Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A riot of my own

Labour leader Ed Mild'n'bland recites the Serenity Prayer

I've been away from London for over three years now and I can honestly say that not a day goes by that I don't think of her and miss her. You could say, I get a funny feeling inside of me, when walking up and down. Last week I watched my dear old London, my dear old Hackney, burning.

A lot of people are asking the question, why?

As it happens, I have the Question Why right here with me, just like Woody Allen had Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. Together, we will attempt to understand why it is that police shooting someone - tragic as that was - led to several intense days of apparently unrelated mayhem across London and, later, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

When police shoot and kill a young, black man in London and then refuse to show even the most basic of courtesies to his grieving family, outrage and protest is a natural and justifiable response. In a free and functional democracy, you'd expect nothing less. And sometimes protests have turned violent because a single shocking event like that reminds everyone of the chronic racial inequality that seemingly has no cure, despite the bucket loads of earnestness that have been heaped onto it over decades.

It's actually a good thing if people respond aggressively to police shooting citizens. Here in Australia, police shoot people so often that if it makes the news at all, it's usually dismissed as the only possible way of dealing with people who are a bit rowdy and/or suffering from a mental illness.

And it's not as if people haven't rioted in England for the sheer fun of it before and wrecked the shit out of the place. And it's not as if mayhem and opportunism have never gone hand in glove before either. Apparently nearly four hundred cases of looting from bombed-out houses had been reported to the police in the first two months of the London Blitz. So much for standing shoulder to shoulder against that nasty Mr Hitler.

And who could forget Jamie Reid's stickers and their harmonious messages - Save Petrol, Burn Cars and Keep Warm This Winter, Make Trouble and This Week Only: This Store Welcomes Shoplifters that defined the whole netherworld anarchy of the punk-influenced early Thatcher era. Those were fun times. I was there in my guise as a never-to-be-successful musician. We were skint and living in squats but we preferred the term counter-culture to underclass. We never smashed shops. We weren't into trainers and TVs were too big to carry and they weren't worth it anyway if all you got to watch on them was To the Manor Born and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

They tell us it's different this time. People are more downtrodden than ever, but it's not the kind of poverty that makes your belly empty and your shoes in need of a newspaper lining. It's more an absence of knowing what one is missing out on and why. Perhaps you could say it's a poverty of consciousness. (Thanks Question Why, that's very useful. Now could you please tell Barney we need drinks and canapes here. There's a good chap).

They say that while clothing, sports and electrical shops, supermarkets and off-licences were targeted in the smash'n'grab fest, booksellers remained eerily unscathed. And there were stories of looters trying on clothes in H&M and then folding them into branded bags - not exactly Hustler-class in criminal execution, one might conclude. And what was all that about fighting 'the Feds'? Were these rioters so disenfranchised that they'd no idea their adversary is actually called 'the Bill'. No wonder they needed to steal televisions.

Labour leader Ed Mild'n'bland, (pictured above), who interrupted painting his ceiling in a tasteful magnolia low sheen to visit ravaged Tottenham where it all kicked off, concluded philosophically,

'In London, in particular, we know that there are huge areas of wealth that co-exist with huge areas of poverty. Those parallel worlds mean that [poorer] people not only don't have a stake in society but feel that actually what matters in society is something that they can't even reach.'

Do they really? And he would know this how? And what exactly is this 'stake in society', the absence of which causes people to suddenly up and ransack shops for a few days when they'd never done so before and then just as suddenly go back to moping about in an orderly fashion?

I have news for Brother Mild'n'bland - all cities have rich and poor people living 'cheek-by-jowl', as politicians like to say. If they didn't, the rich people wouldn't have flower shop girls to buy their morning button-hole carnation from or grease monkeys to service their Aston Martin. All over London there are elegant Georgian crescents and leafy streets of Victorian terraces next to crumbling council estates and other skimpy social housing and everyone rubs along quite nicely most of the time. And then, suddenly, they don't for a few days. WTF?

The Question Why and I are getting nowhere fast, and not for want of chardonnay, I can tell you. We scour our beloved Guardian for days on end. We cruise what little of BBC TV we ex-ex-pats are allowed. We have to admit we miss The Parliament Channel and that does pull us up short.

And then, we finally come across a flicker of plausibility amongst the conflagration of absurd generalities and panic strikes. We think our old friend Dave Hill is onto something in this piece in The Guardian. Dave says,

'The poorer parts of my profoundly unequal city are marked by long-term and deepening unemployment, ruthless, territorial criminal subcultures and a sense that the London of boom and regeneration has passed them [the disaffected] by.'

It's that 'London of boom and regeneration' that gets us thinking. The riot-hit cities - London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester - are all places that have benefited from major structural regeneration and all the social and economic wealth that flows from it.

The Question Why posits that this doesn't explain why Leeds, Newcastle, Bradford and Sheffield stayed indoors, content to watch the TV they already had - but he would, wouldn't he? So I send him off to get more wine.

I think Dave has hit on a nuance that no one else has adequately explored. There has been no shortage of people suggesting that money spent on reviving desolate town centres, building decent social housing, supporting young families in need via Sure Start and refurbishing recreational facilities that had been rotting away for decades has been pointlessly squandered. As someone who spent fifteen years working on some of those programmes, I admit I have seen a bit of corruption and some, shall we say, headcase schemes masquerading as 'innovative solutions'. But no one could seriously dispute that turning around the physical decline of London and other major British cities was a good thing for the well-being of their citizens, not to mention vital for their survival as places.

What Dave says makes perfect sense to me. There are, inevitably, people who miss out on whatever benefits might accrue from the sort of chaotic revitalisation that tends to be the norm in Britain*. And that void might not be material or even social. It might just be that improving the lives of more people in the most disadvantaged circumstances has the unintended consequence of further marginalising those who become a diminishing and more isolated few. Well, I guess we always knew the wealth 'trickle-down' effect was a scam. But what to do?

Dave Hill proposes,

'London must stop planning simply for growth, for efficiency or for aspiration. It must start planning for serenity too.'

I agree. But how can any big city achieve this now when its very survival depends on its ability to compete? London's forebears knew about the serenity factor, which is how it ended up with all its great parks and duck ponds. It's clear to me, at least, that the only way to retaliate is to meditate.

At last, here's the Question Why back with fresh supplies of wine. As I sip, I begin to slowly croon,

Quiet riot
I want a riot
Quiet riot
A riot of my own...

And as we're all getting nicely mellow I recall,

That's So Pants is five today.

* I know we're supposed to reference all commentary on the riots as England-based because trouble only erupted in English cities but, seriously, does anyone think this could not have happened in Glasgow or Belfast or somewhere in South Wales?