London Dispatch

A report from our London correspondent X, a recent transplant from Brooklyn who knows the city only from reading contemporary British fiction, “and not too much of it.”


Cops shot a black man named Mark Duggan a few nights ago some ways north of where I live. For four nights there were riots and looting in neighborhoods like Tottenham, same, north of me, and Brixton, which is south of the Thames on the west side. (Brixton in Le Carre novels is where the Scalphunters are headquartered; they do assassinations and kidnappings, as opposed to Lamplighters, who do surveillance. Being in Brixton is considered exile from the Circus, which is the headquarters, by Soho.) South of the Thames is gentrified by the river and then like Bushwick as you get further in, in that the population is black, which means African and West Indian, but with a visible quotient of art students (because there are art schools down there as well as art spaces) and publishing assistants who ride their bicycles to work (because there’s not much Tube access, which is why I try to never wind up crashing out there since I have no idea how to get home because the buses in addition to being slow are confusing). At one point from what I gleaned on the BBC video feed most of the looting was happening in Hackney, which is north of me also, but more gentrified than Tottenham (I think), sort of like if there were looting in Williamsburg but Williamsburg’s nongentrified elements were black and Puerto Rican (not that there are any Puerto Ricans here) instead of Poles and Puerto Ricans (or if the Poles rioted, which they wouldn’t because they’re getting so rich from renting shitty apartments to hipsters). Hackney includes London Fields, home of Keith Talent, darts champion. Iain Sinclair has apparently written an excellent book on Hackney which I mean to read. At least five people I know live there and I will probably move there in December, when the six-month opportunity to break my lease on my closet-like garret comes up.

I don’t know anything about race relations in London, except that people here seem meaner than Bostonians, by which I mean meaner than anywhere in America. Which is good and bad–it’s a form of honesty, in a way–but race/class relations do seem more bitter. And it is true that some people really hate Americans, which I’ve found particularly pronounced among professionally enlightened journalists. (“Not you East Coast elites [meaning me], I mean these fat slobs from the Midwest covering their breakfasts in syrup and butter, I’ve never seen anything so disgusting anywhere else in the world.”)

I haven’t read anything dealing with race relations in London except The Swimming Pool Library, the beginning of which largely deals with how much the narrator lusts after black men. The particular black dude that he is sleeping with gets in trouble when his brother and his brother’s friend, a drug dealer, beat him up for being gay, and he (the love interest) kills the drug dealer, taking refuge in the narrator’s apartment in tony Holland Park, on the West Side. After a week he disappears, showing up much later in the novel at a sex club (at which point the whole murder thing seems to have blown over). When the narrator is beaten up, it’s by some skinheads, I think, which speaks to the violent white-on-white class tensions at play. There is also the overarching metanarrative of Lord Nantwich, whose diaries the narrator is reading in order to possibly adapt, that are all about how excellent a time he had being stationed in Sudan before the War because there was an enormous population of natives to fool around with when he wasn’t working as a traveling provincial arbiter. In Lord Nantwich’s later years, he acquires his servants (black) by cruising council estates (ie, projects) to pick them up. They all become very loyal to the point of violent jealousy. You don’t read much American fiction where lust is expressed this forthrightly.

There’s also a lot about council estates in V. S. Naipaul’s Magic Seeds, I think, and also an aging African man whose greatest pleasure comes from watching two of his grandchildren serve as flower children at a wedding, one totally white, the other jet black—trademark Naipaulian subtlety.

So yeah, to be honest I didn’t hear about the riots until Sunday afternoon when someone from the States emailed to ask if I was rioting. This is because I spend all weekend in my flat, reading and not spending money I don’t have and because I don’t know anyone in London who wants to hang out with me on the weekends. Sometimes I do go for walks, but only if I’m sure it’s not going to rain, which it was impossible to be sure of this weekend, and it did rain on the first of my two walks.

The interpretation I’ve heard is that the Tory government will write this all off as criminal behavior, which seems to be what they’re doing on TV since they’ve gotten back from vacation. We were discussing the fact that the looters are breaking into shoe stores and H&Ms, not really terrorizing the rich people at their cafes in Chelsea, but rather busting up stores where they probably already shop and where they’ll be shopping again when the insurance-funded repairs are made to the corporate infrastructure. (And at the street level, London feels very corporate; chains seem to dominate every block, and while there are old shops that aren’t chains, you see less, or none, of the indie places that people fetishize in New York.) It was pointed out that environmental protests are better targeted, and the riots in March, when I was sleeping on a friend’s floor, to protest government austerity measures, were more targeted also, hitting luxury stores like Chanel, and paintbombing the Ritz, and smashing banks. Though when I was watching the video of an HSBC ATM branch getting smashed up with my friend, a very hospitable investment banker, he laughed and said, “Ha ha, ha, as if the commercial banks deserve any blame for this!”

As ever,

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