On the Damascus Road
What happened at Grenfell Tower was appalling and important. It was also very complicated. If you ask people where you can find out about the truth of Grenfell, many of them will say “O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books.” The LRB filled most of its edition on June 7 with a 60,000 word article by Andrew O’Hagan, in which he set out to analyse what happened.
It’s a detailed, moving account of a tragedy, but in my view it also contains serious errors of judgement – in its treatment of the fire service, the local council, and local activists. This article sets out what I think went wrong with O’Hagan’s article, and why.
I’m an Andrew O’Hagan fan. I’ve read all the novels, and always look forward to reading his contributions to the London Review of Books (LRB), although on occasion – Assange, bitcoin – I don’t feel the content justified the length. But Grenfell was different. It was complex and important, and I looked forward to hearing what O’Hagan had to say.
Large parts of this article are terrific. All the novelistic stuff, the quotes and details about victims and survivors, build up a vast, sensitive portrait of the life in the tower. And then there’s the analysis, which is different, and part of the experience of reading this piece involves changes of gear and tone, as we switch from one kind of writing to another. That’s a necessary consequence of tackling a complex event, looking at it from different angles, bringing a range of perspectives – personal, social, technical, historical.
What he says about national government abusing local government is tough but convincing. He’s right to focus on the hypocrisy of government ministers lamenting the lack of attention given to social housing, when it’s their decisions and control of finance which have exacerbated the problem in the first place.
O’Hagan also does well to break down the caricature of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). ‘The council’ includes both councillors and workers, and he’s good on the way in which council workers, working hard, doing their job, are vilified by the press and much of the public. He listens carefully, to fire experts, child care officials, people on the front line with serious experience.
The surprise for many readers will be that he extends this same sympathy of the leaders of the council, stressing their good intentions and commitment to social housing, lamenting their vulnerability to media pressure and the big guns at Westminster. “As a writer, you try not to be swayed by people’s niceness…I found I liked Paget-Brown.” In the age of vitriolic social media, it’s a touching, old-style appeal – “Come on, folks. Give him a chance. He’s trying his best.”
So to O’Hagan it’s outrageous that Jon Snow, on Channel 4 news, could ask about poor people being moved out to make room for rich people. Later in the piece, analyzing the politics of space, O’Hagan seems a lot less certain. He refers to councils being “overresponsive to the anxieties of private investors – and there are many people who feel RBKC’s leadership fell into that category…” Well, did it or didn’t it? The answer matters, and if he’s keen to condemn Snow then he needs to refute that analysis.
This issue was pursued in the LRB of July 5th, in a letter from Anna Minton. O’Hagan had quoted from her book, Big Capital: “The zeal with which so many councils are embracing the demolition and rebuild agenda means a rapid reshaping of London is underway…” but he then swerved into the rhetoric of the Twittersphere, in an extreme defence of the council leaders: “But does this amount to a case for mass murder?”
O’Hagan’s distaste for social media is understandable, but there’s still a serious argument to be pursued. Minton pointed out that the “mass murder” line was an oversimplification. In reply to O’Hagan’s assertion that there was “nothing to support the view that these councillors were corrupt or trying to harm residents” she insists that the stress on personal probity isn’t enough:
“This is another false opposition. Exclusion from the democratic process is not about actual corruption but the opaque processes which make it possible for councils, developers and lobbyists to make unpopular decisions without public participation…Feilding-Mellen had a widely reported, controversial history as a property developer in Scotland and Norfolk, in which his failure to listen to the views of local residents has featured repeatedly.”
The Architects for Social Housing (ASH) report documents the planning process which preceded the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. In 2009 Urban Initiatives Studio presented RBKC their vision of the future for this area: “The Far-Sighted Option aims to maximise overall value in the long run and create a high quality new neighbourhood.” And where does Grenfell Tower fit into this?
“We considered that the appearance of the building and the way in which it meets the ground blights much of the area east of Latimer Road Station...On balance our preferred approach is to assume demolition.”
The financial crash led to a fall in house prices, and perhaps for that reason RBKC turned down the “Far-Sighted Option” and settled for the “Early Value Option”, which envisaged more superficial change:
“The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance, especially when viewed from the surrounding area.” An artist’s impression of a shiny new tower was attached, and when the work was complete Nicholas Paget-Brown confirmed that the goal had been achieved: “It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the appearance of the tower.”
