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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Caught up in the Riots

Monday 8th August 2011

This is a bad time to househunt. Four riot vans sped down Bethnal Green Road, turning off into Hackney, as we three nascent teachers moved between hostile and unwelcoming estate agencies. Our search for somewhere habitable for four people had so far been fruitless; once our collective considerations had been taken into account, we focused the search on the 'happening' Shoreditch and the cool poverty of Bethnal Green. This latter poverty stands in contradistinction from the less culturally esteemed poverty of Newham, where I'll be teaching. In my mind at least, Hackney had until this week enjoyed the cool poverty label - Guardian readers live there - but since it is currently in cinders, I fear I confused 'cool' with 'intimidating'.

I retreated to Cambridge from Liverpool Street, sauntering cautiously away from the hazy fog of unrest that the rolling news said was heading rapidly towards us. It wasn't only the sickly taste of curried cake which made the Chicken Tikka Passanda from Brick Lane so hard to swallow - it was the burgeoning fear of the reality of the poverty that I had, until only yesterday, merely idealised and fetishised.

Having scurried from Brick Lane with the unusual taste of sour milky meat still wallowing around my mouth, the train back should have been the vehicle which delivered me gently away to the safe calm of East Anglia. I had forgotten that the train passed through Hackney and Tottenham.

I got into Cambridge station around half past ten, and waited for a bus. I had the misfortune of being beside an ignorant woman - with traces of rah daubed on her plain face - as she explained to somebody on the phone that 'unemployment's nothing to do with it. If they wanted jobs they could get themselves to the fucking job centre. Mate, there's loads of jobs for people like that... cleaning toilets in McDonalds. We need the army.' I got the feeling she had little experience of the plight of the urban poor. I disagreed about the army, but it doesn't look like the police coped. Maybe Mark Duggan is this generation's Franz Ferdinand.

I'm heading back to Liverpool Street now, a foolish white person still wanting to pay £160 a week to live under the ashclouds of urban unrest because, says Pulp, poor is cool.

Tuesday 9th August 2011

It has been another day in paradise and today I don't even have dodgy Bangladeshi cuisine to blame for my feeling of nausea. Again, I'm writing on the train out of London and I am feeling on the brink of stupidity having now pretty much finalised renting a house in what, just before I boarded the train, became a no-go zone. The nice lady at Bethnal Green Library assured me it wasn't always like this, but she mentioned even the library was barricading itself closed at 4pm. It is bad to torch a shop, awful to torch a bus and sacrilegious to torch a library. I have spent today growing aware that a punitive mentality was developing in me, borne of fear. I'm not at the 'Kill the feral rats' phase that many have reached, but I think a real show of force will be needed by police tonight, if this is to stop. I'm sure I won't baffle a bookmaker with this one, but I imagine there will be deaths on the streets tonight.

As we pulled away on the train, the Big Smoke was not a metaphor but was Hackney. I was pretty anxious about it all, but was grateful not to have been caught up in anything. Why the fuck am I teaching in London? I was on edge when it was safe (by its own standards...) so I'm not even sure what to call this sentiment. Aptly, I can express it best through the phrase 'What am I doing?' I don't think I've ever been so keen to head back up North, where even the riots have a cheeky Kes-like charm. After Manchester riots, I would now retract the cheeky charm comment. Bethnal Green was a warzone as I left and I am bricking it.

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