Tuesday, 21 August 2012

London’s Burning - Plus Ça Change

By Sheilagh Dyson

Important lessons….lessons learned……using the experience of past mistakes to create a better future…..we humans are not very good at that. Whether we’re returning for the umpteenth time to an abusive partner, starting smoking again after giving up for years, lending money once more to someone we know will never pay it back, renewing our season ticket, aware that it will mean another season of frustration and anguish, we never seem to learn, though we often mean to. Really, really mean to!

            That’s on a personal level – we are incurable optimists, desperately willing hope or love to triumph over cold-eyed experience, over and over again. It’s an endearing trait in our psyche in a way – this failure to learn from the past, in the fond, baseless hope that things will be better next time.

But what of governments – those whose responsibility it is to learn from past errors and misjudgements, to see where things are going wrong and put them right, to analyse issues in a historical context and, when awful lessons from history threaten to repeat themselves, to do something for the benefit of all and draw back from the brink. The signs are not good.

Here’s a poem about London, written by William Blake in 1792. It is a vehement invective against the exploitation of ordinary people by a corrupt system of early capitalism that owned the very streets and river of London, where poverty and disease were rife and riots were considered imminent.

 William Blake


by William Blake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

And now, here’s one written in 2012, in the aftermath of – oh yes, the London riots. Against a backdrop of austerity for most (but not others), increasing inequality of opportunity, rampant privatisation, cuts in benefits for the poorest, burgeoning salaries and bonuses for the favoured few, diminishing  hope for young people,  Monty Grant wrote this heartfelt plea:


Austerity twists in the lock;
The wringing click, click;
The finality, turning the key.
Open your hearts to the
Cries of inequality.
Can’t you smell in the air
The stench of confinement?
Authority slams the door
Of poverty’s cage,
Full to capacity with our
Forgotten children.

Jailer, we’re dying in here
Why am I wearing this crown of thorns?
Don’t use authority’s spear
Just talk to us blood
Dispense the confusion
Do we not have a heart?
Are we not human?
Give us the freedom we need
To make a contribution.
Too late man, you’re too far removed
We’re at breaking point
And you too numb to be moved.
I raise my shield, I’m breaking out
You ain’t listening, you can’t hear our shout,
Well hear this mother fucker
Put this fire out.
Listen to the breaking glass,
It ain’t the answer,
But you too detached to ask.

The punishment should be severe;
We will take a no tolerance approach
To these animals.
If you have caused damage,
Let fires rage,
Attacked the property of others,
We will find you,
You will be evicted from your homes,
You will be incarcerated,
You will be ostracized.

Thanks for nothin, Tory scum,
You can’t comprehend the damage you’ve done;
You lit the fire, not me, not my brothers.
You can’t govern with lies,
You should have saved our mothers,
Years before now, a generation lost,
There’s people’s lives at stake, look at the cost.
Westminster is where you reside;
In your palace you and your type can hide.
Don’t presume you can plan my life,
I want to be free to live full of pride.
Where do we go from here?
We need a dialogue,
Lend me your ear.
We’re calm for now, suppressed,
But we will rise, we will not rest.

It’s got a bit of a rap rhythm going on, but is Grant saying anything very different to Blake, MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES AGO?

            And what has happened since 2011? Has anyone in government even tried to understand why thousands of young people in our country resorted to such ugly measures last year? No, the market still rules; more cuts in benefits; no Plan B; more and more privatisation (private good, public bad, despite all the evidence); libraries run by volunteers, if at all; ethnic cleansing of poor people from affluent areas; the demonisation of working class people – same old, same old.

And there’s still no attempt to understand why so many young people on a few fateful nights last year wrought havoc, went late night shopping without a card, challenged the normal order of life, risked prison and unemployability. They had nothing to lose, that’s why. Because they have no prospects, no stake in a society that offers them a distorted set of values and feeds them a steady diet of trivia, ‘celebrity’, X Factor and ‘designer labels’ by way of aspiration.

            Will we never learn?


Ashley R Lister said...


You've got some really insightful comparisons there. I particularly like that Blake can be seen as being so apposite today even though it's been more than two centuries since he was writing.


Shaun said...

Sharp, relevant, insightful- why aren't these options on the bottom of this blog?
Excellent post.

Rachael Hirst said...

What an excellent post :)