The Grenfell Towers fire will go down in history as a tragedy that implicates and indicts late 20th century/early 21st century political policies, social attitudes, and business practices – and the classist, racist bigotries that gird and connect them all – far beyond London itself. The tragedy is rooted in very specific and undeniably local realities that echo political and social crises around the world – in the U.S., across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Those crises speak to the urgency of this moment, all that is at stake as a global ruling class retreats into (exploits) nationalism and undertakes feverish efforts to pull ever greater wealth into ever fewer hands.
Nigerian poet Ben Okri gets at all of that and more – including the ways poor people internalize oppressive social attitudes about them, the modes of shrewd, deep analysis that many working class “undereducated” people apply to their own lives, and so on, in the poem “Grenfell Tower, June 2017.” It’s a sweeping work, moving and enraging and as full a sketch of the situation as has yet been produced. An excerpt is below:
Residents of the area call it the crematorium.
It has revealed the undercurrents of our age.
The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them.
The poor who believed all that the papers said.
The poor who listened with their fears.
The poor who live in their rooms and dream for their kids.
The poor are you and I, you in your garden of flowers,
In your house of books, who gaze from afar
At a destiny that draws near with another name.
Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation
From its secret shame. And here it is every name
Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room,
Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed.
They did not die when they died; their deaths happened long
Before. It happened in the minds of people who never saw
Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened
In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.
The full poem can be found here. Unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to access the Financial Times site where it is published, and that in itself is a wry, ironic bit of commentary.
Top photo courtesy Getty Images.