James Harkin: Why not turn the riots into a spectacle?

What happened last summer looked and felt like a kind of alternative summer festival

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first thing to go up was the 171. The bus was in flames by the time I arrived, and the fumes were a smoke signal to young people all over Peckham. Hundreds were milling around along with local people trying to get home from work – the curious, the angry, and those who were simply on the make.

This was London on the evening of 8 August. A ring of policemen in visors and shields lined the breadth of Peckham High Street and both sides were engaged in a kind of stare-off. A boy no more than eight emerged from a clothes shop beaming with a clutch of funky T-shirts. As he made it back to our side of the street, he got a huge round of applause. Most people were simply watching, openly annoyed at what the rioters were up to. All the same, the atmosphere was akin to school sports day, or a visit to a rowdy open-air cinema. At one point a teenage girl reached into a holdall and pulled out a giant bag of sweets, which she proceeded to hand out among her friends.

I remembered all this when I read the line-up for the London 2012 Festival, the glittering climax to next year's Cultural Olympiad. There'll be festivals dedicated to love poetry and to Samuel Beckett, and major exhibitions of everyone from David Hockney to Damien Hirst. The artist Martin Creed is leading a nation-wide bell-ringing project, and the organisers have extended an invitation to Gustavo Dudamel's thrilling Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which gives free music lessons to underprivileged Venezuelan children. But nothing at all about the riots.

To overlook the most dramatic events of London's recent past seems like missing a trick – and ignoring the elephant in the room. Aren't writers and artists supposed to be edgy and controversial? With the rise of everything from television docudrama to verbatim theatre, the speed at which they can respond to recent events is quickening all the time. Site-specific performances are now all the rage, and artists of all kinds are under pressure to engage audiences any way they can. But what brought those young people out on to the streets to watch the riots wasn't bell-ringing but the relentless drumbeat of 24-hour news and the chirruping of their mobile phones.

In the dog days of August, what happened last summer looked and felt like a kind of alternative summer festival – a sort of Big Chill for under-stimulated urban youth. Like it or not, London's international image is now indelibly bound up with it. So why not take the bull by the horns? Even better if we could do something that teenagers on housing estates could get excited about, and what better way to do that than to replay the events of last August? Otherwise they're just going to be outside the Olympic tent, looking in.

James Harkin is director of the social research agency Flockwatching, and author of 'Niche: Why The Market No Longer Favours The Mainstream'