August 3, 2012 7:28 pm

Rage and reformation

How the riots in London in 2011 exposed anger and alienation and why our cities need a deep draught of change
A furniture store burns after being set on fire by rioters in Croydon, south London, in August 2011©AP

A furniture store burns after being set on fire by rioters in Croydon, south London, in August 2011

Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital, by Clive Bloom, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£9.99, 224 pages

Among the Hoods: My Year with a Teenage Gang, by Harriet Sergeant, Faber, RRP£14.99, 240 pages

The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, by Richard Florida, Basic Books, RRP£19.99, 480 pages

 

London is a cosmopolitan super-city, its most visible citizens the celebrated and the wealthy in politics, finance, show business, the arts – and in sport. The Olympic Games, dependent on celebrity from the top athletes to the VIPs whisked down private lanes in fleets of BMWs, are both a hyper-powered expression of this starriness and an expression of London’s yawning income gulf.

It’s not just the BMWs and the glitz that highlight inequality. The sheer stellar quality of the sporting events show us how much work it takes to become a true star while also rubbing it into the marginalised that there is very little chance they will acquire those skills of application and hard work that are also required to “make something of life”, in the sense of learning a trade or profession, seeking and keeping regular work, and accepting that gratification will often be delayed.

How far the inability of some children from disadvantaged families to achieve this (let alone become Olympic athletes) is their own fault, and how far it is that of society, is a theme much discussed after the riots of last summer, and a key feature of the books reviewed here.

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Our heady Olympic rejoicing might tempt us to forget that almost exactly a year ago the story was of London civil war: it was not Aleppo, but the disturbances caused deep shock, at home and abroad. In a few days in August 2011, mainly poor and mainly young men and women took to streets, and as one 21-year-old rioter told an investigation into the riots by the Guardian and the London School of Economics: “We had the police under control ... running away from us”. Another: “It was the best day of my life forever, I swear to God”. Three recently published books shine different intensities of light on those events. Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University, specialises in London disturbances. In his book Riot City, he gives a clear narrative of the riots and takes us back to what might be seen as their dry runs. These include protests against the increase in student tuition fees in November 2010, which saw the Conservative party headquarters invaded, a fire extinguisher hurled from a roof, the Union Flag on the Cenotaph pulled down and the Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla attacked in their Rolls-Royce on the way to the Royal Variety Performance. In March 2011, protesters from the group UK Uncut, splitting off from a peaceful Trades Union Congress demonstration, occupied the luxury store Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly. For Bloom, “protest is the raw and vital edge of being a Londoner”. Today’s largely anarchic movements are, among much else, “an attempt to shift away from the tedium and banality of the conformist ‘I’.”

Bloom points up many of the contradictions of the revolutionary mind, but spends too little time on that which seems most basic: deep hatred of the state, while at the same time demanding more of it. The ostensible aim may be a “liberated self” – the not-to-be-spoken assumption is that this self will at all times be supported by a state whose resources can only come from other citizens’ taxes. It’s a contradiction that is also present, though not as markedly, in the other books reviewed here.

At times censorious of the rioters, Bloom seems at other times to endorse the view that conventional politics is irrelevant, so what choice do they have in order to express their discontent? This view is, to be sure – as the evidence from the Guardian/LSE investigation also shows – a more learned version of many rioters’ rationale of their acts; but the investigation also questions how far this might be a post hoc rationalisation of a chance to acquire expensive goods for free from looted shops. The Guardian/LSE exercise, an extension of the newspaper’s original reporting on the riots and based on hundreds of interviews, is a hugely valuable one, a pointer to what future collaborations between journalism and academics might bring.

. . .

 

This investigation (available online) and these books about the riots highlight a central political problem of the democratic world: how far do the many “radical” dismissals of representative politics, from left or right or from neither side, have any reasonable alternative? How much importance should we attach to the claims – increasingly mainstream – that representative politics is dying and that a new form must take over? The rioters added their rage and violence to these claims; much of the media amplified them. But what substance does this growing contemporary trope have?