The ASH report explains that such developments are usually accompanied by a survey of residents, including such innocuous questions as “Would you like a new kitchen?” Ticking that box could include you in a total of residents who indicated that they were dissatisfied with their present accommodation and wished to move.
O’Hagan had received a copy of the ASH report, and had spoken to one of its authors, but none of that evidence surfaces in his account. He prefers to rely on the first-hand testimony of one of the councillors involved, Rock Feilding-Mellen:
“I put it to him that some critics believe he only agreed to the refurbishment of the tower to make it look nicer for those in the expensive houses nearby.
‘I just don’t know what to say to that’ he said. ‘I’ve got letters from people in the tower thanking us for the job. Residents took me round their flats and it breaks my heart to think of it. They asked for this refurbishment. The request was coming from them.’ “
And that’s it. Really? Since when has RBKC been responding to spontaneous requests for alterations demanded by some of its poorest residents? How exactly was that demand expressed? O’Hagan’s not worried. Feilding-Mellen told him what happened, and he’s a man of his word.
A more sceptical analyst might want to check whether or not residents confirmed Feilding-Mellen’s account of this rosy relationship between landlord and tenant. Antonio Roncolato, for instance, had lived on the 20th floor of Grenfell for 27 years. He was rescued by firemen after waiting for six hours: “I kept thinking if I remained calm and acted rationally that I would come out of this alive.”
Roncolato told the public enquiry that many residents had been unhappy about plans to relocate gas boilers into the building’s corridors.
“Those residents who did not speak up were bullied into having the new boiler installed in the hallway.” The Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) had been reluctant to meet tenants: “the meetings were often tense and residents would walk out.” (The Guardian 4.10.18)
It’s not O’Hagan’s fault that he doesn’t address this testimony, published six months after his article. But he did speak to Roncolato, and there’s no evidence that he asked him for his view on consultation over refurbishment.
O’Hagan is more interested in Feilding-Mellen’s family and personal background than in his politics, and he absolves him of any responsibility for ordering dangerous cladding as a way of saving costs:
“The suggestion that Feilding-Mellen and others at the council pushed for cheaper and less safe cladding – a hallmark of media coverage since the fire – is fully disproved by the string of e-mails between those individuals.”
The Guardian had a different view, but maybe, as O’Hagan later remarked, “the facts weren’t always what The Guardian wanted them to be.” On May 9, 2018, The Guardian reported, under the headline “Safer panels on Grenfell ‘rejected due to costs’” that a company who had provided a quote for fire-resistant cladding had been told by the contractor that the council had decided costs were too high, and the contract would therefore be put out to tender. It finally went to a different firm, who provided cladding which turned out to be highly combustible.
O’Hagan’s article appeared a month later. It may be that this report might have changed his view, or maybe there was something in the e-mails which would lead him to discount it. But the fact that he’s seen some e-mails which don’t include a specific request for cheaper cladding doesn’t mean that the council should be absolved from responsibility.
Subsequent evidence to the Grenfell enquiry confirmed this view of tension between the TMO and tenants. Two months after the change in the nature of the cladding, Grenfell resident Ed Daffarn put in a freedom of information request to see the TMO minutes regarding refurbishment. This was refused because release might “prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor.” (The Guardian 11.10.18) That suggests a set of priorities very different from those implied by Feilding-Mellen.
O’Hagan claimed that the council couldn’t be held responsible for the fact that the cladding wasn’t as fire-resistant as it should have been. That was the responsibility of the manufacturers, and this council, like all councils, was simply going about its business. Subsequent enquiries have shown that hundreds of tower blocks have been fitted with cladding which fails to meet safety standards.
On August 9, 2018, The Guardian reported that the TMO had received specific warnings from the fire service, and from an independent fire risk assessor. In June 2016 the assessor recommended action on more than forty “high-risk” issues. In October 2016 it asked why action had not been taken on more than twenty of these. In November 2016 the Fire and Emergency Planning Authority highlighted problems regarding fire doors and the possible spread of smoke, and demanded action by May 2017 (a month before the fire).
The council, therefore, was not in exactly the same position as other councils. There’s a complex argument about allocating responsibility between RBKC and the TMO that served it, but someone should have been aware of the risks, and there was more that could have been done. Could it be that on this occasion The Guardian is providing facts which aren’t as O’Hagan would like them to be?
