Two weeks ago, a 60,000-word essay (its length has been mentioned in almost every account of it, so I’m just keeping up that tradition) was published about the Grenfell fire by friendly-faced, award-winning novelist Andrew O’Hagan.
In the London Review of Books letters page this week, Melanie Coles, a teacher and resident of Kensington and Chelsea, writes that her account (quoted from in the essay) was obtained under false premises and that she was misquoted. She feels that the essay is offensive to still-traumatised members of the community, and she wants her contribution removed and for O’Hagan to apologise.
Rather than going into the accuracy or otherwise of the essay (something which more knowledgable people have discussed here, here and here) I was interested in the way O’Hagan responded to Coles. As you might expect of an award-winning novelist, his letter – published just after hers – rewards close reading.
O’Hagan makes clear that he’s someone who understands things. “I understand Melanie Coles’s position,” he says. “In a story of some 60,000 words [how many?] she appears only for a few sentences, and she wants to take them back, and right herself with the Grenfell community.”
O’Hagan understands this very well and though he isn’t angry he is disappointed. Well, maybe a little a bit angry. After all, Coles gave evidence and now wants him “to censor it, and censure me for having taken delivery of them with a friendly face.” A friendly face! “There are complicated freedoms involved,” he adds gravely, “of speech, certainly, but also to do with the freedoms we give away when we share images and evidence with reporters.”
When I read this kind of sentence, I imagine a man in a penguin suit solemnly placing a pineapple at the centre of a table. The issues involved are fantastically “complicated”, and certainly abstract, and unfortunately can’t be discussed here. Suffice to say, if Coles was misquoted it was only in the service of Freedom, or numerous “complicated freedoms”. Just look at that pineapple.
One inaccuracy Coles points to is O’Hagan’s description of Fethia (a student of hers, four years old, killed in the fire) who had lost a white flower the day before. O’Hagan says that Coles thought: “Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things”. Coles says, “I do not think I have ever used the term ‘churned up’ about anything”. The reason she’s hurt by this authorial intrusion – aside from the obvious pain of seeing her words mangled when speaking about something traumatic – is that it’s in the service of an argument which (as she sees it) attacks members of the community and seeks to exonerate the council of blame.
O’Hagan chooses not to deal with this larger argument. His concern – except for making sure everyone understands he understands – is that Coles disagrees with his choice of words. You see, O’Hagan is an award-wining novelist and nothing churns him up more than people criticising his use of the phrase “churned up”.
So despite understanding perfectly that Coles wants her contribution removed from his essay, he spends 1,000 words quoting directly from (friendly) interview transcripts with her. Apparently Coles gestured to her stomach while talking to him. “I felt ‘churned up’ was the exactly right rendering of Melanie’s movement of her hands,” he says. “I can’t say any more than that. I think I made the right decision.”
Understand this – the friendliness muscles around O’Hagan’s mouth are twitching by this point, nine paragraphs in – he wouldn’t have said “churned up” unless they were absolutely the best words in the best order. If you have time, he could reel off a list of other equally exquisite turns of phrase.
Take this, from the same essay, about local residents in the weeks after the fire: “they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding.” I’m sure O’Hagan could draw on pages of interview transcripts which would demonstrate exactly why these were the right words to use too (“15.34: David, while talking about the council, throws his arms in the air in a distinctly whore-at-a-wedding fashion”).
In paragraph 10 of his response, O’Hagan gets closest to confessing he doesn’t understand everything: “I find it hard to understand those who see my motives quite differently.” But then – a pattern is emerging – he goes on to offer a theory anyway: people just can’t take that he has compassion for the accused as well as for the victims. They have a problem with his friendly face, his compassion, his novelist’s power of empathy. And he’s disappointed. “I think it’s a shame,” he says, “but I understand it.”
He concludes by writing that the Grenfell Action Group, though “admirable” and eloquent in advocating on behalf of residents, lives in “an echo chamber… a festival of Them and Us.” He’s disappointed, not angry. As passionate as they may be, they can’t speak or see beyond themselves; they are incapable of translating the suffering of their friends and family members into poetry.
Luckily, my name is Andrew and I understand. I’m an award-winning novelist – please, don’t be intimidated. There’s such a thing as an echo chamber. It means that however loud you scream no one will hear you. But I have this ability – let’s call it understanding – which allows me to see beyond it. So take me at my word when I say it’s not Them and Us, but – read my lips – Me and You. People often say I have a friendly face. Would you agree? Listen, I understand. Now look at this pineapple. Isn’t it pretty? Are they normally so big? Like a hundred pointy-hatted gnomes dancing on a Russian satellite. Yes, it’s true. I’m a writer.