Apathy, Angst and Grenfell Tower

Opportunities for angst and anger abound. Just glance through the headlines. Take your pick from today’s top expert-endorsed, editor-approved crises —

Climate change threatens our cities, the oceans and life itself. Well-intentioned efforts to stop climate change threaten our jobs and our businesses. Lower employment and shuttered businesses would also threaten our cities: a detail that gets lost in the shouting.

If those don’t appeal, just glance through social media’s fringes. I’m pretty sure you’ll find something dreadful —

The Antichrist was elected President. The President is intolerance incarnate. Big burger makes us eat too much. Big government wants to ban burgers. ‘They’ control the newspapers. Or the banks. Or the Internet. Or all of the above.

Other headlines rekindle anger and angst over past tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire. And, sometimes, reasoned responses.


For some, our present seems futile and our future grim. That’s nothing new:

“…in ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish….”
(Paul Ehrlich, on first Earth Day, (1970))

“…nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Introduction, Georg Hegel (ca. 1830s) Trans. by H. B. Nisbet (1975))

“Ludit in humanis divina potentia rebus,
Et certam præsens vix habet hora fidem.”
“Heaven makes sport of human affairs, and the present hour gives no sure promise of the next.”
(“Epistolæ Ex Ponto,” Ovid, (ca.8-18 AD))

“Nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati.”
“We are but numbers, born to consume resources.”
(Epistles, Book I; Horace (20-14 BC))

Apathy starts looking pretty good on days when editors can’t seem to decide which crisis du jour tops the list.

I might be whipping out anguished laments or furious attacks, if I didn’t remember debacles of days gone by.

Not fervently yearning for some imagined ‘good old days’ helps, I think. So does knowing that we’ve had problems before. And occasionally learned from our mistakes. (May 12, 2018)

On the other hand, some of us keep repeating the same mistakes.

“…Time to ‘drop out,’ ‘turn on,’ and ‘tune in.’…”
(“Start your own Religion,” Timothy Leary (1967))

“…on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters…. I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be…. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them….”
(“The Odyssey,” Homer (8th century BC) Trans. by Samuel Butler)

Homer’s land of the Lotus-eaters may or may not be a real place. Either way, I figure the poet knew about narcotics and their effect on folks. (May 12, 2018; July 7, 2017)

About Leary’s advice — I didn’t “turn on” in the Sixties, or later when we got more cautious about popping pills: proscribed and prescription. (July 10, 2016)

That’s no great virtue on my part. The way my brain is wired, fluttering past different perspectives is easy. So is relentless pursuit of some random idea or fact.

Focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing: that’s another matter. Looking back, I don’t think a corporate ‘success track’ and someone like me would be a good match.

An academic career might have been nice. But that would have meant staying focused on a single facet of reality. And holding that focus for years.

Diagnosing my psychiatric issues a few decades earlier might have made a difference. Probably would have. But I’ve had an interesting life. (March 19, 2018; January 7, 2018; December 17, 2017)

And that’s not what I was talking about. Let’s see. Apathy. Angst. Attitudes. Right. I’m probably more prone to angst and anger than apathy.

Feeling anxious or angry isn’t good or bad by itself. Emotions happen. They’re a part of human nature. They connect “the life of the senses and the life of the mind.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1764, 1767)

What matters is what I do about my emotions. That’s where reason takes over: or should. (Catechism, 17621770, 17771782)

Anger and Decisions

Last year’s Grenfell Tower fire is in the news again.

Partly, I think, because it’s about a year since the catastrophe: time for ‘what happened a year ago’ stories. Partly because an inquiry released their early reports.

I was, and am, angry about what I’ve learned. I’d be concerned if I wasn’t.

People died. Many might be alive if they’d ignored “stay put” notices. That lethal policy was just one of many possibly-criminal blunders leading to a record-breaking death toll.

Being angry won’t bring dead families back. Neither will fuming over the injustice of it all. But being angry tells me that something may warrant attention.

I can’t change what happened, or decide how folks in England will act. That’s a good thing, since I don’t have nearly enough information: and wouldn’t want the responsibility. But I can see if there’s something to be learned from the mess.

In a way, the Grenfell Tower fire wasn’t unusual. Or a uniquely English event. Fire hurts people every year. Sometimes people die in fires.

Fires broke out in about 364,300 American homes in 2016. 2,775 people died as a result. 6.6% of those fires started in the kitchen. I don’t like those facts, but they’re real. The trick is doing what’s possible to keep fires from starting. And keeping folks alive when they do.

When a fourth-floor kitchen fire kills residents on the 23rd floor, learning what went wrong matters. A lot.1

Just Another Tuesday in June: Until Midnight

June 13, 2017, wasn’t completely free of noteworthy events.

