Not since the Vikings have we seen so much looting and arson across the UK. It's got to the point where I can no longer blog about writing and poetry without feeling as though I'm completely out of touch with what's going on in our society at large.
So here goes.
I have no personal photos, and don't want to use any without permission, but here are some horrifying and telling photographic images for those who need to see for themselves what has happened.
An angry demonstration against the police shooting of a young man in London turned to rioting on the streets of London over the weekend. The rioting spread last night to other major cities. To my nearest city, Birmingham, less than an hour from my home in the Midlands, and also to Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds, Coventry, and possibly also Manchester. I imagine there may have been smaller scale disturbances in other places too, with youths across the country stirred up by rapidly-changing reports of a violent or provocative nature on Twitter, Facebook, Bebo ("Bebo provides an open, engaging, and fun environment that empowers a new generation to discover, connect and express themselves" according to their own publicity) and probably YouTube too.
London burnt for hours and is still smouldering this morning. There were many casualties among civilians and the police. Large numbers of innocent families, caught up in the arson attacks, have been displaced without possessions. Some have lost everything they owned, including their homes and livelihoods, and may never recover from this. People were beaten up, their property stolen. Restaurants full of customers were attacked. People had to barricade themselves into pubs and other places of business. One hapless youth swept up in the violence yesterday was helped to his feet, bleeding copiously from his nose, then mugged by his helpers: the whole disgusting incident captured on CCTV. Young people out 'on the loot' went about masked or with hoodies drawn down to protect their identity. Others strode about with utter fearlessness, jeering at police and gesturing obscenely to cameramen. Looters attacked anyone with a smartphone who might have been taking photos of them.
Some have claimed these were all kids, and from the footage a large number may have been as young as twelve or fourteen years of age. But many of those appear to have been thrill-seekers or opportunist thieves hanging about on the fringes rather than ring-leaders. "Let's get some watches!" exclaimed one excited youth on a snippet of film taken at Clapham's Debenham store as it was looted. But clearly this kind of widespread looting was not a free-for-all that happened by accident. "It's not just young people," said one man in London, whose property was threatened by rioters. "Don't believe news reports about the age of these looters. There were adults involved too, and they were very well coordinated, using their mobiles to move groups from place to place."
"It was like being in another country," said one horrified eyewitness to the rioting and looting on the streets of Liverpool last night. "The police were there, but they just stood about at the ends of roads, holding a line. They didn't confront looters or arrest anyone." "We were trapped in the middle of a confrontation between looters and police," said another witness of the riots, who could only watch helpless from his flat as youths tried to set fire to the pub opposite. "We were ready to leave if necessary, but it was too dangerous to move."
Today, a Riot Clean Up in London has been organised - ironically, also via the medium of Twitter. (See http://twitter.com/#!/Riotcleanup to join in with the action.)
Many local people have come out this morning armed with brooms and buckets instead of sticks and burning bottles, and are just waiting for the go-ahead from police investigators - who are gathering fingerprints, CCTV footage and witness statements - before moving in to return the devastated streets of the capital to some kind of normality.
That same weary but determined clean-up effort is being repeated across the country. "People have been very good with the clean-up and it's business as usual,' said a local spokesperson in Birmingham city centre a few hours ago.
So why were the police stretched so thin and unable to cope last night? Why were so few arrests made over the weekend, and will more follow now that the violence and lawlessness have escalated to such an extent? Will the looting happen again tonight, and in the future? What's gone wrong with David Cameron's "Big Society"?
"In this country we police by consent," said a tight-lipped Theresa May, Home Secretary, speaking on BBC News24 this morning. Obviously though, consent by many young people in our cities, and in particular in London, has been withdrawn. Was it ever given? Only very grudgingly by some, it seems, and once the leash was off, so were the dogs.
An activitist speaking on the BBC news today, Darcus Howe, claimed that the action we saw on the streets of London last night was provoked by police brutality and the injustice of stop-and-search that mainly targets black youths. He felt the looters were disaffected and angry youths fighting back against a government that no longer cares about them. In rebuttal on Twitter, author and journalist Dorian Lynskey said: "Sad that Darcus Howe, such a vital figure in the black community in the 70s and 80s, is reduced to barking self-parody."
I was not involved in any of the rioting or looting. I was nowhere near any of the many areas affected. But the ensuing bill for tax-payers and the impact on our economy from the last few nights of unrest and lawlessness will certainly affect me as an individual and a member of the larger UK community in which we all live and work. I don't have any waterproof answers to the question 'why', and I don't know if we should call in the army or hope that increasing police presence and their powers to control looters may help to contain the escalation. I don't know why any of this has happened, and I'm not even sure it will become clear until we have a good few years' distance between ourselves and the Battle for London, as some newspapers are calling it.
But at the moment, it feels like a viral summer madness, spread via the internet and eagerly seized upon by those whose primary desire - at least for a few insane hours - is to deny the consent of all well-run societies to work together peaceably and obey the law. Others may have been dragged in unwillingly, through a fear of not appearing part of the 'group', the Borg mentality which drove the rioters and looters last night. See this article in the Independent for more on this.
My deepest sympathies go out to all those involved, and I can only hope that the madness has now burnt itself out. Whether or not that is a false hope will be seen over the next few days and weeks of the summer.