On the ground in central London

The view from a flat above a dollar store on Camden Road

On the ground in Central London

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

You know you’re in England when locals gather at the scene of a prospective riot armed only with cups of tea. On Camden High Street in central London—just across from the dank, urine-scented waters of the once-bustling Regent’s Canal—residents gathered Tuesday evening on the rooftops of boarded-up buildings to await pandemonium. They brought cameras and refreshments.

The night before, the neighbourhood was visited by hundreds of rioters, who wrestled with police from nightfall to early morning. The clash was part of a wave of violence that started Saturday in rough-and-tumble Tottenham, then spread, immobilizing large swaths of North London. Quivering (only slightly) in my bed, in a flat above a dollar store on gritty Camden Road, I listened to sirens, the patter of running and some especially foul-mouthed hollering.

A day later, Masud stood guard in front of his Camden Road convenience store. After Monday night, he was feeling nervous and planned to close early. His young employees were stationed up and down the street, ready to report the first sign of trouble. “I’ll close the minute I see something,” Masud said. As we talked, three Northumbria Police vans barrelled down the road. Evidently, the city had called for national backup.

“I’m not scared,” said George Fletcher, a small, crinkled man sitting outside the Spread Eagle pub where he works, smoking cigarettes in his chef’s apron. But his pub was “half open,” he explained. “We’re open. But if we see unfamiliar faces, we’ll let them know that we’re closed to their business. Anyway,” Fletcher added, a moment before pushing me to try his homemade meat pies, “there’s always trouble in Camden.”

It’s true that Camden Town, the area around the famous Camden Markets, has maintained the same grim, beleaguered sheen for decades. Filled with rows of tall, narrow houses—crumbling relics of ambitious postwar development projects—the streets host a colourful mix of kebab stalls, mobile phone outlets and pubs. But parts of the borough have entered decisively into nouveau-riche territory: after all, posh Primrose Hill, home to the likes of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, witnessed the worst of Monday’s violence.

The next day, locals spoke of a sense of lawlessness. London MPs made churlish threats to call in the army. The BBC reported again and again that “no police were to be seen.”

Back in Camden, local businesses were hedging their bets. On High Street, seven sturdy men with cropped hair, bulging biceps and titanic bellies stood in a cluster, finishing up their KFC dinners. Wearing tight shirts with Guardforce Security Limited logos, the men said they were private security officers, hired by local businesses to keep an eye on things. “The problem is the police,” Phil sneered. “It’s all political-correctly-softy-softy.” “[Criminals] go to jail, but they get Playstations in their cells,” added Paul. “It ain’t that hard inside.”

“We need to batter them a bit,” laughed Sid. Another man interrupted, mumbling that London should bring back the SPG, the famously heavy-handed, long-disbanded Special Patrol Group.

As this magazine went to print Tuesday night, things were quiet in Camden. But Manchester, Birmingham and other cities were reporting standoffs with enraged rioters. And Scotland Yard had authorized the use of rubber bullets for the first time on the British mainland.

Just before returning to my flat, I asked my new private security friends if there was anything else I should know. “Yeah,” said one. “Run.”




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On the ground in central London

  1. “Dollar” store? Don’t we mean “pound store”?

  2. Western leaders never see the first steps they take to Mubarakism. It’s all very necessary. Innocent people are being hurt. Looting, rioting. The sort of stuff that never happens, of course, elsewhere. Those elsewhere leaders are born tyrants, authoritarian, undemocratic. Cameron is the leader of a modern, civilized, democracy with open elections, freedom of speech.

    And he’ll crack down on freedom of speech to keep it that way.

    No, Mr. Cameron. Where there’s a dry summer and years of tinder, and a match….

    Everyone has a diagnosis, Everyone has a cure. No one wants the underlying cause.

    ‘Hooliganism!!’ bleated Pravda and Trud, 30 years ago.
    .

  3. This is crazy, but somehow I am not surprised, it was a pressure cooker, an accident waiting to happen!!

    • Right.

  4. There was a posting on Huffington Post – sorry I don’t have the link – in which the interviewee explained that the police have been mistreating these children of the poor, treating them as criminals. Not only racial profiling, but class profiling. 

    With all the cutbacks in services, that are perceived as pandering to the wealthy, these children are outraged. With the cutbacks in schools, in opportunity, in their living standards, they are outraged. 

    This is not just hooliganism, this is class warfare. Taken to the street.

    • And in the city where Marx developed his analysis. Cameron better round up those old writings and burn the lot. Before those kids start reading, and really get angry.

  5. And as it turns out, there is nothing mysterious about it.  It wasn’t a protest for a cause, they don’t have one…. it wasn’t about hardship….people were making off with 40″ TVs and Nikes, not groceries and diapers.

    It wasn’t about class….there were welfare people, dental nurses, and a millionaire’s daughter involved. Every type possible. A chef, a hairdresser, a musician…and they were all colours, and all ages.

    It was simply a looting mob.  Nothing more.

    And yes, they’re cracking down on them, and tossing them in jail.

    Which is good, because there’s 6 people dead so far….not to mention all the businesses burned, and lives ruined by this stupidity.

    • And sadly, there will be more to the clean up than sweeping the streets. Business owners are probably reviewing their business plans right now. Is rebuilding prudent? Is riot insurance available? How is the possibility of total loss to be figured? And their customers are asking themselves questions as well. Where should I go to buy this? Do we want to go there for dinner? Renters and home buyers have their own set of questions. For hundreds of thousands of people, otherwise innocuous decisions will be reconsidered based on new information. I am sorry to add this comment.

      • I agree. I was reading about someone who had $20,000 worth of inventory stolen, and then they burned his building down.

        He has 25p left to his name.  To his credit though, he wants to rebuild….but many won’t. 

         When your neighbours turn on you, and for no particular reason….why bother?

  6. I wonder how the ruling class in England would feel if the Lybian air force decided to bomb police stations in England to support the English demonstrators in their “English Spring”. Oh yeah, thats right, only our side can militarily interfere in other nations affairs. No wonder so many people hate the west.

  7. Hmmm, Ms. Engelhart, I live on Regent’s Canal a few minutes’ walk from Camden Road.  I think you’re trying to make the area sound a lot more gritty than it really is.  I’ve never known the canal to stink of urine, and the houses around the markets are not crumbling (and are far older than the war).  As for Monday night, I heard the sirens too.  I don’t know the numbers of rioters, were there really hundreds?  Anyway, the only damage seemed to be a smashed up bike shop and grocery store (Tesco) on Chalk Farm Road, with nothing in Primrose Hill that I heard.  There were some bad things happening in London over those days, but Camden Town got off pretty lightly.  Still, it got you published!

  8. These riots are just the latest proof that mass immigration into N. America and W. Europe from the 3rd world, especially the Muslim world has been an unmitigated disaster.  Politicians who continue to advocate for it are knowingly and malevolently compromising the safety of their people.  This is especially true of left-wing politicians who push gun control because they want ordinary citizens to be helpless against thugs while at the same time working to import thousands of additional foreign thugs every year.

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