An accident blocked two London-bound lanes of M4. A three-meter tall Morph appeared outside Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. The Somerset County Council said they wanted to hear what folks thought about proposed road improvements on A358 at West Hatch and the M5.

But the 13th wasn’t much different from any other Tuesday in June. Many folks in London went to work, came home, ate and went to bed.

Someone living on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower was awake a few minutes after midnight on June 14. He noticed and reported a fire.

Firefighters came and put out the kitchen fire. That took a few minutes, no more. The firefighters packed their gear and left.

At least one of them happened to look back. Fire was spreading up the tower’s side. Fast.

Firefighters returned and started dealing with the new problem.

Quite a few folks living in Grenfell Tower were awake for the pre-dawn meal of suhur, part of Ramadan observances. They started waking their neighbors, helping those who decided to try getting out.

That’s not what they were supposed to do.

The outfit running Grenfell Tower had advice for folks living there. In case of fire, stay put. Shut the door and wait. Many residents did as they’d been instructed. They stayed in their apartments. They waited. Then they died.

Some roasted, others died when smoke and fumes reached them.

Some residents who tried getting out died too. But others survived.

I’ll give emergency responders credit for having sense.

At some point they realized that the ‘stay put’ policy was lethal in something like Grenfell Tower.

They told folks who had been following the rules to get out.

That was the good news. The not-so-good news was that they had this epiphany after the tower was thoroughly ablaze.

Some folks made it out. Others didn’t. We’re still not sure how many died in the fire.

Authorities have their official figures. Folks with family and friends who disappeared during the fire say maybe the numbers aren’t quite right. Authorities say eight made fraudulent claims. Maybe that’s so. At least one was convicted.2

I think folks should be honest. But there’s a gap between “should be” and “is.” And that’s another topic.3

Basically Good Ideas

(From Google Maps, used w/o permission)
(Grenfell Tower and other buildings in Lancaster West Estate, North Kensington, London. As it was before the June 2017 fire, apparently.)

If Lancaster West Estate was in America, it’d be a housing development. It’s in England, so it’s a housing estate.

Today’s North Kensington is no Knightsbridge or Chelsea. But it’s no Victorian Spitalfields either. A former Prime Minister lives there. So do media personalities. Few if any of them lived in the housing estate. It’s mostly for working class folks.

Grenfell Tower’s design wasn’t state-of-the-art architecture in 1967. That wasn’t the goal. I gather that architects more interested in safety and affordable usefulness than good looks and innovative features.

Plans were approved in 1970. The building was finished in 1974. The working design was pretty much like the 1967 proposal. But there were some changes. It had more parking space, for example.

It would be safe. If builders used materials and equipment specified by the architects. And owners did routine maintenance.

Grenfell Tower was mostly concrete, moderately comfortable and affordable for folks who aren’t in society’s high end. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’ll see on a ‘beautiful buildings in England’ tour. But it wasn’t, I think, an eyesore. Bear in mind that I’ve got flexible tastes.

Fast-forward nearly four decades, to 2012. Styles and needs had changed. “Sustainability” was in. Automobiles weren’t as central to everyday routines.

Folks running the housing development decided it was time to upgrade the tower’s insulation, convert some parking spaces to business units, and spruce things up.

Occasionally-misapplied buzzwords like “sustainability” grate on my nerves.

But using resources efficiently seems like a good idea.

I see no problem with prudent design and attractive neighborhoods. Keeping costs down makes sense too. Within reason. Saving money by not recharging fire extinguishers and storing rubbish in escape routes instead of removing it seems imprudent. Or worse.

I haven’t kept up with who said what about the tower’s new cladding. The idea was to get better insulation and a more up-to-date look. That, and not spending more than necessary, seems reasonable. Cutting corners, not so much.

The last I heard, we don’t know exactly how the new cladding caught fire. Or why the fire spread so fast. Or whether architects, builders or bean counters picked the cladding. Or how information about failed safety tests disappeared.4

I’ve taken daft risks in my day. Mostly when I was in the male 16 to 26 demographic.

But even then I don’t think I’d have put pennies behind a fuse. It’s an old money-saving trick. It keeps a fuse from burning out during an overload. It seems thrifty. Until wires overheat and ignite the house.

Grenfell residents had been complaining about safety issues before the fire. It may be years before we get a clear picture of how so much went wrong.

There’s been no shortage of sturm und drang inspired by the Grenfell Tower fire. Some of it is understandable.

Responses, Reasonable and Otherwise

(From ChiralJon, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission)
(Remembering Grenfell Tower fire victims: Bramley Road, London.)

That folks who survived the Grenfell Tower are upset is no surprise. At all. They lost their homes. Many lost family and friends. It wouldn’t seem fair.

November’s official death toll of 71 was raised to 72 in January.

