So much cheese gone to waste

9 08 2011

I lived in the UK between 1996 and 2001, firstly in Cardiff, & then after travelling from Istanbul to Alexandria, Amsterdam to St Petersburg, my then-partner & I settled in London. At first, we lived in a semi-detached in East Putney. Nice place. Not flash, but a solid 3 out of 5 on the chintz cushion scale of comfort. My boyfriend worked in ‘The City’ and I had various temp assignments, one as a receptionist at a housing trust in Peckham.

Each morning, I caught the Number 37 bus from SW15 to SE15. It wasn’t your average descent from posh to povo until you entered Peckham proper. The huge housing estates of London are difficult to describe. Transferred to specialist non-profit organisations by councils unable and unwilling to maintain them, they are grey and poorly designed. Tower blocks where the lifts work on a lottery basis. Abandoned flats used as crack houses. Largely home to an underclass which can’t even claim working class status, generations who have somewhere to live only because the state pays housing benefits. Private rental properties remain out of reach. Almost all on transfer rolls to get out of the huge estates and into a row of detached houses. In the 1990s, the big estates of South London were the strongholds of criminals, drug dealers & men with guns. Regardless of your circumstance, no one would choose to live in them.

Taking on bigger estates – some housing up to 4,000 people – was a huge undertaking for the housing association. I moved from being a temp receptionist to PA and admin assistant in the development department, responsible for bidding to take over estates and undertaking their physical transformation. Each estate had its own, small office. One day, a package arrived at one of the satellite offices on an estate which had recently been transferred from a council. It was a video of a man suspected of grassing on a drug dealer being ‘necklaced’ – bound by tyres, doused with petrol & set on fire. He survived. The housing association was working to revitalise the estates, physically and socially. A lot of people were very positive about what we were trying to achieve, joining neighbourhood committees and coming to public meetings where plans were discussed, argued over and amended. The video was a message that there were some people who didn’t like the idea that their turf, their power bases, might actually change.

After I split from my boyfriend, I moved to East Dulwich, then Peckham, before I ended up in Brixton, in a housing association flat on Tunstall Road. I loved Brixton. It had everything and nothing. One summer night, my upstairs neighbour stuck his head through the front window. ‘Let us in, let us in man.’ He burst through the door with a gym bag; running through the flat, he emptied the bag on my bed, about 40 bottles of perfume. He threw a Chanel No. 5 at me and said, ‘you keep that one, hide the rest’ before sprinting out the back door, through the garden & over the high wall. Billy wasn’t a ‘yardie’ but he was no innocent. He was an unemployed, 20-something living with his Mum, a West Indian immigrant. He spent a lot of time with me & my new boyfriend, a Dutch guy who listed ‘beating up hippies’ as a hobby. Dave climbed through the front room window (the door was still open, but hey, he was nuts), laughing hysterically, barely able to speak. ‘Where’s Billy? Oh, you got to come and see this.’

‘DAVE! I’ve got half a Chanel counter on the bed! What the fuck is going on?’ He just ignored me, the overgrown toddler high-on-red-cordial look on his face. ‘Come, come outside.’ We walked out onto Tunstall Road. There was a group of about 40 people running in an out of Morley’s Department store. They were looting a Brixton institution, & I was a receiver of stolen goods. The riot police arrived & people scattered, running past the flat. I started panicking about the loot on my bed. ‘Don’t worry about that baby, just put it in a drawer until Billy comes back,’ Dave said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘As if the cops are going to come in here. We’re white.’

Dave & I thought it would be OK to go out for cigarettes. I was too scared to try & get on to the High Street, through the police cordons, so we walked up Tunstall Road, and around a corner to a small off-licence and literally into a wall of riot police on horses. ‘Go home,’ one of them said. Dave, ever respectful of authority, was having none of it. ‘Man, I just need to get some smokes, you know. We’re just going to the shop?’ ‘No, you’re not’ was the blunt reply. I grabbed Dave’s shoulder & hauled him away. Billy eventually came home and collected his plunder. I gave back the Chanel No. 5 – only because I didn’t like it. However, I had committed a crime – I had handled stolen goods; and that’s when I started thinking about what Dave had said. Firstly, if I turned myself in at the police station, would the police have charged me or simply asked for information on Billy? After all, the riot police had not questioned what we were doing outside. They accepted what we had said and told us to go home, no questions. I wondered whether the answer would have been the same if I had been with Billy. Would we have been stopped and searched? Race relations in Brixton had changed utterly, to steal from Yeats, since the 1981 riots, but the area was still overwhelmingly black and the Metropolitan Police were viewed as the enemy, particularly after the Stephen Lawrence case. I experienced a new feeling: I didn’t want to get my mate into trouble. I didn’t want him identified as one of the looters. He hadn’t hurt anyone, I figured. It wasn’t right, but I said nothing.

