I’m feeling a little sluggish today. I spent most of the night texting friends in the riot-torn pockets of London, reading twitter feeds and keeping an ear out for the sounds of distance sirens. My morning hasn’t been much different. There is so much information, so many pictures, so many stories and videos. The questions have started, the government and the police are strategising and deploying, and Londoners have come out in force to help with the clean up.
Like most people, I’ve been seeing and hearing everything unfold through screens and speakers. It should be surreal that I’m experiencing these events – rioting, looting, mugging, etc – this way, particularly because it’s all happening, relatively speaking, just outside my front door. But, that’s just it. It’s not happening near me. And for most of us London-dwellers, it’s not happening near them either.
I’m reminded of the time when I was stuck in my house for two nights on the campus of the University of Papua New Guinea. In 2001, the students decided to riot (some say it was because of the privatisation of the state bank, others blamed it on exam time – no doubt, the truth lies somewhere in between).
In the capital Port Moresby the police force is the shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of establishment. Bullets flew all around us, piercing the thin walls above our heads as we shrank beneath foam mattresses and helicopters hovered above. To flush out the bad elements, the authorities cut off the water (luckily we had bottled water, but flushing the toilet or washing was impossible) and electricity supply.
There were no mobile phones networks back then, but our landline was still operational. We turned down the ringer and watched for the blinking red light that let us know if someone was trying to call. We whispered into the receiver (any noise we made might alert the unsavoury, scary characters to the fact that we were home alone) to members of the diplomatic community who were trying – and failing – to arrange our rescue, family members back in Australia, and our expatriate mates who were up in town and worried about us.
In the end, one fearless friend bashed his Mitsubishi sedan through the roadblocks and got us out. The drive into the city centre (UPNG is about 5kms out of town) was initially bumpy as we went off piste to avoid the gangs, the police and the debris – everything had been torn apart, and cars and buildings had been torched – but we soon found ourselves on the highway and back in the ‘real’ world.
In less than 15 minutes we were at the Yacht Club sipping on schooners of South Pacific beer while our friends rallied around us. It was one of the only times in my life that I didn’t care that I was being seen out in public with dirty hair and the same t-shirt and jeans I’d been wearing for three days. We drank on the deck, watching the boats cross the harbour, until the sunset curfew kicked in.
I’ll never forget the feeling. The juxtaposition from acute fear and danger to safety and serenity was life changing. Since then, I’ve always taken what the media chooses to show us with more than a pinch of salt. Yes, there has been a huge amount of destruction, needless violence and opportunistic crime in the affected areas, but London isn’t ‘burning’ – this magnificent city is far too robust for that. Hopefully, the police will have things under control tonight and the clean up will be fast. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt living here, it’s that Londoners do their best to get things back to normal after tragedy strikes. There’s no doubt that it’ll be the same this time.