Grenfell Tower – comments on the long long London Review of Books article

Just before the first anniversary of the Grenfell fire, the London Review of Books gave over almost all of an issue to one long article by novelist Andrew O’Hagan – called ‘The Tower’. I haven’t linked directly to it, but it is easily found by going to the London Review of Books website.

The article has been praised by some readers, but a number of people including many close to the Grenfell community have expressed their unhappiness with many aspects of the article. People have and challenged its accuracy, questioned why it appeared as sympathetic as it did to Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, and taken exception to some of the language used about the victims of the fire and in the local activist groups. (This article by Gavriel Hollander in New Statesman summarises many of these concerns. I will try to post some other links later.)

Like many commentators, I too felt the article set up something of a ‘straw man’, in suggesting that the overriding media message has been that ‘the council were to blame’ – despite the extensive investigations into numerous other factors – of course, in particular, the role of the construction industry.

Even though in theory some of what Mr O’Hagan discussed would be worth looking into, I found too much of the article at odds with my existing understanding, which inevitably made it harder to trust the author’s words elsewhere in the article.

But what perhaps surprised me most, coming as it did from a journal that carries a lot of reportage, was how poorly argued and sloppily written the article was.

As the rather wonderful spoken response to Mr O’Hagan’s article by poet and writer Potent Whisper put it here “60,000 words! He must think that he’s impressing us. I just think the editor at large needs an editor.”

I sent a long comment to the magazine, written from my point of view as a journalist. It is unlikely that they will publish it, because it is so long. So I am sharing it below – more or less (though not exactly) as I sent it. Continue reading

Grenfell Fire

Like everyone, I was horrified by the events of June 14, 2017. I felt additionally anguished because I had written so often about poor standards and corner cutting in construction, without ever imagining the consequences would be so devastating. But we knew, didn’t we, that risks were – and still are – being taken.

I wrote a long piece for Passive House Plus looking at the background to the catastrophe: in particular, examining how such highly combustible cladding might have come to be used. That article is here: Grenfell Tower – how did it happen?

I also wrote a follow-up piece on the concerns of many fire experts that too much information about product testing was being kept secret due to commercial confidentiality – and that that the information that was kept secret, might have led to better design choices had it been available. The story also contained calls for combustible materials to be banned entirely from tall buildings as they are in several other countries. A further news item reported Dame Judith’s shock at the lack of accountability and the obvious opportunities for corner-cutting in mainstream construction

And I contributed to some of the very thorough coverage of the subject in Inside Housing magazine – you can read the relevant articles here and here (you may need to create an account to read these if you are not an IH subscriber).

UPDATE: Now the Public Inquiry has opened, a great deal more information is becoming available. Sessions and background evidence submissions are being posted in the inquiry website here. Dr Lane’s is one that has been reported as containing a huge amount of important detail. If anyone finds anything they think needs wider coverage, do get in touch: mail “at”