:: Article

Shop and Awe

By Dale Lately.

We’re the most enterprising, buccaneering, creative, dynamic nation on earth. To get Britain on the rise we need a whole new economy, more enterprising, more aspirational.                                                                                                                                                                           — David Cameron

Broken glass. That’s how you know you’re in a riot. Not bombs, not gunfire; trails of broken glass. Frosted windscreens, cobwebbed shop fronts. Glass: the all-purpose skin of the modern city. The reflection of a security camera, the shiny face of a luxury store. The glint in a riot cop’s visor.

I wasn’t the one smashing windows. I just watched as others did. With the other cameraphone spectators I stood beneath a windswept dystopia of sky-high brand names and chain stores while kids in hoods and balaclavas roamed around raiding and looting and stealing. Noisy spectrum interference in the urban fabric, outliers lost among the CCTV and advertising semaphore. Prisoners of our new panopticons. This was the consumer culture raised to the level of violent orgy. This was the twenty-first-century city. This was Britain, 2011.

 

Molotov alcopops

There was freshly-laid horseshit along the silent tram rails as I drifted into Piccadilly Gardens that told me cavalry riot cops had clomped this way, perhaps just half an hour earlier. But for the ringing of the alarms the place was weirdly quiet right now and had an unsettling, dystopian sci-fi film atmosphere about it. Two choppers circled above, slicing over the sound of sirens and shop alarms. ‘Be the weapon, not the target,’ Wayne Rooney urged us from a billboard. A laptop rotated invitingly on a giant digital screen. 

Stunning visuals. Intelligent performance.

There was smoke overhead, distant screams. A car had been set alight down by the parking lot: the windscreen a rectangle of fire, the chassis a molten skeleton, flame-licked and billowing smoke into the night. Police vans suddenly bathed me in floodlight, slapping shields, clops. Pum, pum, hup. A helmeted cop was screaming at a load of advancing rioters, who held their phones in defence as if they offered some kind of protection. Young, skinny, in hoodies and balaclavas. Fired up on stolen booze and gang buzz. ‘You’re on YouTube, mate,’ one of the kids shouted at them. ‘You’re on fucking YouTube.’

*

I used to come to Manchester as a teenager. Occasional journeys to the city were a flirtation with capitalism’s seductions, shopping as dreaming: marble floors and muzak, chain stores, oozing Big Macs. This was at a time when the city was the petri-dish for a new model of consumer-powered citizenship, a New Labour attempt to redesign a post-industrial metropolis on an alliance between property speculation, the culture industry and – most importantly, after the IRA bomb smashed the city’s shopping centre – retail.

Among its achievements lie the Beetham Tower, a credit-card slice of skyscraper bombast housing the Hilton hotel; the shiny Lowry and MediaCity hugging a sterilised waterfront in Salford; Urbis, a glass-clad postmodern museum of something or other; pricey loft-conversions lining the canals in Castlefield and Ancoats. Gentrified shopping arcades with triple reinforced glazing and high-tech alarms, shops where the dummies are in a higher class than you are, shops where a cheapish pair of high heels costs £90. And of course the CCTV – too high to be reached, out of the way of bricks or projectiles – the secret weapon of Crown Courts and fast-track conviction programs. An architecture that flirts with the transparency of the skyscraper, a shrine to Prada-plated capitalism. Look at it all. Want it enough and it could be yours.

*

The burglary of commercial premises in circumstances such as this where substantial and wholesale public disorder has taken place is in effect what is commonly called looting.

— District Judge Alan Baldwin, before sentencing an engineering student to six months in jail for stealing a bottle of water, 2011

You see it in the new Arndale mall, risen in the ashes of the IRA bomb, where twenty-foot-high storefronts for Apple and Disney gleam beneath transparent ceilings. You see it in Cathedral Street, a canyon of smoked glass overlooked by gleaming wedges of luxury flats. You see it in the glass and steel, in the wafer-thin hotels that soar into the clouds. Ian Martin once called it ‘oligarchitecture’. The aesthetic of pure money itself, given form by twenty-first-century glass and steel. Form follows finance. Go to supermalls like Westfield Stratford City, built for the Olympics on a scale that reminds one of the Palace of the Soviets, and you’ll see oligarchitecture’s apotheosis. The U.S.S.R. built architecture big enough to knock the wind out of you, totems to the collectivist dream; New York and Chicago erected vertical slabs as symbols of free enterprise. Modern Britain chooses to celebrate its Olympic pride by building a gigantic shopping mall in the Olympic Park. The national monument as retail destination: shop and awe.

