18 June 2017 12:53 AM
PETER HITCHENS: Let this blackened, tragic tower stand as a monument to our cheapskate society
This is Peter Hitchens’ Mail On Sunday column
They should leave the burned-out Grenfell Tower where it is, as a lasting monument to the needlessly dead and as a warning to our complacent, self-satisfied society.
Shore it up, fence it off, and set a great stone slab next to it with a list of the names of those who died. Write on it in deeply incised, enormous letters ‘They Did Not Need To Die’. Hold an annual service of remembrance at it, to which the great and the good feel obliged to go. We congratulate ourselves quite enough at such ceremonies – it is time we chastised and humiliated ourselves instead.
I went to look at this sad sight on Thursday, as it is very close to our offices, and I felt I should see it to fully appreciate what had happened. It is as shocking and as miserable as anything I have seen in a war zone. In fact, it is worse, because it is near the centre of our rich and peaceful capital city, surrounded by untroubled streets, small parks and shops, and close to a wealthy, fashionable district.
Absurdly, it is now surrounded by cordons of police, who more or less pointlessly obstruct access to the site with festoons of plastic tape. This is typical of our bureaucratic response to disaster.
Now that nobody has horses or stables, the old dead metaphor ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’ should be replaced by ‘policing the crime after it has taken place’. For this is what we actually do.
It is not accidental that a society officially obsessed with ‘health and safety’ is not in fact very good at either health or safety. The common sense of the residents of this block was greater than that of those who built it and ran it. It should, obviously, never have been built in the first place. People should live in houses with gardens, not in supersized filing cabinets in the sky.
There is no better symbol of urban blight in Europe or America than the high-rise block of flats.
No doubt, with a full-time caretaker manning the door and expensive, well-maintained lifts, such places can be made habitable. But without them, they will always be a rather insulting way of meeting housing targets, without giving people real homes.
I lived in such a block in Moscow because that was all there was to live in, in what was then a communist city. I tried not to think about what would happen if there were a fire. I had accepted the risk by going to the USSR in the first place. The red flags at the frontier were all the warning I was going to get.
It was one of many things I tried not to think about in that dangerous, cruel society, supposedly based on love of the common people. But the callous coldness of it was never far from my mind. Almost nowhere, in dozens of square miles of concrete brutalism, could be called home. It was not ‘home, sweet home’ but ‘dwelling unit, sweet dwelling unit’.
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I don’t wish to pursue any particular hobby-horse here. There are so many possible ones. Did the victims of Grenfell Tower perish because of cost-cutting or a desire to make the block look prettier and so less annoying to the nearby owners of expensive homes? Did they die because warmist dogma demanded insulation at all costs? Was something wrong with the power supply? Are modern refrigerators safe? Should you ever have gas supplies in such buildings?
One which troubles me is the simple fact that there can never be ladders long enough or hoses powerful enough to reach the upper floors of such buildings. I have always been a great admirer of the fire services, and salute their courage – not that anyone ever doubted it – but why do we put up tall towers which make it impossible for them to do their job?
We know why, of course. The country is, fundamentally, run on the cheap. Cheap wages, borrowed money, skimped and half-finished schemes, leaky pipes, overloaded cables, inadequate training, rotten basic education, ancient infrastructure stretched to the limit and then beyond. And much of it is controlled by unaccountable companies or bureaucracies that cannot be contacted, whose owners are often thousands of miles away.
Your late train (yet again), your moody broadband, your absent, invisible police force, your potholed road, your dodgy bank and your unreachable phone company, are all part of the same thing – a country living beyond its means that thinks it is richer and more important and more civilised than it is, and so neglects the basics of life while concentrating on how it looks.
It continues to amaze me that we spent a large chunk of the Election campaign discussing the renewal of our grandiose and unusable Trident missile system, which allegedly protects us from enemies we don’t have in a war which ended 26 years ago. And that we think we are so great and wonderful and important that we can launch wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
But we could not even protect the victims of Grenfell Tower from horrible, needless deaths that a child could have foreseen.