That’s when Maria Del Pilar “Pily” Burton died. She and her husband lived in a 19th floor apartment. She couldn’t walk down the stairs, thanks to an illness. Her husband, 50, couldn’t carry her. So they stayed where they were until firefighters reached them.

We may never know how many died that night. Even without the suhur meal, several folks in a neighborhood that size might have had friends visiting.

Quite a few residents were first-generation immigrants. They may not have had their paperwork in order. Someone without the usual paper trail might have vanished without a trace.

Getting a body — and parts — count wouldn’t tell us how many died in the fire. Some of Grenfell Tower reached 1,000 degrees Celsius and stayed there for “some time,” as Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey said.

Crematorium furnaces burn at between 870 and 980 Celsius. Many bodies in Grenfell Tower may have been reduced to gas, ash, and anonymous fragments.5

What’s impressive, I think, is how many victims have been identified.

I’m not, however, impressed there’s an investigation into what happened last June. Officials often decide they’d better ‘do something’ after a catastrophe.

That’s reasonable, I think.

The all-too-common custom of picking a suitable villain from society’s fringe? That’s not such a good idea.

After London’s big 1666 fire, the folks in charge found a dubiously-smart French watchmaker who claimed credit for torching Westminster. The watchmaker also said he was the Pope’s agent.

Setting Westminster ablaze would have made sense to a Popish terrorist. If the aristocratic neighborhood had burned. Which it hadn’t. Then the watchmaker said he’d torched the bakery in Pudding Lane.

Some folks wondered about his fitness to plead. He was convicted anyway, and executed. Inquiries continued. Someone discovered that the watchmaker had been on a boat in the North Sea when Pudding Lane burned.

Meanwhile, English patriots were looking for more terrorists. Understandably. The Second Anglo-Dutch War was in progress. France was a Dutch ally. I see the conflict as a turf war, and that’s another topic. (April 25, 2018; September 10, 2017; June 25, 2017)

I’m not surprised that folks said a foreigner started the Grenfell Tower conflagration. Many folks living there weren’t, or weren’t quite, English.

Behailu Kebede seemed like the ideal Grenfell scapegoat. He’s from Ethiopia. The fire started in his apartment. His own actions place him at the scene. He made the first call to emergency services. Then he started alerting his neighbors. But he didn’t put out the fire.

British authorities seem to have learned a bit since 1666.

Mr. Kebede was accused or implicated in news media, not English courts. Police took an interest in him, as an important witness. One who had reason to fear an extralegal execution. That’s why they said he should go into their witness protection program.6

Human Nature

I think human nature is the same now as it was in 1618 — when regents, counts and lords ended a meeting by tossing two regents and a secretary out the window. (March 17, 2017)

Or 1792 — when revolutionaries defended their ideals by killing an insane asylum’s inmates. (November 19, 2017)

Or 1914, when the war to end war — didn’t. (November 10, 2017)

Or 32 BC, when Rome’s Senate bungled its way into the Final War of the Roman Republic. Augustus sorted that mess out about a decade later. (May 26, 2017)

I might feel hopeless. But I don’t.

I think human nature hasn’t changed since Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi wrote their law codes. Or survivors of a global war signed the United Nations Charter.

We’re made in the image of God. We can decide to act as if that’s true. Or not. The first of us made a decision with consequences we’ve lived with ever since. But we’re not doomed to act badly. It’s still our choice. (Catechism, 396406, 17011709, 1730)

Still Learning

(From ChiralJon, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission)
(Bramley Road, near Grenfell Tower: volunteers sorting donations for fire victims.)

Staying calm over the Grenfell Tower inquiry is easy. For me. I live in central Minnesota. London’s problems seem comfortably remote from the small rural town I call home.

That’s calm: not apathetic.

I care about the folks who lost their lives, their neighbors and their homes. But being angry about the situation won’t help.

More to the point, holding on to anger is a bad idea. I shouldn’t do it. I’m also obliged to care about those who apparently made decisions that turned a comparatively safe building into a deathtrap. (Matthew 5:22, 4348; Catechism, 361, 953, 2262, 2608)

Nobody said this was going to be easy.

I can’t do much to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, or folks who are trying to learn what happened and who may be responsible.

What I can do is repeat what I’ve said before. We’re in this together. Mutual respect is a good idea. So is balancing individual and community needs. And acting like truth, justice, solidarity and freedom matter. (Catechism, 19051912, 1915, 2239)

We can’t change what’s been done. But we can keep learning from our mistakes. That, I think, is reason for cautious optimism:

1 Learning what went wrong:

2 Numbers and the news:

3 Our world is basically good, so are we, but it’s not perfect:

4 What should have happened, what did happen:

5 Remembering:

6 Responses, then and now:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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