Consumed by the 2011 London riots

Well now, I can’t have a blog and not mention the riots and looting that have overtaken parts of London and elsewhere in the past week.

It is of course the primary topic of conversation, obsessing our private lives, as Auden would have said. On Monday of this week, there was a definite whiff of Armageddon in the air. I have never felt that (smelt that) before.

Fortunately, my own bit of north London (N8) pretty much escaped any unrest. The only casualty seems to have been the local Blockbuster. Crouch End is disgustingly middle-class (as Greg Dyke would say): all Bugaboos and bakers selling sourdough bread.

Sickened and alarmed like any other rational person, yesterday I found myself jotting down aspects that might be behind the rioting and looting. I soon had a pretty long list, covering everything from bad parenting (inc. absent fathers) and educational failure to stop-and-search and the welfare ghetto.

Here’s one little aspect.

I spend too much of my working life as a freelance copy-editor working on consumer magazines that pump out a never-ending stream of retail good for their readers to drool over.

This is the “must have” era. “Must-have” is the hackneyed phrase (now banned on the better magazine and newspaper subbing desks) that recurs again and again, along with other phrases such as “Bag one of these…” and “It’s a steal”. The language is notable.

Magazines routinely feature designer clothes from their major advertisers that are way beyond the spending power of the vast majority of their readers.

So much so-called journalism, sadly, is merely extended marketing. The tail wags the dog.

Possession of gadgets, dangled temptingly before consumers’ eyes, is part of culture where possession of “stuff” denotes cool, makes you belong, gives you, possibly, some sense of status.

I remember one day, in the late 1990s when Blair was still in his pomp, when I walked into a branch of Carphone Warehouse. I had just turned freelance and realized that having a mobile phone would be essential for my work.

Walking into that store, I was struck by the buzz inside: the sense of excitement among the customers was palpable. I just couldn’t understand it. How could the acquisition of a mobile phone be so thrilling?

This fetishisation of electronic gadgetry just got bigger and bigger. And then came along smartphones (full disclosure: I use an iPhone – a superb tool), and it went it a whole new phase.

And then, as well, there is the “bling” culture (feel free to discuss this topic amongst yourselves), the attitude of “get rich or die trying” that not so implicitly encourages the young and marginalised into crime as a short cut to wealth.

Alongside this empty materialism is the constant ramping-up of status anxiety. Call me Karl Marx, but all those Porsches and Range Rover Vogues on the streets of London do not encourage the feeling that “we are all in this together”.

Perhaps the Swedes have the right idea. Why don’t they have riots? Because Swedish society is more balanced and less blatantly unequal than ours.

In Sweden they have the concept of “lagom”, which means, roughly, “just the right amount”. It is, I hear, a key feature of the national psyche. It embodies a certain idea of the values of moderation, in opposition to (and I quote Wikipedia) “the hoarding extremes of consumerism”.

It may seem a recipe for dull conformity but right now it feels like a better alternative to a consumer culture that promotes and encourages atavistic acquisition: MUST HAVE!

I was struck by something I heard on the radio today. The father of a 16-year-old accused on burglary in the riots. He described what he saw as the kids’ attitude: “They look at things and go, I want it and I’m gonna have it. And they’ll do whatever they can to get it.”

When asked why his son had got involved, the father replied: “Sheer boredom. Because there’s nothing for the kids to do.”

For many bored adolescent kids, taking part in these riots will have unquestionably been a massive adrenalin kick: a video game come alive, a brief escape from marginalised anonymity; a chance, somehow, to assert themselves.

A sad reflection on the state of English society.

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