Gillian Slovo: ‘The riots were people not thinking about the consequences because they don’t have enough to lose’

15:00 22 September 2016

Riot police stand in line as fire rages through a building in Tottenham, north London as trouble flared after Mark Duggan, 29, was shot dead by police. Picture: Lewis Whyld (PA).

Riot police stand in line as fire rages through a building in Tottenham, north London as trouble flared after Mark Duggan, 29, was shot dead by police. Picture: Lewis Whyld (PA).

PA Wire/Press Association Images

Novelist Gillian Slovo returns to the topic of the 2011 riots and social division in her latest book

Gillian Slovo. Picture: Charlie Hopkinson.Gillian Slovo. Picture: Charlie Hopkinson.

The seismic events in Gillian Slovo’s latest novel are sparked when a black father seeks an apology from police who have accidentally killed his mentally ill son.

The Met’s inadequate response to the bereaved father provokes a riot that affects top police brass, estate dwellers and the Home Secretary alike.

Inspired by the 2011 London riots, it’s not the first time the West Hampstead author has visited the subject. In the months following the violence sparked by Mark Duggan’s death, the 64-year-old wrote a verbatim play for Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre based on interviews with those involved.

“In 2011 rioters went on the streets and the rest of us looked on in amazement thinking ‘how could they have done this?” says Slovo. “That very question shows how we live in different worlds and don’t necessarily know how others live.”

A scene from The Riots by Gillian SlovoA scene from The Riots by Gillian Slovo

Set in the fictional borough of Rockham “sort of now but possibly in the future” Ten Days explores events from the top and bottom of society; via a politician, a single mother and the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner “who stands between the people and the politicians, the power and the powerless”.

“All live in different places but are put in compromising positions by this unfolding drama. Through their lives and the way they deal with it, I look at what politics has become, how ambition can sometimes trump principle and the way that we all seem to occupy the same space but live such very different lives. What better way to do that than through a riot, a visible sign of division in society?”

Slovo, whose parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were prominent Communists and anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, points out that back in 2011 “there was more than one riot”.

“One was what would traditionally be called a race riot; a community fed up with the way they have been policed, carrying the weight of sorrow of all the people who have been physically hurt by police, and who feel they have not been taken seriously.”

The second were the consumer riots involving shock images of looting and muggings on London’s streets, but ever the liberal Slovo takes a measured view: “We’re all living in a society where we’re told that having stuff will make our lives better and where celebrity and wealth are venerated. Riots are about people going crazy in the street not stopping to think about the consequences because they don’t have enough to lose. Look at the people who were jailed for rioting and the majority didn’t have jobs or good circumstances. If you have a job, you want to keep it and will think twice.”

Slovo adds that the riots took place against a backdrop of the MP’s expenses scandal.

“There was a feeling if they can do it we can too. The funny thing is,” she adds drily, “one of the MPs who came out most heavily in disgust at looting flat screen TVs had himself had to pay back money for the TV he shouldn’t have put on expenses – that’s the irony, white collar crime always seems more civilised than other kinds.”

In the punitive post-riot climate courts came down hard with one rioter notoriously jailed for six months for stealing a bottle of water. But Slovo says the criminal justice system should not just punish but “make our world better”.

“Those given punitive sentences came out in a much worse situation than they went in. We should be concerned that if you are jailed for rioting it’s difficult to get a job again. We have a nuanced criminal justice system where circumstances are taken into account in sentencing but that didn’t happen because it was all about society saying ‘this is unacceptable’. It clearly is unacceptable to riot in the streets but it often takes place in the poorest places and destroys the services those people need.”

The book’s riot takes place during a sweltering London heatwave as Slovo points out: “riots always happen when it’s hot and people are hanging about on the streets. People don’t riot in the rain.”

Earlier this year Slovo’s verbatim play at the National Theatre Another World asked what attracts young westerners to join IS. Her research took her to Brussels where she interviewed three mothers whose children had joined Islamic State.

“It sprang from a general question of why young people from our world think it’s a good idea to join this murderous regime elsewhere? It’s an important thing to share with an audience –these wonderful women who had lost their children either to death or to an alien organisation which cuts them off completely from their family, talking honestly about what had happened and where it had left them.

“It’s easy to say ‘they are not like us it’s their fault’ a lot of these mothers didn’t know these kids who came from perfectly integrated and happy homes were turning into people who wanted to blow up their world.”

Trying to get to the bottom of why “this particlar take on Islam is attractive” Slovo talked to one chaplain with experience of those attracted to jihad. “He said every one was in emotional or psychological trouble. It’s a bit like the riots, they are people looking for meaning who haven’t found it in their lives. Wrongly they think they are finding meaning in living your life for Allah and the greater good of the Islamic world – these are people who don’t have enough to root them and who can’t get a proper stake in this world.”

Gillian Slovo speaks on The Riots at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on Sunday 25th September at 7pm.

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