37: On Sabbatical, Part 1 – Riots

27 November 2011

On the worst night of the London riots, Tony was sanguine, treating the whole thing as sport (‘Wah-hey, it’s kicking off in Ealing now!’). As disorder turned to mayhem, he reminisced about the London jails he’d been locked up in himself over the years (Holborn and South Tottenham, for the record) and the roughings-up he’d received at the hands of the cops (reflecting that it ‘taught him respect’). Then Tony went to bed. I stayed glued to the telly.

With events so out of control, and no one able to offer a coherent narrative, I turned to the internet as a news source. The zodiac of British opinion was on display: people claiming they’d been right all along about something or other (mainly: law and order, immigration or government spending). I pored over the comments sections of the broadsheet websites – full of semi-literate ravings and windows on the collective consciousness – and went back and forth on instant messenger with my filmmaker friend, Isis, freaked out in Haringey.

Late that manic Monday, words of clarity and wisdom finally appeared on the screen before me: #riotcleanup.

I immediately assembled a combat pack: one blanket, one head torch, two A–Zs, two rolls of bin liners, two pairs of gardening gloves, two bottles of water, one first-aid kit, one dictaphone and a copy of The Jolly Pilgrim.

The next morning, I got on my bicycle and headed to the nearest reported hotspots (Bow and Bethnal Green), looking for someone to help. But by midday, the fabric of London society had already bounced right back. I cruised around for a while. Roman Road market was a hive of bustling, multi-ethnic productivity. The pavement cafés were full. Glass-installation companies were doing a brisk trade. I stopped to shake hands with a couple of policemen.

Then, on Mile End Road, I finally found someone who needed me.

A white BMW had pulled up by the side of the road with a flat tyre. A man and a woman, with a baby, were standing beside it. I pulled up, ‘Need help?’ The woman looked at me suspiciously. I offered her a bottle of cold water. She snatched it out of my hand.

‘Yes please,’ said the man.

I jacked the car while he undid the nuts. Obviously, I kept up my happy patter. By the time I was hauling the spent wheel to the boot, the beating sunshine was having its effect on the collective mood, which had turned to jubilation, and the two of them were sharing their story.

Alex and Jennifer were first-generation African immigrants. They lived in Leytonstone. All the cars on their street got thumped the previous night by roaming ferals, but they only noticed the flat when on the road. They’d been feeling got at. Our work done, I unleashed my secret weapon: whipping a copy of The Jolly Pilgrim out of my combat pack and handing it to Alex.

He was classy enough to grasp the significance, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the cover (NASA, darling) and force me to sign it, right there on the boot of his car. They drove off beeping, waving and shouting about Samaritans.

Alex and Jennifer didn’t really need my help with the tyre. It wouldn’t have taken much longer without me. They just needed some love.

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4 Responses to “37: On Sabbatical, Part 1 – Riots”

  1. The Editor Says:

    “I jacked the car” has a double meaning these days, old chap.

  2. Peter Baker Says:

    I’m clearly out of touch with yoof slang.

  3. Charlotte Says:

    Love it! Love the love! :D xx

  4. Charlotte Says:

    Not only jacking the car, but at it with your nuts, makes me a bit suspicious of that happy patter too, ha ha! Loved this post. Love the love! :D xx

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