England riots: watching Basket Case 2 and waiting for Oxford to burn

The night before last, I walked into my local convenience store here in Oxford and the pothead manager told me, “Be glad you don’t have to stay here all night.”

“Expecting trouble?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard the news? It’s all over Twitter. They’re going to gather in five different locations and then attack the city center.”

I considered for a moment. The store, and my house, are on the south end of Iffley Road. It’s a nice neighborhood, but just south of it is Rose Hill, full of yobs and hoodies, just the kind of snaggle-toothed lowlifes who’ve been rioting in London and other English cities. I pictured a mob of them swarming down from Rose Hill, burning the nineteenth-century thatched roof houses in Iffley village (including my son’s school), spray painting the Norman church, and charging up Iffley Road in a lager-fueled fury.

They’d hit the store first, beating up the night manager and stealing his weed along with the liquor behind the counter. Refreshed, they’d head up Iffley Road towards city center. Right by my house.

I finished shopping and hurried home. There had already been incidents in nearby towns. A McDonalds set on fire. Shop windows smashed. When I got home my kid said that when he was coming back from day camp he’d seen a lot of police. Even a five-year-old knew something was up.

His bedroom faces the street. I pictured a brick flying through shattered glass. That happened to a friend of mine in London, and it wasn’t even during the riots. I moved him into the back room with his mother. I took the front room.

They soon went to bed. I texted some friends who live in Rose Hill, hardworking immigrants who work overtime to provide a good education for their kids. They didn’t reply. I constantly checked the Thames Valley Police Twitter feed, which said all was quiet but that there were increased patrols. I saw none from my window.

I needed to take my mind off my worries and nothing does that better than a B-movie. Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for New York City. Not today’s Disney New York of tourists and yuppies, but the gritty and vibrant 1980s New York of my teens. Besides Driller Killer, no B-movie captures the essence of the old New York better than Basket Case.This tarnished gem features conjoined twins: a regular teenager who looks a bit like I did at that age, and a shrunken lump sticking out his side. They’re separated with an operation, but of course they have a telepathic bond and the lump likes to kill people. The normal brother keeps the evil football-with-claws in a basket, hence the movie’s name. I’d seen Basket Case, so I put on Basket Case 2, which had to be better than the original, right?

In the sequel our “heroes” takes refuge in a mansion run by a mad psychologist who shelters mutants. The house is filled with them. In the first therapy session, the shrink tells the basket case, “I understand your pain, but ripping the faces off people might not be in your best interest.” Somebody should tell the rioters that.

The movie seemed to be taking an interesting turn. I kind of felt sorry for the monster. It never had a chance. I definitely felt sorry for his normal-looking brother, trapped into a lonely and fugitive life because of his evil other half. I soon lost all sympathy. Any regular people who enter the house of freaks are immediately attacked, and the freaks corrupt the normal teen until he’s as evil as themselves. The injustices of the world weren’t making the mutants do bad things, they just used that as an excuse.

I worry about my friends’ kids up in Rose Hill. Surrounded as they are by lager-swilling dropouts waiting to turn 18 so they can get onto the dole like their parents and grandparents, they’re going to have a huge challenge growing up clean. Decent folk in bad neighborhoods face a stark choice: be a victim, get out, or become one of the monsters.

The night passed quietly. The next morning the paper said several fires had been set across Oxford. None were serious. In one case a would-be arsonist stuck a rag into a car’s fuel tank and set the rag alight but somehow the fire didn’t spread. These guys aren’t exactly rocket scientists. I suppose the cops didn’t report the fires on their Twitter feed for fear of encouraging copycat crimes. Makes sense from a policing point of view, but from a taxpayer’s point of view I wasn’t pleased.

The next night I went to the Albion Beatnik, Oxford’s best independent bookshop. There was a reading sponsored by eight cuts gallery, a local small press, and unlike so many literary readings most of the stuff was actually good. This is the England I love, the England of intellect and wit, of culture and community. The England of the rioters is a different country occupying the same space. Shangra-La and Somalia.

I left early to make it back before dark. The city at dusk was quiet. Several times people moved out of my way. Two girls even crossed the street. A lone man is suspect. Once again I slept in my son’s bed in the front room. No bricks this night either, but at 5:30 in the morning I got woken up a hollow thump thump thump. It continued for at least ten minutes, punctuated by incoherent bellowing.