Harriet Sergeant, author of Among the Hoods, seeks answers through a practical, street-level account of the life of London’s marginalised youth. She has written about crime and youth culture as a research fellow of the centre-right Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, as well as for newspapers of the right. We learn that her parents suffered a violent street mugging. As she says in different ways throughout the narrative, her beliefs accorded with those of the institutions for which she wrote: “I believe in prison and punishment.”

Yet for three years Sergeant opened herself to a portion of life in the violent margins of London’s society, and Among the Hoods is the result. At its centre is a loose gang of mainly black men from the south London district of Brixton, varying in age from teens to late thirties, making a living through crime. She came to know them well, and even to nourish an affection for the kind of men who had violently attacked her parents: all, especially an adolescent named Tuggy Tug, are evoked with both skill and pathos as they sabotage their own potential for goodness. Sergeant concludes that “When you know the whole truth of anything it is difficult to dispense justice.” This is not an original thought but, on the evidence of this book, it is a thought that she has more right than most journalists to voice.

The book’s strength is its descriptive passages, especially where she accompanies the young men to job centres and to clubs run by charities, where indifference, form-filling, distrust and, in the case of one charity, embezzlement of funds, appear to be the norm. What the gang members most want is power and money: with money, as Tuggy Tug and the others tell her, you can do anything. One of the few women in the narrative, Dimples, tells Sergeant that her days as a gang warrior were a golden period, the violence more attractive than the money, her fearless use of violence gaining her respect and power: “I felt calm afterwards. I would light a fag and feel, you know, really good.” She has a child, at 15, and would “love to get married, but I am not in the marrying crowd ... none of the girls around here get married. We just have kids”. Yet a child gave her an adult existence, a flat and love.

Politically distrustful of the state, Sergeant finds much to bolster her position: the state’s wasteful, clock-watching indifference, its callousness in the face of need and insecurity. Yet she too wants more of it – the indifference she describes could be transformed into active concern only by the deployment of more, better-trained officials paid higher wages to spend more time with the lost, violent, probably unreachable youths in the gangs. She makes her own attempts, good-hearted and energetic, to bring Tuggy Tug and another gang member named Mash into stable employment. These fail, leaving her deeply disappointed.

What Sergeant wants, and what she says her sources want, are structured, disciplined institutions that will tell them what to do and make sure they do it – for their own good. Where Bloom sneers at a report’s recommendation that “personal resilience or character” be encouraged, writing that this “had the smell of the Boy Scouts and an Edwardian ethos that was once the province of the public school”, Sergeant thinks that this is just what’s needed. The fact that teachers and other figures of authority do not have – or do not believe they have – the right to impose firm standards of behaviour strikes her as absurd.

She quotes her subjects as expressing contempt for teachers, social workers, probation officers and even the police for not imposing order, for not ensuring discipline. My own, brief, spell of supply teaching in a bad London comprehensive school in the 1970s left me shaking with frustration that teaching had been made impossible, and depressed that I could not assist a class of largely immigrant and poor white pupils to lift their minds even a little. (It also left me, less admirably, with a determination not to teach for a living.)

I myself had been educated in a Scottish comprehensive school: the teachers imposed discipline, backed then by the “tawse” (the strap). But discipline also came from the home, the community (a Fife village) and other adults. There was nothing public school about this – though reproducing anything similar in deprived south London would be very hard. Yet Sergeant must be right: not to try is to betray those who are the subjects both of public panic and of ostensible concern.

 

Richard Florida is an urban studies expert who runs a think-tank in Toronto: his Rise of the Creative Class was first published in 2001, and he has revised “virtually every word” for this new edition, reflecting contentedly that what had seemed contentious a decade ago is now widely accepted. More usefully, he includes a new section on what the new class’s responsibilities are to the society that they now dominate. This creative class is composed of the obviously creative – architects, artists, writers – as well as those in management, engineering, law, education, whose “creativity is a key factor in [their] work”. They are one-third of the US workforce, still growing strongly while the working class loses hundreds of thousands of jobs every year.

