Friday 19 August 2011

The Book of the blog, and why I'm not going on Big Brother.

I don't normally like to do this sort of thing, but the good people at Pluto Press have reminded me that unless I get off my tiny backside and actually tell people about this book of columns we've got coming out, nobody will buy it, and then they won't get any money. Which would be sad, because they're wonderful people, and they made me two separate cups of tea when I went to see them at the office.

So, here it is: The Book of This Blog. Titled, after some wrangling and a great deal of imaginative endeavor, Penny Red. It has a stonking cover design by This is Star, a New York artist and model whose inkwork makes me moist and excited. Warren Ellis has written a lovely foreword, which makes my inner fangirl vibrate with glee. Some of the actual words inside don't make me cringe too much on re-reading, either, although they undoubtedly will in five years' time. You can pre-order it here, and if you do, as the good people at Pluto Press remind me, not only do you get it much cheaper, you get free stuff, like extra books.

From the website, it appears that I'm going to be signing some copies as well. That sort of thing makes me nervous; it's been very flattering when people have asked me to sign Meat Market in recent weeks, but it all feels rather ridiculous. I may swan around like some kind of proper writer, but my signature still looks like an eleven year old girl's - it has TWO stars in it, and it used to be a heart and a star until two years ago when I got laughed at by a bank clerk. Similarly, I may act all casual about being asked to go on the telly and give my opinion on things, but I can't watch the clips back afterwards without doing that thing where you half-close your eyes and bite down hard on the side of your fist. Despite what a miniature army of trolls seems to think, all I ever wanted was to write useful words for a living.

It is this that lay behind my decision not to go on Big Brother.

Yes, I was asked to audition for Celebrity Big Brother. It was a few months ago, now. It took me a whole twelve hours to decide no, partly because - coming clean for a moment - I've always loved that mad bloody show, and I've wondered for at least ten years what it would be like to be on it. Hell, of course, but then I'm the sort of person who'd wander around hell with recording equipment asking people how they felt about the whole thing. There's even a chance that weeks of constant public surveillance might not leave me curled weeping in the middle of a day-glo floor, muttering about the Society of the Spectacle and trying to peel myself like a satsuma.

After turning over in my mind every possible way in which going on Big Brother might not be the worst idea in the entire world, I finally hit on the insurmountable counter-argument: the one where this isn't all a fucking joke, and I'm not a fucking cartoon character, and I actually have some serious things to say. I don't like playing the media game. I don't like doing the self-publicising that every freelancer has, to some extent, to engage in. I actually believe in something bigger than myself, and I like to think that the people who read this blog do, too.

There is a banality at play in the British press - and I mean the entire glorious sweep of it, from the Observer Review to Big Brother - that makes me more uncomfortable the more of it I discover. It's a banality that's inimical to the sort of reasoned, sensible debate we desperately need in these nervous times. It's not about celebrity culture, and it's not about 24-hour news cycles, though it has something to do with both, and it infects everything. It's about speed of turnover, a dull hunger for comment, the privileging of celebrity above content when it comes to argument, a culture that would rather watch people unravel than listen to their ideas, a culture that would rather bitch and carp spitefully amongst itself than actually try to change the world. Millions of words have been expended on the riots that swept our cities two weeks ago, and almost none of that analysis has been measured or persuasive enough to prevent the enormous, frightening right-wing backlash that's been permitted to happen on this angsty little island. The best overviews so far have come from outside Britain, like yesterday's explosive New York Times editorial.

There's a fight going on for the soul of decency in this country, and it's a fight that's obscured by gossip and bogged down by banality, and when you're just a person sitting in her bedroom, letting cups of tea go cold whilst you try to write useful things, that banality can feel insurmountable. Fortunately, I have some complete bastards for friends who do things like yell "LOOK, it's TV's own Laurie Penny!" when I come back from the loo. One of the most dangerous things a person can ever do is take themselves seriously. As long as I have those reprobates around, it's not a danger over which I'm losing much sleep.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Panic on the streets of London.

I’m huddled in the front room with some shell-shocked friends, watching my city burn. The BBC is interchanging footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of roiling infernos that were once shops and houses in Croydon and in Peckham. Last night, Enfield, Walthamstow, Brixton and Wood Green were looted; there have been hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries, and it will be a miracle if nobody dies tonight. This is the third consecutive night of rioting in London, and the disorder has now spread to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Politicians and police officers who only hours ago were making stony-faced statements about criminality are now simply begging the young people of Britain’s inner cities to go home. Britain is a tinderbox, and on Friday, somebody lit a match. How the hell did this happen? And what are we going to do now?

In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every single commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence, as if it were in any doubt that arson, muggings and lootings are ugly occurrences. That much should be obvious to anyone who is watching Croydon burn down on the BBC right now. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder 'mindless, mindless'. Nick Clegg denounced it as 'needless, opportunistic theft and violence'. Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, Prime Minister David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge - declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was "utterly unacceptable." The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ‘pure criminality,’ as the work of a ‘violent minority’, as ‘opportunism.’ This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart.

Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

Noone expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

I’m stuck in the house, now, with rioting going on just down the road in Chalk Farm. Ealing and Clapham and Dalston are being trashed. Journalists are being mugged and beaten in the streets, and the riot cops are in retreat where they have appeared at all. Police stations are being set alight all over the country. This morning, as the smoke begins to clear, those of us who can sleep will wake up to a country in chaos. We will wake up to fear, and to racism, and to condemnation on left and right, none of which will stop this happening again, as the prospect of a second stock market clash teeters terrifyingly at the bottom of the news reports. Now is the time when we make our choices. Now is the time when we decide whether to descend into hate, or to put prejudice aside and work together. Now is the time when we decide what sort of country it is that we want to live in. Follow the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter. And take care of one another.