The smile is glittering, the young face shines, lined with sweat, the grey-blue suit is shiny too, like armour. Tricolours flying, and the stage around the young man is crowded, people are all but falling off it, his blonde wife is, as always, at his side, a little older than he (24 years!), but with a Bardot styling. The crowd is going wild. They have a very French way of doing it, a sort of sudden excitement that goes from poise to infinity in no time at all, a jigging and dancing, in good suits, seamed stockings and high heels.
There’s triumph on the stage, triumph and relief. For the people, lefties, I’m watching it with on a shaky tablet, merely relief. It’s the first round of the assembly elections, and Emmanuel Macron, the new president, has seen his Instagram party En Marche! win through to the second round in hundreds of electorates. Triumph, because most of them will win the second round in a week’s time. Relief because there was every possibility that they might not make it through; that however many people were willing to divert their vote to the 39-year-old centrist, they would return to their party loyalties in the assembly. That would leave Macron a reforming president without a party, and unable to get anything done on the issues that leave the gates of the Élysée Palace open to the National Front (FN): global offshoring, terror and the nightly spectacle of boatloads of Africans turning up on the European shoreline—or failing to.
But the vote had gone his way. Macron’s formula was perfect for the divided elec-torate. He promised all things to all people, the rigour of the right, the compassion of the left. He was greeted with euphoria, a saviour from the centre. Relief was such that no-one noticed that he was not the transcending figure they were looking for but merely the last establishment figure—he had been a minister in the Hollande government for god’s sake—and he faced the same challenges as those before him had faced to reform a country to fit with the demands of neoliberal capitalism.
There was no indication he had any magic formula, and instead of a party apparatus to enforce it, he has an Instagram group, built from the internet, and with dozens of new assembly members who have no experience in politics. There is no indication, aside from sheer public exhaustion at the spectacle of history, that he can do any better than his predecessors at reconciling these contradictory trends: a people whose expectations of a lessening of the state and bureaucracy is an anticipation of post-capitalism, of the time when there will be a society-state without a sadistic limiting bureaucracy. But they are being asked, in order to throw off the state, to dive back into capitalism rejected generations ago. No wonder the country cannot proceed. The Macronistes—nous sommes tous macronistes—seem to believe that all these contradictions are over and done with, that the pathway is now smooth to straighten everything out, that the FN was a moment that will not come again.
• • •
Evening was coming in through the windows high up in the stone walls of the villa when dinner was being presented. Spring sky in le sud, long thin skeins of blue and rose. The long table filled with food ferried from the kitchen, warm baguettes, cod pâté, duck pâté, three types of olives, ham from local farms, fresh Dijon mustard, six or seven different bottles of wine that Alan, our host, had hoiked up from the cellar. We had been here three days and this was the third dinner party. It did not seem an unusual thing, the people of this small village outside Nîmes, in the south of France, going from house to house, night after night.
The night before, it had been a slightly more well-heeled crowd, about a dozen, suits and coiffures—the local Macronistes, including the campaign director for the department, were there. They were in good spirits, the wine had flowed late into the night, trips down and back up from the cellar, the steady drinking that French do, working their way through a dozen varieties, comparing, arguing the toss, active critical drinking. Tonight it was family and relatives, the kids of Marie, David’s partner. They were quieter, more circumspect than the crowd the night before. Then, the conversation had gone round and round, the piling of wit on wit, the twists and turns rapidly exhausting my fairly decent French. Now discussion was plainer, but still of politics, still spoken in the assumption that what we were really talking about was disaster management, the possibility of cultural-political cataclysm.
Somewhere partway through the entrée of asparagus and oeufs mayonnaises, Marie’s son Richard said matter-of-factly, ‘Well look, the reason I voted for Le Pen was …’ And went on to list the usual anti-politics reasons, to send a message, not being listened to, shake things up. But we barely heard him, because we were absorbing the information. There was an actual National Front supporter among us. I looked at David, an impeccable leftist. His gentle smile was still on his face, but it was being held there by an act of will. Other guests were silent. Conversation spluttered, and then started in another direction.
