Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history

 

This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.

 

In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.

 

One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.

 

(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)

 

London Marylebone church history

 

Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.

 

By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.

 

Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.

 

The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.

 

First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.

 

It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.

 

Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.

 

And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.

 

After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.

 

 

Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015

 

Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London

 

It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.

 

This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.

 

In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.

 

So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.

 

Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.

 

The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.

 

To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.

 

In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.

 

 

Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election

 

This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.

 

A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.

 

Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie

 

(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)

 

No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.

 

The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.

 

Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.

 

And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?

 

And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?

 

And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?

 

 

 

1,217 words for absence

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Lena is a close friend. She’s been my friend for more than 20 years now, so I’m lucky. She’s a beautiful, playful, kind, lovably geeky girl/woman – from Uganda by way of North London’s Jubilee line Big Yellow Storage hinterlands, then Gloucestershire, Cambridge and the Big Smoke.

 

We were flatmates for years – the years of back-to-mines and shared laundry runs. Lena married Rich, another of my closest friends – they have a marriage that’s loving and occasionally complex, just like all the best ones – and our close-knit little group, with Lena at the centre, has shared too many nights out to remember. (On one, she developed an obsession with a trance club’s crowd-roaming bongo player, and kept following him through the crowd like a duckling after its mum. ‘Bongo Man’ is our codeword for getting too wrapped up in something, work, whatever. Which, being Lena, happens often.)

 

What you really need to know, though, the key in a way to understanding everything else about Lena, is that so much about her is hugely, winningly incongruous. She’s a fearsomely intelligent polymath without an ego; the sociable introvert who holds our group together; a source of support and advice who carries her own sadnesses patiently; a Russian-, French-, Italian-speaking, law-firm partnering, multi-instrumentalist whose nature is to look up to people, and who seems genuinely baffled by her life’s big puzzle, which is of course that the rest of us love her so deeply. Her learning sits so lightly on her as to be invisible if that’s what she wants; and she wears her reading glasses with the same slightly amused elegance with which she sports her hangovers. I’ll tell you more about her in a minute. You’ll like her a lot.

 

But what I want to tell you first was how it went the day we buried her. Or at least, how it went for me.

 

As the days pass it sometimes seems as if I wasn’t properly there. (Did it even happen? I still catch myself pretending we just haven’t spoken for a couple of months. That Lena’s out there on the other side of town, waiting for the moment to pop up on my timeline.) But then come the joltingly clear memories.

 

The icy blue sunshine and high, painter’s clouds – refugees from the mountains who still haven’t got the hang of blending in among the towers and flats.

 

My last look up at the side of the spire, doing that falling-back thing it does as it soars away from you. At the streets, thinking how out of joint were all the vans and chattering teenagers and shopping mums. The darkness of the threshold. The church, huge, flooded with light, smelling churchy.

 

Then Lena’s family wandering into the church. They moved to all the right places, but looked like they’d lost their direction somewhere.

 

The light that fell across Lena’s mum, dad, brothers and sister. They nodded, and smiled, and sat, and fell silent. They sat across the aisle from the rest of us; her friends, her husband, her in-laws. I felt ashamed somehow, inappropriate: I couldn’t help them. The girl who had died was their daughter, their baby sister.

 

I couldn’t stop looking across at them. Their grief had her bemused, sad-laughing eyes, and a sort of patient, scholarly attentiveness that I’d seen in Lena a million times. Her sister moved her head with the same listening gesture. I remember thinking how their shoes were all polished. My shoes weren’t polished. I worried at it, tried to think of an injoke between Lena and me that would have justified my lapse, made it OK.

 

When I resurfaced, the church was full.

 

I found myself amazed at how many different Lenas we were burying.

 

All this time, I had known just one. Rich, her husband, knew another. Maya and Sema, her BFFs, each had their own, subtly different Lenas. But here was Lena the baby daughter, childhood classmate, little sister, boss, mentor, steadying family influence, benefactor. Those Lenas were all here, you could feel them filling the church, each with her own companion.

 

And for a moment I felt a strange euphoria, seeing my friend as if she were arriving, really becoming whole, instead of departing. All along, she’d been all this. To so many people. And each of us, even as we claimed her as our own, had merely borrowed a little bit of her for what felt, in the end, like the blinking of an eye.

