Saturday, 2 June 2018

Candide in Kensington

As Editor at Large for the London Review of Books, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan was responsible for a couple of notable long-form essays in recent years that caused ripples beyond the literary world. The first was about his aborted stint as a ghost-writer for Julian Assange. This revealed, to no one's great surprise, that its central character was an egomaniac exploiting the conspiratorial netherworld of state secrets and libertarian leakers. The second essay was about Craig Wright, an Australian programmer who claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin, whose public unveiling was to be recorded by O'Hagan. Wright was a fraud exploiting the conspiratorial netherworld of libertarian technology. You've probably spotted the pattern here. Despite the wealth of background detail offered in these two essays, I was never convinced that O'Hagan was really interested in their ostensible subjects - the ethical grey zones of state secrets and cryptocurrencies - or their unsympathetic central characters. Each might have provided the raw material to craft an interesting fiction, but they didn't really work as essays, despite the attempts to build a sense of tension into unfolding events, essentially because O'Hagan didn't appear to have a point to make in either case

O'Hagan's latest essay is about last year's tragedy at Grenfell Tower and in particular the fractious relationship of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the residents of its northern wards. Despite a much larger cast of characters, this is a more focused project because it has a point: a revisionist interpretation of the council's role. But some features are still familiar, such as the conspiratorial netherworld of the local authority's critics, who in O'Hagan's view are no more able to substantiate their claims than Assange or Wright were. The dynamic of the essay this time is not the tension of a looming decision but the search for a sympathetic character. O'Hagan tells us that he started out with a na├»ve, even antagonistic attitude - ‘Let’s get the bastards who did this’- but came to realise that the council, and its executive and political leaders in particular, were actually the unsung heroes of the tragedy. But to make the revisionist case he has to show that the common view of the council was near-universal and wrong-headed, which leads him both to construct an exasperating strawman - that its critics believed the council to be "homicidal" and bent on "social cleansing" - and to reduce all those critical of the borough to caricatures. I don't think he is motivated by political bias, or that long exposure to the literary world has made him starry-eyed about the posh, but I think he is approaching the tragedy as a novelist.

In terms of literary influences, there are explicit references to Martin Amis and Charles Dickens, and even a whiff of T S Eliot and Henry James, but the overall tone bends more towards moral philosophy than social critique. What it reminded me of was Voltaire's Candide (a book about disasters and illusions shattered), not least because the essay concludes with the promised cultivation of a modest garden. The chief problem is that most of the nominally central characters, the victims and survivors of the fire, are reduced to simple types or given a schematic purpose, in contrast to the more complex portrayals of Nicholas Paget-Brown, the Leader of the council, and Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Deputy Leader. The local activists are presented as stereotypical trouble-makers, high on their own rhetoric and low on logic, the national authorities (most notably Theresa May and Sajid Javid) are shown as cynical and manipulative, while the "heroes" come across as decent white men put in an impossible situation. It reads at times like a reminiscence of colonial administration in the 1950s. I think O'Hagan seriously misrepresents the critics' case against the council, as well as the history of housing in the borough, and I also think he goes too far in sneering at marginal characters in the story, providing cartoon villains that meet the expectations of the anti-left commentariat (David Aaronovitch and Brendan O'Neill have been predictably prominent in the applauding claque).

The pen portraits of the residents of the tower at the start of the essay emphasise their warm-heartedness and everyday concerns, but they also suggest (by omission) the absence of any political sensibility beyond neighbourliness and a rhetorical commitment to community, even going so far as to approvingly note the quietism of the Muslim bereaved. This approach to the memorialisation of the victims of tragedy has become common since 9/11 and has now been formalised in the opening phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. But O'Hagan also uses the emotional capital of these obituaries to put himself on the side of the victims and against the "committed local agitators", such as the longstanding Grenfell Action Group (GAG), who are uncharitably accused of "throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding". He describes the Grenfell United support group, set up in the aftermath of the tragedy, as "secretive, slightly exclusive" and suggests that it is unrepresentative: "Several of the residents we spoke to ... were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the council. Many of the survivors I spoke to had nothing to do with the group."