Richard was one of those people who aren’t ‘supposed’ to be FN supporters. He’s a computer programmer—or was, until recently, becoming a skilled machine operator, bored with sitting at a desk. He’s from a family of public servants—people by no means of the left, but with a faith (and a place) in the mainstream state. Above all he’s young, and we have been told relentlessly that voters moving to the nationalist right across the continent are old. Allegedly disgruntled, nostalgic, wanting to reassemble a semi-imaginary past, the age-shifted vote for the FN was taken as a way of depoliticising it, rendering it as nothing more than a side-effect of age, systemic arthritis. There was often a whiff of neoliberal fascisme about such judgements, as if the old should simply, as citizens, make way and renounce their political rights. It was an odd position, which involved the youth revolutions of the 1960s—when sclerotic institutional power did not dominate the lives of the young—rolled over into an era when youth had become prized above all virtues, and the young enjoyed great power over their own lives, in cultural terms, but increasingly little in economic terms.
Left neoliberalism such as British ‘New Labour’ and the Clintons had tapped into the idea of youth, and taking over old institutions two decades earlier. Since then they had delivered an economy and a society that valorised youth at the same time as denying it property, opportunity and ease, when compared to the past and present of the boomers and early Gen X: 44 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds supported the National Front. This inconvenient fact has been entirely ignored by the mainstream, in the euphoric relief over Le Pen’s much anticipated loss. It has to be, because otherwise her doubling of the vote her father received in 2002 has to be seen not as a swansong but as a step along the way.
Richard’s stray remark would later be described as a ‘confession’, by someone for whom voting for a party still stuffed like a pâté-ready goose with fascists, Nazis, anti-Semites and cranks was as unimaginable as living under the sea. As it is for this writer. But Richard didn’t utter it in the tone of a confession. His eyes didn’t dip, his tone didn’t falter. Later, he would say to me that, yes, he didn’t like the nasties in the party such as l’antisémitisme: much of it was exaggerated by the media, which he identified wholly with the metropolitan mainstream.
But I had the impression that he had only the shakiest idea what anti-Semitism was, its history and meaning in France and Europe. It was certainly not a thing that threw a shadow over his politics; committing to such a party did not have the character of un grand acte, a great audacity—as, for example, did the shift of a section of the Italian left to the nationalist right, to form fascism, in Italy in the 1920s. To vote FN for Richard was a political shrug. ‘We can’t just keep taking them,’ he said of immigrants. ‘They keep saying they agree, but it never changes. They don’t listen to us. They don’t listen to us on anything.’ Along the table, his sister and mother were nodding along. ‘Oh we had all these damn Macronistes yesterday,’ I heard her say later, in machine-gun French. ‘It was so damn irritating.’
I did not dare look at David’s face. Richard had put his thick beer glass down hard. It did not appear deliberate, but the table rocked, all the little plates shook.
• • •
‘I am not neurotic! You’re neurotic!’
‘What are you then?’
‘I’m a hysteric! We’ve been through this before. Symptom becomes disease, the sign becomes its referent, and symbolisation collapses. Every interruption to desire becomes a catastrophe!’
‘That’s you, is it?’
‘Doesn’t that just mean needy?’
‘Oh, that’s it, I’m going.’
‘You can’t go.’
‘Veronica, we’re in a canoe!’
So we were. Drifting round the great lake, a lake surrounded by little cafés jutting out over the water, great flowering bushes and trees from across the world, their flowers reaching low into the water, and carnival stalls beyond, old-school shooting galleries and coconut shies, the literal amusements of a century earlier, now ironic to adults. Late, endless evening, long streaks of pink in the sky. Small children running everywhere, screaming up the place. They loved the coconut shy as much as the immersive hi-tech games. Desire, neither literal nor ironic. Just there, absorption of self in pure delight.
