London Burning: The Articulation of a Howl

11/08/2011 16:01 BST | Updated 11/10/2011 10:12 BST

It's no surprise that we nice middle-class Liberals are finding our previous unwavering sympathy for the poor and the dispossessed giving way instead to fear, to hatred, to mockery, and to disappointment.

It's either the government's fault, the police's fault - or when they're hammering away at your Prius and running off down the street with the organic goods from your locally owned farm-foods store because it was next to Footlocker - it's because these kids are cu*ts who are intrinsically broken deep inside their souls.

As one of my dour northern Daily Mail-reading relatives phrases it, "They are a load of total wa*kers most of whom haven't worked a day in their lives and think that the UK taxpayer is there to fund their drug / alcohol / anything-they-want lifestyle." Not wanting to align ourselves with such views, we sneakily entertain vague notions that the rioters are "broken" because their local library was closed by the Tories, their council lost an equine therapist, drug addiction was no longer a legitimate disability to claim benefits for, the EMA was abolished, forever whisking that BTEC in Performing Arts away from their grasp: a route that would have undeniably led away from some nasty crime-and-addiction ridden estate, onto some saccharine sparkly reality show featuring the grinning faces of Britain's national treasures, Cheryl and Simon.

The point is, we're pissed at the little buggers we've defended against the evil Tories for so long - but we can't say it. Instead, we retweet the video of the angry black lady in Tottenham yelling at hooded youths we can't see, share it multiple times on facebook, hold it up as an example of how exactly 'the poor', 'the ethnic', 'the multicultural', the 'unemployed class', the acceptable face of socialized Britain should be behaving while London burns. They should be standing on a street berating their naughty fellows so they can toddle off the next day, collect the dole and sit at home with fuck all to do, and repeat that the next day, the next, the next, ad infinitum.

I'm not a fuzzy British middle-class Liberal, I'm more of an American Democrat, which places me in someways left of center, and in other ways right. I left England ten years ago because if I was going to have to suck it up and work for shit pay for a long time before I made it as a writer, I'd rather have done that away from a country which is grey, overpriced, riddled with class difference, snobbery and nepotism, and is fucking miserable. I had the option of using my student loans to fund my escape, while the government paid my tuition fees. I'd like to think my absence from the UK means I have nothing to do with what's going on in its streets right now. But the fact is we are all complicit in the rage spewing from these outcasts, as Camila Batmanghelidjh's eloquent piece in yesterday's Telegraph makes clear.

One of Batmanghelidjh's observations leaps out at me: that the riots are the result of years of pitiless humiliation: "It's not one occasional attack on dignity, it's a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession," she says, and in that one sentence we can trace the root of this way back to Thatcher's brutal industry closures, New Labour's fiscally inept and over-optimistic handling of a nation which has never really recovered from having its chief industries obliterated, leaving nothing in its place. Just empty ghost towns full of out of work miners and steelworkers. No matter - take away decent schools to level everyone off to the same level of shit, turn trade education into expensive university and college courses, and just increase benefits. To top it all off, let's make sure that even those paltry few who do struggle through the system won't get work anyway - unless they become unpaid slaves - or better, leap to the top of the pile because Daddy made a few calls.

This is nothing new. Yes, we're greedy at the top, yes we need to have more social responsibility - but there is a prevailing sense that even us lucky ones, the middle classes - we, too, have struggled. We too have overcome financial hardship to educate ourselves and others, to get that job we wanted, that house, that car, that holiday in Thailand, to feed ourselves and our kids. And because we won - these 'other' people: stuck on unemployment, stuck on disability, stuck on estates, stuck in a class which isn't the working class because there's no work - these other people are the losers. There's got to be winners and losers, ergo these losers are there by choice. They're there because they didn't aspire enough, have big enough dreams, enter Popstars: The Rivals, take out a 12k debt for a degree which wouldn't ever guarantee them a job. "Continuously dispossessed" Batmanghelidjh calls them.

Critics will point out employment isn't a possession: neither is education, neither is social mobility. It's there for the taking - why not take it? Comp schools have leveled the playing field for all, and loans for degrees are available to everyone. But dispossession in this case takes a more insidious form. It's dispossession of the fundamental rights of existence: that people are equal, that they deserve the same amount of respect. It's dispossession of one's confidence: confidence that society is meritocratic, confidence that there is a way out, confidence that you get out what you put in. It's dispossession of the belief that this can happen, because it is dispossession of the fact that it can happen.

