This week, we’re sharing stories from Luke O’Brien, Jen Gann, Tom Lamont, Norimitsu Onishi, and Sam Knight.
Londoner Tom Lamont spent months reporting — talking to residents, grieving family members, firefighters and their families, community members, recovery workers, and more — to produce this GQ piece on the ins, outs, and aftermath of the the Grenfell Tower disaster. As London spends billions to strip the flammable cladding off other buildings around the city, the people involved with Grenfell Towers are still trying to find peace (or maybe absolution) for the decisions they made during the fire.
Firefighters that night led, carried, and dragged residents away from the fire. And they left residents behind to it. They made hundreds of no-win decisions on June 14, about whether to help those in peril in the stairwell or whether to push on past and try to make it to those farther up. The handing over of a firefighter’s breathing equipment to civilians (always a dangerous temptation) is forbidden by the London Fire Brigade—but it happened, I was told, and it was later forgiven, part of a brigade-wide amnesty on those everyday procedures ignored by firefighters in in this frenzied, dirty, impossible evacuation.
Outside, firefighters had to aim water hoses at one of their own trucks, which had been ignited by all the falling cladding. For many of the evacuating residents, the most terrifying parts of their escape took place once they were outside, running through the area directly in front of the building, which had become a no-man’s-land of tumbling metal. Firefighters began making shuttle runs back and forth, ferrying out evacuees under riot shields.
At 2 A.M., 3 A.M., 4 A.M., hours after the first firefighters had arrived, residents were still trapped. Still waving, still shouting: “Fucking help me.” By 5 A.M., hardly any people were visible in Grenfell’s windows. Firefighters on the ground held their heads, and panted, and were dismally honest with one another: “We’re not going to get everybody out.” When, earlier in the night, they saw a man on the 14th floor, hanging from a windowsill, knotted bedsheets trailing beneath him, they screamed at him to get back inside.
The family had learned to be bullish about the passing of their pub from one lofty brand to another. It never much affected their lives at drip-tray height. In the eyes of their regular customers, the Murphys were the Golden Lion. Their hands were on the taps of Guinness and Guinness Extra Cold, they signed the orders on boxes of Tayto crisps. The Murphys brushed down the pool table before evening league matches and heard the grumbles of anyone who had lost a pound or more in the flashing Dream Machine. They had hosted parties for weddings, christenings, communions. One regular, his photograph kept afterwards on a shelf above the till, had been served a last pint by Mary Murphy before dying on the pavement outside; his wake took place back indoors.
The Golden Lion is a local landmark, a towering red-brick building with a double-peaked roof and a high, pronged chimney. Seen from a distance along Royal College Street, the building looks a little like one of those Chinese cat dolls that wave. Closer, the exterior reveals fancy adornment, carved stone, colourful glazed ceramics, Dutch gables – showy work done when the Golden Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. Its owner back then was a Victorian businessman named Will Hetherington. He put an advertisement in the parish newspaper at the time to boast of his expensive refurbishment, inviting locals to make use of the Lion’s “comfort and convenience”. In a century of successive ownership, the Golden Lion remained always a locals’ pub, used for the most part by those who lived and worked within a few hundred metres of the front door.
Under the Murphys’ stewardship, carpets, curtains, and horsey wallpaper were removed over time, leaving a clean, pale-walled interior with bare wooden floors. The family brought in a jukebox, a dartboard, later a pair of flatscreen TVs, mounted at either end of the saloon and kept tuned, as a rule, to sport, quiz shows, or (on weekend evenings) talent contests. Benches outside were taken up, even in winter, by smokers. In the men’s loo a passing Arsenal fan had felt-tipped a crude club badge above the sink and Dave Murphy, an Arsenal fan himself, had not yet ordered it to be washed away. John Murphy, after decades in charge, had retired for health reasons, and Dave was now responsible for the Golden Lion’s overall management. Though he no longer lived above the pub, Mary did. She still served behind the bar every afternoon and evening.
During their meeting with the Admiral rep, the family were told the Golden Lion had been sold on once more. Not to another pubco, but to a private individual. Dave Murphy remembered the Admiral rep being sympathetic and, speaking candidly, she told them that the man who now owned the Golden Lion “was notorious for shutting pubs down”. After the meeting, Dave Murphy rang around some friends in the business. He read out the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper: Antony Stark.
Had anyone heard of him?
“I was told, this was it,” Murphy remembered. “The Grim Reaper. That if he knocked on the door of your pub, well … it meant the end.”
Tom Lamont’s exhaustive 2015 deep-dive on the death of pub culture in England for The Guardian is worth re-reading, considering the role a bar plays within a community — as watering hole, a place to meet up, or merely where you go to enjoy a book on a summer afternoon — as you raise a pint of Guinness, Smithwick’s, or Bulmers.