Tuesday, 9 August 2011
I got up late this morning.
I'd stayed up into the small hours looking at Twitter, writing a blog piece, feeling sorry for a friend who was attacked last night and trying not to seethe at something a former friend had addressed to me. I had some weird dreams and was knackered after a weekend in Holland.
I was heartened to learn on Twitter that people were gathering at the sites of some of the riots to help clean up the mess. Then it occured to me that there was nothing stopping me joining them.
I admit that I dithered. There were other ways to spend the day. I wasn't aware that anyone I knew was going. I wasn't sure exactly where to go or when. It sounded a bit of a faff. Like all OCD sufferers, I'm not wild about a lack of cleanliness. But I went.
First I needed some kit. So I went to a local hardware store and bought some gloves. And yes, of course I chose the ones that looked like goalkeeper gloves from the 1970s. Then I flagged down a taxi before I could change my mind.
I arrived first of all in Camden, the nearest place that I'd heard had a meet-up. I'd missed it. I made my way to Clapham, having been told that the gang had headed in that direction.
I have a very poor sense of direction and I wandered around in a futile manner for some time, before finally jumping in a cab and asking to be taken to where the action was. There I found a police cordon. I fell into a brief conversation with someone.
He sat astride his bicycle, sipping away on a can of lager with not a care in the world. He had a picture of a cannabis plant on his t-shirt. He assured me knowingly (not that I had solicited his opinion) that the reasons for the riots were many. He called me 'Geez'.
Eventually it dawned on me that there might be a clean-up away from this cordoned area, and I managed to locate it. Alas, I was too late again though, as a large group had done its job brilliantly. I bumped into two friends and we hung around together for a while in the hope that the streets might be opened up for us to get in there and get busy. But they weren't.
I sensed that being there was nonetheless worthwhile. There was a pleasing sense of solidarity in the air, not a smug or triumphant one. I did feel that we were reclaiming our city and doing something positive, something that would contribute to the sum of human happiness. And, let's face it, it was interesting.
Shops had been vandalised indiscriminately. They included sportswear outlets - which had also been raided - and businesses of all sizes. The window of a shop that raises money for a hospice had been broken. The staff in Starbucks, which had been wrecked, were handing out glasses of water.
A boy who may have been no older than ten was also astride a bike, peering into a phone shop that had been worked over. He stared sadly at one of the assistants and said 'I feel sorry for you.' The assistant thanked him warmly.
At another cordon I saw a boy of a similar age, dressed like the first in a grey tracksuit, peer at a handful of litter pickers. 'Thank you,' he said simply.
I hadn't done anything yet, despite having started my adventure several hours earlier. Feeling inadequate, I allowed a possibility I had dismissed to float around my mind. There was a clean-up in Brixton starting at 6.30. Maybe I should go after all.
Brixton has never appealed to me. I take the word 'vibrant' as a synonym for 'ghastly' when it's employed as a description of parts of London. I had shown willing and perhaps I could go somewhere more local tomorrow. But the day needed to be resolved properly, and that meant actually doing something.
Brixton isn't all that far away after all. It's only a few stops from Victoria, nearer still to Pimlico. In short order I was there. I turned left, came out of the station and saw the famous Electric Avenue. I carried on to the meeting point five minutes before call-time and saw four people with brooms. I was struck by how pretty the square was and by the thought that yet again I might not find gainful employment.
More people appeared, but no-one was obviously in charge. It further emerged that the streets were rather a lot cleaner than expected, as the council had done a very good job already. But there was a general agreement to carry on. First we posed for a group photo.
We made our way down the street. I was stopped by two youths in baseball caps and low-slung jeans. They asked me if I knew where they could get bags and where to go. I explained it was all a bit unclear and they thanked me with gentle smiles.
Finally we came upon some wreckage. The windows of a Vodafone shop had been broken, and there were thick sheets of glass in the street. I volunteered to help pick them up, as I had my goalkeeper gloves on. A middle-class man with leadership qualities directed operations and together he and I lifted the glass into a reinforced bag. Then a handful of us swept up.
A Welshman who is a freelancer for the Sky News blog asked me if I would do a quick interview explaining why I was there. I looked directly into his camera until I remembered he'd asked me to look at him. It was over in a flash.
Some of the shops were still cordoned off as they remained crime scenes. We went down a side street which showed no signs of damage but which was covered in litter. We shrugged and figured that there was no harm in removing it. So we did. I picked up a few bits of rotten food and lots of debris.
And that's how I spent the next hour. The streets weren't very dirty, but they are a lot cleaner now. I got chatting, but only a bit, with a couple of the others. One of them said she would send me a tweet of a photo she got a policeman to take of us. The other one and I got on the tube together.
Everyone whom I have mentioned other than those two women, the journalist and my friends - i.e. the boozer on the bike, the two grateful boys in Clapham, the two youths who asked me how they could help and the posh chap who directed the glass removal - was black. So were lots of those who were there to clean up. So weren't lots of other people. So weren't many of the rioters.
I'm home now. I could reflect further on what this all means, but I've already written an article about what I think. I can sum up my views in a nutshell anyway. We don't know the circumstances of the rioters, but we do know they're not poor in any meaningful sense, that they're no worse off than huge numbers of people who would never behave in this way and who only go to the shops when they have earned enough money to pay for what they want, and that they're nothing like as badly off as people in other countries who would insist you had their last scrap of food if you were lucky enough to be a guest in their home. We know what it is to be a human being, that we have free will and can choose not to rob, burgle and beat people up. We know that politicians and the police need to do more to quell and quash these riots.
I didn't want to emote, or pontificate further or even think very much. I wanted to do something. So did lots of Londoners and some people who came from outside.
We were an eclectic bunch. 'Diversity' and 'harmony' were not political buzzwords today. They were thoroughly welcome and viscerally real phenomena.