March 08, 2020

Juvenal and Grenfell Tower: Will satirised social disaster ever reach its expiry date?

I remember the fits of giggles that erupted in my school classroom as we marvelled at Juvenal’s piercing and playful urban commentary for the first time. As just a babbling schoolgirl, I thought the third satire was obviously ancient but still so strikingly modern.

It is no ground-breaking concept that humour relies on its cultural and social specificities to produce a humorous effect. Roman jokes seldom reach our modern ears with the same vivacity that they would with contemporary reception. Juvenal’s third satire has defied the odds in many senses, still resonating with the disgruntled flat-sharers in Peckham, who feel cheated by their landlords in a city so multicultural and ‘Greek’ that inequalities of all kind are ever-present in daily life.

There is very little scholarship published on the third satire after 2017, and the theses which dominated before were preoccupied with linking the speaker Umbricius’ descriptions of boisterous Rome with the Trojan War – making this urban disaster seem, in a sense, like something noble worth fighting for.[1] Umbricius therefore became a mock Aeneas, the fire-crisis mimicked burning Illium, and the survivors of this nocturnal panic ought to be thankful that they could set sail in this epic drama and found a new city.

Juvenal’s depiction of the night horrors, of course, foster an obvious use of hyperbole and exaggeration, amplifying them beyond the tolerable. Fires in ancient Rome were more common than twenty-first century London, yet nonetheless, there is something so diachronic about the imagery he uses.[2] The picture Juvenal paints is eerily familiar: an inner-city landscape, filled to the brim with tower blocks where devious landlords prop up accommodation, masking the building’s faults without actually fixing them.[3] Disasters which occur as a result are both racialised and classist.

In 2016, £2.6 million worth of external cladding was erected around Grenfell Tower – for the purpose of improving heating efficiency, and to, more crucially, make the council block look like less of an eyesore for its elite Kensington and Chelsea neighbours. During construction, an alternative cladding with better fire resistance was recommended – but of course, was ignored.[4] That same cladding has now been linked to the exacerbation of the fire in the tower block which killed 72 people in the worst residential fire seen in Britain for half a century.

After Rome’s great fire in 64 AD, Emperor Nero ordered people to rebuild their properties with at least the lower storey made of stone to combat the former, poorly built and flammable timber frames. Yet, the upper parts of these insulae were very often still made from flimsy wood, leaving those wretches living at the very top ‘among the pigeons’ to fry in a fire.[5] Sadiq Khan admitted the fire brigades only had the resources to reach the twelfth floor of Grenfell – leaving the upper twelve residential storeys to watch the tower burn from beneath them in the government’s ‘stay put’ policy.[6] At least Juvenal’s Roman parallel escaped while he could.

Juvenal’s destitute victim of the hellish urban fire, Cordus, stands out in the satire as a climax of indignation. After listing his meagre possessions, Juvenal reveals that the bloke lost everything he had in the blaze. To add insult to injury, poor Cordus was left with no compensatory shelter to stay in or goodwill handouts from the public.[7] We may see this as obtusely pre-modern, but as of June 2019, 17 of the former residents of Grenfell Tower had still not been provided with permanent homes.[8]

At the heart of the ongoing Grenfell inquiry and Juvenal’s satire is the issue of social inequality – the destitute poor suffering at the whim of the rich. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of the most densely populated areas in England, with one of the worst disproportionate wealth divides in the city. It houses London’s highest average income workers, living unnervingly near above-average poverty rates.[9] Juvenal’s disgruntled image of second century Rome isn’t too dissimilar: when a rich man’s house burns down, there is public mourning, damming criticisms of urban disasters and donations to the victim – outcomes so profitable that rumours spread that the rich man in fact started the fire himself.[10] Is it unsurprising, then, that public discourse was quick to point out the benefits that the burning Grenfell would have had on the wealthy residents of North Kensington?

Both the satirised and the modern example can be viewed through a racialised narrative too. Umbricius is a well-to-do Roman moaning about the Hellenization of his city. The main demographics of the residents in Grenfell Tower were asylum seekers, Muslims and BAME and white working class.[11] Social commenters have viewed the fire as a metaphor for the displacement of ethnic minorities in modern Britain – in the same way that Juvenal’s Umbricius is setting off for rural Cumae to escape the overbearing, Greek-ified Rome. Both the modern and ancient satirised examples reveal that attention is not, and has not been, paid to risks for marginalised groups.

Historiographical writers would claim that no piece of writing is ever read the same way twice. Words constantly change and fluctuate as they are seen by new eyes, in a new time, within a new environment. The same invective fiction I once cackled at in my classroom, now has sombre overtones. Cordus is no longer the poor sod we laugh at in this urban ruckus, he is one of the 223 people who found themselves homeless on 15 June 2017. The complicit landlords who assured their Roman tenants they could sleep soundly amidst the housing hazards aren’t just stock stereotypes, they are the government officials who chose to use cheaper flammable cladding on social housing in order to keep their pockets full.

Satirising social disaster will probably never reach an expiration date. Making light of tragedy is in many respects a coping mechanism, and dissatisfaction will always be a primary element in satire. Perhaps it’s our collective authority to decide when parodying social, classist and racialised tragedies will become obsolete, in the same way that Juvenal’s satirised misogyny recently has.

As the incinerated skeleton of Grenfell still looms over the London skyline three years on, for many, I suspect, the expiry date on such humour was 2017.


Bibliography

Juvenal

Juvenal, Satires III, trans. Peter Green (Penguin Books, 1967)

Baines, V. (2003) ‘Umbricius’ Bellum Civilie: Juvenal, Satire 3’ Greece and Rome, Vol. 50, p. 220-237.

Bradshaw, H. C. (1923) ‘Rome: A Note on Housing Conditions, Etc’ The Town Planning Review, Vol. 10, p. 53-55.

Colton, R. E (1966) ‘Echoes of Martial in Juvenal’s Third Satire’ Traditio, Vol. 22, p. 403-419.

Fredericks, S. C. (1979) ‘Irony of Overstatement in the Satires of Juvenal’ Illinois Classical Studies, Vol. 4, p. 178-191.

Lowenstein, S. F. (1965) ‘Urban Images of Roman Authors’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 8, p. 110-123.

Moodie, E. K. (2012) ‘The Bully as a Satirist in Juvenal’s Third Satire’ The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 133, p. 93-115.

Staley, G. A. (2000) ‘Juvenal’s Third Satire: Umbricius’ Rome, Vergil’s Troy’ Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 45, p. 85-98.

Grenfell Tower

Baker-Jordan, S. (2017) ‘Racism and Classism Killed the Residents of Grenfell Tower’ huffingtonpost.co.uk [https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/skylar-bakerjordan/grenfell-fire_b_17104044.html?guccounter=1]

BBC News, (2018) ‘How the Tragedy Unfolded at Grenfell Tower’ bbc.co.uk [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-40272168]

Foster, D. (2017) ‘Would a White British Community Have Burned in Grenfell Tower?’ nytimes.com [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/opinion/london-tower-grenfell-fire.html]

Hurst, G. (2020) ‘Grenfell Tower Safety Experts Knew Plans Would Increase Risk, Inquiry Told’ thetimes.co.uk, [https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/grenfell-tower-safety-experts-knew-plans-would-increase-risk-inquiry-told-rhtggmqk6]

Mills, J. (2019) ‘Grenfell Victims Still Living in Temporary Accommodation Two Years Later’ metro.co.uk [https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/09/grenfell-victims-still-living-temporary-accommodation-two-years-later-9141649/]

Preston, J (2019) Grenfell Tower: Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan)



[1] Baines (2003), Staley (2000), Colton (1966).

[2] Bradshaw (1923), p. 54.

[3] Juvenal, Satire III. 195.

[4] Hurst (2020) thetimes.co.uk.

[5] Bradshaw (1923), p. 54.

[6] BBC News (2018)

[7] Juvenal, Satire III. 209.

[8] Mills (2019) metro.co.uk.

[9] Preston (2019), p. 31.

[10] Juvenal, Satire III. 212-222.

[11] Preston (2019), p. 33.


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