Back to real life, please.
How are you feeling? Back to the same old routine? The comfortable numbness slowly warming back through you? Me too. Great, isn’t it?
Only, I’m now not sure if you get it from keeping your telly box on or turning it off.
..I think maybe I’m a dispassion native now; I can Not Really Care About Stuff all on my own, with or without headphones in or TV blaring. Look at me, a media age child all grown up.
For a few nights last week, however, I fear I may have caught a glimpse of real life.
I know! Me! ..I confess it here because I trust that you’re broad-minded and will understand; better out than festering away in, eh. But I did. Even as Twitter blazed away with hysterical headlines about London burning and I instinctively poured the cold water of anti-hysterical scorn on the dramatic language, I could not tear my attention from the live pictures of what appeared very much to be homes and livelihoods actually burning to the ground in London. For no apparent proper reason at all. Other than that we appeared to be all suddenly climbing into that handcart that we’d all been repeatedly told we would be taking to hell one day – like some prearranged geno-suicide signal had finally gone out. ..But, I mean, who sent that memo? Or tweet. I didn’t get it. DId you? I’ll bet you did. You get everything.
I wasn’t ready at all. There was no orientation for this Armageddon team challenge – I had no idea it was scheduled for last week. Yet – bang! – last Saturday people were kicking things in in Tottenham and by the middle of the week England was apparently efficiently destroying itself, and dancing on the smoldering debris. All apparently gone like clockwork, just as in the practices. Which I’d also missed.
I felt like such a fool, not knowing what my tasks were. This is JUST why I always get voted off teams pretty soon after the jokes start to wear thin.
But ACTUALLY, it turns out that Mad Max: Beyond Millennium Dome is not reality after all. It is, apparently, too soon to tear the body panels off our cars and strap dead cats to our heads and start wheel-spinning in circles in the NCPs waving spears. Which seems a shame.
True, we can’t seem to get our economy to grow at all, perhaps slightly because the world economy is shaking apart with tremours that just won’t stop rumbling away underneath its current foundations. True, there is still a bigger gap between the wealthy and the poor here in the UK than anywhere else in the always-claiming-to-be-developed world. True, there are still groups of people all over the country that feel so disconnected from the idea of owning a part in the country’s life that it looks like they feel disconnected from owning their own lives. True, no politician in Westminster seems to have words to come anywhere close to connecting those people back to the rest of us. True, this is true in cities all over the world. True, poverty eventually degrades dignity and hope back to animal fears – especially when it is also of education and mental empowerment. True, some people get very used to pissing about and taking stuff sooner than making stuff.
And true, when you feel that you have nothing to lose and nothing to work for, you find a certain kind of bitter freedom lurking in the limbo of it – one that might enable you to give riotous thanks when that limbo is actually at long last broken when something – anything – kicks off down the street. The thrill of change can be intoxicating. Especially when it involves free stuff.
But it’s not the only truth.
What is hearteningly truthful is that most people in Britain do own their own lives. Of course they do. They do value their freedoms. Do pick up a broom to not just clear up and start again but to help each other clear up and start again. And you can bet your future on the truth that most young people get it too. In fact, an awful lot of them know the wisdom of the streets a lot more than you do. If you’re tempted to use phrases like ‘generational moral vacuum’ you’re not just a bit wordy, you’ve also been watching too much telly. It’s probably you that’s disconnected. And by you, I obviously mean me.
Because something else I’ve realised this week that seems to be unshakably true is that I am a reasonably useless arse who knows very little of the real world. It’s no revelation, you understand, but a reaffirmation.
You may have done your own version of this during last week, but I spent much of it expending emotional energy pacing in circles declaring things uselessly at the TV, the computer screen and the radio. The riots made me feel a lot of stuff and think a lot of stuff and shout a fair bit of stuff but not do a lot of stuff. Which at least involved not nicking a lot of stuff either.
I want to teach some kid to read. Some kid who could end up leaving school without the ability to analyse themselves and their world if someone outside the self-defeating bureaucracy of the education system didn’t step in and help. But who. And how? I’m no teacher. Teachers, I thought, would make excellent teachers.
I want to hug Tariq Jahan for appealing for calm mere hours after his son Haroon had been murdered by hit and run in the riots in Birmingham. And so do you, and so do so many people of all communities up and down the country – a fact that doesn’t just validate his inspirational courage, it illustrates it. He shouldn’t have had to demonstrate his character under these circumstances, it’s clearly just who he is – as a man, as a father and as a British citizen. We cheer him on because he represents values that are important to us. Which is why we want to sob for him and for the family of the two brothers killed with young Haroon that night. But he doesn’t need me echoing more empty praise when his son is dead. He needs the justice of free, peaceful streets where he lives.
I want to go to a police station and tell them they’re bloody heroes for stepping up to serve their communities in the most thankless of roles, doing it so often as they do with such heart and intelligence. Even as I want to beg them to not give in to the emotional pressure to feel that their job is some sort of military front line – a place with the strategic imperative of Them And Us. Tottenham’s gun crime might feel like the front line on some Tuesday nights I guess, same as Baltimore or who knows, but the army’s terrifying challenges under fire are fundamentally different to those of the civil police service, even when you have to wade into petrol bombs and bottles and fight – with your life and all your wits and discipline to protect our free streets. But why would your average experienced copper need a flimsy-limbed oaf like me to helpfully point out any of this to them?
I want to go to every kid in the nick after the weekend and drag them by their prison tag to a mirror and shout over their shoulder in their face: ‘Don’t you realise what you’re capable of? You’re a freaking human being – you’re amazing, you bloody idiot. You’re unique in the sodding universe. Stop acting like you don’t give a shit and that you’re not part of the rest of us – own your own life. Stop acting like a victim everyone wants to punch’. But, as they might politely point out, what the flying fuck-a-ding-dong do I know?
Because I really most want to stand in front of that mirror alone and shout in my own face: ‘And THIS is how you’re going to make a practical difference to the people around you’, and know what it is.
But I can’t, it seems. Not yet. Can you?
I’ll bet you can. You live in the real world. You’re already doing it. But feeling a bit useless when you’ve already been given all the essential tools you need for independence and confidence that so many youngsters are fighting to find is also part of real life across the UK. Loads of us feel uselessly disconnected from each other. We don’t know how to connect our values and hopes to people who appear to act so differently. So angeringly differently to us.
This feeling, in all its different expressions across the British classes, is something that unites our kingdom. But I think there may be a way out for every one of us from that entrapment of feeling:
True freedom is having the confidence to serve.
..I know this. I just don’t know where I could or should serve effectively.
When you appreciate the profound value of service – the ultimate respect that it is – you are likely to love the person you notice serving you. And when you demonstrate that gratitude with returned service, they may love you back. Because, after all, love is service. It’s something you do. Something you build society with. But it’s only real and true and effective when you do it as an instinct, or at least decision, and an end in itself, expecting nothing back directly.
The geniously simple truth, though, is that respect, service, love, all start with the conscious use of two very powerful everyday words – powerful precisely because of their easily-overlooked modesty – ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’. And don’t you dare laugh.
This is essentially all I learned from my parents, boiled down into two words. And, as the riots unfolded on the TV in the background, my mother was having her knee replaced for free by the UK’s National Health Service and was being calmly served by indefatigably caring professional medical staff, helping her to recover into a chapter of new freedom for her, after years of painful limitation. She spent most of her time in there saying thankyou.
The challenge modern Britain is really presenting us with, even as so many of us give thanks, is how to use our freedoms to serve eachother’s.
I shall ponder this some more as I slip back into the comfortable oblivion of responding to my own life’s little fires to fight.