Panic on the Streets of England
By Heidi James-Dunbar.
I sit down to write this in my peaceful, rose-filled garden, utterly enraged. The sun shines, here in Purley, just a mile down the road from the smoldering remains of Croydon town centre, which appears to have settled into an uneasy quiet. I am a writer and academic. We own our house. We have two new cars. My husband and I have travelled extensively, we are well-educated; privileged, even. Yes, we worry about paying ever increasing bills and rising unemployment. We are, in Ed Miliband’s words, the ‘squeezed middle’. So far, so middle-class and so enraged. But not by the rioters here in the UK, but by the government and its response.
Here’s a true story.
My mum was seventeen and single when I was born. My father (protected by his wealthy parents) abdicated from any responsibility. That doesn’t matter much (but of course it does). We lived on a council estate where burnt-out cars and casual violence weren’t unusual, but then, neither were acts of casual kindness, exceptional teachers and good manners. We lived with my grandparents and four aunts and uncles in a three bedroom house and then various flats and bedsits until the council found us a damp, tiny little house with no heating except for the open fire in the sitting room. My sister’s and I slept three to a room, my mum slept in the box room. I figure this was 1980. We were cold, but we didn’t go hungry. My mother on the other hand did. She was skin and bone and not from choice and she wore Dr. Scholl sandals in the winter.
One of my earliest memories is sitting in court, wearing my best shoes and dress with my sisters strapped into their double buggy beside me, while our mother was tried for shop-lifting. She had so little that she couldn’t afford to buy us both winter coats and food. So, she bought the coats and nicked the food. When I say food, I’m not talking joints of beef or whole chickens, my mother stole tins of Spam and lumps of processed cheese, to feed us kids. The magistrate had some sense and threw the case out of court. And, no matter how hungry we were at home at least us poor kids got our half-pint of milk at school every day, that is we did until Maggie Thatcher the milk-snatcher put a stop to that.
Bright and encouraged by good teachers (thank you, Mr. Bell of Luton Junior School) and my mother, I excelled at school. My mother, who’d had nothing and was taught that the best she could expect from life was a job in a shop till marriage and kids, told me over and over, that I deserved more and should aim high. I passed my 11 plus and went to the local grammar school. So far, so good, right? There I was, with the help of my mother, pulling myself up by my boot straps, just as Thatcher – and later, Tony Blair – would advocate; bettering myself. But without a model to emulate, without a tangible goal to aim for, these ambitions were nothing but smoke and mirrors. I knew nothing about university, or gap years, or what career I might possibly hope for as a creative child who loved books. What opened up before me, was a frightening chasm of inchoate ambition that I wasn’t equipped to visualise or understand. The best I could imagine was that I might be a hairdresser or a film star.
Here’s another true story (as true as truth can be with its accompanying shadow of falsehood). I asked my mother for Joyce’s Ulysses for my thirteenth birthday. It had to be ordered specially from the local WHSmith’s and the woman who wrapped it up for my mum echoed my mother’s thoughts ‘What a big book, for such a little girl!’. That same year I had my first consensual sexual encounter and took my first class A drugs. It seemed that no matter where you’re headed, where you come from will always matter. Sex and drugs will always sustain a potent economy amongst the poor, they’re widely available, provide a welcome distraction and never lose their exchange value.
At fourteen I’d started ‘steamin’ and this is where I make my confession, something I’ve never told anyone, but feel compelled to tell now: ‘steamin’ was stealing, mugging, nicking, choring, thieving – whatever you call it, it all means the same thing. With my boyfriend I belonged – loosely- to a gang in Bromley South; where we would roam about, steamin individuals for their trainers, off-licenses for booze and drunk, rich commuters for their wallets. We frightened those people, and it felt good. It felt good to be powerful for once. To not be a victim, to be in charge for just a little while. I knew absolutely that it was wrong. And I didn’t care. I had nothing to hope for, and nothing to lose. All I had to look forward to was a shit job, a massive mortgage and dinners at the local Harvester if I was lucky, and if I was unlucky, I’d have kids with a man I thought I loved, from a home just as dysfunctional as my own, with more kids than we had rooms, and more rage and dissatisfaction than can be expressed in the small grace granted by a crate of Stella and Bacardi Breezers once a week.
I was lucky, I was never caught, I grew up and moved to London and while working in a photo developing concession in my local Sainsbury’s I slipped a manuscript of my work into the photos of Will Self, who told me I might just be alright and should try a bit harder to be disciplined as a writer.