 

So I tried to keep that in my head, but the vicar was talking. I couldn’t focus. I kept looking at my friends now; the ones who had known, more or less, the Lena I had. I wanted to speak with them about this feeling that we were all together in witnessing something extraordinary, the way you try and seek out others who witnessed the same event, saw the same gig. “You saw that too, right?”

 

Or: That was someone very special, wasn’t it?

 

Here were the university friends and acquaintances, too. Some I’d seen in the 20 years since we graduated, but not many, and not often. (I don’t know why, except there’s something in me, or there was at least, that doesn’t live well in the midst of groups and reunions. That fades with age too.) They were good people. I’d been really fond of them back then, in my spiky-young-man way, and I hadn’t seen them in decades. There we stood, smiling, or crying, or attentive, or stony-faced. Together.

 

Inside that church, now deep inside the service – with time slowed to an excruciating thick, dreamlike crawl and nowhere to look but up, down or across – I saw them all clearly for the first time. Not composed for upbeat hellos or wearing expressions of sympathy; not thinking about the clothes or the hairlines or the kids; but naked, and with all their years.

 

Two of my closest, Al and Fi, stood behind me. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear him moving his arm through hers, and her crying softly, just by my left shoulder-blade.

 

Lena’s best friends were speaking; Sema and Kofi read poems, then Maya began her eulogy. They were lightning conductors, drawing all the crackling and confused babble in our minds, the awful mix of emotions, and speaking them out again in a way that couldn’t hurt us. They took it on them, and they fought hard, and it helped.

 

To my surprise, I was ready for the grief, the helplessness and even the guilt. You feel them jostling and bumping into you, trying to get you to look at them. You feel them in your cheekbones and jaw, around your eyes, your chest, your clenched hand. But you are ready. You can stand, and you can fight them fair.

 

What I wasn’t prepared for – and today, looking back, it might even be the dominant note to the day – was an odd kind of tenderness for the people around me in that place. I remembered a story about Neil Armstrong. Standing on the moon, he had looked up and seen the Earth out there in space. For the rest of his life, the feeling never left him. It was of being overwhelmed with love for this tiny thing he suddenly saw as alone, fragile, and infinitely precious.

 

And because I was unprepared, it threw me, in a way that grief could not.

 

I tried not to look that feeling in the eyes, even tried to invite the grief back for a quick go. But that second thing kept creeping over me, in quietly booming waves.

 

It was waiting for me at the cemetery, as handfuls of earth were thrown over Lena, and a bright hailstorm flashed and was gone; it clung to my elbow in the cramped suburban community centre where the wake was held; it slouched at the bar in the dark cocktail club in Soho where the party ended up.

 

I looked at my contemporaries properly for the first time – not the first time that day, but the first time ever. The young women and men – boys and girls, really – I had known at college were all 40 now. They had changed the world in small ways, become notable, achieved what they said they would, or they had not; they had filled out, thinned and thickened.

 

Many had plateaued in the careers they’d dreamed about back then; more had found those careers weren’t for them; others, late bloomers, were still officially biding their time. Some wore the marks of family life, some of fulfilment, some the pristine glow of loneliness. They had suffered disappointments, and sometimes suffered successes more. They had children, divorces, lives, and they looked… Well, they looked beautiful.

 

The saplings don’t see it themselves as the forest grows around them, its slow accretions of bark and scratches transforming them over slow decades. But I saw it now, those same years, scratches, accretions on all of us.

 

The crooked trees were as beautiful as the straight, and the broken as beautiful as the unbroken. The ones I had been close to, the ones I’d hardly known, all stood together. We were together on that tiny, far-away Earth, and one less. How small the differences seemed.

 

As afternoon stretched into evening, the day took on a quiet glow. It ended with the usual sense of drift, the gently mounting sense that there were things to be done elsewhere. Things to be done: for Lena; for her family; for Rich, her husband – and for ourselves, and our families, and for all those we loved but hadn’t spoken with or seen or held in too long.

 

I remember thinking: “Lena will be OK from here.”