O’Hagan vividly describes the rapid growth of the fire, and the speed with which the failure of a fridge inside one flat led to flames devouring the exterior of the entire building. Problems with fire doors allowed smoke to spread freely through the building. The immediate response of the fire brigade was small-scale, but it grew rapidly and there were times when the senior fire officer present had not had experience of this kind of fire. O’Hagan makes the judgement that the failure to change the “stay put” policy was a fatal mistake. Tony Sullivan, a firefighter who was present at Grenfell, wrote a long letter in the July 5 edition of the LRB, arguing that this was a drastic oversimplification of a complex issue. O’Hagan sticks to his guns. In a podcast, which coincided with the opening sessions of the Grenfell enquiry, he assures listeners that “the enquiry agrees with me.”
Well, not quite.
O’HAGAN: “The biggest weakness, all my sources agreed, was the slowness in telling residents to evacuate. Quite simply, it caused nearly all of the 72 deaths.”
DR. BARBARA LANE, Chartered Fire Engineer: “I consider the performance of the rainscreen fire cladding system to have been the primary cause of the failure of the required external firefighting at Grenfell Tower…In my opinion, it is not acceptable to expect the fire brigade to mitigate for combustible external wall construction in high-rise residential buildings.”
But the people who get the roughest deal are the activists. In O’Hagan’s view, they’re clearly distinguished from the residents, a decent group who have no taste for agitation – although that crude distinction has since been strongly questioned. For O’Hagan the activists are a small, unrepresentative bunch who make a lot of noise but don’t know what they’re talking about:
“In any event, whatever the arguments, the members of the group, who would come to be seen as the wise men and women of the disaster, had a long history of objecting to the council and its representatives…
…a great deal of material, all of it characterized by a fundamental assumption of guilt, and many errors…
…I met with countless activists, and recorded what they said, checking it as I did with every witness. They had loud voices and good causes but what they didn’t have was facts…
…I liked my cups of tea with the activists and was sad to disappoint them. But I knew they’d be OK: public opinion, that great and ceaseless legislator or fairness, was on their side…
…Like Hailstones’, Delaney’s journey towards truth goes on a different track; it passes through the places you know, speeds past inconvenience, stops only to pick up the usual suspects.”
There isn’t much argument going on here. He could offer us specific weaknesses in the activists’ case, but prefers to sustain a breezy assumption that these people can safely be ignored.
In the June 21 edition of LRB two of the activists got the right of reply. It was a long, clear letter, which made two main points: (1) that O’Hagan had caricatured the Grenfell activists, and those who supported them; (2) that he’d criticized their political approach, while ignoring the political agenda of Tory leaders, who were dealt with in simply personal terms.
O’Hagan’s reply began: “In reply to Grace Benton and Flora Neve, I would say simply that people can have their own opinions but they can’t have their own facts.” Note the loftiness of that “simply”. It raises O’Hagan above the fray, where he can clearly see what’s going on - they’ve got the opinions; guess who’s got the facts? But this particular argument isn’t about facts, it’s about how people are presented. They were objecting to his misrepresentation of activists throughout the article, and he fails to address that.
O’Hagan continues: “Benton and Neve are right to defend the Grenfell Action Group; their basic mission was an admirable one, to protect the rights of tenants. But in my analysis their hatred of the Tories overshadowed their ability to bring about change. They spoke very effectively (and still do) to their supporters, but they couldn’t build relationships with the other side…”
And RBKC, how did they do on that criterion? Were they good at building relationships “with the other side”? The dialogue between council and residents isn’t a conversation between equals. It’s a power relationship, in which RBKC not only make the decisions, but also decide how much they will listen to residents. In this particular case, the answer is “not much.” Which helps to explain the anger with which some residents expressed their criticisms of the council, because previous attempts to put their case had been ignored.
This was pursued in the Talking Politics podcast, in which David Runciman interviewed O’Hagan about his article and the controversy it has aroused. Runciman gently suggested that the failure of the council to listen might outweigh the failure of activists to put their case, and O’Hagan agreed. Neither of them registered that this represented a significant change of attitude from the stance adopted in the original article.
This political aspect, about who has power and how it’s used, was the core of Benton and Neve’s second complaint. O’Hagan had accused them of being ‘political’ while he ignored the political dimension within which Kensington and Chelsea operated. His reply gave no sign that he understood that criticism, since he offered no response.
‘Political’, for O’Hagan, is a dirty word. His heroes are the people who want nothing to do with that stuff, innocents with their purity intact. “Hassan had lost everything but he didn’t want to be on any committee or join any delegation; he didn’t want to meet the prime minister or make the fire be about something else. He just wanted answers to his questions.”
