When the riots ran through British cities like a nasty dose of diarhoea, my nephew and his family were holed up in their house in Hackney, like wartime Londoners huddled in their Andersen shelters, and my daughter was in Bristol, barricading the doors of the restaurant where she works with a cutlery trolly. But here in small town Wales nothing happened. There was one afternoon when I noticed a couple of wailing police sirens and I wondered if things might be kicking off in down-town Abergavenny, but I think it was just a couple of PCs rushing home for tea.
I’m sure there’s just as much social deprivation here as anywhere, and certainly more than enough of a social divide: take a look at the four by four drivers buying prosecco in Waitrose on a Friday night and compare them with the people coming out of Tesco metro with two bottles of cider, at the other end of town. But the thing is, it’s hard to riot in a place where people know you. I don’t mean simply that the police round here could recognize most of the ‘usual suspects’ even if they wore balaclavas and fat suits, and round them up the next day without breaking a sweat or sounding a siren. The certainty of recognition and retribution is a factor, but more than that, when you are part of a community, where people know you, not just your face, but your life and your family, rioting is just kind of silly. People would laugh and point, (especially if the only objective of your ‘rioting’ was to nick some trainers from JLB sports. Jeez. Personally I’d riot just to stay out of the place.)
Of course that kind of recognition is exactly what’s missing from the lives of big city inhabitants these days. Schools could be a big help in creating a sense of identity within a community, and the concomitant sense that it’s simply not possible to get away with murder, or even smashing a window. Unfortunately, somewhere in the history of schools we decided that adolescents needed to be crowd controlled rather than educated. Whoever thought that putting a thousand or two thousand hormonally assaulted young people in a box together was a good idea? Just at the time when their brains hit the adolescent meltdown, and their sense of identity is in crisis, we put them into institutions where they are just another one of a nameless crowd. If you want a way of making teenagers into discontented, irresponsible, aimless riot fodder, it’s perfect.
So what do we do in the aftermath of that mass, urban tantrum? What we mustn’t do is over react. It was awful, people died, houses and businesses were destroyed, but it isn’t new. Riots have been happening in Britain for hundreds of years. They aren’t the end of the world or even a run up to it. I asked my nephew what Hackney looked like the morning after the riots subsided and he said, very tellingly I think, “Sheepish!” I’d be willing to bet that the majority of young people whose front rooms are now crammed with cheap sports socks and electric kettles are feeling a bit sheepish, a bit foolish actually, even perhaps a bit ashamed. They may still be brazening it out, like the girls we all heard on the radio drinking ‘rose wine’ at ten in the morning and blaming the government for the fact they’d just lobbed a brick through the window of Ratners, but I predict a mass outbreak of quiet blushing. Yes, of course we need to state quite clearly to the rioters that their behaviour was not OK, that we, as a society (the thing Mrs Thatcher said didn’t exist …somebody needs to remind the Tories about that one) do not approve. But just as parental violence and hysteria don’t work to cure a two year old of tantrums, so extreme measures like eviction and removal of state benefits won’t cure the dispossessed and the neglected of their desire to scream. You teach the tantruming toddler by turning away from their bad behaviour, and rewarding their good behaviour so that they learn there are other ways to get their voice heard.
One of the saddest things I heard about the riots in London was that the only shops that didn’t get their windows smashed were Waterstones. Now I’d like to believe that this was because of a kind of reverence for books, that the rioters believed that smashing a bookshop window was unthinkable, like farting in church or saying rude words in front of your granny. But I think the people who were rioting would, at the time, have been happy to both fart and swear on the alter at their granny’s funeral. The reason Waterstones was untouched was because none of the rioters wanted a book. I’m sure and certain we haven’t seen the last of rioting, and, ultimately I’m glad of that, because although arson, looting and violent assault are not the best methods to effect social change, we need to keep them open as the option of last resort in the face of those who would bind our freedoms. What I hope is that when the next generation of rioters has its tantrum, the books shops are the first windows to be smashed, as an indication that finally, books are more important and desirable than lycra running shorts or hand held vacuum cleaners.