London riots

There is something strangely paralysing about the feeling that history is going on around me.

It is an uncanny mixture of connection and separateness. The riots were a short walk from my front door, but how can I have the arrogance to feel affected by them, when the violence hasn’t actually reached my front door? My windows haven’t been smashed, my car hasn’t been torched, my bike hasn’t been nicked. Who am I to feel that the riots concern me?

It is disorienting to hear the sirens zooming past, the chop chop chop chop chop of the helicopters overhead, but to look outside and see the street looking absolutely normal. I can only see the images, hear exactly what’s going on through the automatically-updating newsfeed on the screen of my laptop.

Last night I spent hours glued to a mixture of Twitter and BBC News. A Guardian journalist reported rioting in Chalk Farm, not far from my bookshop. I feared for the shop, envisaged its windows smashed, the books going up in flames. I considered cycling over there and was told by the fiancé not to be ridiculous. I realised that I couldn’t do anything other than hope for the best.

Hearing it happening all around me made me want to go outside and see what was going on. Reports on the news of anyone not dressed like a hoodie being mugged, made me think again. Surely, it isn’t right to walk down to the end of the road to watch shops getting looted – I’m hardly going to be able to help. All official voices told people to stay indoors. So I was reduced to being a curtain-twitcher, peering outside at the helicopters, keeping an eye on the street just in case a gang came along to smash up some cars.

But nothing was happening right outside, so I become a twitter-twitcher, watching a long stream of tweets, few saying anything particularly meaty. I felt restless, helpless. I was sure there must be something I could do. I couldn’t believe that this was happening so close to my home yet I was so distanced from it.

Once it got to two o’clock, I decided to go to bed.

This morning, I’m back on twitter, thinking I’ll help clean up the streets of Hackney. But operation #riotcleanup finds that the council workers have done it all for them. So there’s nothing to do except continue to watch the reports and wonder how such a thing can have happened.

I appreciate, of course, that there are at least two sides to every story. Something is making the rioters do this; violence doesn’t spring out of nowhere. But, as a shopkeeper – albeit one whose shop is, for now, intact – I feel absolute rage against the looters. Why target the shops? What have the shops done to deserve this?

We are a nation of shopkeepers, and London is a city of shops. A shop isn’t just somewhere to buy something, but it’s a space where one can spend time, where one can browse on one’s own, or meet a friend. People ‘go to the shops’, or wander along their High Street as a fun thing to do on a Saturday.

Over the past few recession-hit years we’ve seen a sad decline in the High Street. Lower rents and overheads have seen people’s shopping habits move to out-of-town centres and online. Communities in which people used to know their butcher and greengrocer have switched to supermarkets and online ordering in which as little interaction as possible is needed. But some of us are still trying to keep the High Street alive. Some of us are paying higher rents to provide a space, a parade for the whole community. So why are the rioters punishing these people who are keeping the High Street alive?

If they are angry about the police, the cuts, the system, the politics, then they should fight against that. How dare they torch that furniture shop in Croydon that had stood there for generations, that had survived the Blitz? Why hurt these shops – be they chains or independents – that provide employment for local people, which aim to serve local people, which provide a service to the community? This is a case of people literally biting the hand that feeds them. How can anybody think that this is ok?

This lady says it pretty perfectly.

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