A palpable feeling of fear as thugs took over the country
Last Thursday morning, the Third Test match between England and India commenced in Birmingham. Not a particularly noteworthy event you might think - except that it signalled a tentative return to normality after four days in which Britain had pitchforked into Hell.
There were times during the riots last week when it seemed as if London, and indeed the entire country, was on the brink of utter chaos. From Croydon in the south of London to Tottenham in the north, gangs of masked looters, many of them hardly old enough to be up that late, were laying waste to their communities with a reckless savagery.
Once cleared of their stock, shops and houses were set alight with seemingly no thought for anyone who might be trapped inside. People who dared to protect their property were leapt upon and beaten. Five people were killed. The police, outnumbered and outgunned, were powerless to intervene while fire crews stood by helplessly.
Perhaps the most poignant image of the entire nightmare was 80-year-old Maurice Reeves. He is the head of the Reeves furniture store, a long-established business in south Croydon and a local landmark. The premises stood for 140 years, surviving two world wars and the depression, yet late on Tuesday night they were trashed, set ablaze and reduced to a smouldering ruin in less than an hour. The next morning's news bulletins showed a bewildered Mr Reeves surveying the ruins of his life work, heartbreaking to behold.
The next day there was palpable foreboding on the streets. Walking along my local thoroughfare on my way to work I counted no fewer than 18 policemen. Upon returning home to collect an umbrella, a neighbour asked in all seriousness whether I was intending to use it as a weapon. And no wonder. As the sun dipped below the horizon you could feel the capital bracing itself for the worst. Many businesses closed early. Some boarded up their windows.
The sense of dread continued into the evening. I'm presently appearing in a play in Hampstead, one of the most prosperous suburbs of the capital, and the last place on Earth you would expect to encounter civil insurrection. Yet many audience members cancelled their reservations or simply didn't turn up, unwilling to make a journey by Tube.
As it turned out, the streets were far quieter, with 16,000 policemen on patrol. But other areas of the country were less fortunate, with mayhem reported in Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. And suddenly there seemed no reason why it shouldn't go on forever.
There has been no shortage of opinion as to the causes of the unrest. Was it a spontaneous outburst of fury from a forgotten underclass that has been let down? There will be much debate - and even more hand-wringing - in coming months.
But wait? Deprived underclass? If only things were that simple. A quick look at the roll call of the 1,700-odd miscreants arrested has revealed a teaching assistant, an aspiring ballet dancer, an estate agent and the 19-year-old daughter of a successful company director who attends Exeter University.
Whatever the underlying causes, one stark fact seems undeniable. When it presented itself, the chance to participate in a spree of communal destruction proved irresistible to hundreds of teenagers. "I just went along with everyone else," said one adolescent looter in Nottingham court on Thursday. Maybe so, but prompted twice by her father to apologise to the court, she merely smirked and looked away.
And no wonder. She was dismissed with nothing more than a nine-month referral order. The politicians may talk of the full weight of the law, but many of the worst offenders are too young to be fully prosecuted - and they know it.
A few days on and the riots already seem like a bad dream. The sun is shining, our cricket team are marching on towards victory, and this evening at the theatre contented punters were enjoying a night out.
But one thing has changed forever. As I write this, I can hear the distant wail of a police siren. A traffic accident? A dispute between neighbours? Or the first rumblings of a return to chaos? I no longer feel confident enough to predict.
Someone once said that civil society was only ever three meals away from revolution. Even that seems optimistic now. If you don't believe me, just ask Mr Reeves.
Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London
Published: August 14, 2011 04:00 AM