And somehow O’Hagan just knows that the answers Hassan seeks won’t be in any way connected with the world of politics.
That’s the dividing line which splits the residents into two groups, goodies and baddies. See if you can tell which is which:
“Several of the residents we spoke to – Antonio Roncolato, Karim Mussilhy, the Alvest family – were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the council. Many of the survivors I spoke to had nothing to do with the group…”
“Several” against “many”, but tucked away in that rowdy minority is Antonio Roncolato, the Grenfell veteran who survived for six hours on the tenth floor, not by being loud and angry but by being calm and rational. Could it be that O’Hagan didn’t ask him about tenant-landlord relations because he guessed what the answer might be?
There is a brief moment, in his historical review of the area, when O’Hagan glimpses the political context:
“You begin to understand the ingrained resentment in Notting Dale when you hear stories of terrible treatment echoing down the years. Grenfell Tower is situated in a place where poor people have always had a hard time…” That could be the start of a very different analysis, which took account of the way in which that past injustice has been followed by the systematic regeneration taking place in London. Labour and Tory councils, strapped for cash, see their survival being ensured through selling attractive new homes to rich buyers, which requires the removal of unattractive and less profitable housing. The BBC documentary Before Grenfell (29.6.18) took exactly that approach, tracing how the 150 years leading up to the fire had established a pattern of inequality and neglect, against which residents have been campaigning for years.
In the podcast O’Hagan insists that he isn’t providing answers, just raising questions, so that readers can decide for themselves what they think. It sounds reasonable, until you remember the front cover of the LRB edition which contained his article, and its provocative final sentence: “So we wiped our eyes, and blamed the council.” That sounds like an answer to me.
O’Hagan isn’t simply telling the story of Grenfell. He’s also, very explicitly, correcting “the narrative.” The narrative is the false story of the tower, in which the fire brigade are heroes above criticism, the council are the evil Tories responsible for the fire, and the activists are always right. This narrative is advanced by those same activists, and by the Government, as well as by the mainstream media and…well, pretty much everyone except O’Hagan.
There are clear signs that the nature of the project changed as it developed. Melanie Coles, a local teacher, wrote in a letter to the LRB of June 21 that she was “reassured by the fact that at least two people who lived locally were on O’Hagan’s team.”
What does a writer’s ‘team’ look like, and what they do? We’re more used to thinking about teams within journalism, but then this article is a mix of novelistic impression and journalistic analysis. For that it could be handy to have a team: they gather extra information, they offer alternative viewpoints, they get access to a wider range of contacts and – as in this case - provide street cred to reassure sceptical informants. On the other hand, their alternative viewpoints might be in conflict with those of the main writer. They might suggest things that he’s left out, or that he’s got wrong.
In Melanie Coles’ case, a member of O’Hagan’s team sent her this text, as an outline of his intentions:
“I’m asking the community to help me as only they can, to defy years of prejudice and corruption in local and national government, and let me tell the truth of Grenfell going back years.”
It’s an interesting pitch, but under the Trade Descriptions Act it wouldn’t match the article which was eventually produced. That change in approach may help to explain the later dispute between Coles and O’Hagan about his use of her contribution.
What does O’Hagan think he’s doing? Early on in his piece he describes the way this project developed:
“Initially, like everyone else, I felt angered by the sight of the burning building. In time, hoping to get to the bottom of what happened there, I set up an office near the tower and took on researchers so that we could examine everything…I came with my agenda and I wrote to everyone and I briefed my colleagues – “let’s get the bastards who did this” - and I felt enthused by the general outrage, and by the people on the ground who appeared to be saying the right thing.”
It’s St. Paul describing the road to Damascus. “I did, really. I used to be like you. I was set on my route, thought I knew where I was going, when suddenly…”
“And then I listened more closely, and I began to notice the inventions, and I would check what was being said against the documents and e-mails and I could see the manipulations, great and small, but persistent.”
