Sarah Sands: How the household broom restored our pride

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The Independent Online

When Norway wanted to show social healing of its deep wound, its citizens held up roses. Young Iranians tried and poignantly failed to bring freedom by showing hands painted green. America reaches instinctively for the Stars and Stripes in times of national trauma. And Britain? Oh, we have the broom.

One moment we are in the throes of Los Angeles-style riots, murderous social breakdown, burn baby burn. The next, an Ealing comedy. On Twitter, everyone begged to see pictures of the broom army on newspaper front pages, to show that good had prevailed over bad.

And what an entirely fitting symbol for our patriotism. Silly, plucky and unfashionable. The broom was pure antidote to the consumerist rage of the weekend. Is there anything less bling than a brush? As soon as local residents gathered with their buckets and their Marigolds there was a sense of a more peaceful, suburban Britain reasserting itself, of mucking in rather than exclusion.

The violence was born of adrenalin and fantasy. The streets looked like a video game, with no one to turn it off. Steal the cars, take out the feds. As daylight returned, shame replaced the murder and mayhem. There was little exhilaration and swagger left among those paraded before the magistrates.

The broom is as metaphorical as, well as a literal image of restoration. In a friendly way, it demands the physical labour that can help us in times of stress. Who was ever afraid of a broom? Who does not take joy in the order conveyed by a well-swept floor or pavement? The broom speaks of sanctity, but does so with a music hall quality, the stuff of mothers-in-law and Widow Twankey. No self respecting gangsta is going to want to be seen with a broom.

The comedy and the kindness of the broom was reflected in the expression of the sweepers. A serious intent, but a bit of a lark. Not since Dick Van Dyke led the sweeps in Mary Poppins had we seen such evidence of the power of the bristle in our capital city. The generosity and humour was infectious. Here was Middle-earth roused from mildness. Witnesses who described the "dead eyes" of the hard-core looters must have felt their blood warmed again at the sight of the broom Mexican wave, and accompanying cheers.

David Cameron has talked a lot about the Big Society, but he never mentioned brooms. Unusually, he failed to see an opportunity for symbolism in its practical and neighbourly qualities. Even Boris Johnson took a moment to recognise the potential in the imagery when he headed for the streets to stiffen the spine of Londoners. "Where is your broom?" they shouted at him. The light dawned and he picked up his brush and waved it aloft.

The broom is not political. It manages to be both trad and strangely funky, with a classless, ageless appeal. The broom does not convey the aggressive ideology of the hammer and the sickle nor the threat of the raised fist, but talks to a more understated triumph. The crowd's cry of "Where's your broom?" is never going to be revolutionary rhetoric. But a new broom brings change, just the same.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'