 

As if we were dropping her off at home, somewhere safe.

 

I tried, days later, in the stumbling way people try to say the most important thing on their minds, to articulate a strange feeling that comes in small moments amid the dreadful empty powerlessness and loss: that I was happy for Lena. I meant, because she went without knowing. Because she made us all feel like this, and that doesn’t just happen on its own. Because she’s kind, and good, and gone, but not gone at all. Because she is loved.

 

But words got in the way, as ever. And people looked at me and smiled, and said, “But she’s dead.” And I think I laughed at my foolishness, and muttered something about being a klutz. Lena is dead. And I miss her.

 

I’m not surprised I couldn’t explain, not really. These things have a habit of staying where they form, and going with us on whichever bit of our own journey is most private. And if there’s still a little part of each of our love for Lena that remains with us alone and can’t be told, that’s OK too.

 

Still, I thought for a long time about trying again. But it’s something I can’t quite grasp myself. Faint stars always vanish when you try and look at them directly. So I thought perhaps writing it down would help. But even now, after 1,217 words, I’m not sure I’m any closer.

 

News: Catch Matt performing in the Literary Death Match at London’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival, June 2nd!

I’ll be facing off against some of Britain’s best writers and comedians in the 26th Literary Death Match at London’s hipsterest literary festival this June.

 

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of sampling Outlaws Inc., or enjoyed it but suspect what it might be missing is a live, onstage setting in which its woefully under-prepared author reads bits of it out on stage for a panel of comedy judges, vying with four other authors for a place in the final of some tipsy, nerd-friendly version of a gladiatorial contest, then Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 2nd 2012 is the place to be.

 

The 26th Literary Death Match sees me lining up against ace novelist Anna Raverat, top comedian Andy Zaltzman, and acclaimed author of 50 Ways To Find A Lover Lucy Ann Holmes. (My performance will be the only non-fiction reading on the bill, so not sure how that’ll go down.) The performances will be analysed, lampooned and otherwise picked apart for the entertainment of the baying mob, by a panel of all-star judges. After each pair of readings, in which authors face off, the judges  select their favorite to advance to the finals based on “literary merit, performance and intangibles” and give their own often hilarious commentary on each story.

 

Literary Death Match is everywhere at the moment. Billed as a “competitive, humour-centric reading series… part way between Def Poetry Jam and American Idol without the nastiness”, it brings together writers from different disciplines with comedians and critics, in a night of live literary performance.

 

Literary Death Matches are now a regular fixture from LA to Berlin. It sounds like a circus, admit the organizers, but “That’s half the point. Literary Death Match is passionate about inspecting new and innovative ways to present text off the page, and the most fascinating part is how seriously attentive the audience is during each reading.”

 

My performance/potential mistimed Pinot Grigio car crash begins at 8pm in the Library Gallery on Stoke Newington Church Street. Tickets are just a fiver each – you can book them from Ticketweb here – and you can bet there’ll be lots of booze and good vibes.

 

If you’re there, do come and say hello. I’ll be the chap who looks like a smaller, slightly drunker – perhaps older somehow – version of my avatar, and reading from a book with my name on it, but which I appear never to have seen before in my life.If you want to contact me, I’m on Twitter as @MattPotter (see what I did there), and you can email me at matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com. I sign books for warm wine, and for crisps I’ll draw pictures too

 

You can follow Literary Death Match on Twitter at @LitDeathMatch, and Stoke Newington Literary Festival at @StokeyLitFest too. The full programme of Stoke Newington Literary Festival is here. And it’s a corker.

 

Comment: In praise of apathy: salesmen and survivors, and what two very different bomb sites can tell us about pre-Olympic London in 2012

Something I saw today got me thinking about just what it means to live in a city, and what I hate and love about it. I suspect that it’s got something to tell me about why I distrust the London 2012 cheerleading so much, but I’ll only know when this post is finished. Before I go any further, here’s what I saw.

 

It’s a replica of the V2 flying bomb, designed by Nazi rocket scientist (and later, NASA boffin) Wernher von Braun and loosed upon London in the later stages of World War Two. The V2 was the successor to the V1 ‘Doodlebug’ that caused so much damage during the Blitz. They foreshadowed the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Cold War arms race. In terms of their role and usage, though, today’s equivalent would be the pilotless drones deployed by the US over Pakistan.

