Gerard Vanderleun offers some memories of London, then and now.
I’ve got my own memories—although, unlike Vanderleun, I never lived in London. The only time I’ve ever been there was a one-week stay in 1978, accompanied by my then-husband. It was summer, the weather was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, and the food was dreadful, just as I’d been warned.
Back then I was still dancing, and so some of my time in the city was spent in London’s ballet studios. That turns out to be a pretty good way of getting to know a city and its people—at least, its young and artsy people. I was surprised to learn that London’s dance studios were a mess.
Back then, no city I knew (and that included New York) had nice studios; most were in low-rent districts, consisting of a warren of rooms with obstructing posts. But London’s hit a new low of filth. The bathrooms were so disgusting, so full of mold and mildew, that taking a shower was out of the question. The toilet paper was inadequate to its task, more like low-grade wax paper than anything else. And the people seemed angry; testy and sullen.
This hostile affect was hardly limited to the dancers. I noticed it all over London that summer. The very first day my husband and I were there we observed a number of angry encounters between strangers, a phenomenon that became commonplace. And it wasn’t as though I was unfamiliar with big cities and their mores, either. After all, I had grown up in New York, and I’d lived in some of the major cities in the US.
But this seemed different, and it seemed specifically inter-ethnic. However, none of the people involved were white. It was immigrant groups that were clashing: Caribbean blacks vs. Arabs, Indians vs. Asians, you name it and the groups were angry at each other. It didn’t take the form of riots, of course. Rather, we observed screaming matches (and even pushing) over seemingly nothing. We came to expect at least one incident for every subway ride.
Now I look back and I see that as the beginning of something. The British were worn out themselves, their glory days over, but they were trying to absorb the aftermath of an empire that was no more, and immigrants from once far-flung shores and disparate cultures were rubbing up against each other and competing for scarce resources in a manner that boded ill.
How the present riots in England relate to all of this isn’t completely clear, but I think they do. However, a great deal more is going on now, including the effects of several more decades of the welfare state, the disarming of citizens, and a system of law and order that is overwhelmed by the nihilistic population it now faces—clearly, it’s not up to the task.
And I don’t think England will ever be the same again after this; its idea of itself will have been fundamentally changed.
[ADDENDUM: Ace has some chilling must-read stuff on the riots and people’s thwarted attempts to defend themselves:
“We were outside ready and expecting them,” said the manager of Turkish Food Market, who asked not to be named.
“But I felt very panicky because we are not safe from either the rioters or police.
“We put all of our efforts into this shop. It took 20 years to get it like this. But we do not know about our rights.
“I’m scared that the police and the government will attack us if we defend our businesses.
“We are being squeezed between the two.”]