By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
I have both been saddened and pained to watch on TV and read in the press about the battles that are taking place in the streets in Britain – or, rather, in England, which is different from the other countries that make up Great Britain or the United Kingdom (which, incidentally, seems increasingly disunited): Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the latter of course, the conflicts and fights between Catholics and Protestants are well known, and in spite of peace overtures and treaties championed by no less than such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the latest, President Obama, flares erupt from time to time especially when in Orange County religious processions are held.
The ongoing street battles in Britain were triggered by the killing of a drug addict, Mark Duggan, in the locality of Tottenham. I read in the papers that Tottenham is one of the most deprived areas in London. I did not know about that, for the Tottenham that I have known in the late 1970s must have been different. Of course, the whole social, economic and racial profile of Britain has changed almost dramatically since that time, but the information nevertheless came as a shock to me.
Most Mauritians would of course associate Tottenham with its football team. For me, though, Tottenham means Foyle’s: perhaps, at the time I used to frequent it, the largest bookshop in the world. It was all of four floors and a basement where the medical section was located. I used to delight in browsing through the shelves and would invariably come out with my purse lighter than when I went in – but with no regrets ever! Books, medicine and writing are my passion and my life, and I will forego many a more attractive occupation of the moment to be with books.
One Saturday evening in Kolkata, where I was a medical student, I set out from my hostel by tram towards the centre of the city, Chowranghee Square, firmly decided to have a nice Chinese meal and watch a movie, during the course of which I would munch on a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate which used to be a favourite of mine. I had taken what was then a huge amount of money with me: Rs 25. I paid one paisa each way for the tram fare. I ended up having a mixed fried noodles and a coke for Rs 4.50, skipped the movie, and found myself at the tram terminus known as the Esplanade – where booksellers had their stalls on the pavement and were open for business till late in the night. When I finally returned to the hostel at bout 11 pm, I had a load of books and no money left, but my heart was singing.
These books, and all the others that I have been carrying from wherever I go, afford me the immense joy of their company practically all over my house.
But back to Tottenham, where the looting and rioting started, then spread to other localities in London such as Hackney, Enfield, Peckham, Woolwich and so on, before extending almost by contagion – courtesy social networking, it is alleged – to other cities in England: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and others. In Croydon, a century-plus old furniture shop was set ablaze and was completely destroyed. Private houses also were attacked, and in Southall Sikhs gathered in front of their gurdwara to protect it from the marauding bands of ‘hoodies’ as the hooligans were called, because they wore hoods.
They were armed with weapons, and moved about in organised groups which included children as young as 12 years old. They took pleasure in smashing through the glass windows of shops, supermarkets, small and large. They were there for the looting, especially electronic goods such as mobile phones, but nothing was spared. Some came in cars, others on their motorbikes, and parked them as their counterparts who were in the shops already were busy emptying the shelves and passing them on. The police were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of youths, unruly, dangerous and aggressive. Vehicles were set on fire too. Three onlookers and workers have been killed in Manchester, leaving their families stunned and aggrieved.
The whole nation was on fire, and it is not over yet. So far the damage to shops and other property is estimated at 140 million pounds, but the social cost is of course infinitely more. Many questions have been and will no doubt continue to be asked, such as the one captured by a press title ‘No shame, no limits: Has the behaviour of the mob destroyed the idea of British civility for ever?’
The article noted that ‘late on Monday evening, as the violence spread across London, the mood of the citizenry noticeably changed, shifting from anger and outrage to fear. What began to terrify people, especially in areas where the police were absent, was the seemingly limitless nature of what the rioters would do … it went past all previous bounds; the rioters would loot everything, everywhere; they would attack and rob anyone they came across; they began to break into private houses.’ It goes on to add: ‘I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture.’
The author goes on to explain how something called British culture, founded on implicit, unwritten norms whose sources and origins he outlines, has been responsible for the restraint and ‘civilised’ behaviour which characterised the British. He gives the examples of orderly queueing up at the bus stop and other places, of giving up one’s seat in a bus to a lady or an elderly person, pinning them down to a ‘combination of a peaceful national character and an accepted moral outlook on how we ought to behave’ that ‘produced (especially after the Second World War, when people had got used to being told what to do) a society of social cohesion and stability.’ Thus, ‘the reason people in Britain behaved differently was the culture, the culture of shame, if you like; it would be shameful to do otherwise.’
This contrasted to what he called an ‘openness of behaviour’ which he started to notice afterwards as he grew up, in the mid-1970s when he first saw rioting as a reporter in Northern Ireland, ‘which was so startling. To anyone of my generation, it was unthinkable that you would behave so shamelessly, that you might strut about in the street with a knife. And it was clear that those people rioting had been socialised in a different way, so that the informal constraints on behaviour which had been such a key part of our culture had no effect on them whatsoever.’ He concludes his article with a rueful reflection about what the true loss that the riots will cause, ‘Those norms were the best thing about British society and long after the burnt-out streets of Hackney and Croydon and Ealing have been rebuilt, their loss will be resonating with us still.’
There are other explanations, such as those by a schoolteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh ‘who exposed the failings of the comprehensive school system at the Conservative Party conference last year… has been teaching in inner London for over a decade and plans to set up a Free School in south London to help to serve underprivileged children.’ Her book, To Miss with Love, is due for publication soon. Her article was titled‘No wonder these kids think stealing trainers is OK. Everyone makes excuses for them.’
Here are some extracts: ‘The reason your house is not regularly stolen… is because most people don’t steal… because someone, when we were little, taught us the difference between right and wrong.
Put a child in front of an insect and he will take great delight in making it suffer until his mother or father tells him that causing pain is wrong. Children need to be brought up properly with parents who care enough about them to say no, with a school system that cares enough to admit when behaviour is out of control, with a community that recognises that we are ALL responsible for our children.
If you de-educate an entire generation, if you constantly make excuses for their behaviour, if you never teach them the difference between right and wrong, then chaos is what you reap. These young people are just implementing what they’ve learnt at school!
…children show respect because they have been taught to respect teachers. ONE teacher can therefore command the respect of hundreds of children. It is the same with the police and order in society. As a civilised society, we rely on a sense of morality in our people to keep the order. How did the Japanese survive their recent nuclear disaster? They queued quietly for food and help, and waited. They didn’t say ‘ME ME ME’! Do young people wear hoodies in Japan? Do Japanese children question their teacher’s authority? Do Japanese adults defend the appalling behaviour of their youth? NO.
We are an international disgrace.
Even the sensible people (and there have been a few) refuse to denounce ALL of the violence. Parents teach their children the difference between right and wrong. If they are absent, then the child grows up without a moral compass.
These criminals are responsible for their behaviour but so are their parents who sit at home, knowing their children are out there, looking forward to the goodies their children will bring home. I am so angry, so ashamed, so utterly dismayed. The vast majority of these criminals are black. No one will say it. I hang my head in shame, both as a black person and as a teacher. Our great capital city is on fire and even this isn’t enough to convince people that the excuse-making must stop!
Our reaction to these riots is the greatest worry. What will defeat us is not the rioters. What will defeat us is the power of bad ideas. Given our refusal to change, the worst is yet to come.’
Great lessons for us there, about cultural norms, morality, the role of parents and teachers, about collective responsibility. We have also loosened up, and make excuses too.
I was brought up to look to Britain and especially British royalty as the epitome of all things nice, beautiful, civilized. British culture was to be aped, even blindly, and its values were practically absolutes.
I am utterly disillusioned. Britain has compromised so much on its values that it is unrecognizable. Only the English language remains, thankfully.
* Published in print edition on 12 August 2011