Children are not in history. That’s one reason why we love and envy them. Amendment: children are not in history unless something has gone very, very wrong. But this was the Tivoli Gardens, for children, the opposite of wrong. Fifteen acres of pleasure, rides, games, stalls, cafés, sweets stores, giggle palaces, all encompassed within a vast red-brick wall, near the main station of Copenhagen. The presence of this great plot of innocent pleasure, this great enclosed square of pure delight lends a lightness to the city, gives it a great wellspring of sheer joy. There is no 45-minute drive to some deathful corporate-derived theme park, arguing all the way, no impossible expectations, no sugar-crash disappointment, bitter adults dragging kids by the hand to have compulsory fun they paid a premium for. You’re at the Tiv in ten minutes: you enter through any one of numerous portals, big gates or small side doors in the wall. You can stay all day or half an hour as the mood takes. Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.
The Tivoli, opened in 1843, was at the centre of the small city’s outsize international image, in the years when Scandinavia was an obscure destination. Its most famous visitor was Walt Disney, who visited in 1951, took extensive notes and opened Disneyland four years later. The other famous visitors were the Nazis, who burnt much if it down in 1943, as a reprisal for Danish resistance to their Aryan embrace. The Danes rebuilt it within weeks. You could see, if you were an adult, a certain confection to some of the buildings, faux-old. Or I could. Ronnie was too busy fuming and deconstructing me.
Dark bob-haired, olive-skinned avec maquillage à la française, Veronica favoured twenties-style elegantly cut suits, heavy high heels that had near gone through the canoe frame as we stepped in from the jetty. She was a Lacanian analyst, not my Lacanian analyst—pro tip: don’t go canoeing with your Lacanian analyst—from Sydney, a city that now has as many such people as it once had professional wool-classers. She had flown into Stockholm, where I was doing interviews about paid parental leave, Scandinavian paid-parental leave having seemingly occupied about a third of my life, and we’d spent a week bickering down the peninsula, she in a sort of permanent mild dissatisfaction with everything, which seemed to be what Lacanians had instead of fun, or for fun. Every second thing she said was an illumination, a new way of seeing things. Or perhaps a reflection of objects, that caught them in a new light. Any relation with a Lacanian amounts to a threesome; when it’s a lacanienne, you’ve pretty much entered a hall of mirrors.
Scandinavia, even in these times, is a place where you can allow the politics to fade into the background. By the time we hit wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen I thought we might split; instead, she blossomed, like a flower on the Tivoli lake. When une liaison like this is working, a woman is, of sorts, a pleasure garden; Ronnie fed me one candy after another, unwrapping bons mots like bonbons. In our area of shared interest, the deathful absurdity of modern gender politics: ‘of course women want love, not sex’ she’d whisper in my ear, during sex, ‘I mean, of course.’ ‘To a man any woman will do. That’s the excitement of it. For the woman.’ ‘There’s no third gender; God, there’s barely even a second one.’ Bonbons, bons mots. Such sentiments are, to re-angle the mirror of the metaphor, simply like a woman blowing gently on the nape of your neck. The only possible response is ‘woo’. But splitting up every day was an essential part of it, salt for the gravlax. Violent disagreements about psychoanalytic metapsychology were fine; in a canoe was stretching it. Drowning was not a possibility, we were in shallow waters; but it was very likely she would lose her make-up and her Louise Brooks ’do, and the holiday, for me, would be over.
When a society is well ordered and there is some relation between the government and the people, some logic of liberty, equality and collectivity that is delivering results that are not absurd, then the political recedes and one is given the true freedom to be individually unhappy, shriekingly so, in pursuit of its other, however fleetingly it may be gained. When the political system fails, when it cannot put those elements together in a way that people can agree with, then the unhappiness becomes mass, and politics becomes a fantasy solution to the challenges of existence. To the east of Copenhagen, eastern Europe was succumbing to political hysteria, to the idea that a symptom—a Pride parade through Warsaw, for example—was the disease, that mere blemish was death. In such a case literally: the governments of Poland, Hungary and Russia conflated LGBT and AIDS, and saw homosexuality as some sort of easily transmittable condition. That one mobius strip of an issue—what was so uniquely delicious about evil homosexuality that it could tempt people away from boring straight humping to a life of social loathing and state persecution?—can stand for much of what goes on in hard-right politics in Europe, a continent that cannot decide whether it is longing for the victory of true communism or the return of the Hapsburgs.
