by Kathy Burke (Editor)
My routine was much as usual on the morning of Wednesday 14th June 2017: I arose early for work, fed the chickens, settled myself at the kitchen table for my first cuppa of the day and switched the TV on to watch BBC News.
For several seconds I stared vacantly at the screen, unable to comprehend the shocking nature of the images I was seeing. There was a man sobbing incoherently to a reporter and then emergency services vehicles were shown illuminating huddles of grim-faced onlookers in their flickering lights. It began to make sense when the picture jumped to a high-rise block of flats of the sort you find in cities throughout the UK, except this one had taken on the appearance of an immense Chinese lantern burning uncontrollably over a sleeping city.
This was Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey Brutalist-style construct in North Kensington, home to a tight-knit community of families, elderly folk, young couples and all manner of ordinary working-class people. At about 00:50 BST a fridge-freezer caught fire in a flat on the 4th floor. The resident did not have an extinguisher but called London Fire Brigade at 00.54 BST and warned his neighbours. The first crews arrived six minutes later – at one point there were over 250 firefighters at work in and around the building – but they were powerless to prevent the blaze from spreading to other floors.
Grenfell burned for 24 hours causing over 70 injuries and 72 deaths, including one stillborn baby. Of the 223 people who escaped or were rescued from the burning building, most, if not all, were badly traumatised by their experiences that night.
On the first anniversary of the fire came something positive: publication of 24 Stories: of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire, an anthology of short stories “in aid of the PTSD-related needs of the survivors”. The collection was written “on themes of community and hope, by a mix of some of the UK’s best established writers and previously unpublished authors.” It was compiled in response to the disaster by the nation’s much-loved actress, comedian, playwright and theatre director Kathy Burke, along with Paul Jenkins, Rhona Martin and Steve Thompson.
There is a Foreword by Dr Dean Burnett, entitled PTSD Explained, in which he describes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in simple and humorous terms – he has a right to do this because he himself has lived with the condition for many years.
The stories are mostly about ordinary people: not necessarily connected with the Grenfell fire, not all set in England’s capital (though many are). A lack of trust for those in authority and the importance of community coming together are common themes in these tales, as are narratives touching on love, mental health, loneliness, discrimination, fear and anger. Most display scathing humour and pathos in equal measures, but the quality of the writing is such that if you were to remove the names of the creators from their compositions, you would be hard pressed to tell which ones had been written by the successful authors.
I was fortunate to obtain tickets to see Kathy Burke in conversation with John Mitchinson at Hay Festival in May. She came especially to promote 24 Stories and, after chatting movingly about the tragedy and the book, read out Irvine Welsh’s darkly funny, Seventeen-Storey Love Song. She was joined on the Baillie Gifford Stage by popular author, Nina Stibbe, who refused to read her own piece but selected extracts from Pauline Melville’s excellent Singing In The Dark Times, which is set on the day of the fire. While there I purchased a copy of the book and had it signed by both women in the official book shop.
24 Stories: of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire was published by Unbound. You can buy a limited edition copy direct from its website or alternatively, pick up a regular copy from most major book stores. 100% of the author proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Trauma Response Network.
I keep meaning to get a copy of this, and your quiet thoughts on it have reminded me to get a move on. Incidentally, I introduced Dean Burnett at a Crickhowell Literary Festival (he had just had ‘The Idiot Brain’ published and he was an enlightening speaker. I’d no idea though that he too suffers from PTSD.
Thanks, Chris. It’s a well chosen selection. Yes, Dean Burnett writes really well on PTSD.
Wow! What an incredible, tragic, and heart-wrenching story. I cannot believe these poor people went through such trauma. But I do love anthologies like this… I wonder if I could get a copy in the US?
Which story is your favorite in the collection?
I just checked the US Amazon website and it is definitely for sale there, so I’m sure it will be available elsewhere, too. I think my favourite story is probably Singing In The Dark Times by Pauline Melville, which is about a London tramp (hobo), but set on the day of the fire. However, there are any number of excellent stories in this anthology. Hope you are able to pick up a copy.
Excellent post, Paula. This ghastly, heartrending tragedy and its aftermath seems emblematic of the divisions in our counry, not least in its location. Hats off to Kathy Burke for organising a constructive response. I’ll pick up a copy when I’m next in a book shop.
Thank you, Susan. I think you’re absolutely right. I really hope the residents are able to continue living together as a community in the future, but I have a bad feeling that won’t happen. Kathy Burke has worked so hard on this project – I first heard about it from her tweets. Fingers crossed it sells in large numbers!
Reblogged this on Thoughts Become Words and commented:
My emotions overcame me when I read this piece…read for yourself…
Thank you so much, Gretchen. It’s extremely kind of you to reblog my post. Very much appreciated. 🤗 xx
My pleasure. A great cause and I hope light love and laughter returns to those who survived.
I’m so glad this book has been produced and will get myself a copy. It’s always helpful and healing to look for the good people rushing to help, isn’t it. Hopefully they’ll raise a good amount to help people.
A tragedy on this sort of scale brings out the best in some people and this book is proof. I’m so pleased you’re going to buy a copy, Liz. Many thanks.
I have recently bought this book and am looking forward to reading it. Thank you for this review.
I hope you find it an enjoyable read, Clare.