The past is another country, LP Hartley told us. Another city, anyway.
These are days of post-Olympic glory, pride and fresh delight in our metropolis, with its gleaming brass knobs and luscious green parks, making even more surreal memories of a year ago, when the country and its capital went to the dogs…
Youssef Beruain plays a rioter being interviewed in a solicitor's office
Footage showing some of those same boroughs being torn apart, burnt, desecrated by looting rioters seems surreal now, but it really was only a year ago, 12 long months during which big brains have tried to analyse exactly why so many people got caught up in a lawless frenzy, resulting in 5,000 arrests and an estimated half a billion pounds' worth of damage.
Without an official Govt inquiry, it was left to Reading the Riots to sit down and hear personal accounts from those involved on both sides of the police/rioters fence, and last night we heard the rioters accounts of those surreal five days, in their very own words (played by actors on something called ‘recorded delivery’ – no scripts, instead genuine transcripts played in their ears, and then repeated verbatim, making for an uncannily accurate rendition).
Would such shared intimacies lead to further understanding, even sympathy, for the perpetrators?
Well, their truth, or at least authenticity, provided no comfort, and their explanations played right into any hand-wringing reactionary’s hands.
As I heard one account after another of “I’ve got four TVs, I’m going to get five”… ““something went click in my brain, and I just felt like walking in a phone shop”… "it just felt natural, it just felt fine, because everyone was doing it and no one was getting caught, so I just thought, why can’t I do it?” I never felt more indignant, and of the opinion that these people who mindlessly caused such harm should just do as Norman Tebbitt suggested and get on their respective bikes.
The riots around the country resulted in more than 5,000 arrests
But, obviously, it’s not as simple as that, something programme makers did not attempt to brush over, but nor did they attempt to dig too deeply, and I don’t blame them – it’s a massive issue.
Instead they contented themselves with a few hints as to the scale of the frustrations of some of the perpetrators regarding racial tensions, a history of police hostility, the vicious circle of 75% of the convicted rioters already having criminal records –
“We’ve been stuck on a leash for years”... "It's not just a riot, it's a statement"... "We’re rats in a lab…we’re just normal people trying to make a life for ourselves, and there are no opportunities out there.”
Interesting too was the division in the ranks. One Tottenham woman, still throbbing with anger over the police treatment of Mark Duggan and his family, was contemptuous of the activity in other boroughs – “Tottenham had a cause, the rest was just looting."
Another girl complained with a straight face how she and “Becky” had been robbed of the tellies and iPads they had carefully requisitioned themselves – “Me and Becky, we took it, so it's ours, you get your own things."
Her lack of empathy, of ability to see the bigger picture, was breathtaking, but this was the same girl who described walking past those same boarded-up shops a year later… "It's just made me think, before I do stuff."
And another rioter reflected, "I hope good comes out of it. Hope is a four-letter word, but it’s a big thing.”
Somewhere in this enormous social challenge, then, a few grains of hope….?
The police are coming next in this uncomfortable, necessary series, with, no doubt, similar tales of frustration and helplessness, from the other side of the shield.
Riots: In Their Own Words, next Monday 20 August, 9pm, BBC2