To the west were Britain and America, rocked, reeling and wrecked after 35 years of relentless neoliberalism, the market reaching into, pushed into, every social crack and crevasse, growing until it busted them wide open. Having had their way since the collapse of political socialism in the 1970s, the Thatcherites/Reaganites/neoliberals/the Anglosphere right had produced societies and economies evacuated of real production of the necessities of modern life, degraded the social state that satisfied collective needs, deformed the public culture into one of atomisation and nihilism, and answered the crying need for common life and purpose with imperial wars abroad and a surveillance state at home.
To the south, Germany was both a functioning society, a dank meme—guilt-trip Holocaust memorials mixed with mega-brothel sex-slavery warehouses—and an imperial sadist, running the EU as an underdeveloped hinterland and market for industrial goods, creating mayhem in the whole European south. Denmark was sane and serene. Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen was an extension of the Tivoli gardens, a city whose character and style changed from block to block, streets of little eighteenth-century shops and then a series of vaulting arches, then a hypermodern infill, then a Victorian barracks, and on and on. Little cafés and restaurants everywhere, arty-window-dressed design stores, the lapping sea, the countryside only a kilometre or two out. The social state survived, as did the weird little hippie enclave of Christiania, and the world was becoming entranced by the notion of hygge, the distinct Danish mix of cosiness without kitsch. What more was there to say about Denmark save that it had been the wellspring of the new hard-right in Europe, and the party in question—the DPP, Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti)—was now in its second term of government and entrenched into the political system?
• • •
‘Hello—it’s the fascist’. Mikkel swaggers in to the primary coloured, angular café, rolling his ample belly between the neat tables and the neat people. It’s morning and we’re meeting in something of an alt-district, insofar as there is any part of the city that isn’t an alt-district, and Ronnie is off photographing doorframes on her iPhone, which she does with great skill. I could say they symbolise god knows what and play the anti-intellectual, but I know exactly what it’s all about. In the meantime, I’m meeting an old acquaintance, someone I met a decade ago, when researching the mercurial Russian-German revolutionary Alexander Helphand-Parvus, who, from his Copenhagen base, arranged for the sealed train that delivered Lenin and the Bolsheviks from Switzerland to St Petersburg in April 1917, and to power six months later.
Helphand-Parvus, a Marxist revolutionary millionaire, had spent two years distributing German money—more than $40 million in today’s terms—to revolutionary groups in Russia, while also inventing the think tank-as-front (the Copenhagen Centre for the Study of the Social Consequences of War funding dozens of Russian revolutionary writers and intellectuals, who had to be protected from the fact that the money supporting them came from Berlin). Mikkel had been as interested in this Danish interlude as I was. In his fifties when I met him, he was one of the vets: a Copenhagen hippie, when Christiania was getting started and smack was sold on trestle tables in the main street—named Pusher Street—in the mid 1970s he had turned to Marxism-Leninism, in the desperate desire to get something done. He knew RAF (Baader-Meinhof) associates, Red Brigades, or so he said; that there was no Danish red terror to speak of may have been due alone to his diffidence.
Like many others, he had a difficult time in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of despair, smack and booze, children with women as or more desperate than he was. He wrote small essays for small journals: ‘If anyone would bother to translate them, you would find they were crazy.’ When he got clean in the 2000s, he worked for community organisations. ‘I wanted nothing to do with, uh, big politics. It had all been a disaster. I wanted to be close to the ground, for the poor, for the oppressed.’ Trouble was, there weren’t many poor or oppressed in Denmark; poverty was at 3.5 per cent, and equality remained a national passion.
But in the 2000s a new group appeared: migrants, refugees taken in directly and through the EU’s freedom of movement, and they came in great numbers. Denmark had always taken a number of political refugees—not nearly as many as Sweden, but no-one ever took as many as Sweden—and its people had been generous about it. They had taken great pride in their resistance to Nazism, and the way in which, in the Second World War, the whole country had worked together to spirit the entire Danish-Jewish population to neutral Sweden, in a single evening. They had seen political refuge in the same spirit, and the degree to which this was a purely ethical commitment to an ideal should not be underestimated. Denmark was small and parochial, and, like all of Scandinavia, it saw its communal character as ethnic, given and grounded in history. To be a Dane was to be a Dane. It wasn’t a citizenship thing; strangers were welcome, but they weren’t Danes. The idea that they were was ridiculous. A cat can give birth in an oven, but its kittens aren’t biscuits, as the old saying goes.
