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Your Notebook writer was out of the UK for only eight days and look what happened. English cities burned amid rioting and looting and courts started handing out sentences that would make the Taliban blush. Unemployment rose and world stock markets crashed in fear of a double-dip recession.
Is there any relief? Time for a stab at 10 random things to cheer us up (or me, at least):
1. England are the world No 1 in Test cricket. Scant comfort if your business is a burnt-out wreck, but a once unthinkable pleasure for fans.
2. The August mayhem in the markets may have been overdone. We can always hope.
3. More young people are studying science, technology, engineering and maths at school and university (a point I make gingerly, since I hold a degree in English).
4. We may see a more thorough effort to tackle gang violence, incorporating lessons that Strathclyde and Manchester have learnt from the US. Not that this protected Manchester from the riots.
5. In many cities the community’s response to lawlessness and devastation has been heartening.
6. While it is important to study the causes of the riots, unless repeated they seem unlikely to put off investors or Olympic visitors.
7. The most moving event was the turnout of 25,000 people in Birmingham to honour three Muslim men who died protecting their properties.
8. Could there be a business opportunity in penalty-free rioting – a game or smartphone app for virtual looting, perhaps?
9. Social media may have aided rioters but they have benign uses too. Greggs, the bakery chain, is reinstating Cumbrian coffee puffs in its northern England shops this week after a Facebook and Twitter campaign.
10. Otters are back in every county in England. Sadly, they do not study science, technology, engineering or maths.
There were no riots in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and most English cities. Since the causes of the riots appear complex, it is even more difficult to speculate on why other cities did not indulge. But that has not stopped many from doing so.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, said his nation had “no history” of such rioting because of its different “social fabric”, while his officials complained to news channels about captions referring to “UK riots”; the BBC switched to “England riots”. Opponents accused him of gloating and ignoring Scotland’s football-related disorder and sectarianism, not to mention a battle police fought with drunks in April when an unofficial royal wedding party in a Glasgow park got out of hand.
Historian David Starkey sought to justify his remarks about the influence of black “gangsta” culture by saying riots did not affect Yorkshire, the north-east of England, Wales and Scotland. “These areas contain some of the worst pockets of unemployment in the country. But they are also characterised by a powerful sense of regional or national identity and difference that cuts across all classes and binds them together. And it is this, I am sure, which has inoculated them against the disease of ‘gangsta’ culture and its attendant, indiscriminate violence,” he said.
Important as cultures may be, it seems a stretch to argue that Leeds and Newcastle, which had no riots, have a stronger regional identity than Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham, which had them.
This August I have visited, eclectically, the Black Forest, Strasbourg and Blackpool. Overheard in Blackpool: “There’s a 1940s weekend in Lytham.” I had the impression that life in Lytham
St Annes, known for its retirement homes, was one long 1940s weekend.