 

I see this bomb most days. But I never notice it. Today I noticed it.

 

It seemed a funny thing to bolt to the side of a building beside the elevated platform of London Bridge station. Even if (the penny dropped…) that building, from the front, is a portico for the Imperial War Museum. That, at least, explained the Union Jack hanging beside it.

 

(If you don’t live in Britain, or maybe it’s just London, I’m not sure how I can adequately convey the strangeness of seeing a British flag. There just aren’t that many of them. I’m always quietly astonished on visits to Sweden, the US, France, anywhere, at the ubiquity of their national flags. I joke with Norwegian friends about their tendency of hoisting the national flag in their front garden, on birthday cakes, atop mountains, on lorries, on branded cans of food. In case they wake up one day having forgotten where they are. They usually just smile.)

 

Anyhow, something about the bomb bothered me.

 

I’ve heard a few bombs off in my life, but only two of them were in London. I was in Greenwich when the Canary Wharf IRA bomb exploded. I heard it and saw a little of the muzz just whisp up around the tower. And I was crossing Long Acre at 9.47am on 7th July 2005, when Hasib Hussein’s backpack bomb tore apart a packed Number 30 bus in Russell Square. Bombs never make the noise you expect. They just make a very short, almost backwards sound, that goes “Dnt.” It’s definitely a weird, disappointed full-stop, not a dramatic exclamation mark. There’s none of the “Pkhkh!” reverb you hear in Hollywood movies. It’s just a stumpy, loud, compacted noise that’s over before it’s begun. Mostly, you aren’t even sure it was a bomb at first. Especially if it’s somewhere you don’t expect one. Then you hear shouts.

 

That’s when you react – and whatever you might hope, you don’t react with any of Hollywood’s dive-to-the-floor excitement either, but with a weird, disorientated, off-balance fear. Something doesn’t compute. Then you start checking what’s missing (from the landscape, the soundscape, whatever), and wondering whether to go towards or away from it. It’s not good, any of it. I can’t imagine wanting to strap the bombs I heard, or the remains of them, to the side of any tourist building on the South Bank of the Thames.

 

But there was the V2.

 

A bomb on a building. Is it there because the war it comes from is over? Because it’s sanitized by the passing years and fresher historical traumas, like a Roman battlefield or mound of flint arrowheads? Undoubtedly. OK, what about: is it there because Britain was among the victors? Is it a trophy?

 

It certainly looks that way, next to a Union flag advertising something called the Imperial War Museum – at least to a non-Briton. (It’s a credit to the curators that they’ve resisted the easy bucks of misfit patriots and nostalgists; they’ve resisted the patriots’ theme-park trap. A V1 is suspended inside the roof, frozen in mid-fall just metres above visitors’ heads: the moment before impact. This is fear, and the bomb on the outside, visible from platform one of London Bridge rail station, are part of it.)

 

Still, my feeling won’t let me drop (oho) this. I have a problem with the V2.

 

I’ve always liked cities that wear their scars well. Not proudly, but honestly. I like Warsaw, for not pulling down the Palace of Culture, built in its centre on the orders of Stalin as a symbol of Russian-Soviet dominion. That alone would make it unpopular enough, give or take its boxy, brutal, anabolic-Empire-State rocketiness. But there it stands. To pull it down would be a lie. The people of Warsaw hold faith with the idea that the city can (it does) incorporate it.

 

I like Berlin, for leaving the bulletholes on the sides of buildings from the obscure, smacky back alleys of Wedding to the iconic Brandenburger Tor. Berlin has no choice. Just as it is for the Union Jack, for Berlin the past is a complex place. To cover the bulletholes – made by Russian, German, British and American bullets – would be an act of dishonesty. There’s plenty of dishonesty around in Berlin, of course (those street names that keep changing depending on who’s in charge) but still, the holes are there.

 

I was thinking of more examples when the train pulled in. I got on the train, sat with my face pressed against the smeared and scratchtagged window as we sighed and creaked over the girders and arches. The sky lowered, and by the time the door-press button activated at my stop, its hydraulic hiss and orange glow felt as welcoming as a lantern in a window.

