Wednesday, 10 August 2011
Like everyone else, I have been watching in horror as the events of the past four days unfolded -- seeing the violence filtered through the lens of computer screen, iphone, twitter, 24 hour news channels -- and it has been truly shocking. Those words may have lost their power, given the endless repetition of outrage by politicians, public commentators, police officers, onlookers, many apparently powerless to protect the victims of these crimes -- yet what else can one say? This is brutal, terrible, shaming... but the one thing it is not is 'pure and simple', or to quote David Cameron more precisely (and precision is important, when everything else seems so uncertain): 'criminality, pure and simple'.
The riots and looting are, amongst very many other things, a reminder of the dark places that co-exist with the images of stability portrayed by the Royal Wedding; for I could not help but think back to the crowds that gathered in the spring sunlight to cheer a girl in a white fairytale dress, as a counterpoint to those that have swarmed through city streets looking for trouble and shiny new trainers. If British society is partly defined by its visual representation, then we are a nation that still incorporates a love of ceremonial tradition, as well as containing (or, as of now, failing to contain) the capacity to riot and destroy and desecrate, whilst also consuming.
'To consume': what does that mean to you this morning? It makes me think of the fires that burnt out of control in Croydon on Monday night; the dread that I felt in the early hours of the morning about what has just happened and what might come next; and of the looters as rapacious consumers who can take whatever they choose. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but it's been hard to ignore the details of what was stolen: wedding dresses ransacked in Peckham; looters trying on clothes at H&M, while one brave woman in Hackney shouted out against the rioters: 'We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes!' And listen to this report from Nick Ravenscroft reporting for the BBC in Manchester, when looters in balaclavas ('I've got a blue one, he's got a purple one') express their sense of entitlement about stealing the clothes they want: 'Why would you miss the opportunity to get free stuff that's worth loads of money?'
Nothing I've heard so far from the Prime Minister sounds convincing; but as Matthew Norman points out in the Independent today, this may be Cameron's Hurricane Katrina. (It's also worth reading Camila Batmanghelidjh, who has actually engaged with the children that others would prefer to depict as feral rats.)
Certainly, the last 48 hours have felt like a perfect storm: a wave of riots dragging down an already plunging economy, combined with the sucking undercurrent of a loss of trust in politicians and police chiefs after the phone hacking scandals (where is their moral compass?). Not that these provide an explanation for the riots; nor could they. As anyone knows who lives in a sprawling city, there have always been threatening streets to avoid, wherein lie desperate lives; and for innumerable different reasons -- a toxic, indefinable poison of envy, criminality, deprivation, neglect, and much else besides -- we are witnessing violence spilling out of the darkness. Something wicked this way comes... But how are we to respond?