Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Lavender Hill Mob

The excitement is gradually building to the big event of the summer. Yes, the first anniversary of the riots. How do you plan to mark it? I'm thinking of buying a comedy burglar's mask and a black and white hooped shirt.

I passed through Clapham Junction earlier in the week and noticed that they've finally got round to re-fitting the Party Superstore at the bottom of Lavender Hill, which is where I normally go for my fancy dress (well, I went once). This was broken into and gutted on the night of the 8th of August. The windows of Debenhams (Arding & Hobbs as was) were smashed in, while other shops attacked ranged from the obvious Currys and Carphone Warehouse to the less obvious Ladbrokes and Headmasters.

The trashing of the party shop was significant. While some people assumed the rioters were after face masks, I think the reason it was hit was simply because it was on the north side of Lavender Hill, close to the junction with Falcon Road. To "read" the riot in Clapham Junction, it helps to know the topography. The area is a good example of the social stratification of London, with distinct layers succeeding each other as you go south from the river.

Along the bank of the Thames, from Wandsworth bridge to St. Mary's Church in Battersea old village (now gentrified), you have the yuppie flats that have sprung up since the 80s on ground previously occupied by warehouses and small factories (including, I imagine, Stanley Holloway's foundry in The Lavender Hill Mob). The addition of these relatively expensive properties, occupied by people who make relatively little call on council services, and with older (and poorer) residents leaving the borough, has been one of the reasons why Wandsworth has been able to keep Council Tax low.

York Road marks the boundary between this littoral strip and the Winstanley Estate to the south, which is itself further bounded to the south and east by the railway and to the west by Plough Road. This is the working class ghetto, known for drugs, guns and urban music (So Solid Crew hail from here), and generally regarded as a no-go zone by non-residents. All these words are, of course, popular synonyms for "mostly black", though the estate is actually racially mixed. It's where most of the poor get shunted, on an equal opportunities basis.

On the other side of the tracks (ahem) you find Clapham Junction. This is a typical mixed area, centred on the crossroads just to the east of the station, which is where Arding & Hobbs and the Party Superstore are to be found. St. John's Road runs north to south, from the crossroads down to the Northcote pub at the junction with Battersea Rise. This partly-pedestrianised road is the real high street, with McDonalds, TK Maxx, Greggs, JD Sports, Waitrose and M&S among other outlets. There is even a Jamie Oliver shop.

The further south you go, the more middle class it gets, until on the other side of Battersea Rise it becomes Northcote Road, where you will find Jack Wills, Starbucks, the Gourmet Burger Kitchen and various expensive restaurants. East and west of the road are some of the most expensive houses in London, nestling between Wandsworth Common and Clapham Common and bounded to the south by Nightingale Lane and Balham.

Falcon Road is the only route south from the Winstanley Estate, the rail lines forming an impassable barrier elsewhere. Next to this "gate" you will find Lidl. This is not an accident. The rioters flowed south from here, hitting shops around the crossroads with Lavender Hill and St. John's Hill (the Metro referred to looting in the non-existent "Clapham Junction High Street", which just goes to show what a shoddy rag it is). The looters ventured down St. John's Road as far as Curry's, however they didn't pass the border of Battersea Rise.

This last fact should be evidence enough that, in Clapham at least, the rioting was not class-conscious, or even particularly smart as a criminal enterprise. A gang steaming the clientele sitting outside the trendy bars on Northcote Road would have got a lot of ready cash, while trying to break into Ladbrokes was only ever going to produce some well-used TV screens and stubby pens.

The day after the night before saw the spontaneous eruption of the great clean-up. Actually, this wasn't so spontaneous, as there are a lot of vocal middle-class groups in the area, such as I Love Clapham (their tag cloud is revealing). The Guardian put a picture of the "broom brigade" on its centre pages. This is amusing (to a cynic like me) because of the paucity of black faces, or even of working class ones. It's like "Where's Wally" (she's on the left, in glasses and bleached crop). The shot was taken just outside the station, looking up St. John's Hill to the west.

The day-to-day segregation of London is widely recognised. Our urban villages are ghettos. This has always been the case, but what has happened in recent decades is that the physical transitions from one to another have become more abrupt, the "endz" more furiously defined. The growing population and the high cost of property has led us to cram new builds up against the ghetto walls. In a society where satisfying the demands of the ego is seen as paramount, it should be no surprise that such cheek-by-jowl extremes of wealth and poverty should result in opportunistic looting. Walking from Northcote Road to Falcon Road north of the rail lines is like walking from Richard Curtis's hideously white Notting Hill to South Central LA. I exaggerate only slightly.

I recall suggesting at the time to a boneheaded Chelsea fan that you had to laugh ruefully about some aspects of the rioting, notwithstanding the damage and injury caused. Naturally he considered anything other than contempt for these "scum" as reprehensible. I momentarily thought (and half-hoped) that his head might explode. I think the extreme anger common in London after the event, and the way it quickly became a litmus test that you failed at your peril (reminiscent of the Princess Di hysteria), reflected the cognitive dissonance of apartheid. We just don't know how to deal with the "other", except by studiously ignoring them for the most part while tolerating their proximity. I found China Mieville's book The City and the City, in which two entire cities exist intermingled but with no interaction, particularly resonant because of this.

It's a far cry from postwar London and Alex Guinness's timid bank clerk, sitting in his Lavender Hill lodgings, dreaming up his plan to loot his bank of its gold bullion. Looting was a fine subject for comedy then. Perhaps I'll forgo the mask and shirt and buy a small Eiffel Tower instead.

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