Thursday, 11 August 2011

London riots

It's been a strange and scary week in London.
Tottenham burns on Saturday night
A week in which rumours flew around on phones and in whispers.
A week of fire and smashed windows, destruction and looting.
A week of anger and excitement, and leaps to judgement and definition, distance and containment.
I've been reading newspapers, listening to the radio, unable to switch the television off until 1am. I've been staying in after 5pm, avoiding shops that I use all the time, asking my 15-year-old what she's seen on Facebook -  where's going to be next? I've found myself seriously wondering if I'm safe to go for a walk in the park at 5pm on a sunny August evening.

I've listened to politicians, pundits, churchmen and columnists. I've heard a lot of good sense and a load of old rubbish.

And I've had a few thoughts.

 There was a carnival atmosphere about the looting. It was as though people had responded to news reports about one riot and, instead of feeling horror and disgust, thought they were adverts for the summer sales. 'Come on down! Everything's free! Midsummer madness!'  Why did people react in such an amoral way? Why did they lack feeling for the community -  the shop-owners, the people living in burned out flats? 
Perhaps it's something to do with the huge inequality in British society -  after eight years in the Netherlands, it was the thing that shocked me most about reurning to London. It's not just the massive  gap between rich and poor, and the horror that the haves feel about sharing with the have-nots; it's the lack of care and contact between the two groups. A mutual contempt seems to have grown between rich and poor, fostered by media and politicians.
Maybe it's something to do with the rule-bending, greed and hypocrisy on display from the British establishment? If people see that MPs were happy to help themselves to tax-payers' money by falsifying their expenses, or twisting the rules to their favour -  and they could get away with it in most cases by paying back the money -  then perhaps they might expect to be able to help themselves to free stuff, when the opportunity arises?
It could be that if people saw politicans take personal responsibility for mistakes by resigning, that they'd take more responsibility for their own morality. Not just politicans. Business leaders. Bankers. Church leaders who enabled the abuse of children. Journalists who hacked phone messages from murdered children. Saying sorry, tinkering with the system, blaming subordinates is not enough. Removing yourself from power and making amends by working for the good of others, is the way to set a good example (would anyone caught up in a scandal now react as John Profumo did?).
How about restoring a bit of respect to our society? Respect means making snobbery and stereotyping (of everyone from Eton to Essex) as unacceptable as racism is becoming - sadly, that battle's not won yet. Respect means less media intrusion and pointless gossip and finger-pointing. If Britain wants to restore its respectability, it needs to embrace respect.
I'm pleased that David Cameron is going to do more to tackle gangs -  and he's right to look at the work of Strathclyde Police. I'm interested though that he didn't do more before now. Perhaps the scores of young men being murdered on city streets didn't matter enough.

I thought long and hard when I wrote When I Was Joe about what might make young people less likely to arm themselves with knives. Active policing, which enables police to build relationships with vulnerable youths was the best answer I came up with. Perhaps we'll get it now. I notice though that it's the neighbourhood officers who've already been cut in Mr Cameron's austerity measures.

I'm actually not interested in hearing from the rioters. I think it's pretty easy to understand the mentality which seeks to steal and destroy. They were stupid and dangerous and vile. They need something more drastic than mere punishment. I'd actually like to see some sort of national service brought back for these stupid jokers, so they could contribute something to our society and maybe learn a bit of discipline.

I'm much more interested in hearing from the kids who don't riot. The ones who work hard and become successful against the odds. The ones who stay honest and care about their communities. What makes them different from the rioters? Who helped them find their way? What can we learn from them? Boys like this one  who reminds me a lot of Nathan in When I Was Joe and Almost True.

Some wonderful things have come out of this terrible week.  I loved the jokes on Twitter, the English horror that Americans were tweeting #prayforLondon; the idea that the people of Crouch End (where I live) would respond to looters by pelting them with artisan sourdough loaves.
I loved OperationCupofTea on Facebook, which signed up people in their thousands to stay in and drink tea instead of rioting -  and all the sweet tea-drinking pictures posted on its page.
I loved that people came together to clean up after the riots, and called themselves the Riotwombles after a much-loved children's book.
I loved my local supermarket -  hurray for Budgens -  which set up a collection point for contributions of clothes and bedding to help the people made homeless in the fires in nearby Tottenham.
 I was impressed and awed by the courage and spirit of those people who'd lost everything -  in Tottenham, Croydon, Clapham Junction as they contemplated their future. By the smile on the face of  Asyraf Haziq Rosli, the Malaysian student attacked and robbed by rioters -  as they pretended to help him - who was able to say that he still wanted to stay in Britain and he felt sorry for his attackers.
And above all by the immense dignity and wisdom shown by Tariq Jahan, father of Haroon, one of the men killed during riots in Birmingham, who calmed tensions in the city by speaking out just hours after his son's death. In the light of the Islamophobia which mars our society, it's worth pointing out that both Mr Jahan and Mr Rosli are shining examples of good Muslim role models for us all.

I fear that we won't learn the right lessons from the riots. Already tonight, going out to eat in a crowded restaurant, it seemed crazy that only two days ago I was too nervous to meet a friend for a drink after dark. But if we don't change and learn -  all of us - then I'm certain of one thing. It'll happen again. And next time it will be worse.

PS  I wrote this and then I read this. And I thought yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And in the Telegraph too. Maybe there is hope.


  1. I strongly believe that examples of good moral behaviour, honesty and respect have to be set by those in power and positions of authority and privilege. If they cannot, with all their advantages, manage to live according to the law then why should anyone? I do not condone the thugs who rioted but I can see how an atmosphere of relaxed moral behaviour has grown in England - even in the top-most ranks of society.

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  3. Thanks, Keren, I was hoping you would weigh in on this subject. You make a lot of sense, as ever. That's also the second piece of incredibly sound journalism from the Telegraph this week - who woulda thunk it?

  4. I was also hoping you would say something about this, as you are always so clear and sensible on these issues! (about which I know absolutely nothing I'm afraid). Thank you.

  5. An excellent post that reflects exactly how a lot of us feel. I too think that a reintroduction of National Service would be beneficial but I know it's not going to happen. Not enough resources, money or people qualified to run it.

  6. I just went back and read the Telegraph article via your link. I feel a bit silly now that my comment above basically says what's in the article. On the other hand, that's two of us with the same thoughts - which suggests a widespread viewpoint (except I don't have the facts that he has).

  7. Great post. That's exactly how I feel about the issue.