“SMILE — you’re on TV.” It is the lifetime ambition of all people today; the only satisfaction held out to us as worth achieving, trumping all the worn-out traditional encouragements to “Hold down a decent job,” “Make something really worth while of your skills,” or, most clapped out of all, “Do your duty’.
The point of all the reality TV shows is to win the envy of your peers by simply being on television. Well, round here we have all been on TV throughout the past week, and I can tell you it is far better not to be. In Kensington, we have been surrounded by the world’s media, hungry to relay the news of the appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower, just three parishes away.
For once, I can compare what the TV news and current-affairs programmes broadcast with what it felt like to be there — if only, of course, in the most arm’s-length capacity.
It is curious to see commentators discover and explain what we know, protest about, and live with: that this royal borough has an unparalleled contrast between hyper-wealth and hopeless poverty; between some of the world’s most expensive houses and the flats from which their impoverished tenants face eviction or rehousing.
It is odd to be told that you have been recognised on TV, when you did not even think you were in shot: in my case, apparently, talking to Jeremy Corbyn when he visited the site during one of the periods when I was on duty there. Petty considerations, shamefully, do intrude: Why film so much by the Methodist church? Don’t they realise that St Clement’s is flying the flag for the Church, with its ready-made community centre mobilising into action in the middle of the night?
What a shame that they missed the shot of the side altar piled high with sanitary products, the sacrament light still burning above: as potent an image of the Church Catholic as you could want. It is like being trapped in an existential loop, to watch on the TV news the angry demonstration that you can hear marching down the street outside, as you deliberate whether it is a good idea to go ahead with a church meeting planned for that evening.
Does the TV coverage help you to make a more informed judgement, or is it heightening the level of threat to make the programme more sensational? Taken across the channels, and just dipping in here and there, the coverage did, I think, inform responsibly: it conveyed something of the utter horror of the event without — from all that I saw — resorting to the most shocking mobile-phone footage of the fire.
The misery and shock of the survivors is something that, sensitively conveyed, we ought to see. The extraordinary drama of the political fallout is so important that it must be registered. Does the presence of the camera mean that tears are shed more freely, voices are raised higher in anger, and sharper accusations are levelled? Yes, I think they are; but it is a price worth paying for the immediacy that TV gives us in such acute times.