Histories Lost and Histories Found

One of the main jobs of a historian is to find and interpret the materials that the past has left behind. But historians are also all too aware of what has not been preserved, and the stories that have been lost forever. We have far more information about politicians, the wealthy, and other elites than we have about ordinary people in the past—people who were marginalized, who experienced injustice and poverty, who did not get acknowledged by established powers. For historians, any scrap of information that tells about what such people did, what they thought, and how they felt is priceless.

The fire that happened in the North Kensington community on the 14th of June, 2017 was a historic moment. As a historian, it will remain for me one of the most important, devastating and unjust events in modern British history. It will also be very well-documented for historians who want to research and write about it in the future. We will have hundreds of newspaper and online articles. We will have local government reports, the transcripts from the inquiry, and, in about a century’s time, more confidential official papers will be opened to the public.

But these sources will tell us very little about the way that the fire affected the wider North Kensington community. This is a serious omission. I listened to community members speak about how inaccurate news reports were; how they selected and edited their material to tell a story that suited them. They are not reliable sources for historians who want to know what the community was really like before and after the fire.

Nor will government reports highlight the resilience and resourcefulness of people in the midst of grief and rebuilding. They will not document the vibrant creativity of the community before and after. And yet, without such things, our future histories will be absolutely incomplete.

This is why I wanted to support the Kensington Narrators as they worked to start an archive of the community’s arts response to the Grenfell Tower Fire. Their work is creating an archive that can be used by academic historians in the future, as well as by the community itself as it makes, preserves and interprets its own history for its own members. Over the past few months, I have been deeply moved hearing people from the community articulate what they wanted from an archive: a chance to preserve their own creative work and memories; a chance to ‘edit themselves’ in the face of a media landscape that talks about them but rarely to them or with them. ‘Can’t wait to rediscover our colourful past’, wrote one young person the Kensington Narrators consulted. I’m honoured that I can be part of a project that gives them the tools and the materials to become the custodians of their own past, and I look forward to watching a new generation of historians discover the creative, emotional, and moving way in which the North Kensington community responded to tragedy and injustice, and built a legacy of hope for the future.

Julia Laite, Birkbeck, University of London

Academic consultant to the Kensington Narrators