An ideology goes up in flames

Some anniversaries are celebrated, others, such as the one yesterday, are mourned.

It was seven years ago that London’s Grenfell Tower, an exemplar of social housing, burst out in flames. The fire claimed 72 lives, sacrificed to a pernicious ideology (is there any other kind?).

There were multiple technical reasons for Grenfell Tower to have turned into a death trap. For example, once a kitchen fire started, a fire-resistant window was supposed to stop it from spreading, but didn’t – the window didn’t really resist fire.

Even if flames had broken out, they weren’t supposed to ignite the fire-proof cladding, but did – the cladding turned out to be inflammable.

(I can’t resist myself: all the commentators on this tragedy eschew the adjective I’ve just used. They say ‘flammable’ instead, on the woeful but correct assumption that many people are so ignorant that they may think ‘inflammable’ means fire-proof. In fact, the correct adjective derives from the verb ‘to inflame’, as in ‘such illiteracy further inflames my contempt for modern education’.)

If the fire had ignited the cladding anyway, other flats were supposed to be protected by their own fire-resistant windows, but weren’t – those windows didn’t resist fire any better than the original one did.

As residents escaped, the front doors were supposed to close behind them, thereby preventing poisonous smoke from engulfing the single staircase, but didn’t – the system malfunctioned, and the staircase turned into a gas chamber.

The fire brigade should have realised that their ‘stay put’ command was inappropriate because the fire was spreading rapidly, but didn’t – one wonders if our firemen are trained to be not only heroic but also smart.

They were supposed to fight the fire and rescue people by using a wet riser delivering water to the top floors, but couldn’t – there was no such wet riser.

The Fireman’s Lift was supposed to assist the rescue effort, but didn’t – it didn’t work because it hadn’t been checked.

It’s obvious that the building was jerry-built, with little attention paid to the residents’ safety. If we were to assign blame, we’d point the first accusing finger at the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Much of it includes some of the world’s most upmarket neighbourhoods, but North Kensington, where Grenfell Tower sits, ranks among the 10 per cent of most deprived areas in the UK. One would think that the Council would treat all its flock as equally as the zeitgeist demands, but this would be misunderstanding the nature of our socialist modernity.

Here we are encountering a problem that goes beyond Kensington and Chelsea. For socialism indeed treats all people as equal, the same way a cattle farmer treats all his livestock as equal. They are a herd made up of numbers, not individuals.

Individuals are those who live in the more southerly areas of that Borough, doubtless including members of the Council. Those in North Kensington are a faceless herd expected to obey the master’s prod. If they can’t afford a Chelsea mansion, they should shut up and be thankful for the crumbs tossed at them by the powers that be.

Even as cows aren’t housed individually, the human herd has to be bunched up together, living out the socialist fallacy of collectivism. Thus council housing in Britain isn’t just bricks and mortar, or more commonly cement and rebar. It’s an embodiment of an ideology. It’s a statement of how people should live.

It was in 1628 that the lawyer Sir Edward Coke formulated a pre-socialist legal principle that has since become proverbial: “For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].”

‘Castle’ was a figure of speech – Sir Edward didn’t expect every Englishman to live in one. He did, however, expect every house to be an individual dwelling over which its owner had complete sovereignty and where he felt safe.

An apartment block of any kind, even a decent one, is a residential idea that runs contrary to the history and national character of the English. Urbanisation run riot makes such structures a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

Most residents of upmarket blocks traditionally see their accommodation as a stopgap measure, something to bear until they can afford to move into a private house. This craving for one’s own ‘castle’, however cramped and remote from civilisation, is a distinguishing feature of Britons, making them stand out among other urban Europeans.

Yet Grenfell Tower residents, and most other people living in social housing, aren’t on an upswing of a mobility curve. They are what used to be called ‘the deserving poor’, or perhaps undeserving ones, to borrow G.B. Shaw’s quip.

They are the material on which socialist ideas can be tested, putty in the hands of ideologues. And the ultimate residential idea of socialism is a prison.

Just think: everyone there lives in identical cubicles, wears identical clothes, goes to bed and wakes up at the same time, follows the same daily routine, does the same work or none – everyone is equal, except of course the warders who oversee the facility and control its populace.

A council tower block approximates that ideal as much as the law allows. Its denizens are free to walk out and roam the city, but they must always return to the grim, ugly structure they struggle to call home. In fact, they often express their contempt for it by breaking what can be broken and spraypainting the rest with graffiti.

As far as the socialist ‘warders’ are concerned, the structure doesn’t have to be good-looking and comfortable, and neither does it really have to be safe. Just slap it together on the cheap out of some pre-fab blocks, herd hoi-polloi together and expect them to be thankful for the state’s largesse. That’s all our poor deserve. And if a few of them burn to death, there are more where those came from.

I’m sure no member of the Royal Borough Council ever enunciates such ideas or even harbours them. When queried on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, they’d all blame the contractors, the builders, the compilers of specs – everyone but themselves.

Yes, they realise how shabby such quarters are, but they are better than none. We Thought of the People, is the ubiquitous mantra. One wonders how poor Londoners lived in the old times, before those monstrous tower blocks disfigured the city’s topography. Did they sleep rough?

They didn’t. They lived in houses – tiny, poorly furnished, inauspicious-looking, but their own. They couldn’t afford anything better, but they could afford to keep their human dignity. This is something they aren’t allowed to have under socialism, and it’s that ideology that plonks veritable death traps in the middle of our cities.

Concrete, that awful material beloved of socialists and fascists alike (M. Le Corbusier, ring your office), has replaced bricks and mortar, and undignified ant-heaps (M. Le Corbusier, are you there?) have replaced human habitation.

So yes, the immediate reasons for the Grenfell Tower tragedy were technical. But the real, underlying reason was ideological. An ideology is an ogre that’s always athirst, and those 72 fell its victims.

3 thoughts on “An ideology goes up in flames”

  1. Ah, Le Corbusier. His affinity for the Soviet-inspired gray cube shows his true “genius”. Blech! His Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette is a prime example. France is chock full (even after the Enlightenment) of beautiful examples, but this genius was able to ignore that history and come up with his own emetic ideal. Good grief! Had he never seen Mont St Michel or Sainte Foy? This gray cube dropped into the beautiful hills of Éveux hardly inspires anyone to wonder at the marvels of Creation and dedicate his life to the Creator. The church inside this cinder block is more reminiscent of a cell in Lubyanka than a cathedral lifting the eyes and spirit to Heaven. (If I may: search for interior photographs of our local Saint Michael’s Abbey in Silverado for a comparison.) At Notre-Dame-du-Haut Le Corbusier finally discovered a curve, but that only serves to increase the ugliness. When my architect brother-in-law started to sing its praises I had to stop him and start possibly the only disagreement we have had.

    1. Actually, Corbusier suggested to Stalin that he pull down all Moscow buildings and replace them with his monstrosities (an idea, incidentally, that was also championed by Kazemir Malevich, one of the founders of Russian modernism). Stalin toyed with the idea for a while, but finally rejected it. Corbusier, whose architecture and books are propaganda of fascism, had to contend himself with erecting just two of those cubes there.

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