Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The news smashes through my window and takes my television

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:

Riot clean up

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:

making tea for the police

(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:

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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:

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And above it all, imperturbable and unchanging, is the hill:

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I hope that you are safe, wherever you are.


  1. The lovely fellow in Liverpool was my dear friend's son. My dear friend, who sadly lost his battle with cancer just 2 months ago. How proud his dear Dad would be of him. People like him renew my hope in the next generation.

  2. Reading this I feel as though we were sitting next to each other on the sofa last night, stunned into shock and horror Tania. You have described my evening too....I was glued to Twitter and the TV, mostly Twitter - which I agree was just extraordinary.

    I felt - and still feel - frightened, unbelievably sad and downright horrified - at those criminal thugs stealing just because they could and at the lack of support for the police too. How they were supposed to manage I have no idea.

    I feel worried about tonight too....wishing and hoping that it will be quieter.

    Brilliant post xx

    PS Who is the blogger collecting for the 90yr old barber, would love to know? Thanks :)

  3. Dearest Anne - oh, oh, that is the most amazing thing I've ever heard. I have been thinking of that lovely boy all day, and now it turns out he is so closely connected to you. It makes it even more amazing that he should go out to do good in his grief. It is bringing a tear to my eye. I am so sorry about your friend, but you are right, he would have been so proud. What a dad he must have been to have raised such a remarkable young man.

  4. Simone - such a lovely comment; thank you, thank you. The awful thing about the barber is that he was mentioned in one of the many, many blogs I follow on my Google reader and I was so distrait this morning that I can't remember which one. If I can track it down, I shall put up a link. There was a picture of the old man which was heartbreaking.

  5. That boy is a gem. Best possible example of a good, honest, decent Scouser and it's lovely to see the media actually focusing on that for once. I'm so proud of Liverpool. It's our city and we won't let 200 morons drag it back down. There are so many amazingly positive people out there. It's just a bit saddening (but not entirely surprising) that some idiots on Manchester jumped on the slag-off-Liverpool bandwagon yet again. I just hope things calm down there this evening because it's looking a bit scary.

    Have you seen some of the other things doing the rounds on Twitter? I think the post-it note wall on the boarded up shop in Peckham is amazing and the video of the cleanup people applauding the police car made me rather teary.

    I'm particularly enjoying the fact that the Twitter hashtag for all the people involved in the cleanup operation is #riotwombles. I'd really, really love it if someone turned up in the costume.

  6. And here too, in the far South, this all seems so far away, but so near. The Husband comes back tomorrow via Eurostar - fortunately it is in the morning when I suppose the looters have a bit of a rest/sleep/sell stolen stuff on eBay. Told him to keep his head down and just get home as I see commuters were leaving the city before nightfall to avoid the mobs.
    When you want it to rain it doesn't ... there would be far less of these hooligans on the streets if it was teaming down, n'est pas?

  7. It is raining here this morning. Yesterday evening I turned off my laptop, left the television remote in the hands of my politically-minded younger brother, and went to pick lavender. I slept deeply. And this morning I have turned on Radio 4 and BBC news online again. I can't stop thinking about those people who have lost their homes and businesses. It's just horrible.

    Love the shot of the brooms raised aloft, and the mugs of tea on a riot shield. It does help to think of all those involved in the clean-up, rather than those who are using this as an excuse to destroy and steal.

  8. Jean P. here from another Google account: The Riotcleanup crew reminded me of all the kind people who came to my patch after Hurricane Katrina...just to help...lovely people from every part of this country...mucking out gutted homes, handing out food and water. Was Anne Frank right? Are people basically good at heart? I'm with you. I vote yes.

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