I was slouched outside Hastings Magistrates’ Court, reporter’s notebook in hand, when I saw a kid I knew. He was a foster child who lived with the family of one of my friends. He was 16, but looked younger. Last time I’d seen him we’d been fooling about at a party, enjoying the traditional manly pleasures of the belly-slap and rough-and-tumble.
‘Hello, Rich!’ he said brightly.
‘Alright, mate!’ I rejoined.
‘What you here for?’
‘Reporting. Nothing special. You?’
‘I smashed this bloke’s window.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I was walking past and he was looking at my girlfriend. So I smashed his window.’
He showed me the cuts he had on his wrist from the incident.
‘Oh, mate,’ I said with a sigh. ‘You shouldn’t’ve done that. You know that, don’t you?’
‘I know, Rich. But I just don’t give a fuck.’
I’m on a team away day at Recipease, Jamie Oliver’s horribly punning shop/eatery/cookery establishment in Clapham Junction. We are there to be taught how to make spinach and ricotta tortellini by a Jamie-approved cheeky-chappy Irishman. He suggests that before we start cooking, we have a look at some of the great food and cookery items on sale, some at a discount.
Wine is brought and we sit and have a glass at rustic tables, where Jamie’s books are casually placed.
‘This is nice,’ says someone.
‘This is nice,’ says another.
‘This is nice,’ says a manager.
‘This is revolting,’ I think.
I wander around this suffocatingly-branded heaven and stroll to the front of the shop, where I look out and see a Starbucks and a Waitrose. A familiar feeling of hate and self-loathing rises up inside.
Hastings Magistrates’ Court. I’ve been in a session, hearing a 14-year-old boy get sentenced after breaking the terms of his Asbo. He’d stolen a car, gone for a ride and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself and two of his mates.
In normal youth court you are not allowed to name the youth involved in order to protect the child’s identity. But for Asbos, publicity is part of the deal, even for kids. Name and shame. Teach them a lesson. A nice front page lead for Purnell.
I strolled out of the court, and get stopped by a small kid with a lot of gel in his manky hair.
‘Were you in court?’
‘What did Jake get?’
’22 weeks.’ he paused for thought. ‘What’s that? Five months. He’ll do half, be out in two-and-a-half. Not bad.’
We shake hands and he gets on his mobile to excitably tell his mates the verdict.
I’m at a friend’s party in Battersea. We used to be reporters together in Hastings. Now we are in London and it feels good to have that connection with my recent past.
However, we are on slightly different social strata. I went to comprehensive school; she went to public school. I went to Leicester University; she went to Bristol. I’m living with a journalist who works at the Daily Express; she’s living with a journalist who works at the Daily Telegraph.
As soon as I arrive the necessary and sufficient questions are asked by smirking, chino-wearing men.
‘Where do you work?’
‘What university did you go to?’
They know, instinctively, that I did not go to Oxford or Cambridge or Bristol. They know I am not earning as much as them. Still, they like to have the point underlined, just to be sure, just for fun.
Once they’ve established I am not worth talking to, they ignore me. I’m left on my own, telling myself not to do something bad, so I don’t embarrass my friend. I drink punch and pretend to be interested in the DVD collection, wondering when it would be polite to leave.
Eventually another girl from Hastings arrives. We spend the rest of the evening on our own, out on the balcony, happy in our lower-middle-class ghetto.
Monday 8 August 2011. I am walking through Brixton. Police are everywhere. The town centre is blocked, the tube station closed, so I get on a bus. When I see the devastation, I think: good.
A suit on my bus, shocked to the core, takes a picture of a smashed-up bus stop on his iPhone. I think: prick.
Tuesday night, 8pm. I catch a bus from Brixton. Everything is shut, even the fried chicken shops. On the bus I see men outside blocks of flats, having a beer, having a smoke, making sure.
Wednesday. Laura from the Ritzy emails, saying they are back open and can I host the open mic tonight? I tell her it is folly – none of my nice audience will show up so soon after the riots.
‘Let’s do it anyway,’ she says.
I get down there after work, heavy of heart, angry at everything and nothing. I stick Dexy’s Midnight Runners on. If it’s the early ’80s all over again, may as well do the job properly.
Laura greets me on arrival, says two Brazilian dancing girls have been in touch. Is it okay if they perform?
A soul singer arrives and we get chatting about the early years of Mariah Carey, a subject on which I speak very impressively. A couple of kooks arrive to play blues, a shabby spoken word artist arrives, a comedian, an Asian singer whose been before.
We get going. I do a poem about Hastings, about those early days when I was happy getting paid £10,000 a year to report on the lower echelons of our finely stratified society. People are listening, small smiles of recognition on some of the faces.
Our soul singer opens. Turns out she’s good, really good. Everyone is performing well, everyone is happy, and those layers of hate and loathing start to peel off of me.
We take a break and I clear the stage for the dancing girls. I get everyone – even those cool people in fine clothes looking thoughtful over laptops – upstairs to watch.
Then, when the place is full, and buzzing, I get the soca rhythms on, make the introductions and the dancing girls, wearing full carnival costume, by which I mean virtually nothing except a lot of make-up and enormous, brilliant head-dresses, and the clapping and dancing begins as they shake and dance with visceral energy, shaking and bouncing, head-dresses brushing the ceiling, men drinking beers quickly to hide their feelings, and it is a party, a party, reminiscent of Rio, reminiscent of Brixton on any particular evening. Seventy-two hours after the riots, everything is forgotten.