Riots: The view from London

Hackney TV riots

Riots erupt in Hackney, as covered by BBC News (photo by Stuart Bannocks)

For most of us, it began properly late yesterday afternoon. Rumours and first pictures of riots on the streets of Hackney suggested that a situation which had previously been contained to the northerly borough of Tottenham had suddenly spread much closer to home. Colleagues in the office decided to leave earlier than planned as phone calls of closed roads started to come in, and the BBC launched a live feed as the first suggestions of a serious situation hung jaggedly in the air.

By the time I got home, the situation had escalated beyond belief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the apparently literally burning screen as the minutes ticked by, only succumbing to the thought of my 6:45am alarm clock at a still-riotous 2am. A straw poll of colleagues suggests I wasn’t the only one gripped to the news as fresh pockets of violence erupted all over the capital, including a truly horrifying blaze in Croydon. Hurried texts and Facebook posts to friends and family to check if all was OK as reports from breathless and scared journalists flooded in from borough after borough (and eventually, other parts of the country as well) revealed to me just how much my life has seeped into the fabric of the city. Except for Tottenham, I know someone who has lived, or is currently living or working, in pretty much every area affected. To be connected, however tenuously, to some semblance of ‘community’ in the local area in which I am currently living, is a very rare sensation for me.

I often balk at the catch-all word ‘community’, with its faux-political overtones and suggestions of peeling-paint town halls, and as a one-time ex-pat who has moved schools, homes and neighbourhoods more times than I care to count at the moment, have as such cultivated a benign but resolutely unattached stance to most places I live in. I like them yes, I travel through them yes, but I don’t belong. Where I am at any given moment usually feels temporary, even if I’ve been there a while. I’m aware that living arrangements can change quickly, and know that to get too attached to a place (or indeed, a person) for too long leaves you wide open to pain and the unquenchable sensation of loss when, as seems inevitable, you need to leave. Usually, I quite like it this way, because to me, belonging isn’t physical, it’s mental; emotional. But, watching the devastation across several hours last night, I began to understand what ‘community’ might mean to so many, but to so many of the looters, seems to mean tragically nothing. I was suddenly struck by a tender sense of belonging. It may not have been my street, or a friend’s street, that was burning, but it could have been – and in many cases rioting and looting was taking place mere minutes down the road (my house included). The pictures, so like scenes from a tragic film, were now suddenly real.

Ken Livingstone

Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone

Reasons have been given by some to try and explain (but not justify) the behaviour of the rioters, some of which were as young as 12 or 13. The divisive Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee has tweeted (to a chorus of dissent, as expected) that ‘cut[ting] EMA, benefit, youth service, holiday schemes, police, estate maintenance, speed inequality’ is a recipe for disaster (being clear not to justify the riots), while former London Mayor and hopeful Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone appeared somewhat controversially, and some say cynically, on the BBC News channel criticising the Government’s policing strategy. He went on to connect the violence with ‘anger and disaffection’, saying that young men (and, one sorely hopes, he means young women as well) ‘have no prospect of a job’ and ‘feel that no-one at the top of society cares about them or speaks for them’. Because belonging isn’t just about staying in one place for long enough – it’s much, much more. Perhaps only people who, for whatever reason, feel they have absolutely nothing to lose risk injury and punishment for a new pair of trainers?

Basically, though, as both Toynbee and Livingstone admitted, much of the violence seems to stem from boredom, lack of respect, lack of connection with the local community, a deeply worrying sense of entitlement, and above all, a staggeringly wanton, reckless disregard for the law – or as Livingstone admitted, ‘out and out theft’. Possibly one of the most devastating pictures of the violence was the YouTube video showing youths helping a young, dazed and injured man to his feet, before another looter steps into the frame and simply helps himself to the contents of the still-stunned victim’s rucksack. Beyond the searing orange fire balls punctuating the night air amid bottles thrown at riot police, it is scenes like this that are so shocking – such callous treatment of defenceless people on perfectly normal streets seems to speak of an ugly,  extremely frightening vein of criminality running deep in the psyche of those rampaging through the capital. I would not even begin to suggest that I know the reasons behind it or solutions to solve it, but evidence of a serious problem is clear.

However, coincidentally, and seemingly unconnectedly, yesterday I also spent a good half hour looking over the ‘Acts of Kindness’ website. This, an art project by the London Underground, features a series of artworks and testimonials from travellers who, when travelling via London’s most central network, have been struck by unexpected outreaches of help from the usually impassive, busy commuters. Tears gathered in my eyes as I read stories of random commuters looking after the embarrassed, lost, ill, drunk, clumsy, vulnerable and frightened Tube travellers, with no expectation of recognition or thanks. But for the grace of whatever you believe in, the stories remind you, it could be you in these situations ‒ and you benefitting from the kindness of strangers. It might not shout so loudly, it might not force police helicopters out over sleeping streets (thank God), it may not burn businesses to the ground, but kindness is out there, and while meek and apparently rare, the effects are much longer lasting than the physical devastation ever will be.

The general response, over Twitter and Facebook, and among people I know, is of sheer disbelief, horror, condemnation of the violence, and mobilisation for good. Already volunteers are being amassed to help clear up the mess, while donations for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods were already being sought late last night. The video of the Hackney woman shouting decisively and eruditely at the criminals destroying her streets has already gone viral as people seek to share her point of view across social networks. As usual, when something widely devastating occurs in this capital, the people band together. It may not be anything as horrific as the London terrorist attacks of 2005 (four years before I moved here), it may be simply a case of out-of-control youths ransacking anywhere they can get away with without rhyme, reason or cause, and it may only (as unpopular, perhaps, as this is to admit) as yet be affecting small pockets of certain areas, but it’s still shocking when places you know, and in which friends live, suddenly erupt in flames on your television screen.

But as Londoners rally round, and the rest of the country reacts with fear, shock and disgust, a show of strength is emerging. Prime Minister David Cameron, fresh from a week and a bit in sunny Tuscany, may have done the right thing in coming home from holiday ‒ albeit a worrying belated response matched only by Boris Johnson’s own lackadaisical approach, although he is home now nonetheless ‒ but despite his much-needed appearance, said nothing that Londoners themselves had not already asserted hours before. It’s not clear exactly what the fallout from the riots will be, what effect it will have on the organisation of the police, or, even, the less-pressing concern of the damage done to the international image of the capital, as newsreaders keep irrelevantly reminding us, one year before the still-unpopular Olympics come to the city.

But while groups of fatally misled, criminal youths might have robbed small businesses and set the city alight, they certainly do not speak for London. London, this great, antique, crumbling, majestic, dynamic, grubby, multi-coloured, crowded, evolving and beautiful city, now more connected via social media like never before, will speak and is speaking ‒ as ever, for itself.

Video: Riot clean up in Clapham Junction – helpers applaud police

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Theatre Review: Fat Pig by Neil LaBute, from 2008

Neil LaBute's Fat Pig

Promotional posters for Neil LaBute's 'Fat Pig', 2008

This review is from 2008, from when I first came to live in London, for a month-long work experience placement. With hardly any friends living close enough to meet up, and still getting used to squeezing social occasions and cultural events into the few precious hours after work, I happily decided to take myself off to the theatre, getting a last-minute, single ticket to this production of Neil LaBute’s ‘Fat Pig’, the advertising posters of which had caught my eye throughout the Underground. It was one of the most enjoyable plays I’d seen to date, despite its flaws, and the evening culminated in a gorgeous, carefree walk down Whitehall, on to Westminster Bridge next to Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, and the Embankment, and a simple District Line train home. I always think of that night as the first of many in which I knew I felt comfortable enough to explore the city and its many offerings alone. Company can be wonderful, but sometimes, quiet contemplation and the blissful freedom to choose your own entertainment at a moment’s notice, without reproach or reason, can be truly magical. 

The moment you step into it, the auditorium of the Trafalgar Studios theatre (on the magnificent Whitehall) with its steep seating plan and seats all the way onto the stage, immediately creates an intimate, informal, almost cosy atmosphere. And with loud, self-consciously modern, rebellious rock music blaring into the space, Neil Bute’s Fat Pig sets out as it means to go on; a play designed to look offhand and comedic, but actually only lightly veiling a rather unsettling snapshot of our prejudices. Arguably one of the last of the ‘–isms’ that are still almost acceptable, ‘fattism’ inevitably provokes easy laughs that other ‘isms’ (such as blatant racism) no longer can. And it is this premise that Fat Pig begins with; that being rude to fat people is really quite funny, that people are fat due to their own greedy desire to shovel all manner of crap into themselves and so deserve any mocking they might receive. And at first, the show plays on our guilty suspicions that the above is all true.

For much of the first half, comedy and laughter ripples through the theatre, with many ‘Oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-he’s-just-said-that-but-I-actually-agree’ moments shocking the audience into guffaws. However, despite being the butt of many a sexist and frankly cruel joke, Ella Smith immediately wins us over with warm self-deprecation, wit and honesty, when all about her are not-so-subtly crippling under their attempts to ignore (or not) her plus-size waistline. Praise be to the director for casting someone who, with the best will in the world, could do with a few fewer chips (as opposed to someone who is ‘fat’ at size 12) but whose twinkle and relaxed confidence make hers the best, most realistic and most memorable performance of the entire cast. Comedic actor Robert Webb (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look), with his weary, average-Joe appearance and inoffensive manner, just about convinces as the bloke just trying to do the right thing with a woman he can’t help falling for, but seems much more at ease with the superficial quips of the first scene than the emotional lines of the last.

Meanwhile, showing himself to be much more than just a BT-endorsing beanpole with a cheeky smile, Kris Marshall surprises with confidence and perfect timing for the entire duration. Acting as the offensively outrageous ‘voice of reason’, saying, albeit coarsely, what everyone, at some point, privately thinks, his simple character is far more believable than that of either Webb or Joanna Page. The former begins as likeable but ends as weak and disheartening, while the latter is little more than a plot device to further emphasise Smith’s considerable girth, and provide a bit of shouting that allows an inevitably giggle-inducing set of exasperated facial expressions from the rubbery Webb. Although Page (who suits her usual meek, girly characters, such as the famous Stacey from the much-loved Gavin and Stacey, much more than she does this one) did the best she could with a dire American accent and jarring lines, if her character is supposed to represent ‘non-fat’ women, with her over-bearing, two-dimensional jealousy and skinny behind, she has a long way to go. Similarly, the American accents of Marshall and Webb acted only as distractions to their characters, especially as their real accents are already so expressive, and I found myself wishing that the director had dispensed with them altogether; perhaps relocated the play to England or made his characters Englishmen in New York – anything but the constant wavering of unsure enunciation and over-eager posturing. (Conversely and thankfully, Smith is to be commended on her near-flawless accent – I had thought she must be American, but no, like Page, she hails from Wales).

Robert Webb and Ella Smith in 'Fat Pig'

Robert Webb and Ella Smith in 'Fat Pig'

Despite its faults, however, Fat Pig is sufficiently funny, entertainingly witty and just emotional enough to pack a considerable punch by the end of the evening. A couple of American clichés at their worst – the huge ‘I love you’, and others in the vein of ‘I really think this could worrkk’ – had me closing my eyes in embarrassment, but the difference in atmosphere between the beginning and the end was unexpected and uncomfortably real, providing a cold mirror to many of society’s unchanging flaws that the play does not initially appear to proffer. The moving, rotating scenery system is laid-back and predictable, and the whimsical angles, magazines, Kettle Crisps, rock music, abstract ‘captions’ projected onto the stage, coupled with the greenish glow of a Mac laptop bring a warm fuzzy element of banter, self-deprecating satire, fun and familiarity to the proceedings, which goes even further to demonstrate how close-to-home the prejudice really is. Overall, the mix of comedy, crassness, honesty and awkwardness in the play just manages to highlight the complex, unsettling nature of today’s worrying preoccupation with appearance over all else.

3.5 out of 5 stars