I peeked out the window. A young drunk guy in a hooded sweatshirt was kicking the plastic recycling bins and calling for his friend to let him in. Eventually he realized he had the wrong house and staggered off down the street. He wasn’t going to make it far. I pictured him curling up on the sidewalk and dozing off, oblivious to the early morning pedestrians stepping around him. You see that a lot in England.

As I got back into bed it started to rain. I thought of him asleep out there and smiled.

London is burning: A dispatch from inside the riots, looting and arson

Improbably, London is burning.

I returned from a long celebratory weekend in Antwerp on Monday afternoon. It was a grand weekend, full of very good meals, great conversation, and retail discoveries. While away, I’d read about rioting in Tottenham on Saturday night in response to the shooting death of a man named Mark Duggan at the hands of a policeman on August 4. I’d sensed from some news reports and Twitter that things had escalated, though to be completely frank I hadn’t paid much attention.

Transferring from the Eurostar to the Tube at St. Pancras this afternoon, I encountered a sign that things were off-kilter in the form of an announcement that there were no trains to Brixton. Hmmm. Then, transferring from the Tube to a bus at Old Street, it became clear that the city had temporarily morphed into a different place. The air was charged. Pedestrians crossed streets carelessly. Sirens were ongoing. I overheard snippets of conversation about Tube closures and bus detours. Three police vans screeched past our bus towards Hackney. My phone started to pulse.

I received eight text messages in a row from my partner. There was rioting on Mare Street, just ten minutes from our flat, and he asked if I would quickly do some grocery shopping before the shops in the area boarded up. He biked home from work early.

The Turkish proprietors at the grocery store downstairs seemed shell-shocked. They’d pulled their metal gate part-way down so that they’d be able to shut quickly if needs demanded. Three helicopters hovered overhead. Two middle-aged women came into the store. “Peckham,” one said, looking fatigued. “It’s really bad in Peckham.” My sister and I snapped up groceries and sat inside, keeping one eye on the street. Sirens waxed and waned. The news channels proved to be a chaotic and depressing distraction, so we turned the television off and refreshed various news sites online at an obsessive pitch.

So to Twitter, where the breadth of the rioting–mostly, it appeared, looting, with liberal lashings of arson and violent clashes with police–became evident. The looting is widespread. Buildings and cars have been set on fire. The stories of carjackings and bicyclejackings came fast and furious. Thankfully, in the midst of this frenzy, nobody has been killed.Since Saturday night, there have been rioting or looting incidents in Hackney Central, Bethnal Green, Enfield, East Dulwich, Ponder’s End, Deptford, Brixton, Croydon, Peckham, Woolwich, Balham, Elephant & Castle, and Clapham Junction, among other places. Most upsetting of all was the news that rioting spread tonight to other cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool.

And as Monday night wore on there were reports of riots in ever more unlikely London neighborhoods: Chalk Farm, Angel, and Notting Hill–yes, the cuter-than-cute Notting Hill of the 1999 Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant movie. The Telegraph put together a frequently updated and very handy interactive map of the London riots thus far.

Meanwhile, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, both on summer holidays, were missing in action during the most dramatic hours of the day; as the pitch of the day got more and more fevered, however, both men announced that they would be returning to London ahead of schedule. (Early this evening a spokesperson for the Prime Minister made it clear that he would be monitoring events from his holiday perch in Tuscany, but just after 9 pm he reversed course and announced that he would return to London on Tuesday morning; the Mayor made it clear several hours earlier that he would be cutting his Canadian vacation short.)

Why have these riots exploded now, and with such copycat force? Honestly, I have no idea. Everyone I’ve talked to today has been surprised by the events of the last 72 hours. Nina Power suggested in the Guardian today that heavy cuts in public spending, high levels of unemployment, and deep inequality have all played a hand. I have no doubt that she is right. But the force and the speed of the riots can’t be completely explained by Power’s argument.

Londoners have been taken aback. We’ll wake up on Tuesday with shot nerves, hoping for calm.

[Image: Flickr | StuartBannocks]