Over the course of the past four evenings, London, the city I live and grew up in, has been transformed into a place I can hardly relate to. The horrific violence which started in Tottenham over the weekend under the guise of a protest has quickly spread to other boroughs, bringing with it not only large groups of threatening people but extreme looting, arson and danger.
Many of you who read this blog will know that I commute to London every day from Greater London. What most of you won’t know is that I live just outside Croydon, the town which witnessed riots last night so harrowing that they were termed ‘the worst in Britain’s living history’.
As I sat at home, thankfully safe last night, I watched in utter disbelief as the town I’ve grown up in, the town that is home, was all but destroyed. I watched it on national news channels in a way that felt very out-of-touch, very untrue; it felt like it couldn’t actually be happening. Had that many people really taken to the streets? Were that many people really breaking into every single shop on the high street and beyond and looting it for all it was worth? Were so many really so lacking of any basic human compassion that they didn’t care about hurting those around them - police officers and fellow rioters alike?
Reeves Corner - pictured above, in flames - was a large furniture shop, taking up a whole corner plot in Central Croydon. It was incredibly famous, a landmark, and had been a family business since the 1800s; it had survived two world wars, including the blitz, and a multitude of other problems in the past. It was also razed to the ground last night by a gang of destructive individuals who decided they quite fancied a free sofa or two, and had better set fire to the place afterwards for good measure.
The owners of Reeves Corner are now predicted to be bankrupt, their staff out of work, and their livelihoods completely destroyed. Worst of all, though, must be the insult and disregard to the generations of hard-working men and women that struggled to keep Reeves Corner running - and the way centuries of work was destroyed in just a few hours. Where was the respect for a business which had never done anyone anything but good? What was the point to be made in creating a fire so huge at Reeves Corner that it not only destroyed the shop but also threatened the residential areas around it, causing people to jump from their windows to save their lives? How can there ever possibly be a justified reason for that?
Reeves Corner wasn’t the only fire in Croydon - or, indeed, in London - last night, but it was the biggest. It scared people; it scared my friends who live in Croydon, and my family. It scared me.
The thing is, I’ve always defended Croydon. I’ve joked about it in a negative way, but it’s been in an affectionate way; I’ve always had a soft spot for the place I grew up in, the place people criticise and attach such a strong reputation to, but the place I’ve always felt relatively safe in. After last night, I wasn’t so sure I’d ever be able to do that again; I felt betrayed by the actions of a group of people who had taken over and destroyed my town, who had even destroyed and injured each other - who had even killed a man. I was disgusted.
This morning, though, I saw hope. I woke up to a multitude of support messages for Croydon from Facebook friends and Twitter followers; and I read the plans for a clean-up Croydon support effort starting from 10am. I had to work, but I heard that hundreds of people who were able to turned out with brooms and brushes and other basic cleaning equipment and did their bit to clean up Croydon today. And yes, tonight there’s still a lot more work to be done to restore Croydon to a town which doesn’t look like it’s located in a war zone; and yes, there are bound to be further riot attempts from the mindless minority around the area. But I am comforted and reassured that the vast majority of people in Croydon are just as disgusted by this devastation as I am, and that people can and will pull together to help.
Just as a few came together to destroy the area last night, so will so many more pull together to clean-up and restore the town to what it was, for everyone who calls Croydon and the surrounding area home. As I’ve read and heard repeated so many times today by my friends and acquaintances, Croydon may have had a reputation as a bit of a dump, but it’s our dump, and no one had any right to damage it.
I know you don’t usually read this blog for long, sad stories about problems in London, or elsewhere. I know this is a corner of the internet usually reserved for things that are inspirational, and the problems in Croydon last night can hardly be called that. But I felt compelled to write this, because the resilience, determination and willingness to help that people in Croydon and beyond showed today - that truly was inspirational.
As I write this tonight, reports are coming in of violence spreading beyond London; to Birmingham, Manchester and even further afield. I hope, deeply, that this is untrue, and that the rioters will be dispersed before any more violent acts occur. To anyone who has been or will be affected in any way by the rioting across the UK, though: courage. Let’s not let a few spoil the towns and spirits of so many others. Let’s be strong, resilient and courageous. And instead of destruction, let’s show how inspirational our actions - and our clean-up efforts - can be.