Since the start of last week’s riots I’ve often wondered about a young girl I once encountered in a Cambridge suburb. I was quietly hacking out on my horse when I rode past her and, turning to her friend, she said, “fucking c*nts the pair of ‘em”. I’ve never been quite sure why she said this about me and my horse. What motivates someone to be that rude to someone they don’t know at all? I assume it was jealousy but she knew nothing of my circumstances. After years of riding other people’s horses, this was the first one I’d owned myself and I had worked very hard to buy him and keep him. This wasn’t something that was handed to me on a plate but something I had worked towards for decades.
The horse–human relationship has been on my mind for other reasons. It is rumoured that George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after seeing a small farm boy leading along a huge working horse. Orwell contemplated the nature of power—the horse submitted to the boy because it did not know its own strength. Why else would an animal that weighed a ton, do the bidding of a child it could so easily crush? And the police facing rioters reminded me of nothing so much as a human facing a horse that knows its own power. Ask anyone who knows about horses and they will tell you this—once a horse knows its own strength, the relationship with it is spoiled forever. You can regain control, but you might find that you have to be so brutal in the process that the horse never again really trusts you, but submits through fear rather than respect. Better to ensure that its respect for you is not lost.
It is all too easy for politicians to dismiss the rioters as greed-driven looters, criminals impure and simple. But if that is the case, then why did they choose now to loot? What caused the breakdown of restraint? Why no self control, no respect for others, no respect for authority? Why choose now to kick over the harness?
In Devon, it is harvest time. We didn’t bother rioting in Exeter. I suspect there was no critical mass of disaffected teenagers. I suspect that any teenagers breaking the law would fairly quickly have been spotted by their Aunty Jean, or their mum’s friend Pat, or that bloke who works with their dad. You can’t move in Devon without someone who knows you seeing you somewhere and commenting on it. That comparative lack of anonymity does act as a brake on any criminal tendencies. Devon also has not quite seen the sudden changes in society and the economy that were experienced in industrial cities. There have been general declines and changes in occupation, but nothing like the change in Trafford Park from workshop of the world employing tens of thousands, to a glorified emporium of consumer tat, complete with a plastic dolphin fountain.
Add to that the continued tie with the countryside. I might perhaps have looted a bale elevator, but I wouldn’t have got very far. I did see people out with blackberries, but if you know the best places you can find the ones that ripen early. Along with windfall apples they make a great free pudding. That’s not to idealise Exeter. There are pockets of poverty, there are bored youngsters, there is crime. But there is also a greater sense of some kind of connection with the fundamental things in life. It’s not all about DVDs, bling, Wii, wifi, and the latest tatty gadget. Here I have more of a sense of nature, of changing seasons, of the things that can affect human survival. There is no cocoon in which material things become a substitute for something primal.
Long before I moved to Exeter I lived in Manchester. I moved there to study and for the first four years, had a grudging affection for it but no real understanding of it. I disliked its roughness. I would only visit cashpoints in broad daylight and in busy areas. During freshers week police horses were stationed at various cashpoints near campus, so that naive 18 year olds away from home for the first time were not mugged too often. I would go out in the evening carrying an empty handbag as a foil, with what minimal cash I had on me stashed in my shoes and bra. The flat below mine was broken into. The flat next to mine was broken into. Various people tried to steal my bike whilst I was on it. Bear in mind that it was a ten-year old road bike that would only have bought them one fix and you have some idea of the desperation of the would-be thieves. The sense of personal threat was almost ever present and did not endear the city or its population to me.
But then I started working in the Museum of Science and Industry and I realised what Manchester had been. I already knew something of its history in the nineteenth century, I knew about the industrial revolution, I knew about the slums, the poverty, the child labour, Chartism. But all this I knew from books. In the museum I got far more of a sense of the scale of industry and the scale of the things manufactured. And that was the difference – seeing the objects. Manchester was good for cotton, the damp weather helped prevent fires. Manchester and its dampness were less good for the people but the cotton provided jobs. Not just the jobs in the textile industry but in manufacturing the machinery for that industry, the vast looms to which the workers were harnessed.
Digging around in the history of Trafford Park I realised that the majority of Manchester’s population had been involved in industries which produced goods that seemed to me, somehow, to be more fundamental than the ipod or a Sat Nav. They made plant for what was to become the national grid. Huge pieces of metal that weighed hundreds of tons but that needed precision engineering. Away from Trafford Park, to the east of the city in Gorton, were manufacturers of locomotive engines. Now I realise that people suffered within the manufacturing industries. I know conditions could be appalling and that wages were generally low, not to mention industrial accidents and various diseases that went along with these industries. But I also realised that 100 years before I lived there, the great-grandfathers of the disaffected youths trying to mug me, would in all probability have had more of a sense of purpose than their descendants. More realisation that life is not all about what you can steal, but that in part it is about what you can usefully make.
The youngsters who were out rioting and looting are the children of Thatcher’s children. Thatcher taught us to be avaricious, she valued a fractured society. She saw no need for one person to be connected to another. She presided over a government that thought a lord and a bin man should pay the same amount of tax. And so you reap what you sow. Thatcher’s grandchildren have no connection to nature, no sense of industriousness, no sense of belonging. We spend most of our lives cocooned from each other. I tire of ringing my bike bell when I’m on a shared path as half the population will be plugged into some electronic device or other that prevents them from hearing and along with it, seems to protect them from any sense that it is a shared path and they might want to be aware of their surroundings. Worse are the times when I have to ring my bell on the approach to someone as they are texting, and unable to watch where they are going. As a pedestrian I wonder if I should attach a bell to my wrist, just so I can ping it when the next zombie blunders into me.
And when we’re not walking around ignoring each other we’re on trains or planes, staring at miniature TV screens. Or in cars, using our mobiles, watching TV, listening to the tinny little voice as it bleats ‘turn left in 50 yards’.
So, for what it is worth, here is my tip for avoiding riots and looting. Put the phone down. Unplug yourself from the internet. Turn off the TV. Take the earplugs out. And take that out of your pocket as well, whatever it is. Turn around, find the nearest person, and say ‘hello’.