For many Danes that was the implicit setting. They were welcoming strangers, the strangers could stay forever, if they needed to. They had done so from the 1950s onwards, when groups of travelling US jazz musicians had noticed that they could stay in the same hotels and eat in the same restaurants as white folks, and no-one batted an eyelid. They had promptly decided to stay, which is one reason why Danish jazz is a cut or more above standard European fare. But did they become Danes? No.
‘That all changed with Maastricht, and then with Iraq,’ Mikkel said, settling in behind the tight table, which I moved towards me. The Maastricht Treaty, for those who don’t recall, guaranteed free movement within the EU for citizens of the EU, and those granted some degree of free movement. The Maastricht Treaty was the next stage of the decades-long plan of the masters of the EU, that the EU would be a borderless commonwealth of free flow. Eventually people would get used to borderlessness and the final stage—a united states of Europe—would come into being.
It didn’t go at all that way, and Denmark is a great example of how it failed. For decades people had welcomed strangers, as a conscious act of welcoming to a close and parochial society. Suddenly that act of welcome was abandoned, and instead the assertion of rights by an external group was affirmed. Reciprocity was abandoned in the name of disregard for a given community. It’s no coincidence that the rational resistance to this started in the community of Europe that was simultaneously the most parochial and the most liberal. The EU moves sent the two parts of the Danish spirit at war against itself; the result was the Danish People’s Party.
There had been non-fascist right-wing groups before the DPP emerged, most conspicuously the unclassifiable Pim Fortuyn list in the Netherlands. But they had been personalised and unstable and the DPP wasn’t. It was only after years of looking around Denmark, and what it was becoming, that Mikkel, a broken-down failed leftist in his forties, a man whose politics had become confined to raging against pieties at dinner parties of his better-paid friends, changed course: ‘So, I joined the DPP.’
I flinched at that, I groaned audibly, like a cow, people at other tables turned round. I barely knew Mikkel, but I knew dozens of people like him, people who felt they had followed a failed and foolish political idea for so long and, faced with both the remorselessness of neoliberal politics and their own advancing mortality, had made a hard decision. It was not unprecedented. As Alexander Butterworth’s great history The World That Never Was tells us, the modern right was born of a hysterical reaction of a section of the left in France—the anarchists and communists who had survived the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune had become permanently pissed-off with decades of failure to rally the people against capitalism, and became attached to the one cause that would, nationalism, and the Dreyfus affair, the willingness of large sections of the populace to stand against Jews (seen as the representatives of finance capital and internationalism). For the former anarchists who would become part of Action française, anything was better than the slide into irrelevance that they had been experiencing for years, maybe decades. The same had happened in Italy after the First World War in the creation of fascism, and it was happening in a more circumspect way now.
‘I am part of the left of the DPP,’ said Mikkel proudly, and I didn’t know what to say. The DPP had arisen in 1995. They had surprised the world; Scandinavia was still seen as the repository of good-sense politics. But their emergence was, in retrospect, no great mystery. They had resisted the coming of the euro. Although part of Europe, they retained a connection to the Scandinavian peninsula, which had resisted many European blandishments. They had done so as a self-contained society. The opening to freedom of movement by their elite political caste had caused a shock that had led to the DPP. The numbers were not huge, but nor was Denmark huge, a country of neighbourhoods, of known others, a northern society with deep rules about strangers. By 1998 the DPP was winning seats. In the election of 2001 it won enough to become part of government. Their support surged, thanks overall to their explicit commitment to the Danish social/welfare state, and their tying it to limits on immigration.
‘That was us,’ said Mikkel. The DPP had been a coalition of forces and a part of it had been what remained of Denmark’s free-marketeers. They saw, in US terms, a link between closed borders and a free market within. But that never really connected with the Danish public, and it was only when they abandoned that alien conception and returned to a social-democratic mainstream that they gained mass support. The DPP’s reorientation was historic; it showed that such parties—whose principal agenda was cultural and nativist—were, in one way, a continuation of the nationalist social-democratic tradition in the north, rather than any aberration from it.