So what leads people to riot and loot in their own neighbourhoods? There was no ‘reason’ for the looting that summer evening a decade ago. No warning. The current riots in the UK have spread from members of the Tottenham community peacefully rallying around a family with a grievance against the police like a case of herpes, with cars, businesses, buses, and houses ablaze across the city. The vioence and looting has blistered, my old stomping grounds of Peckham and Brixton hit, and now other cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The pattern is similar to that of riots in France in 2005, when the deaths of two teenagers pursued by police sparked violence from the outer suburbs of Paris across the country, from Lille to Lyon and Bordeaux. The rapid outbreak and spread of violence may be alike, however, those riots were more heavily identifiable with racial tensions. In the UK, the looters are not stereotypical, but share one common denominator: impunity. At a micro level, this stems from the personal envy that builds when you see other people, everyday, in your neighbourhood, leading lives that you are not (while Tottenham is one of the poorest areas of London, it is not the worst; and areas including Hackney and Brixton have undergone substantial gentrification as the cool kids moved in). The death of Mark Duggan (under investigation by the coroner) was hijacked for people behaving with impunity, taking  and destroying symbols of the state and success. Why not take or destroy what doesn’t belong to you, from whoever has it, when you don’t? Who cares if you set fire to a furniture shop in Croydon if you don’t work there and can’t afford what they sell? Then there is systemic impunity. This year, UK student protests against massive hikes in fees were interspersed with outbreaks of violence, which made for pretty pictures for the TV crews. What was lost as people smashed windows at the headquarters of the Conservative Party was the fact that tertiary education is now out of reach for many – not simply the ‘underclass’. The real message may have been lost in the media coverage, but it still resonates with young people: even if you buy into the idea that you can change your circumstances by working hard at school, there may be nothing for you at the other end.  Britons were hit hard by the failures of their financial institutions and the impunity with which they and tax-dodging corporations acted; the ‘Big Society’ promised by their new, fresh government undermined at once by budget cuts that unleashed the broader ‘UK Uncut’ movement. The establishment has been engulfed in scandal, from MPs expenses, to Hackgate and the corruption of the police – and so we have a collision of immediate and impersonal impunity; an unfocused, bewildered rage. ‘I don’t care’ meets ‘neither do you’. 

Australia being Australia, every overseas news story must have an Australian angle. One of the most compelling was that of The Ledbury, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in ‘fashionable’ Notting Hill. Notting Hill, like Brixton, was a traditionally Afro-Caribbean suburb, most famous for its annual carnival than a movie starring Hugh Grant. Like Brixton and Hackney, gentrification means that houses costing hundreds of thousands of pounds sit cheek by jowl with estates where water runs down the walls from condensation and your kids have nowhere to play, so they hang about, ripe for the picking by people who exploit their boredom and undirected, simmering resentment. The Ledbury’s Australian chef, Brett Graham, was interviewed by Mark Colvin for ABC Radio’s PM programme, and described young ‘kids’ smashing their way into the restaurant, stealing from customers, even smashing a Bentley parked outside with the driver inside. Graham said (aside from the Bentley episode) that ‘they weren’t smashing cars …they were targeting businesses where people were, so we got done, the pub got done’. His words reminded me of the opening scene from Pulp Fiction where the characters consider the benefits of robbing a restaurant. You get the business takings and rob the customers as well – and no one is expecting to be robbed. No one deserves to endure a terrifying, violent attack on their person, from the appalling vision of an injured man himself being robbed to the experience described by Brett Graham and one of his diners in this blog; but it is hard to ignore these lines:

“I was sad for the wonderful smelling cheese cart that had glass littered all over it.

So much cheese gone to waste!”

Dave says Billy is dead. He had joined a car-stealing racket and crashed a BMW trying to make a getaway.

So much cheese gone to waste, yes; and so many lives.