Emma Williams

the community magazine paying tribute to grenfell

Off The Block is a “vehicle for opinions, allowing for diverse reflections on the event and its social and cultural implications”.

by Salma Haidrani
01 May 2018, 9:23am

Emma Williams

There’s no doubt that the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 71 residents last June, is now etched on the London landscape. Take last year’s Notting Hill Carnival, a much more sombre affair. Or the fire revealing not only the depth of London’s social divide, but the magnitude of government contempt for the capital’s working-class communities.

Photography: Kofi Kwei

In the aftermath, both leading parties shifted blame, with Corbyn slamming the fire as a casualty of the legacy of Tory austerity, while PM Teresa May claimed the issue with tower block cladding began under Blair.

With arrests yet to be made nearly a year later, and at least 24 survivors having attempted suicide, the callous indifference of the British government continues to see no signs of ceasing, with Kensington and Chelsea Council proposing to axe 15 volunteer therapists earlier this year another example. It’s unsurprising then that the tragedy has -- quite rightly -- drawn comparisons to the Hillsborough disaster.

Photography: Gift Gwambe

It’s this that motivated final year Cambridge University student Francesco Loy Bell to launch Off The Block, the first magazine to pay tribute to Grenfell, celebrating the strength of survivors and west London, Loy Bell’s hometown. “I’m from West London so focusing the issue on Grenfell allowed me to do something small to help my area and community,” Francesco tells i-D.

With survivors still living in hotels ten months on despite being strung along by a series of false promises, and with Grenfell’s one-year anniversary steadily approaching, Off The Block couldn’t have come at a more poignant time.

Photography: Erika Bowes

Spanning 200 pages, the publication sets out to “reflect on the tragic event and explore the reactions to it from both the government and the community”.

When Londoners’ voices have been erased from the housing inequality debate, as politicians merely pay lip service, Off The Block is particularly pertinent, serving as a “vehicle for opinions, allowing for diverse reflections on the event and its social and cultural implications.” Hence Francesco’s only criteria when compiling the magazine was to ensure that the bulk of contributors were from the capital. “The majority of our contributors are Londoners, so the issue has a very local feel to it,” he tells i-D.

The spreads, spanning interviews, artworks, photography and opinion pieces, are undoubtedly jarring and tragic, from firefighter Ricky Nuttall’s poem reflecting on his guilt and subsequent PTSD, to former Young People’s Laureate for London, Caleb Oluwafemi’s diary entries, written on the night of the fire and over the following months. “The writing is haunting and beautiful and the rawness of the content is incredibly moving,” Francesco tells i-D.

Photography: Emma Williams

And with Off The Block also functioning as a fundraiser, proceeds are set to be split between a number of youth support charities and creative outlets.

The magazine’s celebration of the wider community’s contribution in the aftermath is particularly poignant when mainstream media depictions of Grenfell and its aftermath have been hijacked by negative rhetoric. Like when protesters, who took to the streets of London last June, were mocked by the right-wing press for brandishing placards that featured spelling errors. Or the ‘Grenfell fraudsters’ coverage garnering more headline space than those affected by the devastating fire. Even the news that survivors were set to be rehoused in a £2bn apartment block was slammed, with one wealthy resident threatening to move out and another claiming that property prices would supposedly inevitably fall.

Was Off The Block a conscious decision then to celebrate the positives that could be gained, in the wake of the horror? “You had people across the community opening their homes, lending assistance on the ground and flooding help centres with their donations,” Francesco agrees. “A big part of the magazine is about a Londoner’s intrinsic instinct to look after their own, something that I think really came to the fore.”

Photography: Erika Bowes

When Grenfell has simply been reduced to a death toll, contributors and west London collective Something To Hate On (SHO)’s 9-page spread titled “Local Heroes”, celebrating little-known locals and business owners integral to the community response, is particularly powerful. Locations include 30-year-old community stalwart and convenience store Zagros Foods donating water bottles or Acklam Village, which became a focal point for the surrounding community response.

While one-third of SHO, Max Clarke says it was memorable connecting with fellow locals on conversations that go beyond ‘How are you? But it was an emotionally taxing experience to capture. “There’s a sadness in the area, the anger won’t disappear,” Max tells i-D. “The people feel betrayed by their government.” While he acknowledges that “it’s a shame that it takes such a tragic event to bring everyone together,” Max does concede that it’s “nice to see that community is still alive. West London was built on community.”

With 14-foot billboards erected outside Grenfell emblazoned with the words “71 Dead”, “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come?” -- inspired in part by those in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri -- and the likes of Stormzy slamming Teresa May at the BRITs, is it the responsibility of ordinary Londoners -- and mainstream figures at that -- to keep Grenfell at the forefront of national conversation? While Francesco says that “the onus shouldn’t be on us to make leaders see sense”, he maintains that they, along with hundreds of community and awareness groups, have “been inspirational and integral in putting pressure on the government to take action. I think it’s a responsibility of any Londoner,” Max concurs. “If ordinary people don’t shed light on issues that should be known, then who’s left to do it?”

Photography: Kofi Kwei

London’s boldness and creativity is deftly interwoven throughout Off The Block, from interviews with the likes of stylist and creative director Violetta Kassapi and DJ Amy Becker, to writer and journalist Cora Delaney. Meanwhile, photographs of self-identified ‘fat, queer femme’ Enam Equra Adjoa Asiama smiling back at the camera on a patch of grass evoke a sense of optimism, a welcome relief from the intense emotions that Off The Block can elicit.

Championing the vibrancy and diversity of London life in a year that’s been blighted by devastation was intentional. “We wanted Off The Block to be a reminder that the people who make up the body of this fantastic city still have so much in the way of positive creativity to share,” Francesco tells i-D.

Ultimately, Francesco hopes the first issue will resonate with readers as the anniversary of the fire approaches, motivating them to reflect on the tragedy, speak out and to get involved: “I guess the aim is to allow our readers to look at Grenfell, London and issues affecting British youth in a new light.”

Order Off The Block’s first issue here .

off the block