Having written a post about what a vibrant, international city London is — and having written a significant number of words for my novel that use London as a setting — I’ve been feeling physically sickened by the events over the past few days.
Many of the locations for the looting and arson (the criminal behaviour doesn’t even deserve to be termed rioting, let alone protesting or demonstrating) are places I know reasonably well, having worked there for a while (like Croydon) or been there recently to enjoy a drink (Clapham Junction and Hackney). (I was also in the Bull Ring shopping centre a couple of weeks ago which has also been broken into and looted.)
As mentioned in a post below (with the bike photo) I was in Hackney around six weeks ago and started off an afternoon pub crawl at the Pembury Tavern. Â This pub is apparently very close to the Pembury Estate which was a trouble spot last night.
The main flashpoint was apparently in Mare Street, which I travelled along on the number 30 bus a few weeks before and is very close to the Globe in Morning Lane, which was our next stop after the Pembury.
I won’t offer any in-depth opinion on the reasons behind the disturbances here except to observe, in the context of this novel and blog, that I’d been surprised that Hackney seemed to be nowhere near as intimidating a place as some people like to portray it and I enjoyed going there. But I’m also glad that I’ve already done that piece of research. Given the difficulties of throwing off a reputation for being insalubrious, it’s deplorable that the actions of a very few idiots will have so damaged the areas where they live — the physical damage can be rebuilt but the reputational and psychological damage will live on for decades. Areas like Ealing and Enfield are suburban enough to withstand the damage but the more deprived areas like Hackney and Tottenham will suffer more and a lot of the good that the Olympics promised to bring to these areas in terms of regeneration will have been outweighed.
Ironically, at the same time these events have unfolded I’ve been working on a couple of parts of the novel that discuss the living in the city versus the countryside question. I’ve been asked in feedback sessions why Kim, an artist living in Hackney and working in Shoreditch (thankfully spared from the trouble), would ever contemplate leaving those places to set up in bucolic Buckinghamshire.
This is a tension that runs through the novel but I do think it’s credible that she would want to move — and the causes of the recent disorder give some reasons why. As with elections in the 1980s, when everyone said publicly they despised the Tories but enough secretly voted for them out of self-interest (not me by the way), the debate about housing location is similar. Lots of people like to claim they like living in an ‘edgy’ area and few declare a love for the suburbs. Yet it’s an established demographic phenomenon that middle-class, university-educated people tend to leave London in large numbers in their thirties — particularly when they’ve had a family.
Also, while I recently read an article in the Sunday Times magazine (that I can’t link to because it’s a pay-site) about how some of today’s well-connected modern artists are doing quite well financially, I doubt if Kim would ever be able to come close to be able to afford to live in the sort of village where The Angel is the local. Such ridiculous property prices are a problem in the countryside where the preponderance of commuters and the retired creates demographic problems of another sort. But if Kim is given a cost-effective way of getting out of London, then I think she’d certainly consider it — which also gives the opportunity to leave behind problems of other sorts.
What’s most unnerving about the anarchy on the streets is it affects people’s sense of personal security — and, while, in
reality, the number of people causing trouble is very small, the psychological repercussions are profound. I’ve also been asked in workshops what attracts Kim to James. Â One of the main reasons is, apart from his indefatigable admiration of her work, is that he boosts her own sense of security — something she doesn’t admit even to herself for much of the novel. A sense of one’s own personal security and physical vulnerability probably isn’t anything that’s going to be very honestly discussed in workshops but it’s something that, I suspect, deeply connects with a reader in the one-to-one situation that engages reader with a text.
I got too depressed about events to carry on watching rolling news on the television (which I think must examine its own role in the spread of copycat criminality) but have seen some hopeful reports about communities cleaning up and reclaiming the public spaces so here’s a photo of the Pembury Tavern’s line up of beers on its bars. I hope to go back soon.