It’s hard to respond to the riots currently bleeding across England in any meaningful way. Commentators of every stripe seem all too often reduced to anecdote. My own is that the riots have reached the neighbourhood of my childhood, which I only left this time last year: corner shops and pubs, supermarkets and phonebooths, have been targetted nihilistically and flagrantly, and they have been vandalised purely because the vandals knew they would not be stopped. The spoils to be salvaged from an estate newsagent – cheap plonk, lads’ mags, branded cigarettes – aren’t worth the effort of tearing down the shutters. In this way, the rioters, too, are reduced to anecdote: the principle meaning of their actions is that they can tell and retell their exploits later, long after the White Lightning has been downed in the park.
None of this should be much of a surprise to anyone who’s spent time in areas like these. As James Meek writes of London’s Broadway Market on the LRB blog, our cities can sometimes resemble “a set of groups that are rigidly self-separated by race, language, religion, class, money, education and age group”; community spirit, embattled and eroded, can seem at a low ebb. Meek’s own anecdote, of a white couple sipping fine wine whilst a gang confrontation unfurls before them, is China Mieville’s The City and the City transplanted to real streets; and yet I didn’t appreciate that novel in part precisely because I’m not sure perception between and across ‘communities’ works that way.
In that novel, two cities exist atop, between and to one side of each other, yet the inhabitants of each do not see, hear, smell or feel the other. This isn’t because they’re mutually invisible, but because they are schooled – indoctrinated – not to do so. Seeing the other is literally verboten. This is not even an extrapolation of how life is really lived, however: we are not taught to be, or rendered incapable of, acknowledging communities separate to our own – we choose to do so, and indeed in many instances arrange it just so. The problem in Meek’s Broadway Market is not separation but relevance. Those wine-drinkers saw all of, but had no involvement in, or impact upon, the postcode face-off; they are physically present, but emotionally and socially non-invested.
A root cause for these spontaneous, dispersed riots – even an array of causes – won’t be easy to unearth. That dominance of the anecdote hints at too multivalent a pattern of motivations and triggers. But when Camila Batmanghelidjh writes (very well) in the Independent that we should “check out the price of failing to care”, what she means is that it is imperative that we all become relevant to one another. In a less convincing, if similarly understanding, piece for the Guardian, Nina Power goes some way towards blaming ‘the cuts’; this is simple-minded, although it’s similarly naïve to presume that kids in hoodies don’t know the broad outline of what their government intends to do to our societies. But that awareness can only emphasise for the people about whom Batmanghelidjh writes the ways in which they have been made irrelevant to the worlds evisioned and inhabited by the wine-quaffing elites.
Perhaps oddly, one of the best pieces of writing on this topic has appeared in the not inherently empathetic pages of the Spectator. The writer, Maurice McLeod, also falls back on anecdote, in his case of a looting spree in Clapham Junction. “A police car showed up going at speed from Lavender Hill and was met with bottles and soon sped away. It felt like the streets had been conquered by this disparate, opportunist mob.” This, not Meek’s Hackney parable, is real separation, and it’s the problem that arises from treating swathes of our cities as irrelevant for so long: when they suddenly become relevant again, it’s that much harder to engage.