He’s granted a special insight into what’s happening, and at the same time his working conditions are revised:
“I left the office after a while and ended up on my own again, testing everything that was said against what actually happened…and I saw something: a great many people, many of them appearing in the media every day, were spinning a series of beliefs and wishes into a great concatenation of ‘facts’. “
He got the researchers “so that we could examine everything.” Why did he lose them? Did the money run out? Was trying to “examine everything” too ambitious an aim? Did they come to different conclusions, or fail to produce the evidence he required? We’re not told. But what matters is that there was a team, and then there wasn’t. This became a solo mission, with O’Hagan in pursuit of the truth that only he can find. In the podcast, Runciman treats this as an entirely positive progression, with O’Hagan moving from unthinking shared anger towards a more considered, independent view. I’d argue that there are risks as well as advantages in that intense isolation.
He is both a novelist and a journalist, offering a sympathetic personal portrait of Nicholas Paget-Brown, but also exonerating him from blame. He privileges his distinctive role – “As a writer, you try not to be swayed by people’s niceness…” - but doesn’t acknowledge insight or assistance from anyone else, despite clear evidence that he’s received plenty. It’s a romantic, old-fashioned view of the solitary seer, and it contrasts with the approach of many contemporary novelists – Arundhati Roy, for example, or Jennifer Egan – whose acknowledgements of assistance are long and detailed. They don’t see listening to others as a weakness; it’s the surest way of getting to the truth.
Early in the podcast, O’Hagan describes “the sense of the individual writer”, who faces a crucial choice:
“You either please the crowd, or you interrogate the data.”
And at the end of it, he returns to this crude, dangerous opposition between the sensitive individual and the unthinking crowd, insisting that he stands by his position “because I found it genuinely, and not from a place of political bias.” Are those the only alternatives? Could there be a form of bias which doesn’t have political roots? Might a consistent anti-political stance create a bias of its own?
Where is the LRB in this? It’s a huge commitment, to give 60,000 words of space to one story. If this were a communal effort, with different writers contributing to a thorough, wide-ranging survey, that would be understandable. But O’Hagan’s study of Grenfell is a highly personal take on a controversial topic, with some very deliberate choices – criticising the fire brigade, exonerating the council, demonizing the activists. Did the LRB know that that’s what they would get? Wouldn’t tougher editing have removed some of the verbal flourishes which have infuriated O’Hagan’s critics and weakened his arguments?
I don’t have special contacts, inside information or expertise in this area. But simply by reading and asking questions I’ve raised some serious doubts about O’Hagan’s approach. In publishing this lengthy piece the LRB have freed up a lot of editorial time which would otherwise have gone elsewhere. I’m surprised that no-one in their organisation seems to have shared any of my misgivings about the finished article.
An article that long, in that publication, immediately claims some kind of status. If you ask literate adults in the UK where to look for an authoritative account of Grenfell, a lot of them would say “O’Hagan, in the LRB. “ Two of their readers in the subsequent correspondence praised it as a model approach, worthy of replication and detailed study.
Given the arguments which have followed its publication, is the LRB happy to stand by their decision to authorize this account? Do they have no comment on the subsequent correspondence, which contains serious indictments of O’Hagan’s approach?
And yes, I did send them this article. They looked at it for a month, said that they welcomed it and looked forward to the continuing debate, but that it was a matter of policy not to print articles about previous articles. I don’t understand why that is, and in my view the publication of a 60,000 word article creates a whole new precedent, but that’s their decision. I’ll be interested to see how they go about promoting the further debates to which they look forward.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of good things in this article. It’s had a huge amount of thought and care put into it. The descriptions of the occupants, and the development of the fire, are movingly done. There is a large number of sensitive interviews, where careful listening and intelligent detail put across the experience of a wide range of people. There are issues where it provides revealing insight and a corrective to some of the wilder media reports – the tactics of the May government, the positive nature of life in the tower, the hysteria over the calculation of casualty numbers. It’s a hugely ambitious attempt, to do all this as well as a technical analysis of the structure of the building and a history of the local area.
Maybe it was the blogs and the tweets, the lack of subtlety in their public pronouncements, that made O’Hagan dismiss the activists, and simplify the role of the council. But in both cases he stands back from the politics with distaste, and leaves a weakness at the core of his account – the image of the man on the Damascus road, who suddenly saw the light. O’Hagan was lucky to get all this space in which to air his views, but he’s a good enough writer to know that that doesn’t necessarily give him the final word.
Andrew O’Hagan “The Tower”, in LRB (7.6.18), and subsequent correspondence (21.6.18, 5.7.18)
ASH (Architects for Social Housing) report – “The Truth about Grenfell Tower” (21.7.17)
Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman and Andrew O’Hagan (20.6.18)
Reports from The Guardian, referenced in the text.