The Reunion

The Reunion
Radio 4

Thirty years ago, the first of the 1981 riots broke out in Brixton in London. On Friday 10 April, a young man who had been stabbed was being taken away by the police. An angry crowd gathered. Over the next two days, hundreds of youngsters fought with police, many of whom were bussed in from the suburbs. By the end of the weekend, nearly 300 police and 60 youths had been hospitalised, shops had been burned and looted, pavements had been dug up for missiles and the city was in a kind of shock.

To try to make sense of that weekend, Sue MacGregor sat in a studio with participants in the riot and observers (20 March, 11.15am). Interspersed with contemporary reporting delivered in the copybook pronunciation of days long gone, the former policemen Peter Bleksley and Brian Paddick, the journalist Darcus Howe, "Red" Ted Knight, then leader of Lambeth, the local council, and the novelist Alex Wheatle described the events. It was like listening to old soldiers who had fought in the same war.

The aim was, MacGregor said, to draw a "picture from both sides of the community". This was, I suppose, a tactful way of saying black against white. Yet what emerged most clearly was that no two guests, not even supposed colleagues, were ever part of the same community. Bleksley, an ex-constable who has one of those perfect, gravelly, London radio voices, told of routine beatings of black youths by the police. Racism "wasn't institutional, it was compulsory", he said. He lost his flow only once, trying to describe what it felt like to hear stones hitting the side of the police van he was sitting in. "I was at home, pressing my uniform," Paddick said, when he saw colleagues bleeding on the TV news. "I got into my own MG sports car and got stuck in a traffic jam on Acre Lane."

Wheatle was honest about the thrill of the riot. "We wanted that confrontation, definitely. We saw fire - it was exhilarating, it was empowering." A little sniffily, Howe denied any part in the violence. "I had a reputation as a thinker and not a thug . . . I was a full man." Wheatle laughed. "While Darcus was thinking, a lot of us were just exhausted."

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?