Sometimes our own kids come up with something. True, mine are older than some forum members; but one of my daughters, early thirties now, was home this afternoon talking about the Manchester riots. She’s lived there for fifteen years now, and knows the street culture inside out: it’s her job, she produces what I condescendingly call crap TV programmes, all focusing on many of the streets and the estates that produced the rioters. Snog, Marry and Avoid; Britain’s Next Top Model; and, presently, on some new and I’m sure disgusting programme about Liverpool families, it’ll hit the screens next year. She’s really good at it; she must be, because she’s managed to steer clear of London, which is difficult in that business. She loves Manchester, just like so many young people do. Apart, that is, from spoilt-rotten foreign footballers.
I knew her take would be interesting. She started, as I knew she would, with the laughs. You wouldn’t believe it, she said. This crowd smashed the windows of the shoe shop and went in and stripped the place. But it was only when they got home that they realised that every single shoe was for a left foot....it never occurred to them that the shoes on display are always like that...talk about thick....
But then she stopped herself. She looked a bit guilty calling them that. You know what I was told one of them said? That it was the best day of her life. And I do know what that girl must have meant: I mean, the buzz of it. And the solidarity! The Endz were ignored; the gangs weren’t fighting each other. They were all together, finally as one. There couldn’t have been anything more exciting than the rush felt by that crowd...
We can all remember such moments, fleetingly, and on a much smaller scale. I remember only too well watching Little Richard in a cinema in 1963, the last act on a package show that included Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers and The Rolling Stones. Nobody could follow Little Richard; and when he, from the stage, implored us, the crowd, to cause mayhem, seats were ripped out and general damage was endemic. The cinema management was overwhelmed: Rip It Up became a call to arms. It was only months before Richard discovered God; he was playing for the Devil that night.
But if we, my friends and I, grammar school boys all, felt the buzz of excitement as we committed acts of petty vandalism, we who were destined for A Levels, Universities and careers – how must it have been for those with no future in 2011? For those who only wanted what is provided by JD Sports and Currys? What must it have felt like, with the police, the mortal enemy, their persecutors on a daily basis, running away? With shops glistening in front of their eyes? With the power of the crowd behind them? With their daily bitter rivals standing by their side, shoulder to shoulder?
Come on....some of us were brought up on Rip It Up; many of us, given the demographic here, were brought up on White Riot, on London’s Burning, on Eton Rifles.
And come on, the position now is much, much worse in those places than 1978, let alone 1963. We have, in this country, never worked out how to replace the factories that instilled a work/time discipline into a workforce instilled with a Methodism that so precisely serviced an industrial economy. We, bizarrely, still have the estates that serviced that stage of capitalism; but, unfortunately, we have no factories.
We have an educational system still geared to that economic model. Huge secondary schools that resonated with Mills and Steelworks; but now stand, alone and forsaken, as the largest institutions in town.
And we have a society where the richest keep on getting richer – but now, unlike the 1950s, everyone, through TV and the Internet, through adverts and shop windows, can see precisely what wealth can buy.
And, if the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. And we, mostly the middle classes, even we can tangibly feel the squeaze of the times.
Yes, Garth, it’s shit that these kids burned down the independents, the local guys. But they know no different. They just needed at least one buzz in their lives.
We have a real problem; but there’s no sense whatsoever in demonising the very kids that we ourselves have created.
Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever been called a liberal. Does it ever occur to you, Des, that the reason that those who came late to this forum found it impossible to remain is because of your insufferable smugness? I’m sorry to have spoiled your serendipity; and promise not to comment again.
Umm, Pete I don't mind that you promised Des never to post again, but I would gladly take it as a great favour if you would promise me to post again — and more frequently. You always have interesting and worthwhile insights. This was no exception. I doubt I am alone in hoping to read more from you.
I thought your comments re your daughter's career pretty damn hilarious and agree with her comment about the thickness of the rioters — gleaned for me from a few TV comments of their own verbiage. Their thickness, which comes not from their natural abilities but from their conditioning, is of course a huge part of the problem. Not to be overly personal about it, but I do feel that what your daughter does for a living is part of the problem. Perhaps you could persuade her to use her skills to more positive ends. Yeah, I know . . .
Of course, when we were younger we all did things that we wouldn't do today. It's not worth discussing except to remind ourselves of the common humanity we do, in fact, still have with young people.
I think one of the main purposes of art is to either see over the horizon or to see more deeply into whatever it is that we humans get into. This whole riot thing has been foretold many times, including in the songs you mention (even if not specifically and literally). As far as young people getting out of hand and acting cruelly, "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding is worth bearing in mind at this time.
