I have been reading Andrew O’Hagan’s The Tower, on the Grenfell fire and its aftermath ( link here ) in the London Review of Books. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, from its description of events happening to some of the people who lived in the tower block, and their neighbours; through the technical details of the fire – how it started and why it spread; mistakes made and acts of heroism; to the aftermath, the narrative and blame. I recommend reading it to anyone who has not yet done so, it’s very powerful, but also be aware, it’s a very long piece.
There are affecting, ordinary details of the everyday lives of some residents, where the writing is simple and direct, any elaboration unnecessary. O’Hagan must have spent many months talking to survivors, the friends and relatives of the dead, people from neighbouring community and public servants of various kinds. He refers to going through reams of correspondence, of e-mails and other documents in an attempt to get to the truth about what happened. He also looks, intriguingly, at the almost immediate formation of a ‘received truth’ about the disaster and captures, in so far as this is possible, how this arose.
In part this is as a result of self-defence mechanisms – after Theresa May’s woefully inadequate automaton-like response, every other senior politician was anxious to show greater empathy and solidarity. It results too from individuals seeking to self-justify, to show how right they were and some elements seeing an opportunity to advance a cause, or their own interests. The resentment of the huge and growing disparity between rich and poor, so very obvious in that part of London, together with a general distrust of authority, predisposed many people to believe certain ‘truths’ e.g. that the death toll was higher than was reported, that the fire occurred because the council were slashing costs. The human desire for clarity and an ‘other’ to blame, saw the creation of ‘villains’, in this case the council and some of its officers. Individual case workers who spent days and nights helping former residents cope in horrendous circumstances read later that they were no-where to be seen in the hours after the disaster.
I imagine that identifying how such a narrative develops, or has developed, is quite rare. We can all see with longer hindsight which modern ‘truths’ are clearly not truths at all. So, for example, the idea that the financial collapse of 2008, and after, was evidence of the economic mismanagement of New Labour, the government at the time. This was a story spun by the Conservative party immediately after the General Election of 2010, which resulted in a coalition government and a period of intense navel-gazing by the Labour party.
Labour was too engaged with itself to countermand the story enthusiastically promulgated by the Tories that the dreadful state of government finances was all Labour’s fault and much of the media bought into the narrative. The financial crash was global and New Labour took decisive and necessary action, but this got lost in the ‘new truth’. The ‘new truth’ also justified the subsequent slashing of public spending in order to ‘re-balance the books’, ( this approach was a political decision, not an unavoidable response, but it was not presented that way ). This eventually became ‘austerity’ and, if a recent study is to be believed, helped us toward a leave vote in the referendum ( see Austerity and Eminences ). This is an example of a manufactured ‘truth’.
The received ‘truth’ in the Grenfell case – that the fire happened because of the cost-cutting, uncaring borough council which ignored the pleas of poor, largely migrant, residents – arose, if O’Hagan is right, more organically. But there are common elements, one of which is the willingness of the media to place emotion above reason, the ‘good story’ above the facts. Complexity is more difficult to understand than simplicity, but that doesn’t mean one should fit the facts to a simpler story because it’s easier. Without a stringent media this is what happens to the truth.
So what is this blog about? Truth, I suppose and there are lots of versions of that. Perhaps it’s better to say the importance of objective truth, the wrongness of rushing to judgement, of buying into a simple, immediate narrative because it supports ideas already held. So maybe this blog is actually about keeping an open, enquiring and somewhat sceptical mind.