I awoke this morning to the sight of shuttered shop windows and the sound of police sirens and hovering helicopters. A bit like the spin cycle on a washing machine, this is one of those noises that you expect to stop after a few minutes and hardly notice at first, but when it gets past the expected duration it suddenly starts to be annoying, and a bit intimidating. I reflected that this experience is now increasingly common around the world. Probably, for instance, shared by many across the Middle East over the last few months, which set me off comparing the British Summer with the Arab Spring (of which more later).
But after I had breakfasted and checked my email and lamented on the slow progress of my tomato plants (lack of sun), I went out to find things very nearly back to normal. At least two thirds of the shops are open and the streets as calm and friendly as usual, albeit a bit emptier than normal. Outside the bank, a very little girl with her hair drawn into tight bobbled plaits, whose mother was busy talking on her mobile, stopped me to show me the picture of a spider she had drawn on a bank paying-in slip. An elderly lady asked me to help her across the road. The stallholders in Ridley Road Market, black, white and Asian, were as cheerful and cheeky (or not) as ever.
More interestingly, I found out from my neighbours that the unexplained skirmishing outside my house last night was not between would-be looters and the police but between would-be looters and the rather better-organised local Turkish shopkeepers who saw them off with great efficiency. Apparently, with their epicentre more or less outside the Rio Cinema (opposite my house), organised groups of Turkish guys fanned out in several directions, chasing groups of hoodies north and south along Kingsland High Street and down the side streets. There was quite a bit of local pride in the telling of this tale, heard in different versions from middle-class and working-class neighbours and from local Turkish shopkeepers themselves. Only in Dalston, we think, smugly.
It is this strong sense of local community that is potentially at risk around here, not so much from the poverty of many local residents and those in surrounding areas but from the too-rapid development of what the planners call the ‘night-time economy’ – the so-called ‘Shoreditch effect’ – whereby Dalston is becoming a cool hang-out for the young and hip (and a venue for binge drinking for moneyed kids who could not even imagine what it is like to grow up on a council estate in Tottenham or Peckham or, indeed, Hackney).
But back to my early morning pre-caffeinated reflections. I am, of course, no expert on the Arab Spring. What little I have read in the newspapers or watched on al Jazeera has been supplemented only a bit by what I have learned from the terrifyingly bright young Egyptian journalist who is my lodger and from my niece who grew up and studied in Jordan, together with some now a bit out-of-date research on why French companies locate call centres in the Maghreb. Nevertheless, I think I am right in saying that the young people who took to the streets this Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and later elsewhere in the region were mainly well-educated and law-abiding. They could even, perhaps, be thought of as representatives of that reserve army of information workers that has been trained up over the last two decades (including in IT skills and in English and French) to play a part in the new global division of labour that I have written about elsewhere as the Cybertariat. Their protests seem to have been driven by serious political demands to be part of a democratic society like the ones in the West they have learned about in college, but also by the lack of job opportunities: partly, no doubt, as a result of the global financial crisis, they have been cheated out of the employment they thought their hard studying would equip them for.
In London right now, by contrast, we have a generation that has been cheated even out of education. These kids have grown up in a society that has told them that all that matters is material consumption and the money that can access it. Even the value of a university degree has been reformulated in financial terms. But they have no money. And what access do they have to education? Despite all the money spent on building new City Academies and the like, the reality is that it is harder and harder for them to stay on at school now that their Educational Maintenance Grants have been cut. If they do still aspire to go to university they know that with the hiked-up fees they will be in debt for the forseeable future and the degree they end up with will most probably not guarantee them a job anyway. In the short term, what can they do in the holidays? Public libraries are closed; youth clubs are closed; the weather is lousy; temporary work is vanishingly hard to find; their families can’t afford to take them on holiday; they are bombarded with adverts for things they can’t afford. The question we need to answer is not why a minority is rioting but what constrains the vast majority from doing so.
Last Saturday as I walked down Ridley Road market, my progress was more than usually obstructed by a jolly crowd of, mainly African-British, mainly young people, wearing the sort of fluorescent yellow tabards favoured by road menders, on which were emblazoned Christian messages of salvation. There was a great deal of dancing and singing and waving of tambourines and good-natured accosting of passers by. I guess that (like the self-organised Turkish shop-keepers) such groups are part of the answer. But shame on the rest of us (and especially shame on the Labour Party) for failing to offer any other, more universal kind of an alternative in the 21st century.