I have spent a large part of my adult life evading jibes about the unfashionable area in which I grew up. Croydon, a town on London’s southern rim, is a sprawling punchline rendered in concrete and pebble-dash.
The chief source of humour is an unfortunate stereotype about its residents: Croydon Man is a smartly dressed troglodyte. According to the limp jokes, he combines carefully pressed shirts with the spoken accent and self-control of orcs from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
These quips are now even less funny than usual. On Monday night, shops were pillaged. Stores selling food, trainers, games consoles and other electronic items were ransacked. Homes and businesses were wantonly set ablaze by a crowd of anomic thugs.
On Tuesday morning, I went back to the town to report on the damage. I was not the only chaos tourist coming to look at the wake of the disorder. Indeed, it appears that the Croydonian coping mechanism at such times of distress is nosiness.
Throughout the morning and during their lunch hours, locals filed along a riot route to see the burnt-out shops and cracked glass. Many wielded large cameras. They compared notes and ticked off sightings of damage like bird-spotters. (“So we saw the smashed windows at Iceland, Currys, Lidl . . . ?” “Lidl? Oh, no! I missed Lidl!”)
Some younger rubbernecks on the trouble trail seemed to know quite a lot about what had happened. (“That’s how the fire engines got there ... No, no, the police came from that side of the building ... Oh, I think Neil did that one.”)
At one point, I found myself standing next to a pair of teenagers who demonstrated a surprisingly nuanced knowledge of how large shop fires develop for people with a very shaky grasp of standard English. (Some elements of the construction would have got “bare hot” very quickly, apparently.)
I tried to make conversation with a gigantic young man who had spent several minutes solemnly (guiltily?) staring at one burnt ruin. The unbandaged burns on his hands hinted he might know something. So did his reticence. He sloped away without making eye contact.
As I arrived in the town, I walked past a man banging on the metal shutters of a still-closed shop that pays cash for electrical goods, asking them to open up. Hmm. Why was this man, carrying an item wrapped in a carrier bag, so very keen to visit the loot-launderer?
If he was a rioter seeking to cash in, he might have been out of luck. Later on, the shop taped a sign to its door: “Something to sell? PHOTO ID and PROOF OF ADDRESS and PROOF OF OWNERSHIP. Are you prepared to justify your possession to the police?”
Overall, on Tuesday morning, the mood in the town was chipper. I heard shoppers make black jokes about theft (“This would have been much cheaper yesterday!”). Even victims who suffered enormous losses put on brave, cheery faces.
The octogenarian Maurice Reeves was visibly distressed that his family’s furniture shop had been razed to the ground. But he could not help smiling when photographers took his photo. They asked him to look sadder, so he pulled a theatrical frown. Then he mimed an appeal to the gods for help before breaking back into a watery-eyed grin.
But the mood darkened through the day. Smiles slipped. News filtered out that a man shot in the town on Monday had died. As lunch came and went, more police officers started to appear. By 2pm, most of the town’s shops were closed out of fear of what might happen at dusk.
The pall of fear ought to shock because the stereotypes are unfair: Croydon has a large, prosperous middle class. The borough actually served as the backdrop to the 1980s sitcom Terry & June, which tracked the tribulations of a couple of suburban empty-nesters.
Indeed, during the last mayoral election, Boris Johnson won in the area. He will do so again: Ken Livingstone, his main opponent, is not popular in the suburbs. But Mr Johnson lost ground this week.
The overriding emotional response to the riots in the borough is pity for the victims. There was, however, also anger – much of it directed at the absence of local political leadership and inadequate policing. To maintain his long lead, Mr Johnson needs to show Croydon that he has the steel required to crack down on Croydon Man.