Reporting on a riot that didn’t happen

When does a lack of a riot need an explanation?

Last night there was not a riot in Bromley. All yesterday afternoon rumours were tweeted that there would be some disturbance in this south London suburb, which also prides itself as being in north Kent.

The night before there was minor trouble: the two shops by the bypass selling electronic goods were looted, a single window was broken at Primark, and - pointlessly - glass was also smashed at a rather good independent fish and chip shop. But, according to excited tweeters, it was "all going to kick off in Bromley" last night.

Except that it did not. So does the lack of a local riot need as an intensely anxious explanation as one which does take place? Normally, one would not feel any need to explain the lack of a riot in any suburb on a Tuesday night. However, last night was special: further riots were predicted throughout Greater London, and riots did take place in Manchester and Birmingham (where a local barrister reports the front glass doors of the Crown Court were kicked in).

If any explanation is needed, one factor is that the high-value electrical goods shops with an escape had already been done over, and were boarded-up last night. Any other looting of expensive goods would have needed to come further into the pedestrianized centre, making it less easy to take the products away.

But that, of course, was not the main reason for the lack of a riot. Far more significant were the twenty to thirty officers who were in the centre of Bromley at any one time. From around 7 pm onwards, police officers outnumbered civilians at a ratio of about two to one. Anyone coming into Bromley looking for trouble, or a free television, would see at least six fluorescent jackets on any road coming in. The Market Square was usually deserted. In these circumstances, it was difficult to see any significant disorder occurring, and indeed none did.

And whilst Bromley was left to wandering pairs of police officers and almost-empty buses, idiots on Twitter were publishing breathless misinformation. The Glades Shopping Centre was on fire (it wasn't) and there were explosions (there weren't); it was "shocking" what was going on (but nothing was going on); and - inevitably - it was "all kicking off" (it really was not at all). The boring and simple reality was that Bromley was quiet all along: I know, I was there. It was almost as if some Tweeters wanted to get up momentum in the hope that there would be trouble. No doubt at such point, those tweeters would then all go "OMG".

So last night a suburb did not have a riot, and this was primarily through a heavy one-off presence of police. But this raises further questions. What happens when such policing is no longer possible? And was it right to use such substantial policing instead of, say, deploying military resources? The answer to the second of these questions is surely that, as a matter of basic principle, it is never right to not use civilian police to police civilians although other parts of the country may feel rightly upset at the switch of policing to London (especially from Manchester and the West Midlands). And as for the first of those questions: we have to wait and see whether the rioters and looters decide to attack the centre of Bromley again, when all the police have gone away.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State