 

Outside my station, somewhere in the southern suburbs, I crossed the road at a bridge. The vans and buses and mums with buggies flowed over the bridge, and I stepped between them and up onto the kerb. A long time ago, it someone had painted a sign on the bridge. I pass it a lot. This time, I read it.

And suddenly, I knew what bothered me so much about the V2 at London Bridge.

 

The ‘shelter for 700’ refers to a wartime air raid shelter in a siding under the station bridge. The shelter is one for local families to use when the bombs started raining from the sky, right from the Luftwaffe raids in 1941 to the V2s in ’45. There’s nothing here in this suburb, nothing but people. There’s never been a factory here, never a military base, never a government building. Just people, parks, churches and a couple of shops. But because it was a few short miles south of the Docks, it took a lot of its damage from jettisoned bombs. The bombers used to lighten their load in order to save fuel returning over the North Sea, and this was where they dropped anything they hadn’t already loosed over London, then headed up into the clouds.

 

This shelter was the underground refuge where hundreds of people, people very much like me and my wife and my kids and my friends, fled and hid and prayed and ate and hoped, while all through the night their homes and families and lives were bombed at random.

 

And what I like about it today is that the pain is still there; and that not only has nobody scrubbed it off or painted over it; no-one’s put a plaque there either. No-one here has chosen to make it official. No-one has stapled a bomb to the side of it, or planted a flag next to it, or chosen to preserve it in any way. Not the mayor, not local historians, not the council, not the Tourist Board, not the National Trust.

 

The disused shelter, the paint on the bridge, can fend for themselves. Unlike the V2, they speak their own truth. The V2 has been polished, repainted, mounted and juxtaposed with a flag and a museum, and these things speak for it. They put it into a story: one they tell me is, if not mine, then that of the city I live in. But the story that bomb tells is mediated, told by a narrator who wants to sell me something, his/her version of history and of London. It sounds glorious and defiant and false. There’s money behind that version, money for flags and plaques, and I don’t like it. The encounter feels hollow and dishonest, however true and terrible those V2 nights were.

 

By contrast, the paint on the bridge still there simply because it is – like most of London. It’s messy, it’s unofficial, and it’s honest. Like the wildlife and weeds of Deptford (before its wharves were turned into executive show-homes for the corporate set), or Stratford’s barbed-wire-and-birdlife hinterland (before it was turned into a stadium, its roads paved with logos), this sign is just a survivor.

 

There’s no preservation order on it. When somebody wants to move it, build over it, knock it down, put their graffiti over it or scrub it off, they will.

 

And I can’t help but smile as I walk home and reflect that, for the past 72 years and again today, nobody has wanted to.

 

 

Comment: Duwayne Brooks and the London riot story that never got written

Some stories write themselves. Some never get written, though they’re better by far. There’s something irreducible about them, too many loose ends. They don’t have neat beginnings and endings. They don’t fit our (journalists’, readers’) idea of the arc. Sometimes they’re just collected impressions.

This one’s like that, and I’m setting it down here simply because I think someone should write the story that never got written. Maybe it isn’t a story after all, but a diary of sorts. You tell me.

It starts (though I didn’t know it at the time) nearly 20 years ago. As a newly arrived, young, white Londoner, I followed the Stephen Lawrence case through the 1990s, then the 2000s, if not avidly then certainly with an odd mixture of horror, casual compulsion, mounting disbelief at the catalogue of establishment errors or worse, and something… what was that other thing? I guess it was a bit like shame, only less easily pinned down. It was a vague, nagging, sticky discomfort that came and went. Something I didn’t like feeling, but knew it wasn’t to be shied away from. It was an itching unease about what might, for others, lurk beneath the surface of a society that I, white, lower-middle-class and male, may not always have liked, but had always, personally at least, experienced as fair and neutral in its justice.