The creatives’ relative success contributes to growing inequality in the advanced economies. Its virtues can be seen as skin-deep or hypocritical by those who can’t make a good living by tapping away at an Apple keyboard in an organic café, and this must account for some of the increased conservatism of the working classes in the US, who see what had been a relatively good life of well-paid and secure skilled labour disappear, only to be replaced by low-paid service jobs. The creative class, Florida insists, is not born: it’s made, by application to learning, adapting and learning again, life as a constant series of intellectual challenges – just what Sergeant’s characters can’t, and won’t, do.

Florida believes the London riots were really about the growing social divide; the rioters’ “inchoate rage”, he says, is that of a marginalised group who see vast wealth and luxurious consumption all about them. The riots “should serve as a wake-up call ... it’s little wonder we find ourselves in an increasingly fractured society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote – or tear – down what they perceive to be the economic elite of our cities and the world”.

In his concluding chapter on the responsibilities of the creatives, he is vaguer. What’s needed is the “creatification” of everyone; creativity lurks inside us all, waiting to be drawn out. That is right; a movement to give workers more autonomy and creativity in their work should be at the centre of government concern, and could re-animate union movements still being drained of members.

But it’s the “how” we need to know about. Sergeant saw creativity in Tuggy Tug, who is revealed in her book and in a video she made with him as a man with charm and mental agility. But he’s also a ruthless thug who, despite getting more help (from her) than any of his peers to escape a future that will bring a lot of time in prison and a probable early death, still turned back to the life that gave him quick money and the fear that he and his peers call “respect”.

Reform, as Florida observes, is usually better than revolution. London, along with all our other cities, needs another deep draught of it, at least comparable to that which the English social reformer Charles Booth, and his fellow late Victorians saw as their duty to administer to those people Booth described as living “the life of savages”. These three books, in differing ways, clear some of the ground for modern reform: creative architects are now required.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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Digital and disorderly: Good for riots but bad for fiction

So what’s your fire accelerant of choice? Gasoline? Kerosene? Methanol? Or perhaps you’re a turpentine kind of person? Me, I’m more of a Twitter man – though I’m told BlackBerry instant messaging is quicker, writes Gautam Malkani.

This time last year, as Britain’s buildings and cars burned, it wasn’t Molotov cocktails but social media networks that were blamed for the dizzying velocity of the disorder.

Mobiles in a riot-damaged shop©AFP

Mobiles in a riot-damaged shop

Whether the riots were organised or even incited through social media is debatable, but the widespread use of BlackBerrys certainly made people more organised once they were out there. Rioters were able to help each other outflank and outwit police units – much as kids have long used instant messaging to tip each other off about rail ticket inspectors. The high-tech back-channels provided both virtual and real-life back-alleys.

It was a striking reminder of how digital devices can sometimes make different sections of society unknowable to each other; of how technology can erect barriers as well as pull them down. From the start, mobile phones were used by teenagers to dial straight into each other’s bedrooms, bypassing the landline in the living room or the hallway and sidestepping prying parents. The riots showed us just how dramatic this dynamic can become.

We have often looked to fiction to scale these sorts of social barriers. Novels can help us understand people and places that would otherwise remain unknown, if not unseen. But here’s a paradox: it is those very same BlackBerrys and mobile phones that can hinder these would-be novels – not in the sense of distracting us from reading them, but by undermining the drama at the basic level of plot. A contemporary teenage escapade is no easy thing to pull off in fiction because the existence of a handheld hotline to the vice-squad or the coastguard or even just your mummy makes it pretty hard to inject a genuine sense of danger or suspense. In a seminar in 2008, Charlie Higson, author of the Young Bond books, cited this as one of the reasons he decided against setting the series in the present day. The point is perhaps best illustrated by a YouTube video called No Signal , a compendium of horror-film clips that all use the same method to kill off mobile phones at the altar of a workable plot. Stuck in a haunted house? Oops, no phone signal. Lost in a forest full of werewolves? Damn, no network coverage.

The irony of the starring role that BlackBerrys played in last year’s riots was that they showed us how much more dramatic mobile phones can be in real life than in fiction.

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