Social democracy had begun there in the 1920s, with Sweden’s proclamation of the ‘people’s home’, the folkets hus. The Social Democrats, unable to win on class grounds, had readjusted their politics and presented themselves as the custodians of the whole nation’s welfare. Every Swede would be better off under social democracy, and of course every Swede was related by being Swedish. The model became a general one for all five Nordic countries. In the 2000s Iceland bucked the trend, and a small elite convinced its voters to back free-market capitalism, with infamous results. But Iceland, outside the EU and with an explicit monoculture-oriented immigration policy, did not present its social democrats with the dilemmas of social democratic parties in the EU: feeling obliged to back ‘freedom of movement’ as an expression of liberal progressivism while much of their working and lower middle-class rank and file began to rail against it.
Norway also avoided that dilemma. Finland didn’t, with the rise of the ‘True Finns’ party, and nor did Denmark. The country that has some claim to being one of the first in the world to adopt social democracy in the 1890s, the first to cede a whole area of its capital city over to a communistic free-state experiment, in Christiania, has now become the place where a nativist anti-immigrant social-democratic party has stabilised itself, driven out most of its crazies—who continue to infest an outfit such as Geert Wilders’ ‘Freedom’ Party—and can plan steadily to expand into the political landscape, until it can win government in its own right. At that point, an arc of ‘illiberal democracy’ may spread across Europe joining east to west, and making its victory in other countries possible.
‘There was never any need to join the DPP to advocate communalism,’ I told Mikkel, and suggested that his move was a grand gesture, a nihilism mounted against the annihilation of decades of political failure, a child’s tantrum, self-willed political hysteria to stave off extinguishment. He did not explicitly disagree. He was not, to be clear, a typical member of the DPP. In fact he was about as untypical as you could get, in a party of rural grumps, truculent tradies and public servants who yearn for the return of the tenth-century Danish empire. But he was the most interesting, a little history of European radicalism in one flabby, post-hippie package. Our conversation ended brusquely. It was clear we would not talk again. On the way out he grasped my shoulder firmly, in one of his plate-of-ham hands. It meant solidarity and farewell, affection and threat, everything and nothing at once. That afternoon, Ronnie showed me her photos. Doorframes and windows, one after another. The aggression was breathtaking, pure Kodak castration. We split up six weeks later.
• • •
Smoke was pumping from the lower windows of the tower block, one of those aged, tired places, unknown half a century ago, now so much part of the landscape as to seem like a geological feature of cities. This was on the TV at Kuala Lumpur airport, the way out of Europe these days: $400 one way to KL, $100 Air Asia ticket to Oz, bought months in advance. Seemed serious, but scarcely out of control. The vision was replaced by unrest in Venezuela, police killing in the Philippines, global news porn, switching through. I jumped a $10 cab to my $45, five-star hotel to grab eight hours sleep before catching the Melbourne flight. When I came back, showered, changed, rested, refreshed—shades of old-school travel, stately procession back—the tower, where was it, Barking? Vauxhall? ah, North Kensington.
Grenfell it was called, apparently, was on the news and was all the news. The fire had become a towering inferno. It was a tower of fire, not of concrete. The tower was now merely a substrate for this other entity. Was it burning out of control, with all its residents safely gathered below, huddled in shiny silver space sheets, sobbing at their lost habitations, but glad to be alive. ‘Not a chance,’ I said aloud, part of a crowd gathered round the TV in the Low Cost Carrier Terminal, in the global cuisine hall, between the Irish pub, and Mr Singapore chicken, L’Osteria pasta and pizza. There was no chance that everyone had been got out. One knew this before one knew it.
Grenfell Tower, part of the large housing estates in North Kensington, lived in the curve of the Westway flyover, that brutal concrete masterpiece popping up in kitchen-sink films, Clash songs and above all the stories of J.G. Ballard. Ballard loved it so much he bought a flat with a view of it, in Shepherd’s Bush, as his weekend pied-a-terre (he wrote his urban dystopias in a suburban semi in Shepparton). In the curve of Westway, London county council had built vast estates including the striking Trellick Tower, this strange, brooding modernist masterpiece, product of Bauhaus descendent Erno Goldfinger and yes, source of a Bond villain’s name, and perhaps his character as well.
