August 10th, 2011

me: walk softly and carry big stick

Quite an experience

Yesterday, I had a quiet evening out with friends, an experience which I would normally take for granted. We were on Holloway Road, predicted to be the scene of more of the smash-and-grab looting that's marred the past few days in London.

Before I left work, I checked in with my social network - thank you, Tweeple - as searches for "Holloway Road" on Twitter were bringing up wildly conflicting reports. One claimed that the Odeon cinema was on fire. Within two minutes I had eyewitness confirmation from locals that all was peaceful and quiet.

I hopped on the tube at 18:15. Normally this is one of the worst times to be on the Piccadilly line, because all the museums have just shut in South Kensington (Science, Natural History, V&A) so the tourists as well as everyone who's gone for a pint after work are all trying to pile onto the tiny train carriages. (Fun fact: Each Piccadilly line train can carry 1238 passengers. Each Victoria line train can carry 1448 passengers.)

This train was nearly empty. I had an entire row of seats to myself from Gloucester Road to Holloway Road (12 stops), which is unthinkable at rush hour. At Green Park, a pair of well-dressed young people boarded and sat across from me.

"Do you think it's going to kick off tonight?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
"Nah," he said.
"But they said he didn't shoot at them,"* she insisted.
"Still too many cops around tonight," he replied laconically.
"But they're gonna use this as an excuse," she said.

He shook his head. They started gossiping about work colleagues, so I tuned out until eavesdropping radar picked up, "Yeah, like I'm really gonna smash up Selfridges," as the young woman swung herself up to disembark at Leicester Square.

"Be safe," he said.
She laughed slightly hysterically. The train suddenly lurched to a stop in the tunnel. She tried to say humorously, "Oh, this isn't good," but the expression on her face was pure fear. The train picked up again and she hopped off at the platform, forcing a reassuring giggle at her friend.

I was oddly grateful for the vicarious vent their interaction gave to my own feelings, which were concealed under an attempt to relax by solving all the sudoku puzzles in the Metro. I screwed up an easy one, which revealed nothing to anyone but me about my mental state.

I disembarked at Holloway Road, ran up the steps and popped out into the golden afternoon light. Nothing was unusual about most of the shops being shut at that time, other than the ones that had boarded up their windows. One of the pubs I passed was shut as well. The Odeon cinema was emphatically not on fire, though it was shut. I passed two young men in hoodies giggling and throwing chips at one another.

[personal profile] yoyoangel and I spent 20 minutes or so trying to find a place that was (a) open, (b) serving food and (c) not just serving fried chicken, which isn't the most appealing option for a vegetarian. We finally located a caf. The reaction of the woman behind the counter when we bellied up and asked if they were serving food was comforting. She looked at us with disbelief. "Of course!" We sat down to enjoy a hearty meal (English caf with a Turkish twist - you could order a plate of falafel with beans and chips) in the company of [personal profile] djm4 and [personal profile] yoyoangel's parent.

By the time we'd finished stuffing ourselves, it was sunset and the caf had emptied of other customers. The waitress sidled over and told us they were going to close, a prudent move before it got dark. I went to the station while the others returned to [personal profile] yoyoangel's new flat. The road was nearly empty. Only the fried chicken restaurants remained open with no sign of imminent closure. A police car screamed past with blue lights flashing. Three young men stopped suddenly on the pavement in front of me. To give some of their fried chicken to a homeless man.

My uneventful journey home on a train that was preternaturally quiet was punctuated only by a daft kitten's attempt to follow me up the road from Cambridge station. (I returned her firmly to her garden.)

London was quiet last night. Ironically, it was probably one of the safest nights ever to be out in the city simply because no one was around. Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool weren't so lucky. I'm grateful to have had a peaceful evening out. But when you can no longer expect that, you've had a little taste of what it's like to live in fear all the time. Surely nobody wants that. Let's try not to let that happen, please.

* He == Mark Duggan. Them == the Metropolitan Police, who shot him dead after a confrontation took place. It is now known that he did not fire at them first, but the circumstances surrounding the incident are still unclear.

UK riot-related links
  • Amateur footage of Manchester riot police dealing with suspected rioters. (Trigger warning: they are not gentle.)

  • From the Guardian, putting the riots into context: the UK has worse social mobility than other developed countries, the richest 10% are 100 times better off than the poorest, etc.

  • From the Guardian, a piece about the psychology of looting. Quotes: "[J]ust because there is no political agenda on the part of the rioters doesn't mean the answer isn't rooted in politics." and "[T]his is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it."

  • For those who like correlations, here is a map of riot locations superposed over deprivation level in the city of London.