I was meant to be going to Bonham’s today to watch with hopeful little greedy piggy eyes while my dad’s Churchill photograph went under the hammer. I woke up with a text on my phone about the Grenfell tower fire. So much for that plan. I have no idea what it sold for or if it sold.
Not only is Grenfell tower in my borough, it is also partly run by the people I was working for over the weekend. I had a long chat with the custodian on Monday and he was ace. Last night a small fire escalated into an inferno. It’s a 24 storey block, and there were 600 people there. The full extent of the human cost of this fire will not be apparent for a few days, but there are 12 dead for certain and around 600 homeless. I filled a bag with clothing, blankets, extension plugs and chargers and went over to St John’s Church. By the time I got there they were already flooded with donations but were glad of the bedding. While I was there, cars were pulling up all over the place and people coming out of them laden with stuff. Everyone was pulling together. People started asking me for information, which I tried to give them, but I had just arrived and was as clueless as they were. I went to a few of the centres to pool information and to try to work out what was needed where. I thought I might have been able to use the theatre space where we had made the improv shows as shelter. Nobody seemed to know what was needed, but most people were already clear that they weren’t in desperate need of clothes. At Notting Hill Methodist Church, though, they needed volunteers. I ended up in a room with loads of bags of stuff that had been donated, sorting endless piles of women’s clothing. There’s an irony in that as one of the things I’ve persistently failed to do in my own home over the years is to sort clothing. Once again I’m proving to myself that if it’s me that benefits, I can’t be bothered.
I was there for hours. We got it all sorted, categorised and labelled. Someone stuck a name tag on me, three people asked if I was the minister, four people called me Batman (I’m wearing a Batman T-shirt), a lady gave me a huge hug because I knew where there was some new kids underwear, a man called James gave me a chicken biryani; “They just delivered 70 of these for free.” I sorted clothes. Lots and lots of clothes. People hang on to all their stuff. But then faced with the prospect of people near them with no stuff, they can sever those ties.
It was amazing how many people came through that church. How many bags of stuff came in. When we had finally sorted everything we had in our room, a motley human chain ferried loads more bags up and into another room. This is going to be a lot of work, and anybody local who has spare time because they do a ridiculous job like pretending for a living would be very well used in any of the donation centres. That was the concern when I left.
“I write a little blog. What’s best for me to say?”
“Tell them we don’t need more clothes, but we need people to help sort. And maybe more chargers, respirators, baby clothes and baby food. The big worry is that tomorrow and the next day we won’t get so many volunteers. There’s so much to sort.”
So there you go. Come sort stuff.
Meanwhile helicopters and drones circle a still burning building. More firetrucks than I thought existed in London clam up the centre of Ladbroke Grove, while hard bodied men and women walk slowly but deliberately with canisters on their backs towards the blaze. Smiling police cordon off roads as quickly as smiling residents break the cordons and cross them. Nobody minds. This is London and something has gone wrong. As ever, all of these millions of bassacred ornery individualist bastards are silently pushing in the same direction. In a weeks time everyone will be angry and in a hurry again. But for now, it’s the London Club, and we’re all members. It’s why I love this crazy city.
Being me I’ve got a poem. It’s by Joyce Grenfell who the block was named for, and somehow it’s appropriate:
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.
Keep singing, people.
I’m posting this early rather than scheduling it to get across the volunteers over donations message. I’m going to do more and talk to people about maybe selling the excess in a charity pop up on Portobello market to cover the expense of lost things. But for now, good on London for flooding the donations. Let’s see what’s needed with the perspective of time.