Thursday, 11 August 2011

London's Burning

There’s a scene near the beginning of Transmetropolitian, Warren Ellis’ and Darrick Robertson’s black sci-fi comedy about a campaigning journalist called Spider Jerusalem, when the City (it’s always just “the City” as though it was all and yet none of them) is ablaze with rioting. Spider stands on a rooftop above the crackling flames and the cranking of batons on heads and the dull thuds of rubber bullets being pumped against the young. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I feel a column coming on.’

High above the violence that, from memory my copy is somewhere in the West Midlands, Spider has helped cause through the arrogance of his moral right he sits and bashes out a vitriolic attack on both the perpetrators and the authorities. The smell of burning rubbish and cordite helps him find inspiration. Spider has to be on the inside in order to write.

Spider, fortunately, is only made up. This isn’t like that. I’m not like that.
But he City, this City, my City, and others have been ablaze and I can’t ignore it.

After all, I wrote it first.

On Thursday, my Kiwi friend almost got caught up in the shooting that sparked the whole fucking mess. Trying to cycle across the Tottenham viaduct she was turned back by police and sent the long way round, whilst in the distance men with guns surrounded the mini-cab with its doors open and a shape, motionless, on the floor by the rear wheel.

I was away for the weekend in deepest, darkest, wettest north Wales and so missed all the initial excitement until watching the news on Monday morning. Images of Tottenham’s burning on Saturday night cut through the pain in my legs. The looming totem of the Carpet store on the main drag raged golden orange until it was little but a husk.

As the horde rampaged and destroyed it was clearly dangerous and scary for those on the ground, but I also had a certain degree of respect for the rioters. The police appeared to have acted rashly or maybe inappropriately around Mark Duggan’s death.
The situation in Tottenham seemed deeply antagonistic as years of stop and search over-flowed into public resentment and a frustrated need to articulate complaints. Violence doesn’t necessarily work, but it certainly gets people’s attention. I watched the news, read some accounts online, but didn’t really give it much thought. After all, despite my pseudo-anarchistic leanings it on the other side of the City and already over. Nothing to do with me.

Until Monday night that is.

Monday night when the fires and mobs and broken glass and stolen property filled the City from Enfield in the north to burnt-out Croydon in the south, from eerie ghost filled Woolwich in the east to affluent Ealing in the west they came and they smashed and they looted.

But the thing is, I told you this would happen. Two years ago.

In my still as yet unpublished novel, You’ll never be Joe Strummer, the finale takes place against a London engulfed in riot. Starting up in Tottenham and Walthamstow anarchists and hard-line socialists clash with adherents to the nu-right and both lay into the police when they intervene. My characters find themselves drawn into the chaos, fire and violence unable to be anywhere else. Only in the trauma of a London tearing itself asunder will they find the answers they’ve been looking for: someone to blame, or maybe just themselves. The riot swells through most of the East End until the beltingly hot summer sun that’s scorched the City for months finally breaks into torrents of rain and everyone suddenly feels better, well enough to go home even.

‘How does it feel to have your novel coming true?’ my girlfriend texted on Monday morning. I jokingly replied that I had it already been published, rather than finding myself on a commuter train I’d have been on Newsnight.

But Monday was nothing like I’d imagined.

You see, the big difference between reality and fiction, and indeed between Monday and Saturday, was that one set of rioters were fighting for something they believed to be better and the other, well, who the fuck knows what they wanted.

‘Hey man, let’s get some watches,’ a youth gabbles on some Youtube footage filmed on Clapham High Street outside Debenhams, right before the department store was ransacked. And that’s the problem. Monday night wasn’t about anything bigger than individuals, it was about nicking trainers from Footlocker and laptops from Curries and burning down a family business in Croydon or an ethical supermarket in Ealing or trashing market stalls in Lewisham or tearing the Western Union on Mare Street, Hackney, trying to rip the TVs off the wall in Ladbrookes, torching buses in Peckham and destroying a Greggs in Deptford.

A Greggs for God’s sake. As though anyone is that desperate for pasties and sausage rolls.

Things got a little out of control. Mobs launched down Woolwich high street; a group attempted to raid a Michelin starred restaurant in Notting Hill, smashing their way through the window only to be seen off by kitchen staff armed with frying pans and knives; the Tescos close to flat six was attacked; video footage of the riots showed people helping a young man to his feet before stealing stuff out of his backpack; a man was shot and killed in Croydon, three in Birmingham.

My novel was intended to be a black comedy. This is not funny.

Rumour and counter-rumour spread like wildfire. Someone claimed that both the Venue nightclub in New Cross and the iconic Cat statue in Catford had been destroyed. Both were false. The Guardian labelled the Pembury Estate in Hackney as the epicentre and described barricades, Molotov cocktails and hurled bricks. Someone I know who lives there denies this. And yet the photos of torched cars are definitely in Clarence Street which runs down the side of the estate. Who should we believe? So much news is bound by the gaudy images of the most striking assaults and the ability of reporters to get there, but on the Twittersphere anything goes. You can tell the world false truths and they become real before your fingers have left the keyboard. I hear from someone not prone to exaggeration and who would be in the know that King’s A&E ward was closed due to a gang armed with knives roaming through. Surely this would make the news if it wasn’t being overshadowed by big, fucking fires everywhere, unless it’s all exaggeration, the need to be the centre of attention.