O'Hagan takes an evident dislike to Edward Daffarn, the GAG activist who explicitly warned of the danger of a fire well before last June, and also to the then newly-elected Labour MP for Kensington: "Emma Dent Coad introduced Corbyn to a variety of interested parties, among them several local ‘housing campaigners’, but no one from the council. Odd, given that she was a local councillor for so many years. Or is it?" (you'll note another pattern here: that self-ascription is treated to inverted commas). It was at this meeting that Corbyn suggested of the empty properties in the borough owned by the rich that "maybe it’s time to put some of them to good use", which resulted in various defenders of the liberal order in the commentariat clutching their pearls over the sanctity of property rights. O'Hagan admits that the Labour Leader was one of the few visitors to understand the challenge of the aftermath: "he showed some sense of the scale of the problem when he was told how many people would need to be rehoused. ‘But Kensington as a borough wouldn’t have vacant properties for anything like that number’". Given that O'Hagan's chief charge against May and Javid was their insistence on an unrealistic target of three weeks for rehousing those made homeless by the fire, his determination to denigrate Corbyn - "He was admired for his easy ability to hug people" - seems gratuitous and mean-spirited.


That people tell lies in the wake of a tragedy, whether from anguish or self-importance, is well-known. It's human nature. Likewise, that people will try and leverage such events for wider political ends is hardly a surprise. We all interpret evidence to suit our priors. O'Hagan is sympathetic when it comes to the lies and myths of the apolitical victims - "people tell the stories they need to tell, ones that match their own disbelief, and it doesn’t matter if they’re true" - but he won't extend the same sympathy to those he classes as "agitators" or to those, like Lily Allen and Stormzy, who have cameo roles in the aftermath. The criticism of these two is cheap, claiming that Allen is hypocritical for worrying about gentrification because she is rich and that Stormzy (also "rich") is foolish for demanding money for the survivors when money had already been forthcoming. But why should we expect singers and rappers to be any better-informed than the public at large or less susceptible to rumours and emotion? O'Hagan's attitude, which mixes irritation with patronisation, is not that different to the recent press criticism of Raheem Sterling for his gun tattoo. Ironically, pouncing on minor errors of judgement and questioning motives is the tactic that O'Hagan elsewhere criticises the media for in their coverage of the Grenfell fire. It isn't a defence of the council to emphasise that myths were peddled or hobby-horses ridden, any more than suggesting that some of the fans at Hillsborough were pissed was relevant to that tragedy.

In his generally positive assessment of the council's response, O'Hagan fails to distinguish between will and capacity. The central criticism is not that Kensington and Chelsea was callous or dilatory, as per his strawman, but that it wasn't set up to adequately deal with its residents' needs, both before and after the tragedy, despite being a relatively well-funded and competent organisation. The council did not treat its poorer northern wards in the same way as it treated the richer southern wards, but this is not about an inequality of resource, which O'Hagan is at pains to deny, but an inequality of respect. This comes across indirectly in O'Hagan's narrative, but he is loath to make a direct criticism of the council beyond admitting that their communications were weak. The defence of the council, that they were "there" on the ground helping people immediately after the tragedy, omits to ask why residents felt abandoned. Instead, he prefers to accuse outsiders and the press of jumping on the bandwagon, or to suggest that the victims were simply unbalanced by the tragedy and not capable of the sort of rational thought that he prides himself on. The point is that the council had an institutionalised, arms-length, patronising relationship with its northern residents, and many of them had as a consequence either come to actively despise it or had decided to simply ignore it. This wasn't just about council staff not wearing tabards at the scene of the disaster.

When people said "the council is nowhere to be seen", they weren't just referring to the immediate aftermath but to years of what they interpreted as neglect, but which might be better thought of as an unwillingness to directly engage with people that successive Tory administrations felt an abstract compassion towards but had no interest in establishing any real human relationship with (the film by Anthony Wilks that accompanies O'Hagan's essay online is much better on this point). The key criticism made by the GAG was that the council didn't listen. The defence outlined by O'Hagan is essentially: we read all their emails. While some people will use "listen" as a synonym for "agree with me", it's clear that most of the activists were after engagement - i.e. respect and consideration. On occasion, when trying to blame a third party, O'Hagan admits that the relationship between the community and council was dysfunctional: "It should be said that among the people the prime minister was listening to, with the churches by Grenfell Tower acting as conduit, were people whose disaffection with the council went back years. The wider group had legitimate concerns over a whole spread of issues, not just the tower, and whether she understood it or not, May was being drafted into a political war against the council, in which the fire was a pretext." You'll note how the now-hackneyed phrase "legitimate concerns" is quickly neutralised by "political war" and "pretext".

