Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hard Times


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?

11 comments:

enid said...

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

enid said...

That ofcourse is WB Yeats not me!!! I feel so sad what have we done to our world

Justine Picardie said...

Enid, you have voiced my thoughts; last night, those very lines by Yeats kept going through my head, and the opening: 'Turning and turning in the widening gyre...'
Very moving interview on the BBC just now with the father of one of the young men who was killed in Birmingham last night; he spoke with such dignity.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-14471405

kairu said...

I saw a tweet from the splendid Scottish-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (he and his fiancee Cressida Trew divide their time between Cairo and London) earlier: "I'm flying to london in ten days. I can't bear the thought that I'll be travelling between countries with a mounting police presence." I can't begin to imagine how the world will look in 10 days' time; everything happens so quickly, the way a pile of crumpled paper will catch light and burst into flame...

Justine Picardie said...

All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well...

Lilacs In May said...

I am adopting your mantra.

Justine Picardie said...

Matthew Parris in the Times today makes the point that there have been ferocious London mobs in past -- and the country has survived. Terrifying at the time, but nevertheless, democracy has prevailed.

enid said...

I am having a Sybille Bedford feast thanks to you. Just read A Visit to Don Octavia. I have a subject for a new book by you - Tina Chow she is so fascinating.

jaywalker said...

Yes, there have been riots previously in England, and other countries, but what sparked them? Mostly they were about disenfranchised people who felt no one cared and they may well have had a point.

We are just back in Australia after watching the riots for the last few days on British TV and in the papers and I also admire the mother who reported her daughter's part in it. Sensible parenting like this from more people would be a move in the right direction.

In our local paper today a respected education writer claims that the answer to these riots is much deeper and actually simpler and he cites a book 'Hood Rat' by journalist, Gavin Knight who believes the single most determining factor in why there is a social breakdown in England is not about poverty. It is about an absence of parenting.The reviewer says he first saw evidence of this when he taught in England twenty years ago in poor areas of London.

As a retired high school teacher and then president of our teachers' union here, I completely agree with him. Unless you have been a close observer of children's behaviour and attitudes over the last few decades, I don't think many people actually realise to what extent this has changed. Things that evolve over an extended period are often not seen for what they are.

The trouble is, of course, that you can't fix this sort of thing with a bigger police force or stronger penalties or forceful words from politicians. It could take generations to change as it has taken generations to reach this point.

herschelian said...

I am a UK citizen living in China - the damage the pictures/reports which have been beamed around the globe have done is incalculable. Many young Chinese have asked me why our 'State' allows the citizens to be robbed, have their businesses looted, trashed and set alight with impunity. I cannot answer them. Now reading the UK press on-line I see that many of those arrested and charged are not the poor, uneducated, dispossesed in society - there were soldiers, university students, a teaching assistant and others of similar ilk. It seems it was rampant greed. They were on an orgy of self desire and seemed to have lost any idea of the consequences of their actions - either for themselves and their families (ie losing council housing etc) or whether people burned to death in the buildings they set ablaze. Time for a BIG wake-up call, actions have consequences. Excuses and explanations are pointless now. Learn the lessons.

Justine Picardie said...

Jaywalker, thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I think you're absolutely right on all counts.