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was written “on themes of community and hope, by a mix of some of the UK’s best established writers and previously unpublished authors.”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.