At one point with trouble in New Cross, Deptford, Peckham, Lewisham and Catford I felt utterly surrounded sirens screamed up the Brockley Rise. And yet, in amongst it all there was a very British humour: BrockleyCentral blog posting an update that said: ‘BBC news just described Lewisham as relatively central London. Every cloud has a silver lining.’

Tuesday was even stranger. Conversation and the internet were dominated by increasingly diverse and obscure rioting facts. In the afternoon the rumours started again. News of shops closing early saw people fleeing work to get back to areas otherwise unaffected. A woman sitting next to me on the 630 out of London Bridge talked rapidly into her mobile phone about all the bins in her street being on fire the night before and her co-worker who ran away from the office at lunchtime and refused to come back. A colleague of mine, another Brockley resident, spoke of hearing “intel” that something was going to explode in Lewisham.

Instead all was quiet. False information or people hitting the panic button? Who knows? I was supposed to meet a friend in New Cross for a drink, but everywhere was closed up. The shops, the takeaways, the pubs all were endless lines of steel shutters and hastily hammered in wooden panels giving it the feel of three in the morning yet with the glistening early evening sunshine it was more like an post-apocalypse movie. Still, nothing, in London at least, happened. The main excitement in the south-east was squatters taking over Ladbrookes in Deptford in the name of peace and the spooky sight of Milwall fans marching out of Eltham to defend the streets, whom by Wednesday night would themselves start pelting police with missiles and bottles as though disappointed at having no-one to fight.

London survived, but the violence spread across the country. To Manchester and Birmingham, to Liverpool and Leeds, Wolverhampton and West Bromich, Nottingham and Bristol. Gloucester even. Bloody Gloucester. I wonder whether the local police even knew where the riot gear was kept. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in gentle, rural Cathedral towns.

But, as you know, this ain’t exactly normal.

Magistrate courts have been running a twenty-four hour service to deal with the hundreds arrested, as the trouble seems, at least temporarily, quelled. We need to think about why this happened. On the internet much of the focus seems to be for retribution and future control orders. These veer from the extreme (get the army, who are kind of busy you know, to gun the whole lot down) to the misguided: Do people genuinely not realise that Nottingham’s plans to evict any council residents shown to be involved, or the petition to suspend benefit payments will drive homeless and even poorer people to break the law. Desperation makes you do crazy things.

Yet, I can understand people’s anger. My liberal attitudes struggle to find sympathy for people aspiring to something so ultimately useless as an iPad. I believe in struggle, when necessary, to support an ideal. I don’t condone violence and looting because you fail to distinguish between television glamour lifestyles and real life.

Although, the everyman supporting character, Lucky, in You’ll never be Joe Strummer doesn’t understand the riot. He’s poor, he’s frustrated, but he can’t see the point in getting so het up over words.

Lucky, to be honest, is a bit of cipher. Not a real character, but a vessel for opinions. He’s a deliberate stereotype. But those involved earlier this week are impossible to stereotype. The image of young unemployed drop-out teenagers being to blame is false. Yes, an eleven year old girl was arrested for her part in the attempt to fire bomb a police station in Nottingham. Yes, there is something hugely sinister about trails of discarded sweet wrappers and crisp packets littering the destruction sites. Yes, the two girls who were interviewed by the BBC whilst drunk on stolen rose wine in Croydon at eight-thirty in the morning should have been in bed hours before. But amongst the first to be charged were, apparently, a thirty-one year old teacher and a forty-two year old resident of Brockley who worked for a homeless hostel and was arrested for breaking into Primark in Peckham. This isn’t an age thing.

I can appreciate that people are frustrated at being unemployed or on low wages, that the last vestiges of racism still clinging onto our institutions (although a lot of the rioters were white) are a disgrace, that being priced out of education crushes social mobility, that feeling as though you’re being deliberately kept at the bottom of the heap is an insult; I get all the socio-economical clich├ęs you want to throw around. They’re all true. They all count. They’re part of this. They all help explain why the violence took place, but the direction of it, towards the acquisition of material goods, well I would suggest that a society that is grounded in crass commercialism and notional wealth, such as ours is, needs to look hard at itself.

But then again, what do I really know? I was raised comfortably enough, I went to University, I’m in full time employment and paid well enough to spend my evenings making shit up and passing judgement on people. Maybe I understand fiction people better because I get to control them. Maybe I was setting standards too high for people when I had them riot for a political ideal rather than just free stuff. Maybe the bleak dystopia I drew in You’ll never be Joe Strummer, sent shortly in the future where a selfish, materialistic yet economically shattered society is ruled by a flabby cheeked, floppy haired, principle-free berk called the Boss, I was correct to expect that rioting would come to the streets of London. I just never envisaged that the rationale would be so shamefully shallow and devoid of morals. Like the woman who took to the streets to berate rioters for not fighting for a cause and was ashamed to a Hackney person, I’m ashamed of Britain. Each and every one of us.