Nick Paget-Brown was asked by O'Hagan about responsibility: "I said sorry – and indeed I am sorry for what has happened. It happened on my watch, in my borough, and it’s terrible. I’m not apologising for the cladding I was blamed for installing, which has actually been installed all over the country, and which the TMO was told met building regulation standards". This is a standard expression of regret, but it's one that refuses ultimate responsibility. Is that legitimate? Paget-Brown has grounds to suggest that the council could not be effectively responsible, but that would mean criticising a system of market-driven regulation and compliance that was enthusiastically supported by the borough. In defending Feilding-Mellen, O'Hagan notes: "the tower’s vulnerability lay in a network of negligence that was beyond the capacity of any one man". It would be more to the point to say that this "network of negligence" was beyond the capacity of any one council, but that a failure to recognise this on the part of the council was also negligent. When businesses that win council housing contracts are protected from public criticism by "commercial confidentiality", when regulators are captured by industry-backed interests, and when council stock is either sold-off or its management privatised, then councils are often the only visible target for popular ire over the provision and condition of social housing. Paradoxically, the more they are divested of power and responsibility, the more they become a target.


O'Hagan blames or denigrates pretty much everyone bar the council: the tenant management organisation (TMO) that had operational responsibility for the borough's housing stock, the building industry and its lazy regulators, central government (notably an interfering Number 10), London Gold (the cross-borough emergency response team) and the London Fire Brigade. Labour politicians, such as Corbyn and Dent-Coad, whose lack of executive power meant that they could not be held culpable, are criticised precisely for having nothing to offer but sympathy ("hugs"). They all appear to be motivated by self-interest and opportunism while the council's political leadership and executive officers are, in O'Hagan's telling, motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. I have no doubt that political calculation played a large part in Theresa May and Sajid Javid's responses last June, but the caricatures that O'Hagan presents are no different to the normal fare of a media that he elsewhere excoriates for over-simplification and an appetite for villains. In his desire to redress the balance of the media's coverage of the council, he becomes partisan. Rather than an even-handed assessment of the tragedy, we get the case for the defence.

The council doesn't get off entirely scot-free. O'Hagan criticises it for its inadequate PR operation and in particular its failure to control the narrative in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but he doesn't draw any conclusions about local government capacity generally, the decline of local newspapers (the traditional conduit for both explanation and criticism), or Kensington and Chelsea's particular history of a tight-lipped approach to communication. If anything, he appears to admire its emotional reticence: "Civic duty doesn’t hug. What it does do, while few notice, is call every head teacher and visit every school, carefully answering the educational and psychological needs of people who may not even register that what is being done for them is being done by their local authority". This panegyric continues with a salute to courage ("grace under pressure") and ends with a  lament: "If you talk to people who work in councils, and I’ve now spoken to hundreds, you quickly see that it is a culture of low appreciation generally, so when something goes badly wrong – off-the-scale wrong – the culture is already in place for total execration. It wasn’t always like this."

O'Hagan expands on that last point by talking of his own upbringing in a council house in Scotland, but his purpose seems to be to marginalise metropolitan trouble-makers in favour of a more traditional, respectable working class: "we didn’t fight a general war with the council. On the contrary, our parents believed the council was on our side". He acknowledges that this changes with right-to-buy: "After Thatcher’s arrival, I noticed that the people left in ‘social housing’ were much quicker to complain". The problem with this interlude, long ago and far away, is that it has nothing to do with the particular circumstances of North Kensington. The area had long been a site for social activism and dissent (again, the Anthony Wilks film is much better on this), and a seed-bed of the counter-culture, from the days of Colin MacInnes through Michael Moorcock to The Clash. There was a general war with the council that long-predated Thatcher, while right-to-buy had relatively little impact because the borough had a modest amount of directly-owned housing stock compared to other London boroughs, having historically preferred to foster housing associations and charitable trusts. O'Hagan gestures at these truths in his review of the area's history, but he doesn't join the dots: a council that is reluctant to be directly responsible for providing homes, the most immediate human need above sustenance, will not have a vital relationship with those citizens for whom housing is primarily a precarious necessity rather than an investment or a route to self-actualisation.


Any council, any fire brigade, would have struggled to deal with a disaster like Grenfell. In some ways, such as its financial reserves, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea was in a better position than most, but in two crucial respects it was at a disadvantage. The first disadvantage is that it is quite small. This meant that its capacity to handle a city-scale challenge was limited, both in terms of emergency housing and the depth of council services and staff available to support the affected. The consequence was the rapid escalation to the London-wide Gold Command structure, which reinforced the sense that the council was out of its depth. O'Hagan recognises this challenge of size, but he focuses on the unreasonable expectations of Number 10 (particularly that everybody be rehoused within 3 weeks) and the personal ambition of the London Gold team leadership. Were Kensington and Chelsea to be merged with Hammersmith and Fulham, the combined borough would still be smaller, both territorially and in terms of population, than either Ealing or Barnet. This idea is not aired by O'Hagan, even though it is a common speculation among London government experts and has been effectively broached in the creation of shared backoffice services. The continuing existence of the Royal Borough is simply a given.

The second disadvantage is that the borough has long been highly diverse but also highly segregated. Though much was made of the proximity of rich and poor in the press coverage, the reality is that the latter are clustered in a few estates, mainly at the northern end of Kensington and with the northernmost further isolated by the Westway. If you read about (or remember) the Rachmanism of the 50s and the squats of the 70s, you might assume that the creeping gentrification of parts of the north of the borough since the 80s was a consequence of council policy. It was, but not in the sense of deliberate social cleansing. The key point to understand is that Kensington and Chelsea historically built very few council homes. O'Hagan points to the borough's commitment to supporting social housing through charitable trusts, and even suggests the council's policy of supporting them has helped preserve stock that would have been subject to right to buy if council-owned, but he neglects to note that Kensington and Chelsea stocks of both council and social landlord housing are much lower in absolute terms than other inner London boroughs. For example, in 2016, Kensington and Chelsea had 6,840 local authority properties and 13,034 social landlord units, while Islington had 25,850 and 15,617 respectively, and even Westminster (which had done its best to export the poor in the 1980s under Shirley Porter) had 11,840 and 15,312.

The slums and squats of old were a testament to a large market of cheap private rentals, not just in the northern wards but across the borough. As gentrification accelerated from the 80s onwards, that market gradually disappeared as properties previously converted to small flats were bought for conversion back into larger flats or single homes and remaining private rents rose. Kensington and Chelsea didn't sell off lots of council homes because it didn't have that many to begin with, and it didn't decant large numbers of tenants to other boroughs because it didn't have that many tenants. The contemporary "squeezed middle" of Kensington and Chelsea - skilled working class and even professional people who struggle to find genuinely affordable rents - is a consequence of a market that was already heavily privatised before Thatcher came to power. The issue of supply for less well-off residents was the unwillingness of the council to expand its stock over the last 30 years to offset the loss of genuinely affordable rental properties in the private sector. When O'Hagan insists that "In the actual amount of social housing delivered, they did much better than many Labour-run London councils", pointing to a chart that shows the net change in houses for social rent between 1997 and 2017, he ignores that the other boroughs struggled to replace stock lost to the private market over those years because of central government constraints on the use of right-to-buy receipts (again, Wilks makes this point). If you provide 800 new properties through housing associations but lose 1,000 council homes to right-to-buy, your net change will be negative. If you provide 200 new properties but only lose 100 to right-to-buy, your net change will be positive.


O'Hagan uses the word "estrangement" twice. He first talks about how the separation of the borough into distinct communities was driven in recent decades by the property market: "A genuine sense of estrangement, however, arrived with the super-prime boom in London real estate". Pointing to Russian oligarchs and basement swimming pools ignores that the actual estrangement in the borough was due to the boom in prime - not super-prime - properties, which wiped out the market for private rentals affordable by the working class and lower middle class. He then notes that every tragedy itself estranges: "Every disaster shrine now is a locus of bereavement but also of estrangement". We lose connection with people slowly, and then we lose connection suddenly. However, his remedy is little more than good intentions hedged by a commitment to plurality (this sounds like it was lifted from a speech by Emmanuel Macron): "The space opened up by the tragedy may be one into which no British political party can currently fit: somewhere new and ethically arresting, where the distance between rich and poor is addressed, and where the notion of society is reconsidered, not merely along the old class lines, but with a new tolerance of different truths, as well as true differences". Again, he is loath to admit that the policy of the council might have anything to do with that widening "distance between rich and poor".

There is nothing in his prescription that talks about the social role of local government, which has withered not only because of the retreat from housing but because of the wholesale move to a transactional model of services, something that the Tory administration of the borough has enthusiastically adopted. While the council was not as neglectful of the poorer wards as has been suggested by some high on hyperbole, it never saw its job as being to actively promote wider community integration, something that was evident in its tendency to try and ring-fence the Notting Hill Carnival as a periodic intrusion. Its approach towards the poorer wards was paternalistic: decisions made on the assumption of what would be good for the people without real consultation or involvement (this is the central point of the Wilks film, which is why it succeeds better as an essay than O'Hagan's long read). It is in this context that the residents' disappointment that no community members were to be appointed to the  official inquiry should be understood. Time and again they have been ignored by authority while successful community initiatives, such as the Westway Trust, have either been taken over or marginalised.

