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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I predict a riot

By the time we reach London half the city is apparently in flames and the  asinine media post mortem has begun. Not much action around our way: four hoodies battered down the door of a 24 hour petrol station on the Sheen Road and somebody tried to burn down Homebase. Pretty much business as usual rather than evidence of mob rule in leafy Richmond. About the only sensible commentary I've heard  was from a man called Tony Thompson who apparently writes books about gangs and was himself a London gang member in  the 1970s. He pointed out that when he was growing up there were lots of adolescent gangs, but that unless you were a complete nutter it was obvious that gang membership was not a viable adult life-style. Involvement with the drug trade was negligible and people didn't carry or wear enough valuable stuff to make systematic mugging worthwhile. To put it simply you couldn't make a living at it and therefore it was something that kids grew out of. Nowadays it is different. There are lots of money making opportunities for gangs to take advantage of which will sustain the consumer wants of their members well into early adulthood. Compared to the legitimate employment opportunities that gang members could possibly aspire to, drug dealing, mugging and the occasional bit of looting look pretty attractive.
One thing he didn't but might have mentioned is that a bit of rioting can be fun, as long as you are careful not to get caught walking home with a 32" flatscreen. All of the rent a mouths appearing on our screens  windbagging about  reasons and causes  might do well to remember a comment of Isaiah Berlin's: "...there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will prove interesting". Personal experience tells me that it frequently isn't. 
In the 1970s there was a  "riot" at my school, the  vague casus belli being that somebody  had, allegedly, been hospitalized by a boy  from another school. A pitched battle to defend the school's honour was to be staged, at lunchtime, on the playing fields. A few of the notorious psychos and sadists came equipped with bicycle chains and rice-flails but all that happened was that 700 children ran around the school all afternoon  refusing to go to lessons. The foe failed to turn up and my abiding memory is of the headmaster driving across the playing fields in his 3 litre Rover urging us, through the megaphone stuck out of the driver's window, to go back to our classrooms. The only attention paid to his pleadings was a few two fingered salutes.
Why did we do it? Two main reasons I think: because we could and because it was fun. Eighty teachers could not control so many childen  determined not to do as they were told and so many miscreants could not credibly be threatened with punishment. We knew they couldn't keep the whole school in detention or cane everybody. There was, in fact, nothing they could or would do and for an afternoon, we exploited that fact mercilessly. Next day we went back to our lessons - permanent anarchy  is not fun - and smirked behind our hands as  the Head rolled out all his tired cliches in morning assembly  about the rotten apples rising to the top of the barrel, the moral enervation associated with growing your hair below the collar line etc.
I think the usual suspects - the psychos, and those incautious enough not to hide themselves in the mass - were rounded up and got six of the best. But I imagine they thought it was worth it. And at the age of 12 I  learned a practical lesson. Order depends, even in an autocracy, on the consent of the ruled and sometimes they just don't feel like cooperating..

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