Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Heart of Darkness

I grew up in Southall.

It was OK: not much wrong, not much right. I remember listening to a chocolate advert’s jangling soundtrack which proposed we were in the ‘sophisticated 70s’. I wondered how we would remember it in retrospect, and came up with the perfect word: “grey”. I know that seems strange of an era characterised by Marc Bolan, Bowie and Slade.

But the decade went out with a bang. In 1979 the far-right organisation The National Front exercised their democratic right to hold a St George’s Day meeting … in Southall. With the area housing one of the largest Asian populations on the country it was clear and deliberate provocation. The special needs teacher Blair Peach was murdered a short distance from the town centre where police, white racists and young Asian men clashed.

As a thirteen year-old, I was very intimidated by the sight of shops barricading themselves in anticipation. There was an eerie silence, completely out of place during the day. No people, no dogs, no cars, no life at all, except that behind twitching curtains.

Of course, it was hardly the last riot of the era. There was Handsworth, Brixton … Toxteth happened half a block from my cowering grandparents.

I started to pick up how serious things were getting last Monday via Twitter. We switched on the TV and were astonished. And at around midnight, the news started to come in that people were rioting in Ealing. Ealing!

By then, it had been an hour or so since our neighbour’s car had been turned on its side and left in the road. Our neighbours called the police and were in favour of leaving the car in situ, for evidence. But Mr J is a great believer in the ‘broken window theory’ and has plenty of experience turning cars back the right way up again to boot. So with our other neighbour and two groups of young Asian men who appear to have been patrolling the area and who stopped to help us, the car was returned to its normal orientation.

I directed the traffic around the obstruction but, frankly, anyone who can’t see a medium-sized group of men turning a red car over in a well-lit street should probably have their driving licence suspended pending a trip to Specsavers.

The damaged car was put onto our driveway to discourage further mischief and was picked up within the hour by a tow truck arranged by next-door’s insurance – good service! The driver had come via Ealing Common and had had to run a red light to avoid becoming mired in a group of what he estimated at around two hundred fractious people who he felt would have over-run him had he slowed down and stopped.

The Ealing bit was where it all started to go a bit strange for me. While it’s not quite the Elysian suburb with free-running Ambrosia that the media sometimes implied, it does have high property values and not much social housing in the centre. The disaffected underclass would have to bus in, unlike with parts of Islington, Westminster and Stoke Newington (where I have also lived).

The next day, I saw people I recognised being interviewed on the TV. The indignant and traumatised licensee of a bar I used to frequent described how she hid in the kitchen with her sons while people looted her alcohol and till. I think the moment her bar was hit may be caught here. And here is a parallel street where looters tried to break into a Bang & Olufsen shop.

Mr J and I stayed up ‘til about 3, by which time it had been reported that an electrical appliance shop in West Ealing had been targeted too. When we thought it unlikely that anybody else would turn over any more cars outside the house, we went to sleep.

The next day, the streets were heavy with police. Friendly police. But anyone under the impression that they may get another night of free licence would have been emphatically disabused.

Although an officer I spoke to said he was worried that looters may target businesses in Southall, I thought it one of the areas least likely to be surrendered. As somebody put it on Twitter: “Turkish and Asian groups have stood up to & chased off rioters. Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” This referred to Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers who protected their property in parts of north London. This is what looters would have faced in Southall. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, we were assisted by what I’m sure were groups of young Asian men out on patrol.

It’s not that I haven’t seen riots in my lifetime, it’s not that they haven’t been very close by, it’s not that I haven’t been on demonstrations that got scary, and it’s definitely not that I don’t recognise the very serious issues that our poorest neighbours face. I’ve written about it here.

In addition to that, I think we all recognise that the young are being hit disproportionately in this recession. The uneducated young have very few unskilled jobs beckoning and the educated young can look forward to a few more certificates and a lot more debt before a similar (though probably ultimately, less precarious) fate. Basically, there aren’t very many young people who occupy the intersections in the Venn diagram of wages, affordability of debt and affordability of housing.

But while I will talk ‘til I’m blue on the face about those three things: housing expense (due to rarity); less purchasing power of salary for the young; increased starter debt to even get a stake in the game – these riots still seem different.

In the days that have followed, we have seen some of the perpetrators have their five minutes – but in a magistrates dock. Like a demented child’s song, a postman, a Para and a ballerina paraded before us to face the music. No matter how hard my deju vu kicked in the other night, there is something different about his one.

All riots at all times have involved looting. It’s too much to ask that there will be no opportunism at a time of even the most principle-driven protest. But here, the thieving and violence was higher in the mix. All the other riots I can recall had a political heart with a penumbra of criminality. To look at the targets of summer 2011, it seems the other way around.

Is it the stuperous ennui of materialism? Is it hi-tech poverty, where people are philosophical about food inflation running at 4.9% but aspire to a gadget with seventy ring-tones and an app for rating your farts? Did a phalanx of Yahoos, bored in the commercial breaks between ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘X-Factor’ go out to look for pretty stones and come back with a laptop and enough iPhones to draw attention to themselves on eBay? It seems that many eyes were bigger than many bellies on that night, as numbers of large-screen TVs were found the next morning, abandoned at wheezing-distance from their originating shops.

So what should we make of it?

I think the first thing is to remember that summer rioting is not that uncommon, and that it takes a very small number of people to make a very large impact. I think we should also remember that it isn’t just ‘the young’: we turn a generation into an alienated, feared fifth column at our own peril. The streets were full of young volunteers on ‘womble day’, cleaning up with everybody else.

Basically, I agree with those who think that there was a massive criminal component to these events, and the solution for that is normal, measured justice. No cutting off social media, no bringing in the army, no evictions for being a council tenant whose son could probably do with a very strong intervention. Now that the police are actually apparent, they appear to be doing a perfectly good job, and it’s has been pointed out by many before me that Twitter was as much a force for good as evil.

But simultaneously there is a very serious political heart to our present situation and it’s getting worse. The poor are getting poorer and somebody has pulled every other rung out of the ladder upwards.

Joseph Conrad’s seminal ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899) famously inspired ‘Apocalyse Now’. Its theme was that the dark situations in the world parallel and reflect the darkness inside ourselves. Ideally then, we’ll address both the gripping anomie of those who think it’s OK to break a shop window for designer T-shirts, and those who have been disinherited of any real agency in their own lives.

Because the next time English cities riot, we may be facing both riot-shoppers and a more traditional crowd - people with deep and genuine grievances who are at the end of their tethers. They would be a formidable combination.