During the recent London riots, I happened to be far away on the Scottish island of Skye so I cannot recount any personal experiences of the mayhem. However, I couldn’t help but notice that in the acres of news coverage and analysis, almost nothing has been said about London’s long history of rioting.
We often talk of such events in a shocked ‘what is the world coming to?!‘ sort of way when in fact they are not a new phenomenon at all or even particularly unusual.
There have always been riots here – often politically motivated in response to some injustice – but often just for the hell of it. Boudicca kicked off the former, kind with a very heavy assault on Roman Londinium after the rape of her daughters. She and her followers pretty much burned the town down and massacred the entire population with some pretty gruesome tortures before being finally brought down near KIngs Cross. Amongst the others like the anti-Catholic Gordon riots and the anti-racist Brixton riots several started here in dear old Clerkenwell which, despite today’s complacent cappucino drinkers, was once a hotbed of political activism. Check out the Karl Marx memorial library
if you fancy a bit more of that.
But the thing which really bothered us this time was the looting, burning and the murders. The bourgeoise are terrified of gangs: when property is your main concern, the mob seem the biggest threat. We generally have the welfare state to keep that at bay of course but it has always broken out now and again. As a fan of West Side Story, I have always had a certain sneaking sympathy for gangs and of course it’s worth remembering that many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century London gangs – the Mohocks, the Hawkubites, the Nickers, the Scowerers. the Hectors – were posh, vicious rich boys who loved ripping it up and violating the poor. The Mohocks were a particularly nasty bunch – they used to love catching people, mutilating them and rolling them in a barrel down Snow Hill just south of here. Ouch. I have rolled down Snow Hill myself a couple of times after late nights in Smithfield and I can tell you, that really must have hurt.
Here is John Gay on the subject:
From Mohock and from Hawkubite,
Good Lord deliver me,
Who wander through the streets at nigh
They slash our sons with bloody knives,
And on our daughters fall;
And, if they murder not our wives,
We have good luck withal.
The Gordon rioters graffited the walls of Newgate prison with the slogan “His Majesty King Mob” a name more recently taken up by pre-punk situationist pranksters in West London in the 1970s. One of their slogans would have easily subtitled last months excitement:
“I don’t believe in nothing – I feel like they ought to burn down the world – just let it burn down baby”
Boudiccea is a heroine now of course. You can see her in full vengeful flight on the embankment opposite the houses of parliament. She, the original anti-establishment figure, has become the establishment epitome of vigorous Englishness.