There is an uncanny atmosphere on Hackney's streets as a vicar leads the clean-up and looted Carlsberg flows freelyby Oliver Bullough / August 10, 2011 / Leave a comment
A grim greeting for Hackney residents and local volunteers this morning. Image: StolenGolem
I dropped my son off yesterday morning like normal, but couldn’t concentrate when I got home, so I took a detour up to Mare Street and Clarence Road to see the damage. It was amazing the job the council had done up there. Mare Street was cleaner than normal, but up where the rioting had been worst, there wasn’t much they could have done.
There were burnt-out cars dotted all up the street—someone had spray-painted “Welcome to Hackney” in green on a gutted convertible—and the Convenience Store was gaping open, all its shelves torn off, a slop of nappies mixed with tea bags mixed with porn mags on the floor.
The owner—a Sri Lankan guy, 45 years old, maybe—was outside in a small knot of people just crying, with snot pouring down his face. People were standing about, not sure what to say, patting him on the back. Some plump man in a tie came up from the council to see what he could do to help.
“Just clean it,” the Sri Lankan man said, then turned away and hid in his van, where he sat in the passenger seat and cried some more.
Twitter had said there would be a clean-up meeting outside the Town Hall, so I wandered down there. I’d taken my dustpan and brush and some bin bags, and it was stirring to see dozens of people holding brooms and keen to do something to help even if they weren’t sure what. A bearded man took charge, entirely randomly, then an Anglican vicar stood up on the steps and appealed to everyone to march up to Clarence Road to show solidarity.
It seemed weird to be led by a vicar, and I was dubious about the idea, but no politicians had turned up, and he was more inspiring than the bearded man, so the crowd wound its gentle way past the wrecked shops on Mare Street—Ladbroke’s was boarded up, the Nationwide’s door smashed in, and Holland & Barrett was “open for business” despite a smashed-in front door—and on to Clarence Road. Our crowd was large, and it took a while for equilibrium to appear, but after a while things became quite wonderful.
The burnt-out cars were being picked up by a breakdown van, so a group of us began digging off the residue from the tarmac, clowning a bit—we imagined getting on TV and winning a medal from Pippa Middleton—and getting joined by local kids.
“Was it your car?” a boy asked me. I told him no, and then he asked for my dustpan and started sweeping up the smashed glass. His brother Elijah wanted to help but we wouldn’t let him because he was wearing a beautiful white embroidered shirt. After 15 minutes or so, four coppers turned up, smiling at us, and one police woman thanked us.
“We decided we had to come up here too since you’d already come,” she said.
There were loads of people on the street now, just chatting and smiling, talking to the police, talking to us, a lot of them coming out of the estate and laughing at our clean-up crew and at the TV cameras. I don’t know if it counts as a community, since most of us had come up from middle class London Fields and wouldn’t normally go to that part of town, but it was better than nothing.
Anyway, it was time to do some work, so I went home for a bit, but I still couldn’t really concentrate and a few hours later I wandered over to Mare Street to see if there was any action. A helicopter hovering over London Fields pushed me over the edge really. When the helicopters were densest yesterday was when the rioting was really kicking off.
The streets were weird. Every shop was boarded up or shuttered, almost no one was walking about, and those that were outside scanned each other. Outside the Town Hall were three vans of police, up from South Wales in vans complete with Heddlu in big letters, so I stopped to hear some Welsh accents.
“Was it lively last night then,” one copper asked in broad Swansea.
“Pretty lively,” I said, “it sounded like Baghdad.”
We had a natter about things, and they told me they had seen no trouble. They were friendly, and it was nice to hear the sound of my home country, but it wasn’t nice to see the Town Hall locked down with four police in riot gear guarding its front doors and vans more full of coppers round the side.
“We’ll probably just to talk to people, it’s what we do best,” Swansea said. I asked if there’d been any bother in Wales.
“No, there was some action in Newport, but that’s just Newport,” he said, and we all laughed at that.
Walking back was more shut shops, closed pubs, and a woman looking for somewhere to buy dog food. She said she’d have to try Broadway Market and had already walked all the way from beyond Ridley Road. It’s a sign of how uncanny the atmosphere was, and how deserted the streets were, that it seemed completely natural for us to stop and have a conversation although we’d never met.
“Well, Connie’s just going to get a very long walk tonight,” she said, at the end, with a flat smile, and she and her dog headed off.
Then it was time to pick up my son, and I walked into the estate where his child minder lives. Six 20-year-old lads were lounging against a wall, with one just finishing the production of a four-inch spliff. There wasn’t much room to get past them, and they watched me as I walked past, with my empty pushchair, but didn’t trouble me.
“Yeah, I didn’t get much stuff yesterday, but Jojo, fucking hell, Jojo gashed the place,” one of them said, and the others laughed.
When I got back home, the manager of the pub next door was sitting at one of the outside tables having a fag. He asked me what was going on—he’s not opening the pub, no pubs are open, just staying there to look after it—and I talked about Clarence Road and the looted Convenience Store. Some bloke was sitting with him, I’ve no idea who he was, and he nodded.
“I walked past there yesterday, just as some big black guy came out with a box of spirits. Then another one came out with a pallet of Carlsberg, dumped it on the ground, and shouted “Free Beer!” I got a couple for me and my mate,” he said, laughed, and took a drag on his roll-up.
“I mean, everyone else was doing it, come on.”