There was an excellent piece by Charles Moore in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend on the subject of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Brixton riots. Like many commentators, Mr Moore pointed out how narrow the recent BBC programme about the riots was. Quite rightly, he asserted that opinion leaders and minorities had hogged the show.
I bought 17 Shakespeare Road in 1977 – a street off Railton Road – because my then wife and I wanted to start a family – and that would’ve been impossible in a 1-bedroom flat in Clapham Old Town. It was also a reasonably spacious terraced house for £14,750 – a fraction of the price of a similar domicile in Battersea.
There were no ordinary, struggling residents like me on the programme to which Charles Moore referred – those folks already fed up to the back teeth with Council leader Ted Knight’s nuclear-free summers and grit-free winters by 1980. My daughter was six weeks old at the time of the first riot in 1981, and my wife and I found ourselves turned back by the police in Herne Hill when it started – we having been to friends for dinner. I drove through the roadblock, as babies have to be fed regularly at that age. The police seemed too shell-shocked to stop us.
Every day as I walked home after work along Railton Road in those days, there would be 2-300 black youths openly smoking dope and, more to the point, chucking cans of Red Stripe wherever took their fancy. The next morning, Ted Knight’s army of street-cleaners would have a special lorry out to clear up the mess.
But Charles Moore’s article was (for me) a tad too lenient on the Brixton police – referred to then even among senior Met police officers as ‘the animals’. I never heard a Brixton copper refer to any black person using any term other than ‘spook’. “You’re f**king nicked, spook” was a particular favourite.
But therein lay the problem: a bunch of racists on one side versus a large minority of idle criminals on the other is not the ideal recipe for social harmony. And a council run by people regularly sending fraternal greetings to Moscow was nothing less than a radioactive catalyst specifically designed to get the whole disaster started.
Brixton’s front line side-roads in 1981 formed an area known locally as Poet’s Corner. It was a heady mix of poor white bourgeois professionals, intellectuals, musicians, artists, aspiring West Indians, and Hard Left politics. This melting pot – the real residents, lest we forget – came equal last in the thinking of the police, the pimps, the muggers, the community ‘leaders’, the Thatcherites, the Council and the media.
Very little has changed in the three decades since then. If anything, the governmental obsession with what the media thinks has become ever more compulsive and dysfunctional. As a media professional myself, what the 1981 Brixton riots taught me was that news debates about social problems consist almost entirely of opinions offered by atypical people. I cannot remember, at the time, seeing a single interview of any depth with residents I knew – and at the time, I knew pretty much everyone in the Poets’ Corner roads.
The impenetrable media, liberal, Westminster, Whitehall, Community Leader and Met Police bubble without question caused the Brixton meltdown in the first place. Unwilling to face or share the intense resentment of everyone from alienated youths to decent householders of all colours and persuasions, the Bubblies were in the end forced to bring in Lord Scarman to spell out what those of us living there already knew: that until law officers and the communities faced reality and stopped spouting bigoted cliches, no progress could be made.
The Hard Left blamed Thatcher, but in truth the Brixton explosion had its origins in the naively irresponsible goody-two-shoes ideas of Macmillanite Tories and public-school Wilsonites. Mrs Thatcher didn’t so much cause the riots as ignore the whole question of how West Indian culture was struggling with Western social structures. For myself, I think that heavy-handed race relations legislation hasn’t helped either. While useful in overcoming the casual racism once so universal in British society, this body of law has since given birth to a veritable frog-spawn of wriggling, cunning dependency, anal quangos, and employer resentment.
Last year, I drove down Shakespeare Road for the first time in fifteen years. It still has that slightly scruffy and seedy air I once found so attractive. The difference now is that all these Poets’ roads – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton – have asking prices around the £750,000 mark for a house – and as much as £325,000 for a two-bed flat. One could argue that there really are not enough residents of a revolutionary nature to stage a riot in this corner of London today. Mind you – given the coming housing market collapse – you never know.