Wednesday 10 August 2011

Of mice and elephants

As those who know her may have noticed, Matron has been severely overworked and underplayed for the last six months. So much so, that she was beginning to wonder herself what on Earth would have to happen to make her blog again. Having blissfully ignored all manner of exciting and infuriating developments ranging from Hacking enquiries to calls for the re-introduction of capital punishment (it turns out that all that needs to said about these, can be said on Twitter - although that may, in the end, apply to everything, really), the rioting on UK streets proves to be the straw the breaks the camel's writer's block or some such thing.

Because a lot has been written on this by all and sundry already (most interestingly Michael White in the Guardian on the blame games that have now commenced, David Allen Green in his New Statesman blog on the need to keep the riots in proportion and the entertaining comments of bloggers everywhere on Boris Johnson's - of all people - suggestion that the riots are to blame on an excessive sense of entitlement) Matron will try (most likely unsuccessfully) to keep it to a brief soul searching operation. Two thoughts strike her in the midst of all this.

First, the description of the tactics employed by rioters in their endeavours to redistribute private property and the tactics of the police used to prevent such redistribution puts her in mind of the "mice and elephants" analogy Swine made when he described the changes the internet underwent over the last 15 years. Swine said that in the olden days, the internet, and access to it, was controlled by a few big players which were easy to regulate and could act as gatekeepers. They were, to all intends and purposes, elephants, slow moving and relying on their size. However, in the current era of social media and user generated content, internet users and the platforms that allow them to interact with each other, are like mice. The can pop up and under at a moment's notice, react quickly to events and dissipate when they are threatened.

To matron, this model seems to apply both to the way rioters used social media to organise themselves these past few days and to the actual way in which they operated on the streets. Reports from Manchester describe the way in which groups of young people (Matron really, really loathes the word "youths") played a game of cat and mouse with the police in that they broke the window of one particular shop, scarpered when the police arrived on that site, then created a distraction at another location and quietly returned to the site of the original offence to clear out the shop while the police were patrolling the second site. They may be disaffected, but they ain't stupid.

Which brings us to the question of what can be done in these cases and whether anything can be done, really. At which point Matron is getting very impatient with all the politicians' posturing about criminality v protest, strong enforcement and/or the moral vacuum that prevails in this country. Because, all discussions of morality aside, what these event show most clearly is that no state other than a completely authoritarian or totalitarian one, can control all parts of its population against its wishes for long. We can put 16,000 elephants on the streets of London for a time but this will become unsustainable eventually at which point cries for more efficient - and by their nature more oppressive - measures will be aired (and yes, Matron knows, those calls are being made already, but she chooses to ignore things like this YouGov poll - particularly the bit about using live ammunition - for the time being, for her own sanity).

All of which means that those of us who do not want to live in a police state where security forces are given ever increasing powers that they will then have the right - lets not forget that for a moment - to use on the rest of us, really have no alternative to at least trying to understand the underlying reasons for why this situation could get out of hand so badly so quickly. If we do not want to counter force with sheer force (like deploying the army in domestic conflict, which for someone like Matron who comes from a country where there is still a constitutional ban on that type of thing - for good historical reasons) or submit to a level of surveillance - online and offline - never before encountered in a free society, what else can we do?

The second thought that occurred to Matron as she was sitting on a train from all-quiet-now London to just-about-to-kick-off Manchester last night, was that, like it or not, it really does make a difference if it happens close to you or to your own. Like in 1999, when the activities of nail bomber David Copeland really only hit home when he targeted the Admiral Duncan pub in gay Soho. Like in July 2005 when the much publicised photo of a destroyed number 26 London bus was the most disturbing of all images because this was the line that Matron had taken to get home for more than four years.

So when watching the reports on the London riots on TV on Monday night or listening to the updates fellow-travellers got from friends and family in Manchester on the train last night, it was the events in Mare Street in Hackney, which is close to were she had lived way back when, and the news of the destruction of the Manchester shops she frequents now, that touched her most.

So, eat your liberal heart out, she is as shocked as the next person about what happened. Which is why - like many another bleeding-heart Guardian reader - she currently starts her sentences with the prefix "this is not an excuse, but may explain things". Because in all honesty, there can be no excuse for the gangs of rampaging bullies she and Mrs Matron passed on their way home last night. And bullies they are, no matter how you look at it.

But - as has been explained to Matron patiently on many occasions by said Missus (who holds a PGCE no less and is experienced in all matters pedagogical) - most bullies have been bullied themselves. And therein, as they say, lies the rub.

When the UK map of child poverty was posted a while back, Matron found to her entertainment (but not surprise) that three of the four places of residence she ever held in the UK (Toxteth in Liverpool, Hackney in London and Cheetham Hill in Manchester) were in areas where more than 50% of children come from low income families. In fact the figures were closer to 75% in all cases, but ">50%" was the worst category they used. This brought with it the joys and pleasures of living in a multicultural society, but it also brought with it certain facts of live one either got used to or - if one had the choice, and many don't - which meant one moved elsewhere.

In Liverpool in the 1990s it was car crime: Matron's car was broken into four times and stolen twice and the trip to the local police station for the crime reference number became a part of normal life. As did the knowledge that the police would not have the man power or the inclination to actually search for and prosecute the perpetrators. During her stint in the capital in the early naughties she mourned the theft of four bikes in as many years. Police advised her to go to a market near Brick Lane on a Sunday morning to see if she could buy it back. In Manchester, about six years ago, she witnessed the stabbing of a man outside her front door. It was followed up but never came to court because invisible forces persuaded the suspect to return to whatever country he had come from. Realities like these happen all over the country every day. Millions of people live with them even though they don't see them portrayed on the 10 o'clock news.

None of these experiences were pleasant, but none of them particularly came as a shock and none of them made Matron call for stricter sentencing and the deployment of military force either. And most importantly, none of them made her leave those respective communities (in fact it was unsustainable house prices that forced her to move to the quiet little village where she lives now, so blame the real criminals, the bankers and speculators, for that). Because, for all their faults, they were communities and bad things that happened in them were things committed by people who where the exceptions and not the rule. That is why for every hooded bully helping him or herself to a free pair of trainers last night, there were three people cleaning up the mess they made this morning. Lets not forget that.

But what of the hooded bullies? Well, why not look at it like this? Yes, the events of the last few days were terrible. They raise a lot of questions about the society we live in and the values we pass from one generation to another. We have to discuss these questions openly and we have to address the underlying issues, like excessive consumerism and greed, and maybe even a prevailing sense of entitlement, at ALL levels of society. But they also show us that if you create a level of social inequality similar to that in certain third world countries, you are likely to get a level of social unrest that mirrors that in those countries. We all live in the society we deserve and pay for. And lets be honest, all of us - including those of us who, like Matron, belong to the category of the "not-really-rich-but-don't-have-to-worry-much-either-despite-the-cuts": we have been shopping in the bargain basement of that particular store for a long time now. Like with the organic produce that many of us are still happy to fork out for, it might be a good idea to start paying a little more for a better product.

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