Dictating to the Estate; exploring circumstances that led to the Grenfell fire
The idea that inspired Dictating to the Estate
The idea for the play predates the fire. Early in 2017, after hearing a presentation on the subject by Tom Vague, I started thinking of writing something on the history of housing activism in Kensington and Chelsea. I imagined a long, spare, linear narrative, extended over decades and beginning, perhaps, with the emergence of the Notting Hill Trust in the 1960s and ending with the Housing and Planning Act of 2016. I leafed through some old council minutes, picked up a few books on local history and reread, in the vain hope I might learn something from it, Peter Weiss’ 1968 documentary play Discourse on Vietnam.
Then the fire happened.
Although I knew it would change the play, I first resisted the idea of writing about it directly. I had meant to present a history of the little known and the half-forgotten – the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia, the Acklam Road protests against the Westway – and Grenfell was the opposite of all that, inescapably public and actual. The media’s saturation coverage also seemed to pre-empt any further comment, leaving one with the sense that there was nothing more to be said.
The Grenfell Action Group blog
It was around this time that I started reading the Grenfell Action Group blog. Although I knew the Group had predicted the fire, their blog first appeared as just so much disparate and recondite material, and tracing a coherent narrative from it took time. That this narrative – told from the point of view of an interested party with limited information – was always going to be partial was clear, and initially I saw this as a flaw. But slowly I began to consider that what was compelling about it was precisely its lack of hindsight, the fact that it did not know what was going to happen. The same could be said of the other contemporary documents, the council minutes and press releases, that I’d gathered together: their value lay in being free of retrospection.
How Dictating to the Estate represents a dialogue
Writing a documentary play is not like writing a conventional one. For one thing, you do not write it: others do. The work is rather one of gathering, editing and arranging material, rather than coming up with it; and the material you have sets a limit on what you can show with it. Scenes cannot be created at will, events cannot be orchestrated when convenient and characters cannot be introduced where necessary. But although the material is not yours, you do get to know it well, and perhaps more than anything you become very aware of how it is used.
The language of the play, although it appears in a variety of different forms – as commentary, polemic, description and argument – has one thing consistently in common: it is highly instrumentalised. This is why its title, adapted from Rock Feilding-Mellen’s remark to the inhabitants of Longniddry village that: “the village does not dictate to the estate” seemed apt. The play presents a dialogue, but not one whose purpose is the exchange of information or ideas. Rather it is a dialogue of dictation, in which each side speaks not to persuade the other but to prevail over them: to silence, expose or immobilise. As such it has the long, drawn out attritional quality of so many local political struggles. Only unlike those other struggles, it ended not with victory or defeat, but with the fire.