My City My City

London Burning

London, we haven’t always seen eye to eye, have we?  Growing up I was indifferent to you.  Then I hated you for a good few years.  I was a fearful person (crowds, tubes, terrorists, you name it, I was scared of it.  I’m guessing you’ll allow me terrorists).  The threat of terrorism is unchanged but I am not.  I’ve grown braver.  Now I’m protective of you.  Last year when my world fell apart you stayed constant.  Sometimes you are so beautiful I want to eat you (walking over Embankment Bridge, sans hangover, at 7am).  And now, I am a little bit in love with you, with your anything goes-ness, your vibrancy, your noise.  I still can’t abide the tube, so I have learned to navigate you overground in all your dirty glory.

Despite my rocky relationship with London,  it breaks my heart that its young residents have turned on their own city to loot, burn and destroy it.   Now riots have spread across the country and it seems we really are living in Lawless Britain. People are very very angry.  Dismayed would the best adjective for me.  Reactions are extreme: one Facebook friend says ‘Bring Back Public Hanging’ (5 Likes), another says, unbelievably, ‘Go Rioters!! GO!!!’ (0 Likes). I can be easily swayed by the opinion of people who I respect, but nothing could make me subscribe to either of these arguments.

Watching the action unfold torturously, my head is full of questions.  Is this ‘mindless’ violence? If people are unable to articulate their reasons for rioting, does it mean they don’t have any?  Is there not something more sinister, raw and desperate undercutting this apparent lust for public disorder and material gain?  There isn’t a single thing in the world that can excuse this violence.  But if their only motives are LCD TV’s and box fresh trainers, and they are willing to ruin and pillage their city to get them, you’ve got to ask, how the hell did we get here?

We watch the burning and looting in the same nauseas dismay that we discovered the meaning of ‘happy slapping’, years ago. We had to comprehend that a group of children, essentially, were not only capable of kicking a man to death but were happy to film it on their mobile phones. (This inspired my play Just For Fun – Totally Random).  This is behavior We Do Not Understand. So alien, so horrific, so terrifying.  But it is happening – none the less.  To condemn it is crucial. To punish it is imperative. To justify or excuse it is unacceptable. But to understand it, or at least attempt to, is the only way to prevent it happening again, surely.  How?  Why? Where does it come from?

I don’t have the answers.  We live in a bleak and challenging time: recession, high unemployment, terrorism, natural disasters, global warming, children living in severe poverty across the UK (22% in Hackney, 23% in Birmingham and Liverpool, according to Save The Children).  Yet never has consumerism been so excessive; the need for material gain and the pressure to look sexy, be slim and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Violence is glamorised more than ever before, and through computer games you have the chance to not only observe that violence, but to action it (albeit virtually). I feel that all of these factors contribute to the sickening behaviour we are observing.  (Take note: I say contribute, not excuse).  The definition of Disaffected is “Dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them”.  The system is not functioning for a large number of young people, for whatever reason. And in turn it is not functioning for the rest of us.  I dunno.  In short, we’re fucked.  Or that’s how it feels.

My inability to answer any of these questions makes my head feel like it is going to explode.  It is tempting to bury my head and react with what I call the ‘DDF Factor’.  That is Drink! Dance! Fuck! Why not? We’re doomed!  The world hurtles towards its inevitable end!  Lets watch it burn, raise our glass and hurl ourselves into a Dionysian orgy.  Let’s break out the booze and have a ball!

But that’s not really going to help things, is it?  And it’s important to remember the positives that spring from situations like this.  #RiotCleanUp and #OperationCupofTea are reminiscent of the “Not Afraid” slogan back at 7:7 (long before the days of the hash tag).  The very social networks that are helping rioters to organise meets are the same that are helping communities unite, which is desperately needed. (Were it not for Facebook and Twitter my experience of the riots would have been very different).  It’s that Blitz spirit – we’re good at that, us Brits.  We have pride in the face of adversity.

All this thinking leads me to think ‘What can I do?’  I could write about it, couldn’t I? I believe the Theatre has massive potential and purpose here, not only in shaping the thinking and behaviour of disaffected people, but in helping bridge that gap of understanding between them and the rest of the world.  Theatre can give people a voice and it can make people listen.  That might sound a bit cheese, but it’s what I believe and what I shall throw myself into now.    It’s more constructive than DDF.  And hopefully as much fun.

As always, the maddest is thing is that no matter how close the trouble gets, or how severe the problem becomes, life seems to go on.  On Monday my flatmate Chrissy and I sat on the sofa, eating fajitas and watching London burn.  Rhianna still comes on the radio. I still have boiled eggs for breakfast.  The 111 bus still runs from the end of my road.   It’s a crazy crazy world.  I wish the whole of the UK speedy peace and recovery.  And London, stay strong, I salute you.