Monday, 8 August 2011

Riots In London

The Arab Spring has not yet made it to London, but the riots and looting that have erupted across London following the shooting of "Gangster" Mark Duggan have given some hints as to how the general populace would react in the event of any sort of uprising: sitting at home, watching the news on Facebook, blaming the neighbours. Many people seem to be drawing parallels with the Broadwater Farm riots in the 80's, but for me a more recent riot is best for comparison - the 2005 Troubles at Ikea, Edmonton.

Then as now the blame was given to people coming in from somewhere else to cause trouble. To me, this has always seemed a slightly disingenuous accusation, portraying the bad-doers as jumping onto coaches and hightailing it to London at the first sign of things getting a bit tasty. Over the last two days, trouble has broken out in Tottenham, Enfield, Walthamstowe, Dalston, Wood Green, and Brixton. Now, leaving aside Brixton for a moment (because just a quick google shows that there have been at least three local protests there this year that turned a bit tasty) and what stands out about the remaining locations? Dalston to Enfield is the route of the A10; Wood Green is a few minutes to the west, Walthamstowe a few minutes to the east further north. To get to Walthamstowe from Tottenham, the easiest route it to travel north a little way and then turn onto the North Circular, at Edmonton.

London is often described as a collection of towns and villages with nothing in-between. It's a valid description in the most part, as many of the nicer parts of London find themselves surrounded by menacing estates and industrial areas, or simply corralled by the A roads around which the capital's workforce flows. For the most part, it's a situation that draws no attention to itself, as each of the nicer areas has made itself self-sufficient for shopping and nights out, and the areas in-between raise no voice and offer no temptation. It becomes second nature to anyone who lives in London to subconsciously ignore the places they pass when journeying from one village to another.

London has always been a city of temporary residence; any arguments about immigration need only pointing in the direction of the likes of the Huguenots for a historical perspective on the situation. One must also consider why the A10 is such a major route through London in the first place; it's actually an old Roman road called Ermine Street, and they were hardly native.

The route of the road has not always been an in-between place; my father is fond of pointing out one of the few Art Deco churchs in England - almost opposite the police station where all the recent trouble started. For at least twenty years though, most of the route of the A10 has been allowed to become disenfranchised. When I see people talking about the local community in places like Tottenham or Edmonton, I stop believing a word they say about the area. There is no community of Tottenham or Edmonton; these are places other communities settle in a while, holding pens for the disenfranchised people of other communities, who sometimes happen to get stuck there for a generation.

The trouble taking place now is happening because most of the people who live there do not care. My father has lived in Edmonton for over twenty years; in that time the groups standing on the corner of the A10 and the A406 have gone from being Turkish to Somalian, and no doubt in another ten years another group will take their place. Although for the most part the first generation of immigrants to the in-between neighborhoods of London are there to just get on with their lives, their children, as they grow up, find themselves in no-mans land. In my opinion, these riots are a protest, against the temporary wasteland so many people find themselves stuck in, part of no community but the greater poor of London.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Amy Winehouse dies

Many thoughts struck when I saw that Amy Winehouse had died; I found out, as I'm sure many people did, via status updates on Facebook, and the general mood seemed to be surprise. I didn't want to join the Facebook chorus of tributes, because after a while, as people posted more and more cutting comments and remarks, it struck me that, although the NotW might have died a gory death, the attitude it appealed to is as virulent as ever, and has become endemic throughout consumers of popular culture.

With the desperate hype surrounding the cult of celebrity there has risen a parallel discourse of desperate celebrity schadenfreude commentary, and like the fame game it transcends politics and class. From Heat front pages to Holy Moly daily mailouts, the desire to attribute any fall to the pursuit of public individualism is endemic. The piece of reporting that stuck in my head was the following, from the BBC website:

"The singer's death also prompted tributes from her celebrity friends."

I liked some of Amy Winehouse's songs, would put an album on if choosing from a friends collection, but owned none of her output myself, was never a fan - it just fairly passed me by as some of the better background pop music. I never knew her, although ended up in The Good Mixer (the actual Camden drinker's late night bar of choice) a few times while she was there - and on those occasions, my impression was never of someone who loved the attention. She was easily recognisable, for the tattoos but mostly for being particularly small. The impression I got was of someone who abided being recognised because she didn't want any fuss. No news story every jumped out at me and screamed of someone clamouring for fame.

It has become a non-extreme opinion to say that people who are famous bring their own downfall upon themselves, and one so easy to load with wisdom after the fact that a massive number of people become instant experts when a celebrity news story breaks. We are saturated by celebrity and the desire to see it fail as a lifestyle. I am not convinced that the two must go hand in hand; it may be a cultural nuance particular to these isles - with X-Factor on one hand and I'm A Celebrity on the other, or it may be a wider trend brought about by the pervasive, insidious nature of the machinery that drives fame and celebrity, which is PR and marketing.

A curious side-effect of the NotW phone hacking scandal was the stripping back of the machinery of celebrity. Reading Marina Hyde's obit on the Guardian site, much of what I suspected from my own peripheral dealings with the celebrity industry shone through - that even at the largest media organisations, their top journalists cover PR-driven events for stories. It is almost impossible now to get any sort of interview with anyone with a public name without going through a PR agency; often as not, quotes and pictures are vetted, and there is always something to sell. Celebrity has probably never been a bigger business than it is now, and because it is everywhere, it is easy to lose sight of what the product actually is: what is sold to us isn't the people themselves, but a virtual waxwork, polished and buffed.

Inevitably, the human being behind it gets lost along the way. The concept of them we are sold is photoshopped and retouched; the celebrity friends and social network commenters spin into action, propping and attacking the apparition of a person that in all likelihood none of them really knew. Who is it who suggests that a PR buffer between one's own fame and the real world is a good idea? Perhaps label bosses, agents, friends in the industry, or perhaps it just seems the way that things are done. I don't have enough knowledge of the workings of this vast media machine to guess, but will be sparing a thought for the ordinary, unfamous people for whom private grief is now impossible because of it.