I was just on the point of welcoming Pete back with a long-time-no-see and thank him for that thoughtful considered piece when in marches Des with a stupid and rude comment which made me feel -why bother? I think Pete is extremely tolerant when the worst he can accuse Des of is 'smugness' - I could think of plenty of stronger -and more accurate- descriptions.
The riots have been on my mind all week. Like Garth I just got a bit sickened and depressed by it all. But at the same time couldn't help wanting to read more and say something. Some of you may have noticed a few things on fbook.
These are clearly the worst we've ever had. The country stinks in many ways, from top to bottom, and they just sum it all up. Having been at Heysel and the Poll Tax thing, and worked defending lots of the 81 Toxteth rioters, I'd thought I'd had enough of them for a lifetime. But I was younger then, and despite it all this still seemed a decent country. It doesn't seem to be now, not in any apocalyptic sense but in the tone of everyday life - the anxiety, the edginess, the rudeness, the falsity, the workaholism. Add a few of your own. Yeah I know it's not all bad and the picture varies across the country. But as I said it's been a gloomy week.
Thus the more intelligent thought we can put into thinking seriously about how to get beyond the mess, the better. But the knee jerk reaction of lefties calling David Starkey - inaccurately- 'racist' was another depressing aspect today. And Des's ungracious labelling of Pete is of exactly the same stripe. You could at least try to say something.
No but while London burned, where were you? Down at Horseguards watching the beach volleyball.
(I think that is the first, and definitely the last time I've abused somebody in the seven years I've been on this forum)
I seem to be saying goodbye to quite a few things and people this year. Maybe it's time to give SOTW a break too, at least for a while.
I thought Pete's excellent piece stood out from amongst the acres of newsprint I've seen on this subject. It's especially refreshing to me to find someone questioning the very fabric of the schools. Hardly bleeding-heart liberal, I'd have thought.
There's a lot to process here, so if what follows seems more than usually incoherent I apologise.
About 5 o'clock on monday I walked across Hackney Downs. There were three helicopters over Mare Street. Two were stationary and a third was diving and swooping and buzzing the Pembury Estate. As I reached the crossroads there was a line of empty buses running all the way down Amhurst Road towards the station. I could see the police had the Pembury sealed off. Lots of people were walking away from from whatever was going on. Others were waiting hopefully at bus stops. At the end of Amhurst there was a loose line of riot police with clubs and shields. Behind them were a number of police cars with their windows broken. There were people of all ages and races milling about – the atmosphere was good natured and a little bemused. The Police were clearly very jumpy. At this point two carriers of riot police rolled down Amhurst Road. A kid on a bike pulled up in front of one of them and refused to move. It looked like a small moment of heroism. The crowd pushed in around him to protect him – phones held high – capturing the moment but everyone aware that we might be witnesses (to what?). Eventually he was shoved out of the way (to howls of booing and abuse) and both carriers rolled to a halt by the line of riot police. Then the cops came out of the carriers – clearly terrified, huddled together, clubs drawn, scanning the skies for incoming. The boys behind me stood there smoking weed calmly chatting and laughing. Old ladies with shopping bags cussed under their breath. The line of police started to move forward into the crowd. At which point I felt the atmosphere change and got out of there. There was a time when I would certainly have stayed. It looked like a bad day on Mare Street but not significantly worse than a lot of things I'd seen before. I got the train up to Stoke Newington and walked down the high street doing the shopping I'd originally planned to do on Mare Street. The atmosphere was er, tense. Very, very tense. It was about six a clock. The helicopters suddenly scattered. I got in and turned on the telly. The first thing I saw was a blond BBC reporter standing on Dalston Lane in front of my mother-in-laws flats. She was talking rubbish about the area, getting the street names wrong and contradicting herself. Max rang Merle to see if she was OK. She was watching the telly – not the news – utterly unaware of what was going on outside. I cooked dinner. The smell of smoke was starting to get into the house – I could see a couple of columns over smoke over the Pembury.
After an evening in front of the news (and many “are you OK, whats happening your end”) phone calls (someone rang to say there were a couple of Armed Response cars in Clapton Square – some very posh and very expensive houses a spit away from The Pembury) I emptied my pockets and went out to take a look.
