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Will the real UK please stand up? Broken Britain or Lucky London?

September 12, 2012

The London 2012 Olympics are finally over and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that these games went unmarked by violence or tragedy. The UK did amazingly well and can be justifiably proud of what they have accomplished. The medal tally was third in the world and considering its population and even funding disadvantage this is absolutely remarkable. The afterglow of these lucky London Olympics will hopefully be long lasting and beneficial over time. The fact that these vast games were unmarked by terrorism or violence of any kind is a kind of minor miracle that should be celebrated by the UK and the world generally. Anyone of course, who dared to criticise the events before they were held, like Mitt Romney, have been roundly condemned, and probably unjustifiably so. Just ask Mitt. I imagine that if he loses the US election this November, both David Cameron and Boris Johnson will be well satisfied and probably even take the credit for it. Such is politics in the modern era. This wasn’t the first time the expensive Olympic Games have been used for propaganda or for political purposes well outside mere athletics and it won’t be the last.

It was all a far cry from last year’s August 2011 riots that spread across the city and into cities up and down the country like wildfire. That was a vivid and lasting image of the Broken Britain I experienced in my time there.  I recently read an article in the August 4th 2012 issue of the Economist news magazine called ‘A year after the riots; Like a bad dream’ which detailed the cause and effect of this history making disturbance. It spoke of one the worst incidents in which rioters set a pub called the Bartons Arms then shot at police officers on the ground and in a helicopter. Six people have been jailed up to thirty years for this cowardly ambush and more prosecutions are to come for rioters all over other cities including London.

According to the Economist, so far 3,051 people have appeared in court and 1,968 have been convicted largely for burglary, arson, theft or public disorder. The UK criminal justice system rightly wants to make an example of these miscreants and nothing like these riots have happened in the intervening year. Which was good for the Olympics, of course, the nightmare being that this kind of public disorder would interrupt the games or worse. Think of the 1972 Munich Olympics and you get some idea of what I am talking about.

There was an attempt to paint this 2011 UK catastrophe as race based and as a result of police brutality or whatever although this was discredited. The fact was that criminals and impressionable bystanders saw an opportunity when they weren’t inciting the actions themselves. Those who didn’t get involved reportedly had according to Junior Smart, a youth worker, had ‘something valuable to keep’. Like riots in other countries and other time frames ‘according to one analysis the disadvantaged urban youngster with a rocky home life and a shoddy education too often slips into the ranks of the permanent jobless..unemployed and unemployable’. That was from a report into the 1965 watts riots which says The Economist was,  ‘Another country and another era, yet the same prescription –better education, more jobs, more sensitive policing –were repeated in the official report on last year’s riots.’

When I was growing up (as an Australian) in the US I lived through several riots including a severe one in the nation’s capital of Washington DC following the death of Martin Luther King. It seemed as though the whole country was about to go up in flames and the closest thing to it since has been the LA 1992 riots which were also driven by social and racial inequities .

As far as London is concerned I do think I can speak with some authority in that I lived and worked there for over three years from 2002-2005. In that time I taught at some of the toughest secondary schools the city had to offer and I experienced more than a few uncomfortable moments as disaffected learners completely uninterested in learning thought up ways to make my life and those of students wanting to learn an absolute misery. The impression made ion me was so profound (it was not unheard of to be attacked on the bus or on the Tube by delinquents known or unknown to me)  that I felt compelled to write a novel that touches on this and many other less than pleasant aspects of the great city of London. Although written (aside from editing) before these 2011 riots just such a civil disturbance is depicted in my Crime/thriller genre novel London’s  Falling although you didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to see that that the pressure was heating up for some kind of explosion. My fictional riot takes place in Ilford near the city and is driven by ethnic religious and racial divides along with acute social dysfunction. Martin Amis has recently explored this territory with his comic farce Lionel Asbo, although my approach is altogether different. Like the hilarious mayor of London Boris Johnson Mr Amis seems to have a carefree view of all these inequities and bad behaviour. I felt it in the most real sense and lived near the poverty line on a government wage even if the excellent NHS came to the rescue when I had a couple of serious health scares. I guess the question is could it happen again? I think the short answer is yes although presumably the Police would act more decisively and effectively than they did in 2011. I hope for the good people of the UK that the uplifting spirit of the lucky London Olympics can calm if not inspire those who feel disenfranchised by a western society that venerates wealth and social standing than just about anything else.

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