*

Down on Canal Street a line of riot police blocked the passage to one of the bridges, radios crackling, unassailable. I snuck into a doorway and watched them. They stood stiff, barely turning to mutter to one another. More a line of machines than people. Around us there was more glass breaking, the sound of running, chasing. Other riot teams were storming around Canal Street’s narrow backalleys, driving rioters this way, that way, locking and blocking and herding, part of some greater strategy for containment and arrest. Insults and jeers echoed over the cobbles. One of the cops noticed me in the shadows, looked me over, and then turned away distractedly. I wasn’t a kid in a hoodie. I wasn’t in a gang.

‘S’cuse me.’

An old man, walking his dog, shuffled up towards the police line. He had a frail, confused look about him.

‘I need to get to the bridge.’

The cop didn’t even turn to address him.

‘Nobody gets past.’

The old man shook his head. He seemed upset, panicked by the prospect. ‘But I need to.’

The cop glanced at one or two of his colleagues, and then sighed. I watched them step aside to form a small gap, then close up again as the man and his dog shuffled through.

*

In the centre of Manchester a planned spec development for luxury flats lies weed-eaten, killed off by the crash, unchanged since cars went up in flames around it three years ago. All that survives of investors’ ambitions is the graffitied hoarding. A cipher of Ozymandian ambition, it flashes images of people our aspirational culture is supposed to aspire towards. A cool Tokyo businesswoman. A power-dresser sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi. A pair of suited bankers. Plugged in. Clued up. Going places.

Just one example among many of stalled gentrification across the post-industrial North; one more example among the Urban Splash renovations, still half-empty; among the luxury apartments in old mills, now protected by swipe-cards and CCTV, that failed to fulfil return on investment; and of course the shopping malls – the giant glass monoliths designed to breathe life back into cities gutted by container ships and post-industrialism, with their chains and ubiquitous logos, their promises of job and wealth creation.

Voyage out to the places where most of the rioters came from – the vast, flat housing estates of Gorton; the potholes and poundshops of Harpurhay or Longsight; the rain-stained concrete blocks of Salford – and you’ll see a different Manchester, one whose local retail destinations are the Lidls, Aldis and Poundworlds that have sprung up like knotweed around poor neighbourhoods. This is the other side of aspiration Britain, the one targeted by Wonga and poverty-pornographers, the Britain of council estates, hooded figures texting at bus stops, teenage mothers. Along the smog-choked highways connecting these areas billboards sing slogans for McDonald’s, Samsung, Nokia. A vision of recession Britain: trained in the values of consumerism but lacking the cash to consume.

*

It’s not the facts of the offence he committed, it’s the fact he’s committed it in circumstances where there’s public disorder.

— Michael McQuillan, Defence, after man was given 16 month jail sentence for licking an ice cream cone, 2011

As the skies darkened I passed the broken shop fronts spilling their guts onto the pavement. A pile of mobile phones. A cracked grand piano. Three kids in hoods taking photos of a smashed-up shopfront like they want to preserve the moment for later. There were sounds of fights elsewhere, kids running, gangs disappearing into the dark. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Glaziers in vans were already pulling up, fixing shop displays, slapping on elastoplasts. Clearing up the broken glass.

I pushed through the smoke and glanced back at the city: at Piccadilly Gardens, fountains gleaming in the evening light; at a line of police on horseback ranged behind a smouldering Tesco Metro, warriors in silhouette, framed against bluish streetlight all across the bridge of the canal; at a phalanx of riot cops marching up the pavement, in search of burning cars, smoke, teenagers. The three letters on the back of their helmets looked like a logo.

‘Can I have a go on your bike?’

I turned. The kid was about fourteen and held a half-empty bottle of Smirnoff.  Behind him Wayne Rooney gazed down. Be the weapon, not the target.

I laughed.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Private property.’

*

As I rode away Manchester was utterly deserted, the quietest I’d ever seen it: just a bitter wind whispering up over the broken glass. Scenes from the riots looped themselves in my head. A Spar store razed to the ground, waves of sportswear surging against the walls, brandishing sticks and bricks and broken bottles. Kids in expensive trainers emerging from stores clutching expensive phones. An attack on community, the columnists would say later. An attack on the very fabric of society. Was looting mobile phones and trainers an attack on the community? The images looped and re-looped as I cut through the night. I had no answers, just images. Kids and broken glass. Kids fed on adverts for trainers and phones and sportswear since before they could remember. These kids weren’t trying to topple authority. They were just going shopping.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dale Lately has written for The Guardian, OpenDemocracy, Litro, Dead Ink, Smoke, Culture Counter and Pop Matters, as well as being shortlisted for Flashtag Competition 2013, the BIGGER Short Story Competition 2012, and published in the print anthologies From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea and Triskele’s Words with Jam.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 27th, 2014.