Burnt Alive, Grenfell Tower is watching us

A high-rise of death - that seems alive and watching us. A photo-essay.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
4 July 2017

This was originally published on 4 July 2017. Two weeks before, I had written a piece from afar on the Grenfell inferno as a hecatomb - a mass sacrifice - to neoliberalism. Here, I simply bare witness to what I experienced. It is republished to mark the start of the official inquiry. AB

When I went to Grenfell Tower I noticed the way passers-by glanced up at it, with a wary acknowledgment. Their look had a quality I'd never seen before. They cast their eyes at this

The tower

incidet response.jpg

Like much of London the tower is hugger-mugger with buildings of other periods and styles. It can pop out unexpectedly


Or rise up behind the clutter of London


You see it alongside a passing train

passing train2.jpg

or standing in the distance at a bus stop

Bus stop.jpg

or, incongruously, hidden by the green trees of the estate

behind trees 3.jpg


It disappears from view as you walk down Bramley Road, even though you are getting closer

The streets and passageways around the tower are filled with a galaxy of posters, flyers, notices and memorials, which cluster togther and become more intense the closer you get to the tower itself


This is St Clements to the south of the tower

St Clements.jpg

and this is the Methodist Church to the north. Note the yellow line, it has notices on it forbidding the press from crossing. The public space behind it is for grief whose expression is not to be exploited

methodist church.jpg

In many places testimonies have been covered to protect them from the rain

IMG_1652 2.jpg

New ones are being added:


Everywhere are pictures of those almost certainly consumed by the fire, often desperately proclaimed as missing. Here are a dozen


To the right of the missing notice for Steven Power above is a photo of a young man with RIP in the top left corner. It was put up while I was there by a young woman. She was taping copies within the various displays. She told me he was her cousin, "Three brothers, with their mother and family, on the 21st floor. No help."


That was when I understood the look cast by passers by.

Many go to visit Grenfell as I did, to bear witness, pay respect, recognise responsibility. Last week, among the wanderers on the afternoon I was there, the women showed their distress while men like me took photographs to hide theirs. It is also a busy part of town. Many pass by on the way to work or shop or return home. Before they'd have barely noticed the high rise. Now its presence is proclaimed by the posters as you approach. Instinctively you check it out. 

If we have to pass a pit bull terrier, or some other breed of dangerous animal, we keep an eye on it without seeking to provoke it. Our glance is a momentary cocktail of loathing, respect, caution, fear and repugnance as well as a touch of curiosity. It is a familiar, instinctive reaction.

Never before have I seen it cast upwards, high into the sky, as if the aim is to skirt a monster.

The glance shows that people react to the tower as if it is alive.

It is alive.

While the remains of the beautiful young man and his brothers and their mother and their neighbours lie on the top floors open to the elements, the tower is an unconsecrated high rise - occupied by the souls of those to whom we have not yet said farewell.

It is alive with their restlessness.

With injustice.

And with significance. The building still pulses with a dark inferno of neoliberal greed and inhumanity that deregulated, cut costs, outsourced and clad it; a system that strips responsibility from government and says there is no alternative.

When Martin Moore-Bick was appointed to head the enquiry into what happened at Grenfell, he went there and told the BBC, "I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like that building which has been completely gutted so that you can see through it".

It is also the other way round. It is as if the the building sees through us.

Will his inquiry record what this means or defend society from what it reveals?

You do not get the exactly same sense of the tower as a witness from afar. The victims are not as close. But it is a sentinal. Viewed from the motorway it is a shocking welcome to London.


And it watches us as we leave.

Up close, it also becomes a battlefield - in a new round of conflict over fairness, justice and humanity


I flew to New York soon after the 9/11 attack. openDemocracy had just committed itself to reporting and debating the flaws in global government. Suddently we were engaged with the significance of an unexpected epicentre at the tip of Manhatten. I went to the site of the World Trade Centre. The jagged remnants of its  trademark exterior were still standing. Already there was a viewing platform.

Around it were pictures of the missing, in far greater number than Grenfell. What I remember most vividly was the thick dust that coated the surrounding buildings.

The New York skyscrapers had collapsed under the impact of huge planes bloated with jet fuel. The city, the country and most of the world, rallied against an assault on the innocent that was from outside. Of course, it should never have been exploited in the way it was. But at that moment it called forth solidarity with America even if you regarded its policies provocative. Grenfell is different. The assault has come from within our society.

Here, solidarity with the victims does not lead to sympathy with a system of government.The tower is a great remonstrance against the way both Labour and Conservatives this century have abandoned us to the market. The political and moral implosion of the country's richest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea should be the start of a great unwinding. As Grenfell looks on


and we leave our tributes


All photos by Anthony Barnett, taken with an iPhone and published by opendemocracy under Creative Commons license.

Edited since first posting.

Anthony Barnett's, The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, will be published shortly.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData