Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I wrote yesterday that the news seemed very far away. The weekend had been taken up with gentle domestic things: getting ready for the young cousins, making soda bread, taking the dog to the vet to have her nails clipped. On Saturday, when it all first kicked off, I was actually watching large men in kilts and singlets hurl cabers the size of telegraph poles across a grassy arena, to polite Scottish applause.
Then, yesterday, at tea-time, I tuned in properly. I was finishing work, and I thought I’d just check BBC News 24 on my computer. Suddenly it was no more watching the swallows, remembering my darling old dead canine, and yearning a bit for her, my heart aching in my chest. The news was jumping out of my screen; it was scrolling past on Twitter so fast I could not keep up with it. I felt shock, disbelief, rage, fear, and a terrible empathy. They were burning people out of their houses.
As I watched, half of Croydon seemed to go up in flames. Clapham was next, then Ealing. The city that I had lived in for twenty years, that I still know and love, that is still stitched into my heart even though I am now six hundred miles north, seemed at war.
Twitter was the most extraordinary. The BBC anchors, in an odd, old news way, kept trying to blame it for the chaos. In fact, it seems the looters and burners were being directed by Blackberry messages. The Twitterers were rising up to help. Bulletins went out to avoid London Fields, where people were being dragged off bicycles and having their telephones stolen. People were helpfully advising on which bits of Camden were closed, and which danger zones to stay away from. There was a retweeting of a message to check in on elderly neighbours.
Three particularly brave reporters I found were sending out tweets from the heart of the action. Kaya Burgess was in Portobello (boys with machetes marching up Westbourne Grove), Paul Lewis was in Hackney, and then Ealing, Mark Stone, who became a bit of an instant Twitter hero, seemed to be everywhere.
I flipped back and forth between the news and the Twitter feed. I could not sleep. I really don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. I felt a sudden wash of shame for my poor old country. I have always rather avoided national pride, it seems so illogical. Nonetheless, I do feel it. It is a little bit of magical thinking I cannot quite rid myself of. I love dear old Blighty, and her people. Even though it is nothing to do with me, a mere accident of birth, I feel happy and blessed that I come from the land of Shakespeare and Milton.
So, last night, there was an equally illogical shame. What will the world think? I wondered. What price Shakespeare and Milton now? (There was a terrible moment of gallows humour when reports came in that while shoe shops and telephone shops were trashed and raided, the bookshops were left quite alone. Ha, shouted the Twitterers; proof the rioters are illiterate.)
But then, the Good started. A video began circulating of a woman bravely berating the looters, shouting furiously at them, asking them what they were thinking. A new Twitter handle sprang up called Riotcleanup. They encouraged people to gather in the morning to help tidy the mess. The next day, reports started coming of hordes of people pouring off the underground at Clapham and Ealing and Croydon with brushes and dustbin bags. The Ordinary Decent Britons were fighting back with brooms.
This amazing picture starting being passed back and forth:
One young man was interviewed in Liverpool. He was about seventeen or eighteen and he had come to help. The BBC reporter seemed slightly baffled to find a clean young person, who was not wearing a hoodie and looting shoes.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, quite nonplussed.
‘Well,’ said the good young fellow. ‘It’s my city too. You wouldn’t leave your bedroom in a mess like this, would you? So I just came to see what I could do to make it better.’
There will be an awful lot of shouting, over the next few days, over what this was all about. Was it fear and loathing, deprivation and despair, an entire generation somehow dispossessed? The left will say government neglect; the right will shout family breakdown, sense of entitlement. One Labour MP is even blaming the bankers, for setting a bad example, in the smash and grab business. Ken Livingstone spent the night on television, scoring cheap political points. ‘Being Mayor is not just about opening fetes,’ he said at one point, quite inexplicably.
I don’t think there is any easy answer. I cannot tell you why some of the young people are like the decent boy in Liverpool, and some are saying, as Paul Lewis heard last night, ‘Hampstead, bruv. Let’s go rob Hampstead.’
I concentrate on the small acts of kindness. People are setting up drop-in centres, for those burned out of their homes. They are donating bedding and kitchen equipment for those who lost everything. One blogger is taking donations for a 90-something barber in Tottenham, whose barber’s shop had been there for forty years, and was smashed on Saturday. In the heat of the battle, householders in Hackney and Camden were making tea for the police, who had been working 24-hour shifts. The riot clean-up squad is already talking about making their impromptu community action a permanent thing. The good people have their brooms at the ready. I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but that is the Britain in which I choose to believe.
Tea for the police, presented on a riot shield:
(Photograph by Joel Goodman.)
Meanwhile, here, in the far north, everything is very quiet. A little evening sun has broken through the cloud. The wind whispers and shivers in the trees. The jackdaws are quarrelling in the silver birches. I have the outrageous good fortune to go outside and see, not burnt buildings and smashed windows, but this:
Something lovely, at least, on which to rest your poor, seared eyes.
Last night, one tweeter, exhausted by the bad news, sent out an ironical plea for pictures of kittens. I cannot quite do kittens, but I can do the next best thing, which is the enduring beauty that is The Pigeon:
And above it all, imperturbable and unchanging, is the hill:
I hope that you are safe, wherever you are.