It’s a little late to be timely, but here’s what happened when I went to London earlier this week.
Early Monday morning I woke up and Paul and Caroline drove me an hour away to Caen to catch a ferry to Portsmouth. After a 6-hour ride, we got into port and I walked a couple miles to check out an Isuzu I had seen advertised. After being assured that it was “ready to go” on the road trip I had described to him, despite bald tires, a bumper falling off from rust and having to steer constantly to the left to keep it in the lane, I had had enough, and went to rent a car to take me on to London.
By the time I figured out, coming into London, how to avoid driving on the right side of the road, it was already past 11. Now, I had followed the London riots fairly closely in the days prior to my leaving, but for some reason it never clicked that I might be seeing some business go down, or even worse, actually be in danger. In retrospect, I chalk my ignorance up to exhaustion and that weird spectator feeling you sometimes get when traveling abroad. It’s a bit of a disconnect across your brain, where part of you still thinks you’re back at home, and the London riots, in this case, are going on far, far away.
So when I saw gathering groups of youth sprinting across the street, I chalked it up to a bunch of people out partying. “On Monday night, though?” my brain countered. “Maybe there’s a 2-for-1 deal around here or something. Shut up and find me this address,” I thought back as I hunted around Greenwich for my accommodations. I started to clue in a little bit more when I saw multiple cop cars scream past and I looked up to see a helicopter buzzing above me. After searching for about 45 minutes just to find a gas station that wasn’t shuttered, I finally bought a map and turned down the first side street to get my bearings. I wasn’t parked 20 seconds when a group of four people came up to my car. They knocked on my window, and I rolled it down.
“Are you lost?”
“Yeah, I’m not from here.” (Good one, brain.)
“No kidding. Alright, we’re gonna get you out of here. You can’t be here right now. It’s too dangerous.”
All four of them then whipped out their iPhones to show me directions. “You should probably stay in tonight,” one of them counselled, as they took off themselves. Sage advice, stranger.
I found the flat, which turned out to be literally two blocks from where I was parked, and sat inside the rest of the night, listening to the helicopters watching from above.
The next day, I woke up early and thought nothing of the potential danger from the night before. I just busied away the morning calling every car advertisement I could find, and before long realized I hadn’t eaten anything in almost a day. Like a good tourist, I went looking for some fish and chips about a mile away in Greenwich. Walking along the main road, there was a distinctly nervous tension in the air. Most of the shops were closed, at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday. “Siesta?” I inquired at my brain. “Of course not. You’re in England you mook.” As my brain became more belligerent and abusive from lack of sleep and hunger, I resolved privately to drink more in retaliation when I got back to France. The owners of the shops that were open poked their heads out anxiously and convened like meerkats on the sidewalk. I saw pairs of cops as I moved closer to the restaurant district, and heard snatches of their conversation with shopkeepers. “If this were my shop, I’d close up for the day…” “…gathering in the park…” “…don’t know how many…” “…outbreak is spreading beyond London…” “…feasting on human flesh…”
It felt even more like an impending zombie attack as I realized almost every shop in the main restaurant area was closed at 1:30 on a Tuesday. Lunchtime, people. Specifically my lunchtime. Seriously, I’d had only a pack of Babybels to eat the entire day prior. I found the only place that was open, and was greeted by a nervous waiter.
“Hello, sir. We’re just closing up you see.”
“You’re closing? It’s lunchtime, though. Everything is closed. And it’s lunchtime.”
“Yes, I know sir, but the police have been coming around saying there is a group of 300 youth supposed to meet in Greenwich Park, and they might come this way. So we are closing for the afternoon.”
“But it’s lunchtime,” I whimpered. Hunger and exhaustion were slowing my faculties to a crawl.
Perhaps it was this well-constructed argument, or perhaps it was openly weeping in front of him that got him to sit me at a table, but all I know for sure was that if someone had promised me a platter of human brains, I would have joined the zombie hordes right there.
“We are still going to close, sir. We will serve you, but we can’t stay open.”
Fine, whatever. Just bring me my plate of brains already.
As another waiter pulled in the last of the patio furniture, and mine took my order, there was a kerfuffle at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen. A well-tanned, rotund and balding Mediterranean gentleman of about 60 burst through the kitchen doors. “What is this?! Put that back outside right now!” he pointed at the folded table a waiter was holding. “This is no way to run a business!” he yelled, in a restaurant full of customers. “I don’t care,” he sallied at a waiter voicing his concerns, “If they make trouble for us, we will make trouble for them!” I’m still not sure whether to praise the guy’s courage or impugn his cavalier disregard for his customer’s and his own safety.
What followed was the extremely eerie experience of eating lunch while watching every single other restaurant on the street board up their windows and doors. Workers rushed around with giant pieces of plywood and the sound of drills and hammers echoed up and down the emptying street. Clouds settled in under the sun, and upped the tension even more. I left half a piece of fish on my plate, paid, and got the hell out of there. On my walk home, sirens flew past in the opposite direction and I looked back to see a Chinook helicopter doing laps around the area.
My final experience with the riots came as I was driving out of the city to check out a car. Traffic slowed down on the M25 ring road, and the air smelled strongly of burning plastic. We were driving past the ruins of the Sony distribution center, which had been burnt to the ground the night before. The smoke still hung heavily in the air from the smoldering building even the next day when I went back out to pick up the car. Here’s a photo I snapped on my phone as traffic crawled past:
I won’t wax lyrical about the fallout of the riots, but I’ll give it the following treatment, whose impetus was the following picture:
As I was taking this photo, an old lady who was walking by stopped and watched me. She waited for me to finish and said as I approached her, “Not too bright, is it?” I asked her what she meant and she said, “It’s anarchy out here. It’s never been like this.” I said I’d heard many of the youth were jobless and disenfranchised. She scoffed at me: “They have it just fine. There’s food on their plates. Their life is easy. They’re just a bunch of criminals.”
I think it’s an opinion most of the older generation share, and it’s not far from the truth, actually. In her mind, all of the rioters were just a bunch of troublemaking youth out for some free sneakers. She’s right: the rioters were greedy and selfish. But those who look at it only like that are missing the underside of the iceberg, which is swelling with social inequalities. The same inequalities that precipitate the disregard for societal conventions a 14-year-old from Hackney epitomizes as he breaks through a plate glass window to nick a pair of Nikes.
As is often the case, The Guardian has been covering it with the most balanced opinions (Russell Brand-penned or not).
Props to the people of London, though, who seem to be handling the aftermath well enough, even if they’re still a bit wary:
I’ve gone on pretty long here, so I’ll briefly mention that I have a car now – a Nissan X-Trail to be exact – and I’ll be prepping it for departure over the next week. Jae should be here next weekend, and then it will be more a matter of hours until we leave instead of days. I also passed by a Canadian landmark on my way home from the UK, which we learned about pretty much every year in history: Vimy Ridge. Technically, I was back in Canada for a couple hours, as it is Canadian territory. Sorry I couldn’t visit anyone while I was there. If you get a chance, it’s definitely worth a visit. I was told that as recently as 1988, a man was walking around the site, when he tripped on the sole of a shoe. They dug a bit deeper and discovered the whole shoe, then a foot, then a leg, then a soldier. This was 70 years after the war ended. Pretty astounding stuff.