Rioters surrounding bus in flames, Tottenham 2011, police in foreground – photo Leon Neal, AFP
Britain’s men’s gymnastics team claiming bronze, 2012, photo c/o http://www.london2012.com
There are more similarities between the outbreak of lawlessness that tore through London one year ago and the Olympic fever which has gripped the capital over the last weeks than you might at first think.
For one thing, both events made Londoners feel like the centre of the universe, a position that most of us secretly believe we deserve, even all these years after the end of Empire. Similarly, both turned London into a deeply surreal place for its inhabitants, with whole areas suddenly declared out of bounds, bizarre new rules imposed on public transport and the strange mass importation of uniformed officials from faraway lands like Devon and Derbyshire.
The most important similarity of all, however, is that young people were at the heart of both. It was, for the most part, young people who took part in 2011’s destruction, and briefly turned London into the set of a strange civil war. And it is mostly young people, like the British men’s gymnastics team above, who are claiming glory on the world stage through their extraordinary feats and achievements.
There is one huge difference, however, and that is that it is extremely unlikely that the Daily Mail will run a piece headlined “British youths are “the most extraordinary, talented and committed in the world”” as a result of their current success at the Olympics. Nor should they, that would be absurd even by the Mail’s peculiar standards. It is only a small minority of British youth who have put in the hard work which is currently paying out in the clink of gold medals.
The Mail was however, happy to run a story headlined “British youths are “the most unpleasant and violent in the world.”” in the immediate aftermath of the riots, sweepingly damning and blaming a whole generation of young people. Yet, then, too, it was only a tiny minority of young people who actually committed the crimes, despite the feverish, dark imaginings of home counties journalists (in the spirit of fairness it should be pointed out that the Daily Mail was far from the only paper to indulge in this hate-mongering).
Between these two extremes – the demonised criminal and the glorified successful – lie the vast masses that truly make up British youth. And, as in most of Europe, a huge proportion are facing a truly depressing future. They could get a job – but nobody wants to hire them. They could go to university – but there would still be no job guaranteed after racking up the vast debt necessary. And meanwhile the safety net of the welfare state draws ever tighter, noose-like, while the current Government increasingly appears both callous and incompetent, incapable or unwilling to offer any new direction.
Maybe the Olympics will change things. Maybe the media and the public, dazzled by medal gold, will begin to see young people as rich with potential and not ripe with menace. Maybe the Government will begin to invest in better training, better facilities, better education. If that was the much trumpeted legacy of the Olympics, then it would be a truly worthy one. Rather more probably, when the Olympic glow has faded, and the chronic problems besetting the country have resumed, business as usual will also be resumed, and young people once again scapegoated and let down.
They will need heroes to speak to them and on their behalf in the years ahead. Hopefully some of the Olympic athletes themselves will step up – because so far pop culture has mostly failed. In the past, economic and social misery has had at least one bright side: the explosion of angry, vibrant and outspoken art, from punk through to The Smiths. So far there are few signs of a new wave of bands or singers prepared to even think, let alone sing, about the country’s troubles. Just “lock-jawed pop stars, thicker than pigshit” (as Morrissey later sniped in one of his less eloquent but more direct lyrics), “scared to show intelligence/ It might smear their lovely career”.
There have been a few exceptions, mostly from the world of hip hop. Professor Green has been prepared to fight back. Even better has been the flowering of Ben Drew, AKA Plan B. While his first album was a raw, intelligent and socially aware affair that sold poorly, his second, “The Defamation Of Strickland Banks”, seemed to suggest that he was now pursuing a much safer and more commercial route, helped along by retro production and the lovely soul croon he’d surprised early fans with when playing live. It was a good record, but not one that seemed likely to change very much.
Then came “Ill Manors”. Perhaps the riots changed his mind, or perhaps he has been playing a very smart long game indeed, but on Plan B’s third record he once again began to rail against the entrenched inequalities that have always cursed London, only this time with a much larger audience listening. He risked his upwards commercial trajectory without an apparent second thought. Others have written better than we could on the extraordinary “Ill Manors”, a raging song of protest against economic injustice, class hatred (as evidenced everywhere by the casual use of the loathsome term “chav”), lost opportunities and indifferent politicians. Read Dorian Lynskey’s superb piece here, or read the many intelligent, thoughtful interviews Plan B has himself given on the subject of the riots and the hopelessness facing young people. Better still, watch the incendiary perfomance below.
And the album? It got to number one last week. Maybe there is some hope after all. God knows we need a Plan B.