’s book is a master class in reporting; across a wide span of highly technical detail, it never loses sight of the human story. This concentration on the personal lives and experiences of the residents serves as a rebuke to the logic that brought about the disaster. It says, real value is personal, relational, reflected in care, not profits. Despite the council’s frequent neglect of its tenants, Grenfell was a place where people lived happy lives. As Daffarn told the inquiry, “I dearly miss our community.” Show Me the Bodies, with its quiet narrator and rigorous approach, is a polemic that never needs to be polemical. Its narrative is instead propelled by the lives of the individuals and families that it documents, and to whom it gives dignity.
Apps at one point quotes a young child who survived the fire; she tells her mother that she sees ghosts around the tower. Another former resident, a woman, feels her departed sister to be with her at all times. I live in a London apartment block a few minutes from Lakanal House. The night after finishing Show Me the Bodies, I woke from a terrible nightmare about rooms in my flat growing dark and taking people from me. It is a scary book, precisely because it reminds us that politics is not a technocratic affair concerned merely with the allocation of funds but a matter of life and death. Politicians and private interests believed they could cut public resources and no one would notice. Self-deceit and willful ignorance are underacknowledged political crimes. Show Me the Bodies is a haunting indictment of contemporary Britain and all the people who claimed they could not see the harms caused by austerity, and a moving testament to those who paid the price.