As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m from Croydon. Someone has to be.
Croydon is a borough almost 10 miles south of central London. My family arrived in Crystal Palace, a suburb about 15 minutes away from central Croydon, in 1988. We moved into a small housing association project for first time owners that allows them to buy half their house, and rent the rest. The estate is sandwiched between Edwardian houses on one side and a huge detached house on another that was recently converted into a gated luxury flats complex, and whose owners drive my mum mad with their barbeques.
Crystal Palace consists of a triangle of shops, pubs, restaurants and more restaurants. Remarkably, it has a Blockbusters video that battles on through the digital age. A few chichi shops started appearing shortly after I left and moved to Egypt in 2003 (when the tone of the place improved. Purely by coincidence) and now as I understand it houses there are in some demand by people who commute to central London because they have connected Crystal Palace train station to the underground, and Crystal Palace is leafy and green and has a nice park.
Commuters also seek housing in Croydon, but only because it’s cheap and there are fast trains to central London from East Croydon station. Whenever I bemoan to people the fact that I’m from Croydon their usual response is that it isn’t that bad, and then I ask them whether they’ve been there and they say yes, well, I passed through it on the train on the way to somewhere else. Nowhere looks that bad at 50 miles per hour.
Croydon’s “heart” (or perhaps heart is too generous. Its artificial lung) is the high street and Whitgift shopping centre, a pedestrianised zone of consumerism indistinguishable from any other suburban shopping centre in the UK. Boasts are often made about the Croydon “skyline”, a collection of tall office towers including the Lunar and Apollo Houses, inter-galatically named perhaps because they are owned by the Immigration and Nationality Department and their clients and half the people who work there wish they would disappear into outer space. A couple of years ago an employee threw himself off the top of one of the towers.
I worked there when I was 18 after starting and then abandoning a university course in marketing (!) because I only had one decent A Level having gone a bit off the rails after school. I worked in the post room and my job was to open parcels from people applying for residence permits, list their contents and then send them off for processing on one of the many floors above us.
Two months was enough for the realisation that life is pretty shit without qualifications of some sort to sink in, and I did A Level evening courses. The post room was a sad place. I worked with good people but nobody wants to open envelopes forever and some of the people had sent thousands of parcels upstairs but had no hope of escape themselves.
As soon as I was old enough I stopped hanging around in Croydon and went on adventures in central London which is prettier, has more interesting shops and most importantly catered to my music needs in a way Croydon never could. I would occasionally however be dragged to Croydon on shopping expeditions with my parents and still am today on visits back home.
On my last visit in March of this year I noticed that Croydon had become noticeably shabbier in the 6 months that I had been away. I went in a HMV on Friday and when I went back on Monday it had closed down. Numerous shops have met the same fate in the last 2 or 3 years and are either left boarded up or replaced with pound shops, or shops filled with a random assortment of crap. I also noticed on my last visit that the number of homeless people had increased, or at least they were more visible. I saw one huge man with a dilapidated airport trolley on which his belongings were stacked who stopped to eat out of bins in front of a Marks & Spencer. West Croydon station is opposite two pubs and a pawn shop and has become something of a meeting point for people out of their minds on drugs or alcohol.
I am constantly amazed in Egypt when people leave items in their cars or casually leave handbags on the backs of their chairs in restaurants. Being able to walk down the street alone at night in Cairo is a luxury that doesn’t exist in London, or at least my part of it. I’ve only been robbed twice in Croydon (and in one of these incidents it was my friend and not me who was punched in the face and his bike nicked) and I largely feel safe during daylight hours. But there is that constant threat of random low level violence.
Yesterday afternoon I jokingly asked people on Facebook to tell me if they hear of rioting and destruction in Croydon so that I could book a ticket to the UK asap and live out a fantasy. Five hours later I was watching the place go up in flames on TV. I hate Croydon for its mediocrity and its ugliness, its suburban gloom. Or perhaps I just hate it because I spent ten years there without a choice.
A friend tweeted to me, “things look really bad in Croydon, hope everyone’s ok” to which I replied, “oh don’t worry Croydon always looks bad” and was only half joking. If Croydon could somehow magically be razed to the ground without anyone getting hurt economically or physically or any other way I would be the first to sign up to that initiative. I harbour the same feelings towards Nasr City in Cairo.
Rioters in Croydon apparently feel the same way, but choose odd targets, ignoring police stations, government buildings and Apollo and Lunar Houses and instead selecting a furniture store, amongst other targets.
I was initially overjoyed when I heard about the march on Tottenham police station and dismissed the tut-tuting when the looting started as the usual Daily Mail moral outrage. But I’m less certain now. Part of this uncertainty is because of the media’s inexcusably poor coverage conducted almost uniquely from helicopters and behind police lines. I don’t know who the looters are and what they’re thinking because nobody is talking to them so am left with no alternative other than to read into their actions, and their actions are breaking into shops (chain stores and independent), nicking stuff, setting cars alight, bricking people’s windows, torching buildings apparently at random and robbing individuals unable to protect themselves.
Virtually all of the rioters/looters are young people in the hoods and trainers uniform favoured by London’s youth. Videos show them bopping around and facing off against the police with the youthful bravado I recognise from the encounters I have had with them (them being young people from London who wear hoods and move about in loud gangs). I’ve been trapped on buses with these kids and they are annoying little shits in the way that most teenagers are.
In short the media coverage makes them look like cunts. And perhaps many of them are. But even cunts can have legitimate grievances. Maybe they’re destroying stuff because they have no other channel to express their sense of hopelessness and rage at their situation. Or maybe they and their friends just like the thrill of a ruckus with the added bonus of free gear.
As a dual British-Egyptian citizen 2011 has been an interesting year to say the least. The inevitable comparisons are being drawn between the revolution and the riots. There has been annoying smugness from some Egyptian commentators about how civilised the Egyptian revolution was compared to the barbarians in London, and how well Egyptians responded to the security situation compared with Londoners.
Firstly, the majority of protesters who took to the streets in January were motivated by a cause and outnumbered opportunist looters. Secondly, who relies on the police in Egypt anyway? They’re a bunch of useless murderers. In London the police are more trusted despite also killing people with alarming regularity. People have little experience of defending themselves (interestingly, and perhaps supporting this theory, Turkish-Kurdish shop owners in north London fought off looters. I know very little about community-policing relations in Kurdish areas of Turkey but I suspect that the police aren’t on speed dial).
In summary I’m confused, and I wish I was in London so I could ask the kids what the fuck they’re doing and why. The media is showing us hour after hour of Outraged Upstanding Citizen all saying the same thing because Upstanding Citizens tend to hit journalists less. There is an echoing void when it comes to the other side of the story, a void that is being filled with image after horrible image and calls for looters to be flogged in public squares and theorising about the legitimate social political grievances that drove them to commit inexcusable acts. Both camps are as bad as each other.
Martin Luther King said that a riot is the language of the unheard, but Ralph Waldo Emmerson said what you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying. The media is not even trying to listen.