August 9 2011
[Warning: This is a nothing-to-do-with-art-history post]. Late last night, this over-anxious art dealer arrived at our gallery in Mayfair, in central London. I switched off the window lights, pulled the blinds down, and locked away our most valuable pictures. I told myself it was a pointless exercise – the riots were taking place in the suburbs. But at least I would sleep better.
Then on my way home I saw a gang smash into Hugo Boss in Sloane Square (above). And I thought maybe my trip wasn’t so pointless after all.
The looting and arson in London yesterday has genuinely shocked me. My mother lives in Clapham, where some of the worst violence took place. At about 9pm, I heard on the news that there was some trouble in the area, and as my mother was away, I drove in to check on her house.
As I approached Clapham Junction, I suddenly realised I was in the middle of a riot. Normal traffic on a normal road suddenly changed into a mass of hundreds of people, mostly in hoodies. In just a few minutes I saw gangs smash into shops and take whatever they pleased. I was glad I had my motorbike, and could get round the debris in the street: a small roadblock had been set up, and an HSBC cash point had been dragged into the street and ripped open. Blank receipts fluttered in the wind.
There was a bizarre, almost party-like atmosphere. Some of the gangs wore ghoulish party masks, taken from a fancy dress shop. There was a stench of alcohol from the looted off licences. People were quite openly walking off with bags, even suitcases full of goods. I watched a young woman approach Woods Electrical, the small store where we used to buy our TVs and radios when I was a kid. She casually looked into the window, and pointed to something she wanted. Then the men with her pulled open the steel grill, smashed the window, and took it.
This all took place a few hundred yards from one of South London’s largest police stations. But there were no police anywhere. I found them as I arrived at our house beside Clapham Common. Three vans full of riot police and at least a dozen police cars were parked up. Probably between 30 and 40 police officers were there. Two of them were having a cigarette. One told me they had been “ordered to withdraw”. I asked why, and was told that “the protection of life is more important than the protection of property”. As we talked, a steady stream of kids came past from other areas, to head excitedly towards the looting. No attempt was made to stop them.
Later, when I saw the attack on Hugo Boss in Sloane Square, I was surprised to see three police cars and one van rush to the scene within a few minutes. Evidently, some properties are more equal than others. It seems the government and police have lost control of large parts of London. The question is, for how long?
(A video of the Clapham looting has been posted here).