I knew names, places, details from the news. I remember Martin Bashir’s documentary on the Dobson-Norris gang as a consensus TV moment: the one we all knew we’d all watched, whatever our age, background or colour. That photograph of the teenage Stephen Lawrence – striped top, grin, one arm folded upwards – was one of the defining images of 1990s Britain. Printed and reprinted, flickering on screens from electrical shops and pub TV sets, for a generation it became as ubiquitous, as powerful, as any shot of Neville Chamberlain, heavy-eyed, monochrome Myra Hindley or triangular, flag-topped Iwo Jima.

I knew the names of the gang members. Acourt, Acourt, Norris, Knight, Dobson. The first two sounding posh and French, then the three identikit English names. They took on a strange voodoo, these names. Bad luck to utter them. Creepily average. I looked at the faces, and tried to remember them too.

There was one name I did not know. The other person who’d been present – Stephen Lawrence’s friend, the boy who managed to escape. I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow it never registered. Eventually, that boy faded from my memory altogether, and only the crime – the innocent victim, the actions of the mob – remained.

By 2011, I was living in south-east London. It’s a big, open, hilly place. A few train stops and two decades separated my neighbourhood from early-1990s Eltham. Still, some things bubble and blister beneath the surface, and occasionally they rise. The London riots, when they came that summer, tore through the High Street, smashing faces and homes and shops and trust, then slipped round quiet neighbourhood corners and into evacuated parks, until the following day.

I wasn’t watching it on TV this time. Walking home, passing groups of people heading the other way, I took it all in. There were fights, screams and the sound of car doors. There were chases, and mock-furtive, too-loud talk of where was next, which houses were marked for tonight, and who was doing what. Like everyone, I was on edge, cautious, rattled. But I was curious too. So sometimes I followed as close as I could, to see what happened next. I set up multiple TweetDeck feeds, to monitor the streets, neighbourhoods and tags I suspected would see action. I began examining coverage, mapping claim against reality.

And what I saw, on the streets, in the galloping updates on my Twitter feeds, and when I turned on the TV that night, was fear. Any journalist knows TV cameras can do that – point a camera at a burning car or smoking Tube station from enough angles, and that night it will look like the whole city is ablaze. But somehow, those flickering black-and-orange images leaped off the screens and captured the popular imagination.

Fear bowled along the streets of Lewisham, even when nobody else did. Rumours spread. More riots would be coming tonight. The freesheets ran with it. Offices buzzed with it. A group of 1,000 rioters had been spotted heading North along the next road. EDL members were marching now. A race riot was about to kick off. Shops were being looted.

There were no police. Senior members of the Government were all caught out, still on holiday, as was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Tracked down by broadcast news, they looked lost, floundering, and smaller somehow. So did London. I knew it wasn’t an apocalypse, and that cover of Time was just silly, but the speculation, more than any fires or smashed windows, quickly lay waste to a lot of the residual trust people there felt, not just in the police and government, but in fellow Londoners.

There was one public figure in the city who seemed to be playing a blinder, though. I’d never even heard of him before – or at least I didn’t think I had. He was a Lib Dem Councillor in Lewisham, and suddenly he was everywhere. He seems, at one point early on, to have made it his personal mission to take on the misinformation, the rumour-mongering, the panic and the suspicion. His tweets tell the story today if you care to look back over them. He went from place to place and tweeted what he saw. When even the normally reliable Alex Tomlinson of Channel 4 News repeated an unverified rumour about a brewing race riot near Eltham, the Councillor debunked it. He replied publicly to people who claimed they’d witnessed improbable acts of mass violence, and asked them for details over the 3G airwaves. Where was this? Had they seen it? Because he was there now and the shop window looked intact. He asked Londoners to refrain from indulging rumours and retweets of things they could not personally verify. One tweet said simply: “No fighting no riots no looting no NF in #lewisham. Please stop tweeting nonsense. This is not a game. People are scared. #fixup please.”

He went further. He put his personal mobile number on his site, and tweeted it, so people could call and ask him what was happening, anywhere in the area, when they had no reliable information. He became, briefly, the single most trustworthy medium for news on developments in South London’s melting pot turned bubbling cauldron. He replied to enquiries and appeals on Twitter – all of them, publicly or individually. Again and again, he damped wild speculation about the racial demographic of rioters, and quashed rumours about white racist vigilante groups.

