A weekend in London reminded me just how much I love the place. Unlike any other city in Britain, London is the world in one place. Everywhere you go, you hear a different language, people of differing colours, people of different religions and no religion at all. All the reasons, I suspect, why so many people voted to leave the EU are my main reasons for wanting to be there. And, as ever, London is about contrasts.
Put to one side the glorious eclecticism of the place, the one big negative are the contrasts in wealth and, frankly, class. We stayed near Earls Court in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and our walks took us through some of the wealthiest streets in the land, maybe the world. We were awestruck, almost purring at the sheer wonder of these magnificent buildings and yet acknowledging the reality that this was no place for working people.
We passed an estate agent and looked at the property prices. Even lottery winners could never live there, unless perhaps they won Euromillions. We daydreamed a bit, imagining briefly what it would be like to live in places like this. It made Clifton in Bristol look like a sink estate by comparison. Yet, in the same borough just a couple of miles to the north stands the remnants of Grenfell Tower.
We did not seek out Grenfell Tower. Occasionally, I gazed into the distance wondering if I could see it. Then, I concluded this was little more than poverty voyeurism, a pretty sick thing to do. Then, sitting alone in the hotel bar late at night, a man told me there was an element of tourist value to Grenfell Tower. I am not making this up.
“I was in a taxi the other day and the cabbie told me people were taking trips just to see the burned out shell of Grenfell,” he told me. “Not hundreds of people but enough.”
Jesus, I thought. What kind of tourism was this? People died unimaginably awful deaths in the burning inferno of Grenfell. What were people expecting to see? Burned corpses? Ruined household items?
“Some people were actually taking photographs.”
I would imagine that the photos would be for private use only because I don’t think friends and family would be gathering to view a slideshow. “Ooh look. That’s the room where the fridge caught fire. Look up there and you can see…” You know the sort of thing. “When does the open top bus leave?”
Now this is not everyone going there. It’s not Ground Zero, the sight of the 9/11 mass murder from 2001 in New York, where for reasons I find it impossible to fathom people go to gawp at what is essentially a mass grave of unidentified bodies and body parts. It’s rubbernecking on steroids all the same.
I suppose we do retrace aspects of our bloody history, on the beaches of Normandy for example. we mourn, we pause in thought and we thank our lucky stars that the people who died did so to preserve our way of life. Civilised folk everywhere remember the fallen and where they fell. I am not so sure about making a trip to see where many poor people burned to death.
The super rich and the super not rich live virtually side by side in Kensington and Chelsea. The fabulously rich can buy as many luxury houses and apartments as they like. The not so rich, who were pretty well forced to live in Grenfell and places like it in the first place, have little choice. Survivors remain in B&Bs and hotels as they attempt to pick up the remnants of their lives, many having lost all their possessions.
And no matter how much I love London – as I love my country in general – it does not escape my understanding that we are more economically divided than at any time in my life. There should not be such a huge gap between the filthy rich and the undeserving poor. But something went wrong along the way and if our politicians do not make serious efforts to repair gross inequality then things will get much worse for the poor and the rich people of Kensington and Chelsea will need all of their 24 hour private security people even more than they do now.