Out of the Ashes
Britain after the Riots
London: Guardian Books, 2011
Paperback. 266 p. ISBN 978-0-85265-267-1. £9.99
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
In recent years, hardly a week seems to have gone by without the London Borough of Haringey having hit the news headlines, often in the context of social problems. The death of ‘Baby-P’ in 2007, as a result of child abuse, was an extreme example. Like many London boroughs, Haringey contains a wide range of social areas extending from the wealthy districts of Highgate and Muswell Hill, through the gentrifying streets of Hornsey, to the less affluent neighbourhoods of Wood Green (where I lived as a boy), and the downright poor areas of Tottenham—some of the most deprived in England—which used to be the home of a wide range of manufacturing industries on the low-lying land of the Lea Valley. Known to football fans for the stadium of the Tottenham Hotspurs (‘Spurs’) team at White Hart Lane, Tottenham acquired a more worrying reputation over the past quarter century. First, it was the riots at Broadwater Farm in 1985, on a large estate of social housing installed across a piece of open land in an otherwise built-up swathe of suburbia. Those riots were triggered after a 49-year-old black woman suffered a fatal stroke after police burst into her flat to search her home while her son was held in custody. A policeman was killed by residents in the ensuing disruption. A quarter of a century later, in the early days of August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot by police who had stopped him while travelling in a minicab, on the allegation that he was carrying a firearm. The riots that hit Tottenham High Road were soon emulated in other parts of London and in other English cities. Shops were looted, homes wrecked, and social facilities were burned to the ground.
‘Out of the Ashes’, by the local politician David Lammy, is an attempt to identify underlying reasons behind the 2011 riots both at a local scale and at the national level. The author was born in Tottenham in 1972, one of five children raised by a single mother, his father having quit the family home. Unlike almost every other black boy of eleven years of age, David won a scholarship to attend a state choral school at The Kings School in Peterborough, far away from Tottenham. Having received a very good secondary education, he returned to London to study for a law degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), and was admitted to the Bar of England and Wales in 1994. Then he became the first black Briton to study for a master’s degree at the Harvard Law School. Having returned to England, he stood successfully as a Labour candidate for the new Greater London Assembly, and in June 2000 was elected MP for Tottenham. From 2001 to 2010, he served as a Minister in the Labour government. Without doubt, he is a ‘Tottenham boy’ albeit a far from typical one.
Between 1985 and 2011, many things changed in Tottenham and in Britain more generally. As deindustrialisation swept across the land, the factories that had provided a strong employment base for this part of north London closed; some sections of the post-industrial Lea Valley were converted into retail parks. The vibrant high street with an array of department stores degenerated into a collection of cut-price shops and money exchanges. Many white, working-class residents moved away and their place was taken by members of a wide variety of groups in search of relatively cheap housing. Tottenham became a multi-ethnic area in which rates of unemployment soared. Crime rates became problematic and police checks disproportionately targeted youths of Afro-Caribbean heritage, giving rise to widespread resentment in the locality. Countless families had become single-parent households, as a result of absent fathers. Many young men had no male role models to respect or from whom to learn. These problems of masculinity were compounded by disregard for elders, members of very active local churches, and other authority figures. Rival street gangs waged knife war on the streets of Tottenham. At the same time, Britain became not only more socially varied, but also much more materialistic. Acquiring goods and ever more goods became the centre of many people’s lives. Communication was instantaneous, thanks to mobile ‘phones; television pictures of riots and fires in the banlieues of France were remembered on the streets of north London and in cities throughout Britain.
This is the context of the 2011 riots, which David Lammy sketches in the nine chapters of ‘Out of the Ashes’. His writing style is relaxed, with short sentences and uncomplicated language being favoured; his sources are websites rather than academic studies of earlier examples of urban disruption in Britain, Europe or North America. For all their faults, that seem to be repeated weekly, he argues that members of the police force cannot be held solely responsible for maintaining law and order in Britain’s cities; that is the collective responsibility of society at large. The unemployed, welfare-dependent ‘underclass’ needs to learn that holding down a job is worthwhile, and young men need to realise that they have responsibilities in wider society. Obsessive materialism is depicted as the curse of our age; risking prison for a pair of trainers is madness indeed. Common decency needs to be revived across civic society rather than some citizens only being restrained by penalties meted out by courts of law. Lammy insists that the riots were explosions of hedonism and nihilism, in which people with little to lose lashed out at authority as they sought to acquire more possessions, regardless of the suffering of others. He insists that the problems of the hot summer of 2011 were fundamentally the rioters’ own problems, but they were also the product of an acquisitive society fuelled by politicians who continue to favour the rich and successful. Readers are warned never to ‘underestimate the cost of a riot. Just because the fires have been put out, the windows re-glazed and the media satellite trucks have left does not men that the pain has eased’ .
David Lammy concludes that, in spite of its recent reputation, ‘Tottenham remains friendly and vibrant. The vast majority of residents want the same thing as everyone else—decency. A decent home, a decent job, and decent opportunities for their children. The rioters don’t represent them’ . Nonetheless, the verdict is still out on the heady mix of socio-economic factors that fuelled the riots. Even the precise succession of events in early August 2011 that sparked the tinderbox of Tottenham remains open to debate more than six months later. Without doubt, David Lammy has produced a readable account, albeit one that is rather light on such issues as local schooling and education in general. Now the dual challenge is for academics to probe behind the reasons for what happened, and for governments of whatever persuasion to devise measures to ensure that such disturbances are not repeated.
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