There aren't any jobs. School's shit and unbearable - there's kids screaming and throwing chairs at the teacher's head and giving handjobs in the playground for five quid. The only income to aspire to is claiming benefits, and if it's not benefits, it's selling crack, robbing shit, or selling sex to strangers. And all the time there's this rage, this seething, frothing, simmering rage, because around you - on the TV, on the street, on the bus, two streets over - there are people who are living life, who can go to university, who can get work, who can own their own property, who can dream about something different, and make it happen. And when you don't have that, that's when you start to turn sour inside.

I know because I have it, the rage. I went to Cambridge University and my parents are working class-turned-middle class and I grew up in the countryside in Wales and life was pretty good. And I have it because even with all this, even with this head start, even with parents who drilled into me that I was going to university because it's how you get a good job, even with my middle class ailments of anorexia and depression - I'm different, and I'm not as good as that family with five generations of Etonians, or that girl whose Dad edited an internationally respected magazine, or that bloke whose Grandfather was a Tory PM, or the girl I bumped into last week who married a Royal and has never known what it is to go hungry because she's never run out of money. I have this chip on my shoulder, and I don't think I'll ever get rid of it, even now life is OK and I can eat and I can look people in the eye again. And inside me is the furious, angry, burning rage that despite the fact I'm clever, my family are middle class, I'm relatively pretty, I'm motivated, I'm ambitious - despite all this, I still spent the majority of my twenties suffering and starving, and eventually working in the sex industry, because I couldn't get a fucking job in the industry I wanted, and I couldn't survive on minimum wage.

And I'm sick to death of excusing my ambitions to a critical public, who point out there was always my parents' sofa, sixty quid a week dole, and a cashier position at Sainsbury's waiting, as if my inability to suck this up meant I was a snob, or somehow less than for daring to dream big. For some people the destiny that life gave you isn't acceptable, but if you lack the means to get out - what then? Where does that rage go? My rage went into getting my arse to Cambridge, then getting me through the pointless daily pain, the constant humiliation, the degradation of working as a private chef for rich, patronizing arseholes, of being a bartender to snotty twats with too much money, of serving you your posh three course meals every night - of dancing for your husband, your brother, your boyfriend, your friend - you. My pain bled into a book, but not before it nearly bled me to death with alcoholism. And if I hadn't got out, my pain would have led me to smash and burn and take whatever the fuck I wanted from life, because I'd done things the right way, and I still got "punished" for it.

And now my pain leads me forever to feel different from all my white, educated, southern liberal peers, and it makes me feel bitter that all the happiness I have now cost me so dearly in terms of self-respect and health and happiness. It's not right, it's not justified, it's not pretty, this rage. It doesn't, shall we say, read The Guardian - but nor does it read the Daily Mail. It hates indiscriminately, and when it lets loose, it will burn anyone in its path, but that's what it is. Inbuilt animal anger, borne of frustrated ambition and curdled desires. And I'm meant to be "a success". I didn't even grow up in a sodding estate. This is just rage from the last ten years of 32 years on the planet.

What we're seeing in London - in the excited and happy recordings of two teenage girls chatting away to the BBC, boasting about their looting and rioting, in the images of small teens brutally kicking those who are hurt, in kids trying on clothes in JD Sports, in communities stealing free medication from Boots - we're seeing people with nothing, who grew up in a country with no jobs, shitty schools, nursed on a diet of benefits in lieu of prospects. They're fucking pissed off, and they have every right to be. And that ipod, that pair of jeans, London in flames - the glamor and exhilaration of feeling something, of having some physical outlet for an unrelenting mental howl which has been painfully suppressed, finding articulation only in short, sharp bursts of underground violence: a rape, a robbing, a fight, a brawl - this all represents the highlight of a tawdry, pathetic, shit, boring, mundane, prospect-less existence of an invisible class in Britain.

If you don't understand what's going on out there, you have no empathy and no intelligence and no imagination, and you prove exactly my point. This is happening because we stopped understanding, we stopped feeling, and we stopped caring.