I am not flippant. I am a white, working-class female who has known rage and powerlessness and poverty. I have never experienced racism first-hand, though I was told by my concerned family to expect my boyfriend to beat me as he was black and apparently ‘they beat their women, they do.’ For the record, Dexter was the most charming and respectful boyfriend of my youth despite ‘ringing’ cars for a living. Most of the people I grew up with attempted to earn an honest living, but in order to tally up the ends sometimes they cut corners, did deals or took what wasn’t theirs. ‘He’s a bit of a wide-boy’ was a compliment when I was growing up, it meant you weren’t a mug who let society and its iniquities beat you. You had to learn to stay one step ahead of the authorities. I remember my law-abiding and hard-working granddad warning me against the ‘filth’. The local shop had been burgled and the police were called to inspect what was lost. The owner had done an inventory before the police arrived and after the police had been and gone, the inventory no longer tallied. My Poppa told me, ‘Never trust the filth, they’re the biggest thieves going’. Later, out in Peckham in the early 1990s I was with a friend when the police surrounded us for no discernible reason before shoving him up against the wall and forcibly searching him. They found nothing because he wasn’t and would never have been carrying anything illegal.
So, here we are, 2011, another Tory-led government, cutting resources and refraining from adequately taxing the super wealthy. You’ve read the numbers elsewhere. Streets are in uproar and kids roam feral, taking power where they can. My story is history and my life is somewhat different now, and yet when I watch the young kids rioting on TV and stand in my garden listening to the helicopters and watching the flames tangle with the summer clouds I can’t help but feel a connection to those who have nothing to lose and everything to gain in taking a pair of trainers and appearing on TV for ten small minutes of their life.
For Girard, violence is generated by the process of appropriation by those who seek to mimic and emulate those that model the good life. Of course, mimetic appropriation will necessarily be thwarted by those who have, those who are emulated, those that have, the ‘model’ will always maintain the mimetic contract and will negate any attempt by the usurpers. Yet, isn’t this precisely the deal on which consumerism (enabled by increasing personal debt) is predicated? The haves, have and the have nots, want. If the media posits a mode of being which promises via possessions a wealth of happiness, is it not obvious that the first thing a rioting youth will do is take what promises joy? These kids, like the rest of us, soak up the images and models of consumption in our tacky magazines and TV shows, it follows that their sense of value is based not on what one can offer society, but on what one wears, what car one drives, what bag one carries. Achievement is measured by what you own, not by your education, or what you’ve learnt or read or experienced. And of course, these kids expect something for nothing, for isn’t that the lesson they have learnt from British society? Or to put it another way, isn’t nepotism the British way? Ask those Eton boys in Parliament how they got there and who they had to know to grease the wheels of success.
It’s no secret that the police are institutionally racist. I experienced this is when I was the victim of an attempted mugging and the first thing the police asked me was ‘Were they Black?’ It’s not shocking to anyone with sense, that these riots were a police-murder away, that enough is enough and there is only so much silencing, bigotry and grinding poverty that people can take.
And as to the accusations that these rioters are ‘shitting on their own door step’, attacking their own kind, well, frankly, that’s crazy talk. These kids have nothing in common with the small business owner, for even that modest acquisition is beyond these kids. This isn’t their community, none of this belongs to them. Even on your crappy estate, with its stinking rubbish, high rents, violence and urine-soaked lifts; you’re endlessly reminded that your home isn’t yours, that you are suffered to live there and that nothing belongs to you. Whether it’s the council removing the security grill you fitted on your front door at great expense to prevent yet another burglary, to your private landlord freaking out about the plumber you called in to fix the heating in the middle of winter when he wouldn’t or your kids getting an ASBO for playing ball in the communal garages. Life on an estate is shit. Trust me, I lived on one.
I make no apology for the actions of the rioters, however, the only moral response is to look to the causes of this inarticulate and acquisitive rage. There is no single meaning or interpretation of the recent events in London. But I can tell you this – it’s no fun being poor and silenced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heidi James-Dunbar is a former co-editor of 3:AM. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (published by Apis Books) was published in July 2007 and her novel Carbon in 2009 (BLATT Books). She has contributed to Dazed and Confused, Another Level and OpenDemocracy. Her essays and short stories are published in a variety of anthologies and magazines. She was the proprietor of Social Disease and a recipient of the Sophie Warne fellowship. Following her MA at Birkbeck she is now studying for a PhD at Kingston University.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 16th, 2011.