O'Hagan sums up: "Despite all the headlines and all the cries of murder directed at the local authority, the only people who could have known that the cladding was a potential fire risk were the people whose financial advantage lay in selling it, and passing it off, up and down the country, as safe. But as headlines go that’s not as sexy or as memorable as accusing two posh men of mass murder." He points to a systemic problem - the conflict of interests within the fire safety regime - but then distracts by insisting that a personal attack on "two posh men" is uncalled for. Just as those two men are a synecdoche for the council, so the council is a synecdoche for that dysfunctional regime. No responsible critic is accusing the council of "homicidal intent", but they are accusing it of being part of a wider system that is neglectful of the housing needs and safety of the less well-off. The term "social murder", which John McDonnell has revived, makes explicit that it is a system of incentives and a lack of restraint that leads to murderous consequences, not the machinations of malign individuals. The Hillsborough Independent Panel did not exonerate Sheffield Council because the proximate cause of that tragedy was the cowardice and callousness of individual policemen.

In the end, O'Hagan fails in this essay, as he did with his long-reads on Assange and Wright, because there is no convincing point to it. It tries to make the case that the council has been unfairly maligned and that tragedy brings out both the best and the worst in people, but the first claim is tendentious, and overly-dependent on a strawman, while the second is banal. The motivated will come away convinced that activists and Labour politicians are manipulative, that pop stars are hypocritical self-promoters, and that some victims are grasping and insufficiently grateful. I'm not sure that O'Hagan set out to make these points, but it is the corner that he inexorably painted himself into once he decided to view the council as a set of well-meaning individuals rather than as a dysfunctional system. What he seems oblivious to is that Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen's bafflement and hurt at their treatment is precisely the problem. They were always estranged from the people they sought to administer to, but this is not a failing of them as people: they were simply perpetuating a culture and policy framework that had been established over decades. Grenfell Tower is the story of 72 deaths much longer foretold than the lifetime of Edward Daffarn.


  1. Ben Philliskirk6 June 2018 at 09:30

    'O'Hagan expands on that last point by talking of his own upbringing in a council house in Scotland, but his purpose seems to be to marginalise metropolitan trouble-makers in favour of a more traditional, respectable working class: "we didn’t fight a general war with the council. On the contrary, our parents believed the council was on our side". He acknowledges that this changes with right-to-buy: "After Thatcher’s arrival, I noticed that the people left in ‘social housing’ were much quicker to complain".'

    This 'argument' alone should be enough to suggest that he does not understand the problem. Public housing in post-war Scotland took up over 50% of the stock, and it is ridiculous not to take account of the contrast between the political and social position of council tenants then with the circumstances now, where they are a marginalised group stuck in a residual form of housing and, in Grenfell's case, situated in a city where housing provision is highly dysfunctional.

    Even in his 'glory days' nostalgia leads him to overlook the Ronan Point disaster and other system-building failures such as the flat complexes built by the Yorkshire Development Group. These predate Thatcher, as does an awful lot of tenant activism against councils. Indeed, I suspect most students of housing would regard tenants as much more deferent and powerless now.

  2. Herbie Kills Children6 June 2018 at 17:02

    “to no one's great surprise, that its central character was an egomaniac exploiting the conspiratorial netherworld of state secrets and libertarian leakers.”

    Since when did source material become the conspiratorial netherworld. You are aware that people have been put in jail for these leaks don’t you? Maybe you think all science is conspiracy? Are you after a job at the BBC or something? At least the Trump administration threatens him because they admit he told the reality of their operations.

    If you do get the BBC job maybe you could ask them for me,

    Why do they peddle the conspiracy that Russia poisoned the Skripals, despite any credible evidence?
    Why do they refuse to cover anything to do with Israel murdering Palestinians, with sniper rifles, yes fucking sniper rifles?

    I mean if Gary Glitter had converted to Judaism and then gone to Gaza to fuck Palestinian children it wouldn’t have made the news! Have those big game hunters who were getting flak for killing lions (they deserved flak for that obviously) converted to Judaism and popped over to Israel to shoot Palestinians with Sniper rifles, yes I repeat sniper fucking rifles. Is this why the media don’t cover them anymore. Can you ask your fellow propagandists and confirm.

    1. Herbie, I wasn't saying that we should be sceptical of leaked state secrets (the source material), any more than I was suggesting that cryptocurrencies are an invention of a fevered imagination, but that such subjects inevitably attract a netherworld (i.e. auxiliary to the subject) of the conspiratorial that is then ripe for exploitation by grifters.