The streets were (surprise) unusually empty. An angry Irish crack ho approached me asking for money. Obviously the prostitution/cocaine economy had been disrupted for the night. I refused and she took a swing at me while her friend/pimp/whatever stood and watched. I ducked down a side street and headed for the main drag. I could feel something in the air. Pressure. Without coming on all strummeresque I'd have to say that the only time I'd felt anything like it before was in West Kingston. I felt frightened and sick and very visible. It was pretty chilly for an August evening but it felt icy. The Turkish shopkeepers were standing in front of their shops - some of them with baseball bats. A couple of them greeted me which made me feel a little better. I should say at this stage that there are persistent rumours that some of the Turkish shops are fronts for heroin importation so they are not universally admired. ( Suzanne Moore repeated this in the Guardian as though it was a fact without giving any source for her information). I don't know whether it's true or not. A lot of people believe it is and are not enthusiastic about having the area policed by gangsters.
The damage to property was actually not enormous here in Hackney. Contrary to press reports most of the damage was to shopping centres and chain shops. But there was something else going on here as well. London Fields and Dalston are full of young, arty professionals. They were clearly being targeted for street robbery as carriers of expensive stuff – nice bikes, phones, ipods etc. By the end of the night a couple of arty Dalston blogs were calling for tear gas, water cannon, martial law etc. I think it all got a bit urban for the shock troops of gentrification.
I've actually seen worse things kick off on Clarence Road. Burning cars in the dark look much more spectacular on the TV.
The thing that struck me most was how we've come to accept as a normal a continual low level of violence on the street. The images of the Malaysian student (which incidentally was in Barking – if there were riots there it hasn't been reported) being robbed showed an occurrence so normal here that it usually passes without comment and is almost never reported to the police. The victims of this kind of crime are usually teenage males. Not altogether surprisingly they don't regard the police as their protectors. They are basically defenceless.
I'm sure I'll find out that I know some of the people in court over the next few days. My kids were both out of town. Aged 14 and 17 their mates exactly fit the media's demographic for looters. (Black and brown and poor and living in council housing).
Speaking of the media – did anyone else notice the images of blonde yummy mummys sweeping the streets in Clapham with their home made “looters are scum” t-shirts? We're being fed a narrative about these people being “the real londoners” while the hooded, faceless (black) kids are granted about as much humanity as The Orcs in Lord of The Rings.
Look - do I have to say that I hated what happened? It feels like you're not allowed to make any comment until you've said that. So I have. It was all utterly explicable – in exactly the terms that Pete expressed. How you change it from the position we're now in, I haven't a clue.
Brilliant posts Hugh & Pete - don't go, stay for Charlie's sake, he so loved having good stuff on the forum.
Des: sigh . . .
Hugh, you mention the knee jerk reactions to Starkie's comments. On live TV wasn't probably the best place for him to make his argument. I'm well aware how Jamaican yardie culture has seeped into working class London lad lingo - hear it all the time on the streets here - that "born fi dead" mentality mixing with gangsta rap's "get rich or die trying" and computer games like Grand Theft Auto all feeding into a belief in a hyper-masculinized world where violence is the only way to resolve anything and money is all that's worth believing in. Misogynistic and homophobic and contemptuous of those who can't resolve things via violence, it's a toxic mix.
That's part of the problem but just part. A culture that leaves huge numbers to sit out their lives on benefits is another. When almost 2 million East European new-EU immigres arrived here looking for (and finding) work a few years ago nothing changed in UK unemployment lines - people have become so accustomed to doing nothing in exchange for free housing and a small amount of money and this leads to some of them wanting what they see the footballers and rappers having. How many looters did you see interviewed claimed they were poor and wanted more? But they weren't taking food or nappies - as in New Orleans post Katrina when people were looting to survive - they were wanting big TVs and expensive trainers and booze and jewellery. Those who work with young offenders who participate in particularly violent robberies say these young men often believe that they are entitled to a lifestyle like Snoop or Beckham and seem unwilling to comprehend that only a tiny number of athletes/entertainers ever reach that level of wealth. Instant gratification - they want it now.
I've no idea of what solutions there are but I do think investing in job creation schemes, post-school education, youth-sports clubs, community groups etc in poor areas at least provides a community with more tools to help those who otherwise might exist in a limbo of benefits and boredom.
Des will not stand his ground if you challenge him. He just enjoys causing trouble. That's OK. Just don't take him seriously. Certainly don't let it cause you to leave the forum. That would be a shame indeed.
I spoke to Ted on the phone and he put his finger on it for me: Power.
Many people who have never had any power in their lives at all got a little taste of it. And it's very intoxicating.