Preserving Our Stories

14 June 2017 has impacted the majority of residents living in North Kensington; this is an often-overlooked fact. My son lost one of his friends (and his mother) as well as his classmate. The whole school, located at the base of the tower and which he had only been attending for two and a bit terms, relocated. And he did a wonderful job of parenting me during the initial months after the fire, wiping away my tears and giving me wholesome loving hugs of comfort. I felt guilty that he had to take on this role. I felt guilty we were giving others false hope that individuals may still be alive. I felt heartbroken that this could have happened, let alone in my neighbourhood. As the true reality began to hit home, I felt torn to shreds as it quickly transpired more and more people I knew were survivors or part of the 71 who didn’t make it out alive.

What could I do to help? How could I be helpful? I helped sort through and pack up the gallons of donations clogging up our community centres in an idle attempt to tidy and return to some sort of order and control; I occupied my son and his friends, and reciprocated in offering support to my local friends, some of whom had been displaced, whilst we held our breath for news about the ‘missing’; and I spoke to artists based at Maxilla, and together, on the Saturday after the fire, with paper, paint and other art materials, we invited people to draw / write / have refreshments / have a hug / sit and talk. People appeared to have an innate understanding that this was good for them and their children, and something that we envisaged lasting a couple of hours, was still going strong 10 hours later. And since then I have continued building further creative and wellbeing initiatives available to the wider North Ken community.

As the weeks and months passed, I consciously pushed memories towards the back of my mind and toughened up my public veneer. I make that sound like it was a simple transition moving from a state of grief to fully functioning being, but of course it hasn’t been. Huge waves of Grenfell grief frequently burst forth and engulf me, however, on the whole I, ‘get on with my life’. This is partly made possible because I believe I am producing opportunities that, through creativity, are helping us heal; enabling new positive connections and support for one another in a shared experience.

As the weeks and months pass, like my memories, the artworks exposed to the elements - some for up to 20 months - have begun to fade and some completely disintegrate. Unlike my memories, they cannot be pieced back together. Poignantly, some have been lost forever. And so the need to preserve this time in our history becomes more urgent as each new day passes.

Because I have previously been involved with preserving a piece of local heritage - a comprehensive history of Maxilla Children’s Centre which closed down in 2015 - I appreciate the importance of other projects seeking to preserve aspects of North Kensington’s history; providing legacy for future generations. I understand that many local people have many differing opinions about what should happen and who should have control over aspects of preserving our history. What I can do is preserve my story, my memories, and the artwork I have been involved with, with integrity, care and love, and encourage others to do the same. And so on Friday, I accessioned my first piece of Grenfell-related art into the Kensington Narrators Archive.

There were two other people accessioning their items, and the emotional aspect of this process took us all by surprise. There were tears as the process gave us a space to remember, in detail, touching moments connected with the items we were handing over. We remembered the men who had driven from Essex with a van full of donations and the small box of toys from a child with the note, “I have toys, you don’t have toys, have my toys”. We remembered the man, visiting in solidarity, who lived on the Lisson Grove Estate and spent a good hour at the art table, quietly weeping and producing the most beautiful poster with the message, ‘Glass Trees Have No Roots’. We remembered the dad who brought his children to the table and said, “Let them draw, it’s good for them, they need to do it”.

We spent time reflecting, writing, and rewriting our personal narratives, explaining how and why we had made the works. We supported one another. We took solace in the fact we were able to explain, in our own words, what these objects meant to us, and how, in years to come, historians would have a personalised, subjective account of what these pieces were. It felt a good thing to do - to begin to paint a picture of our personal experiences of Grenfell, as told by and edited by no one but ourselves.

Lisa, a Kensington Narrator