:: Article

This Is Not As Intense As It Gets

By Max Dunbar.

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Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, Clive Bloom, Palgrave 2010

Let me assume you’ve heard about the student protests in London this week. You’ll know about the smashed windows at Millbank and the occupation of CCHQ. You will have heard the standard narrative of a peaceful protest hijacked by a thuggish minority. You probably did not expect a middle-class protest on education policy to have drawn such numbers and made such an impact. Views on the demonstration differ wildly, but there is a sense of agreement that this was about more than tuition fees. A government source told the Guardian that ‘This is just the beginning. This is the first of a series of protests by various sections of society against what we are doing.’ There are echoes of Nick Ridley stockpiling coal in the early eighties. In the same paper, the feminist writer Nina Power described the protest as ‘a genuine expression of frustration against the few who seem determined to make the future a miserable, small-minded and debt-filled place for the many.’

Generally this is a cue for your correspondent to relate his own demo memories at tedious length. Don’t worry, I have spared you the tales of being chased by London riot police on Mayday 2001. You are better off reading Clive Bloom‘s visceral sociology of capital riots. Bloom’s view is that the history of protest has been commandeered to some extent by academics and activists who ‘tried to make wider claims for a continuous history of radical outrage which was predominantly biased towards a Marxist political framework.’ In terms of changing the world, it’s probably more effective to write articles and lobby MPs than to wave a placard or throw a brick at a cop. Bloom argues that Thatcher was brought down not by poll tax rioters but by angry middle-class ratepayers, who found their voice in the dignified fury of Old Tory Geoffrey Howe. 

Yet the impression from Bloom’s masterful study is that the history of protest is a history of hate. Typical mid twentieth century demonstrators burned effigies of the Pope. Bloom relates one such ritual where the Pontiff’s head was stuffed with live cats so that the effigy would appear to scream as it burned. (Never underestimate the inventive cruelty of the sectarian mind.) Violent London is a catalogue of pogroms and Kristallnachts against various ethnic and religious minorities. Be you Chinese, Jewish, Black British, Caribbean, German, African, Irish, Catholic: sooner or later the mob will be at your door. The sectarian release valve lives on, most visibly in the stupid and pointless festival every November 5 where whole districts smell of cordite and children throw fireworks in the street. The fascist mobs of Mosley and Tyndall continue in the English Defence League, a loose network of Neo-Nazis that terrorise cities with large Asian populations. These guys are fighting the Islamisation of Europe by smashing up Leicester cafes and throwing smokebombs at police. No one has died at these rallies, but it is only a matter of time.

Police are the historic enemy of the protestor and Bloom reminds us that at the Met’s formation most people were anti-cop. The idea of putting random civilians in uniform and giving them power over the rest seemed insane, a recipe for mayhem. Critics had a point. You could walk into Scotland Yard and walk out in blue. No checks, no tests, no CRBs. Bloom: ‘Even more to the point, almost half the constables of the newly formed force were dismissed for drunkenness or disorderly behaviour.’ The king was petitioned to abolish ‘the present military and grievously EXPENSIVE SYSTEM OF POLICE’ and Bloom quotes an anonymous fly-poster who warned ‘Peel’s Police, Raw Lobsters, Blue Devils’ that ‘a subscription has been entered into, to supply the PEOPLE with STAVES of superior Effect’. When a policeman was killed in a trade union demo, the judge gave a verdict of justifiable homicide and the jury was ‘treated to a torchlit procession, a pleasure cruise on the Medway and inscribed silver loving cups’.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and popular opinion was against the protestors and behind London’s finest. Anarchism was the 1990s boogeyman, Bloom says, and the fuss made about the gentle situationist demos of Reclaim the Streets had to be lived through to be believed. When Maoists put a grass mohican on the Churchill statue, British conservatism seemed to go mad for a few days. (Everyone says that Churchill had a great sense of humour: is it not conceivable that he would have taken the stunt in good spirit?) Yet much of the media ignored the policing abuses of the twentieth century, from the institutional racism that allowed Stephen Laurence’s killers to walk around under a free sky to the thousand or so suspicious custody deaths to the manslaughter of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. Undoubtedly the police has changed and most people join it for the right reasons, but there remains a monster inside the system, and every now and again it opens one eye and flicks its tail.

We still think of the streets as the birthing ward of democratic progress and positive change. The streets call to you. There is a nobility and a glory in this least British and most British of pursuits. You remember Cable Street, and realise that, for all that UAF has its problems, there is a physical courage in its anti-EDL protests that must be respected. This edition of Bloom’s book has been updated to take into account the growing street politics of the 2000s: ‘the city was a living entity,’ he writes, ‘suffused with the life of the multitude.’ The 2010s are likely to be remembered for greater upheaval as the National Government twists this country into interesting new shapes. It’s said that all history books are out of date as soon as they appear. Nowhere is this more true than in the pages of Violent London.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 13th, 2010.