In response to the horrific tragedy, and all that has happened, all that’s unfolding, around #grenfelltower, I’m resharing an essay about my years in the Calder High-rise council estate in west Edinburgh, Scotland. It was written around 2008, soon after I moved out of the Calders.
view from the 12th floor, Cobbinshaw House
Part of the cause of such a violent destruction of life such as is the fire in the Grenfell tower, is the fact that your average citizen has no idea what it really means and feels like to live in a high-rise or council estate – and so they feel no need to speak out about/ take action around any of the multifarious, interwoven issues which affect such places and people. And so, issues compound and fester; problems become ensconsed and invisible to the outside world.
If we all felt more compassion for the comfort and safety of ALL OF OUR FELLOW CITIZENS; if – in particularly – the people who make decisions about such situations, who make spending decisions and check how life really is for folk there, if they felt real compassion and made significant efforts to improve the life quality, safety and security, the spiritual wellbeing of everyone in our society… then a hell-like situation as the Grenvell fire might have been guarded against, even avoided altogether.
But greed and profit above human dignity, above human safety; that is what we choose when we live capitalism, and when we support governments who are empty or heart or soul.
mural created with local kids, 2005
Before I lived in a high-rise, I had a whole section of people cordoned off in my mind: A WHOLE SECTOR OF PEOPLE locked away in the dark, with a sort of disclaimer to the effect of ‘they choose to live there’, ‘it’s their fault it’s so messed up’, ‘it’s a bad place/ they’re bad people’, ‘I am not that kind of person’. They were thoughts unformed, quiet prejudices which sat unchallenged… which were blasted into the open forever as soon as I stepped onto the pavements of the Calders’ estate.
Suffice to say that when I left 4 yrs later, though I was very glad to move to a more peaceful location, my consciousness was utterly transformed… My life and work were profoundly enriched for having been a part of this dynamic, intense community. The most important quality I gained, was a humility – an ability to relate to all people, rather than just the ones which I thought were ‘like me’.
I hope this essay might illustrate something of how it is to actually live in a council high-rise; the atmosphere, the psychological and emotional issues which arise, the individual and collective challenges, and the things one has to do to get by. (Be aware that it’s fairly raw, and was written in a period where I was dealing with multiple griefs and unstable health.)