His huge presence, his championing of perspective and truth, was quite a contrast to the vacuum the Met and the Cabinet had left us inhabiting those first few hot, suspicion-filled, dangerous days. I remember tweeting his details at the time, “[Councillor’s name] – he’s on fire. This is what politicians are for!”

And all the while, in the midst of the chaos, I had two images in my head. One was of something this local politician reminded me of, an image drawn from the book I had just finished. It was Boris Yeltsin clambering up on a tank in front of Moscow’s Parliament building during the attempted Russian coup of 1991, and facing down the crisis with sheer presence (and reportedly some vodka too). It made me laugh with its bathos even then, but on some level it was true too.

The other image?

That didn’t make me laugh, it made me tense. It was an image of the worst that can happen in South London. It was a picture of what the city had to avoid, at all costs. It was a picture from 1993, of what happens, of what is lost, when people let themselves hate and mistrust, blindly. It was that shot of Stephen Lawrence, and I kept it in mind every time something immoderate appeared on a front page, or crackled over the airwaves.

The riots ended with the run of hot weather, and with the late, slow arrival of the police. I meant to thank the Councillor. I’d heard phrases like ‘community leaders’ before, and I’d always sort of thought they referred to self-appointed spokesmen or religious elders among discrete, probably ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities. Muslim community leaders. Black community leaders. I suppose for the first time I saw leadership being shown, rather than claimed, and I realized that I was part of one of those communities experiencing a degree of leadership. So I thought about composing a quick email – maybe a tweet – just to say how much of a difference his work for those few days had made.

But I never did. I left it just too late. And by then, the man I wanted to thank was in the news again, for very different reasons, and probably receiving more emails than anybody could be expected to handle.

I saw the Councillor in the news during this winter’s trial of two of the men who had killed Stephen Lawrence. His name was Duwayne Brooks, and back on that evening in 1993, he’d been the friend who’d escaped from the gang. I felt stupid for not having remembered the name’s significance that summer. Then I thought: wow.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read more about Duwayne Brooks – the terrible impact of the murder itself; the long campaign of intimidation, prejudice and smears against him by the Metropolitan Police; his treatment at the hands of the law and, often, the media; his transformation from frightened, suspicious virtual fugitive to politician; and his dignity and perseverance at the final reckoning for two of the murderers.

And here’s what impressed me most. If there was ever anyone who had the right to feel hate, or suspicion, or to welcome some form of blowback against the power structures of a city that had let him and his friend down so badly, it was Duwayne Brooks. If anyone could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia about a police vacuum and rumours of racial conflict in South London, it would have been him.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, for those long, hot days in South London, when those structures let everyone down and fear threatened to take over the streets, he was as a powerful force for tolerance, truth, reason, calm, and – more than anything – trust. He was markedly less speculative, panicky or paranoid than most of the better journalists I know.

What I started out wanting to say was this. I don’t usually write praise for politicians, but in this era of photo opps, press briefings and presubmitted questions, It’s worth remembering Duwayne Brooks was there for the people he represented. On his mobile, on the streets, and on the case.

And yet this is not really about politics either. It’s about how we let ourselves feel as people, as Londoners, and about how we react to what shapes us. Because if a city like this can’t learn more from Duwayne Brooks than how to survive a terrible ordeal and come through, then we miss the point. And if we can’t learn from his incredible presence during that week of madness how to help others through their troubles and suspicion and fear too, then we’ve got no-one to blame but ourselves.

So… So what? I don’t know the rest. Like I said at the start, it’s not really a story, and this is too messy to be an ending. But in the years to come, I hope we – Londoners, people, whatever – can give it an ending, and make it a proper story. And I really hope we make it a good one.

Update 16th January 2012: After receiving a copy of this piece for syndication, the London Evening Standard ran it, originally changing the byline to one of their staffers. That issue has now been rectified, and you can read their shorter edit of the piece here.

Outlaws Inc. UK launch event!


The first virgin cases of Matt’s non-fiction thriller/true crime book Outlaws Inc. will be broken open at a launch reception at London’s Goldsboro Books. For a place on the guest list, more information, or interview opportunities and press material, email matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com or h.guthrie [at] macmillan [dot] co [dot] uk.