The tiny window panel was scratched and perpetually greasy. It was meant to offer some sort of security to anyone using the creaking lift, which had a flimsy aluminium door, kicked-in at its base by some frustrated tenant waiting for its perpetually slow arrival. The floor of the lift was always covered in discarded wrappers and the air was filled with the stench of stale urine. It seemed that few of the male occupants of Latham House could wait even a few moments to reach their own threshold before unzipping their flies and discharging the contents of their evening in The British Prince.
This was tower block living in east London in the 1970s. And this is where I called home. I considered myself lucky. I was 23, newly married and in my first job in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, working as a trainee in the housing department. We had been house-sitting for a friend on a six-month trip to India when I was told that there was every chance I could apply for a flat in the borough where I was working, because the policy of the Greater London Council had changed, and it was no longer allowing families with children under 11 to occupy flats above the fourth floor.
So I applied, was successful and my husband and I took up the tenancy of 65, Latham House, Chudleigh Street, E1, just yards from the busy Commercial Road, and round the corner from a perfectly preserved Georgian square. We had a maisonette on the 11th and 12th floors of the 17-storey block, built in 1963 and providing 97 dwellings. On the 'ground' floor of our maisonette was a kitchen and living room with a balcony looking towards the City (so we could be properly envious or obsequious) and upstairs we had two bedrooms and a bathroom.
There was also a door, barred on the inside, which led up a flight of internal steps to the corridor above – the 13th floor. This was our escape route in case of fire – we would be sent up, and not down. The single lift served every other floor and there was just one stairway, next to the lift. Each internal corridor contained eight doors, not a single window along its length. Light came in from windows at each end of the corridor, but it was always pretty dark and forbidding and there was no emergency lighting.
There was also no central heating in the flat, just a three-bar electric fire in the living room. In cold weather I would turn all four gas jets on the cooker and put the oven on, leaving the door open in a futile bid to provide some heat. There was no alarm, sprinkler system or anything which would aid safety in the event of a fire – the front door was described as a fire door and there was just this one flight of stairs leading to the floor above. I always worried about the possibility of not being able to escape. It felt counter-intuitive to be asked to take a flight of steps going further away from the ground floor and safety. And, if I was using my cooker as a heating appliance, there must have been lots of other tenants similarly employing all kinds of gases and liquids to get some warmth into the cold concrete rooms. I tried not to think about that. I lived in Latham House for five years and have never lived in a tower block since.
But I moved in there in 1977 – that's 40 years ago. It seems, however, as if council tenants are expected still to live in conditions just as primitive as they were back then. Which is why the terrible disaster at Grenfell Tower, across the other side of the city from my tower block, fills me with horror, with sadness and with a deep and visceral anger. Every photograph, every second of film showing the infernal blaze engulfing the desperate inhabitants of this 24-storey block of flats in the middle of the night, and of the charred and blackened mausoleum it has become, makes me realise how little this country truly cares about how its poorest citizens are housed.
Grenfell Tower is in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest and grandest neighbourhoods in London. It is home to
hedge-fund managers, minor aristocracy, Russian oligarchs, oil-rich Arabs and the myriad others for whom the UK capital is a rich playground. It is also home to people who have almost nothing and who are, as I was 40 years ago, pathetically grateful to have been housed in what has turned out to be a death trap.
A smart-looking death trap, it would appear. The council spent almost £9 million on a recent refurbishment, part of which was the addition of the cosmetic cladding – this type banned in the United States for its known flammability. The arguments attempting to absolve the local authority of any blame for this tragedy are already flying around. Nicholas Paget-Brown, the Tory leader of RB Kensington and Chelsea Council, has claimed that the tenants said they didn't want sprinklers put in because of all the disruption it would cause. Utter bullshit.
There must have been so much disruption already involved in a massive refurbishment that a further bit of inconvenience would have been negligible. And I am afraid I cannot buy the idea that tenants would have turned down the introduction of a safety device that could help to save lives. This is a council trying to spend as little as they can get away with, while no doubt increasing the rents significantly. And, by the way, in 2015 Cllr Paget-Brown – who has served on this council for over 30 years so must know the borough and its problems inside-out – took £54,769 as a special responsibility council allowance, the highest of any councillor in the entire country.
This is also a borough brim-full of empty luxury apartments, bought by overseas investors, so awash with cash that they never need to let them. They lie empty and useless, but make money anyway – for people who hardly need more. And this is a country where, for years, we have allowed the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Starbucks and other obscenely rich global companies to avoid paying their fair share towards British public finances – public finances that could be utilised to provide decent housing for all citizens.
Last year our lame duck PM Theresa May told such firms: 'I'm putting you on warning. This can't go on any more.' But it does. And it will. At least 58 people have died a truly terrible death in Grenfell Tower. That number will undoubtedly grow in the days and weeks to come. There will be much hand-wringing. But, as always, the poor will continue to be expendable in our so-called civilised and caring society.