These weren’t terrible flats, by any means—far more spacious than what followed, inhabited by a wide range of people (until the 1980s, up to 60 per cent of people in London lived in public housing), and with a sheer concrete surface that had a certain brutal elegance. More importantly, it acted as a fire retardant. There was nothing to catch on. The viability of such towers relied on their being regularly maintained and repaired, and that pretty much stopped in the 1980s. The idea of British cities as socialist died, council houses were sold off, and those that weren’t now privately owned began to do double duty. Grenfell was modified to squeeze more people in—removing the idea of ample space in a central location as a right of tenancy—and North Kensington began to fill with Londoners, mostly black, being driven out of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. No-one had wanted to live there after the Second World War; so commonwealth migrants had, in Georgian terraces carved into eight, ten even 12 or 15 flats.
When inner-city living became chic again, that process began to reverse, as houses began to be restored as single dwellings. With the rise of the super-rich, it accelerated; two or three terraces were joined together as a single mansion, with deep basements. Private low-income accommodation has been destroyed; once-lively areas have become dead zones. North Kensington has been where the spirit of it has gone because much of the stock is too degraded to be privatised, and the inhabitants have not yet been ‘decanted’ to make mass demolition and private rebuilding possible. ‘New’ Labour governments had built a lot of new housing stock in London; they had been less concerned about existing estates. Under the post-2010 austerity years, this had become much worse, as ‘the war on red tape’ had taken effect. Now what Grenfell area residents had warned about—exactly what they had warned about—had come to pass.
Everyone watched the news mesmerised. The fire, taking the whole form of the tower, was made of burning human beings, trapped beyond help. In the days to come, records of their unbearable texts would come out, young people saying goodbye to relatives in other countries, cursing the horrible death about to take them, and the lives they would not live. Theresa May’s pyrrhic victory at the election became cast as something more than mere incompetence and opportunism; as a fatal disconnect from the mass of British people. Her leadership wobbled, but did not fall. Activists occupied Kensington town hall, the Tory head of council resigned after trying to bar the press from a council meeting. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited, met residents on the ground; May arrived with police escort, met more police, and went away.
By late June Grenfell Tower, grey, burnt out, was hanging in the sky, an enormous exhausted matchstick, pitying and terrifying. The death toll had started at 59, the day after the fire ran out of building to burn. It jumped into the seventies. It would go over 100 eventually. Residents were identified easily enough. What of subletters, couch surfers, dossers, mates and lovers? What of those from elsewhere, ‘illegal’ and otherwise? The thick plume of smoke over London had been a grave floating in the clouds. The tower’s remains were one too. A crime scene as well, potentially. There was no question of demolishing it. It was going to just hang there. If there was anything to mark the demise of ‘Cool Britannia’—Brexit, random terror, Theresa May—this was it.
‘Closing time in the pleasure gardens of the West’, the Tivolis and Vauxhalls, now buried under concrete and oil. In France the fresh-faced Emmanuel Macron announced that while he wanted to keep the best that was of France, he also wanted to run it as ‘a start up’, and everyone groaned and wondered if we had Blair 2.0 on our hands. If so, there was no question about it. The radical left would be back. But so too would the hard right, whether as the National Front, or some new combination, some new formula.
As Grenfell smouldered, as the summer heat haze descended on London and Paris, as the Swedish ‘Democrats’—a very nasty,
neo-Nazi party—rose in the polls, Italy announced that it was considering barring the landing on its soil of boats that had rescued Africans from sinking ships put out to sea off the Libyan and Tunisian coast. This was no measure by some clown fascist Berlusconi mob. The Mediterranean was to become Mare Nostrum, our little lake, once again. There would be no welcome, no table set out for the strangers. Instead, a state of emergency applied to the everyday arrival of a boat or two, the catastrophic, a metal-and concrete modern wicker man sent up in a pyre, normalised. Europe’s days as a pleasure garden were ending, again, and hysteria scudded round the old haunts. •
Follow us for more: