7 min read

Watching Grenfell: the lost art of penitence

As Steve McQueen highlights the lack of political interest in his powerful new film commemorating Grenfell, Graham Tomlin contemplates its mesmerising power to bring home the horror of what happened.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

An aerial view across West London towards Grenfell Tower
Courtesy the artist - Steve McQueen, Grenfell, 2019, via Serpentine Galleries.

The camera looks down over fields, the green and pleasant land of England far below. It moves slowly over the landscape until gradually it begins fly over the streets and parks of North London, past Wembley Stadium with its well-known arch, curving into the sky and back down again, and finally, as the urban sounds grow louder, it begins to home in on a small dark rectangular spot in the centre of the screen. As it gets closer, the familiar outline becomes clear. It is Grenfell Tower.  

Today when you go past the Tower, just off the Westway, a major road artery into central London, the Tower, or at least the remains of it, is covered in white plastic sheeting. It’s a kind of compromise between those local people who can’t bear to look at it every day, and those who want it to remain visible as a stark monument to the injustice and greed that led to the fire that killed 72 people in June 2017. 

Steve McQueen is a Londoner, a well-known filmmaker, Director of 12 Years a Slave and winner of the Turner Prize. As the plastic sheeting was about to go up to hide the grim nakedness of the Tower, he wanted to ensure the story of Grenfell was not forgotten, so filmed the building in January 2019 just as the ghostly shroud begun to creep up the side of the building. His remarkable film, simply called Grenfell, has been showing at the Serpentine Galleries in Hyde Park. He recently voiced dismay that few politicians had come to see the film, despite being invited. They really missed something. 

As the camera revolves around the Tower, there is no sound, no commentary at all, as if there are no words to describe what happened here.

The camera homes in on the tower, and gradually begins to rotate slowly around it. We peer into the rooms of this tall, charred block, standing like a black cliff face, a literal tomb in the heart of London. Behind it, there is the gleaming shining face of the Westfield shopping centre, cars driving up and down the slick dual carriageway that flows past it, but the focus is relentlessly on the horror of the Tower in front of us. The camera goes round and round, occasionally drawing out, but then being drawn back in, mesmerised by the blackness, the darkness, the shell of the Tower and the ghosts of the lives it destroyed.  

Watching it brings on a mixture of fascination and nausea. Nausea from the relentless circular motion of the camera. Fascination at the details – pink plastic bags of debris in what was someone’s living room; the remains of a kitchen cabinet that had somehow survived the inferno. And for me personally, as the Bishop of Kensington at the time, memories of being there on the day, watching the tower burn; talking and praying with dazed survivors, evacuated from the blocks around Grenfell; listening to firefighters with the agonising dilemmas of trying to reach the highest floors, with breathing apparatus that wouldn’t allow them to get there. As the camera revolves around the Tower, there is no sound, no commentary at all, as if there are no words to describe what happened here. We see into the flats that were once homes, with kitchens, bedrooms, toys and family mementos. We look into the haunting floors at the top of the tower in which many of the victims died, pushed upwards by the flames and the advice to stay put until help came, but of course none ever did.

It doesn’t annul the pain, doesn’t offer easy, facile optimism, pretending that the awfulness doesn’t matter. Yet it makes contemplating it bearable. 

Watching the film reminded me of standing before a medieval painting of the crucifixion, such as Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece. Pilgrims would stare for hours at such paintings to bring home to their hearts and minds the consequences of their sins, and to help them resolve to live differently. We don’t do penitence well in our culture. This is a penitential film, and it’s what the politicians who didn’t turn up to watch it have missed.  


an altarpiece depicts the crucifixion of Christ.
The Isenheim altarpiece

Steve McQueen, just like Matthias Grünewald, wants us to look hard at the reality of what we have done - innocent life lost in the most horrific way. The altarpiece focuses on the intense suffering of Christ, the stretched sinews, the blood pouring from the wounds, the agony of those helplessly watching on. Just like this film that keeps your eyes fixed on the shattered shell of a building, the painting doesn’t let your eyes stray from the grim reality.

Yet there is a difference. Just faintly in the dark distance of Grünewald’s painting are the glimmers of dawn. On the horizon, the sky lightens, just a little. It is of course a reference to Resurrection, just around the corner. It doesn’t annul the pain, doesn’t offer easy, facile optimism, pretending that the awfulness doesn’t matter. Yet it makes contemplating it bearable. It allows you to focus on the revulsion, yet makes it endurable by offering the hope of Resurrection. And as Christian thinkers and pray-ers have insisted over the years, you only get to Resurrection through death, not by avoiding it.  

At the time of the fire, I remember doing numerous media interviews with news outlets from across the world, with journalists hungry for some words to satisfy the global fascination with this tragedy. What could I say? What could possibly make sense of such a thing? I resolved that in every interview I would try to acknowledge the dreadfulness of what had happened, but also to strike a note of hope - that that despite what had happened, lives could be rebuilt, a community could find healing, then there was a road out of pain, one day, to peace – all because I am a Christian, and therefore have to believe that resurrection follows death. 

Steve McQueen's brief film is compulsive watching. If you get a chance, you really should see it as something that brings home the horror of Grenfell more than anything I have seen. It is Grenfell’s Good Friday. Grenfell’s altarpiece. Watching it with Christian eyes, however, I kept looking for the glimmers of dawn. 

Grenfell has been subject to a huge amount of commentary since the fire. There are those on the left who see it as a monument to corporate greed and capitalist rapaciousness. They demand Justice for Grenfell, which for many, means locking up or punishing the guilty. There are those on the right who see it a simply a dreadful accident that could have happened anywhere. One side calls it a crime. The other calls it a tragedy. Which was it?

The Left is perhaps rightly consumed with anger, demanding justice, legal convictions as resolution. Many on the Right look for a while, yet eventually avert their gaze, thinking it of it as one of those things, just an awful tragedy. I remember a Council official saying to me: “Well, one day, we just have to move on from Grenfell.”  

What happens beyond lament? It is one thing to grieve those who died. It’s also something else to critique the failures that lead to it. Issuing prison sentences to the guilty may satisfy the desire for justice, but doesn't in itself bring about a new, hopeful, common life that renders simply unimaginable the pattern of moral compromise and sheer carelessness for the safety of others that led to Grenfell. On the other hand, simply consigning it to the category of awful accidents doesn't take seriously the grievous sins that led to the fire, and fails to give due recognition to the suffering of those who died.  

Neither left nor right can offer us a sure way forward. That is where we are short of vision at the moment. An event like Grenfell easily falls off the radar of public attention because we don't want to look at it. Any maybe that is because we're not sure it will ever get any better. We need a way to keep looking at something painful until it is healed. That is the point of penitence - to go back to painful places in our lives to find healing. Yet you can only really do that if you believe healing can be found, that death ends in life, not the other way round. 

The Christian story that holds together death and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter Sunday enables us to look at death and tragedy and horror full in the face as this film so eloquently enables us to do. It enables penitence to be hopeful, not hopeless. Yet, it also enables us to bear it, because alongside it, it says that there is a reality beyond both crime and tragedy, that is not just retributive justice but a deep underlying trajectory of the world that is headed for life not death. 

Of course, the Resurrection is not a political solution. It doesn’t convict the guilty or dictate future housing policy, important as those are. But it points us to the deeper reality - that perhaps what we need today is not so much political but spiritual renewal. We need a deeper vision of life and death that gives us a reason to hope, that offers a future. We need a bigger story, a story that kindles hopefulness, that can stir hopeless hearts and the glimmers of dawn, even in the darkness of a world filled with so much pain.  

1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  


Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen)