Sloane Square appears on the destination boards of London buses as “via”, an indicator that the bus will make a circuit of it to or from a more final place in the city’s southwest quadrant. Lately the square has wanted to be more than a “via”, and set out tentative cafe tables in a corner. But nobody lingers long. Its west side, where it opens into the King’s Road, is ceded to the Peter Jones department store, with curved glass walls built in the 1930s as a bold experiment in Modernism. The store has been owned for over a century by an employee co-operative, the John Lewis partnership, middle England’s reliable supplier of domesticity, and its windows barely bother to entice. Wander in from the square and you are among teacups; come through the back entrance, its red brick and brass facade pre-dating the Modernist reconstruction, and you are in the net curtain department: necessary stuff, not impulse purchases. The few other shops in the square are overwhelmed by PJ’s certitude. The main run of retail is on the south side and includes what was a branch of WH Smith, a failing institution of magazines and stationery, unexpectedly suborned a few years ago as an outlet for Hugo Boss, the German clothing firm, part of the private equity financed Valentino Fashion Group.
“ Unexpectedly” because Boss’s Italian-German styling (though mostly Turkish-Polish production) isn’t quite the ticket for Sloane men, native or naturalised. Boss suits suggest English tailoring without the ease of the original, and anyway the real, or real-ish thing can be ordered from a depot of Gieves & Hawkes adjacent to Boss on the square. Boss sportswear is urban techie, whereas the off-duty gear of a well-off Brit male usually alludes to the rustic; Barbour and Burberry, before the regrettable years when they were adopted as gala dress for chavs, were meant to withstand acres of mud, preferably in the ownership of the wearer.
Boss’s hi-tech preferences dominate the design of its store. Sometimes its windows are filled with plasma screens showing footage that melds fashion shots with computer-generated imagery (CGI), as if Boss models (notably the actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers) were so cool as to be free of the boundaries of the real world. Advanced sports props — super go-karts, aqua gear — are mounted on the walls. One Christmas, the store handed out greetings cards to customers to give them what it called “an interactive augmented reality experience”; the cards incorporated electronic codes that activated images on the screens, and now and again a discount at the till. Usually the shop is just a repository for merchandise on rails, and on those fashionable oversized counters with drawers beneath.
Counters, when Mr Peter Jones began in the drapery business, were a barrier between the staff in command of their reserve of stock and the customers (who contemptuously called male assistants with aspirations above their station “counterjumpers”), but current counters are mortuary slabs in the store’s centre, encircled by buyers who anatomise the goods laid out. When there are no gizmos in Boss’s windows, they’re dull.
Displays in London shop windows have been an applied art since industrialised production of plate glass and a repeal in 1845 of the tax on glass made possible a windowscape uninterrupted by glazing bars and illuminated into the night by new, cheap gas lamps. Charles Dickens, whose youth had been shadowed by candle and whale oil flames, and who understood stage lighting, responded to the new retail drama. “The brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops,” he wrote in Nicholas Nickleby, “where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours … and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion … profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass.” (Many shops evacuated goods from the window at closing time — prudent jewellers still do — and shutters over the glass after dark were usual in high streets until the second world war, then revived first in rough areas, then more widely, from the 1970s.)
The raw embarrassment of riches that overwhelmed Dickens was passé by the end of his century, and shop display turned to witty fantasies; a few keep that tone, notably those of Harvey Nichols, three bus stops from Sloane Square. For a while now, actual materiality has been ceding to photographic images, since merchandise won’t enable its owner or wearer to defy perspective and deny gravity, as Rhys Meyers does among the CGI graphics. Electronic goods stores only gesturally showcase their wares, which are inert grey rectangles when inactive. Fashion brands set out dressed mannequins, unelevated, on the floor directly behind shop windows, with minimal division between the display and the selling space, and just a scattering of accessories.
Vocabulary of lawlessness
The accessories in the Boss windows were rather more scattered, if they were there at all, by the end of the evening of 8 August. That was the culminating night of English lawlessness. Mostly the words “riot” and “loot” have been used to describe this (an ideal headline word has four characters or less), though neither is accurate. “Loot” looks Anglo-Saxon, but as a noun for stolen goods was thieved from Hindi in the late 18th century, and turned into a verb in about 1840, strictly attached to gains ill gotten in war. And though “riot” as mob disturbance is late medieval, many know it almost better with an older connotation — extravagant, luxuriant, profuse — through the phrase “riotous living”. “Plunder” is a better verb, borrowed from German during the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, then adopted for the seizure of household goods by force throughout the English civil war. “Sack”, from the French order to mercenaries to stuff what they could grab in a sac or bag, is apposite: “pillage” and “spoil” are both rooted in skinning an animal.
Some of the 3,296 crimes in England in the 100 hours between an initial non-confrontation over familial dignity outside Tottenham police station on 6 August and the mobilisation of 16,000 officers to lock down the capital, were “robbery”, a word that long ago produced the noun “robe”, meaning a (plundered) long garment. The charge sheets of magistrates’ courts in the following week confined their accusations to theft, burglary — illegal entry in order to steal, the word derived from the breach of a fortress, a burgh — and the handling of stolen goods.
Britons are used to personal robbery by a single footpad, because it has been relatively common for decades, but not many have seen before, on television and the web, physical assaults on premises. Yet the scenes shown of “affray” (a word that shares its past with afraid, medievally coeval for a state of alarm in response to sudden non-peace) were unspectacular. Even the high level of kinetic energy applied by four or five youths assailing with feet and scaffolding poles a metal grille designed only to stop chucked bricks made for dreary viewing compared with the habitual fictional “mayhem” (the word was once a variant of maim) that explodes into shards and CGI fireballs on telly, screen and Xbox.
There wasn’t much footage — at least, none has been made public — of the “rifling” (original meaning, damage through abrasion) of the Boss store around 11pm, well into the chronology of London’s disturbances: by then live images from a helicopter above Croydon, in the deep south of London, of a fire licking its thorough way through a furniture store and adjacent premises, eventually achieving fireball picture-worthiness, had played for over two hours on news channels.
Up the Junction
They were interrupted for recaps of the day’s cumulative disorder, and bulletins from current outbursts, London and nationwide, including a patchy event at Clapham Junction, only a couple of miles from Sloane Square. This had a fire, too, though just one, lit quite late, advancing vertically above a shop selling fancy dress, incinerated in pursuit of disguises. The Junction predators were, like most of the others out across England, not an unstoppable throng, surging solidly in the way the UK associates with public protest; hardly a hundred at any time, hopping and posturing in small knots. No one seemed to be able to assemble around himself more than a handful of others, as if each of the notorious Battersea social housing estates nearby had mustered less a contingent summoned by social media than a few mates met on a stairwell who said yeah to a five-to-20 minute bike or walk to the nearest Carphone Warehouse. (What used to be called “going up the Junction”.)
After a few battered an entry, faintly affiliated receivers dashed in, each operating independently, leaping over the counters in the opposite direction to upwardly mobile Victorians. They affronted the electrical goods and phone shops, Claire’s Accessories (the poor girl’s Top Shop), and the local department store. This now belongs to a faded chain, Debenhams, which, like Peter Jones, began as an independent draper’s, Arding & Hobbs; also like Peter Jones, its handsome redbrick facade (erected in 1910 after a predecessor burnt down) is heritage listed, in part for the confident curve of display windows around its base. Some were smashed for the excitement of the crash, but illicit entrance was made through a demolished door, where girls skittered in and strolled out a while later with their booty (the word, oddly enough, from a root cognate with exchange) stashed in the store’s plastic carriers.
Events at Churchill Gardens
The Boss pack attack in Sloane Square was more opaque than this fete, and is likely to remain so. The numbers involved are approximated, even by those who took part. Maybe 30. Maybe 60. Almost all came from the Churchill Gardens Estate, which is half an hour’s dawdle from Sloane Square. Churchill Gardens was built as social housing in the immediate post-war era, when Britain was bankrupt and goods were rationed. It was designed as a model for what social housing should and would be, replacing a blitzed district of Pimlico — by the Thames, a short stroll from Parliament — with a Mondrian arrangement of vertical flatblocks balanced by low horizontal bars of maisonettes, set in landscaped grounds. Its trees are now full-grown, its lawns and shrubs recently upgraded, its survival assured (many blocks are Grade Two listed, and the entire estate is a conservation area): flats bought from the council by their tenants under the right to ownership introduced by the Thatcher government in the 1980s have been sold on and on, and now command similar prices to those in its neighbour, the always private, and downright stately, 1930s Dolphin Square apartment complex.
When Churchill Gardens was new in 1951, just living there, with radiators, and hot water on tap from a district heating system, must have been the prize of peace. Women serviced the flats as post-war housewives, willing to lug grocery bags the long haul from the only shops on the main road; the chief source of entertainment and news were BBC radio’s Home Service and Light Programme; there was almost no place to park a car, as no tenants owned a vehicle. It is still a long way to go from the Gardens to buy a loaf, and the estate never added venues for social exchange — the sole pub, closed at present, is on its perimeter. There is a generous public library, with community services, just over its boundary and touting for custom. And there is a youth club.
Which is where, according to rumour, the descent on Sloane Square was mooted. So far, the major Churchill delinquent in court has been Mario Quiassaca, 18, who admitted burglary at Boss and violent disorder. By the standards of Battersea’s Winstanley estate (five minutes jog from Arding & Hobbs, and well known as a trading post where goods nicked up the Junction are exchanged for drugs), Quiassaca, born in Angola, is a high achiever. He had been a sports student at Kingston College until he was expelled earlier this year, and was a semi-professional footballer for Staines Town in the Conference South league, playing well enough to be noticed. In fact, he’d been soccer training that Monday night, then gone home and changed his clothes before, to quote the prosecution, he’d “gathered with 30-60 people from the Churchill estate”.
The place of gathering was unspecified, but none of the flats or landings could accommodate a crammed couple of dozen, even though Parker Morris, who set famous, ample space standards for public housing, helped create the estate. The youth club seems the likely place (nobody seems ever to walk on the estate grass, not even children). Logistics were difficult to track during les évènements. The media was initially excited by the call-to-arms potential of Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (Quiassaca was on Facebook, and interested in BBM): as Paul Lewis of the Guardian pointed out, a BBM invitation, no RSVP required, for 9pm on the Sunday for “Pure terror & Free Stuff … just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want! … MUST REBROADCAST TO ALL CONTACTS” attracted about 50 to Oxford Circus. I would have expected more, though to be fair, public transport is at its lowest possible level on Sunday nights. But the Churchill assembly, barring quick come-and-join-us texts to tardy or farflung mates, gathered onsite exactly as it would have in 1951. It took a while for two or three platoons to get going but the destination was sure. They were headed for Sloane Square, “to cause chaos”, as Quiassaca said, claiming he had been resentful after police had stopped him on the way home from training. He also said that he had taken latex gloves “as he did not want to leave his fingerprints everywhere”.
Only one road exits from the Churchill towards the square. It runs parallel to an older social housing development, Peabody Avenue, a straight boulevard with Victorian tenements on each side, also now a conservation area (Peabody blocks dot London, but this is their sole processional way). Then it crosses a bridge over a delta of rail lines flowing from Victoria station. In five minutes of youthful bound beyond that, they’d have been among the Pimlico Road’s cluster of shutterless decor and antique boutiques. They turned north towards the square not up the main Lower Sloane Street, but by a nearer back road, blocking it and then the square with rubbish bins to keep police out — the sole police car that approached was pelted with sticks, wood and stones. A Ladbrokes betting shop on the back road and a currency exchange for tourists by Sloane Square tube station were both attacked, plus an ATM machine, which refused to oblige.
Boss took the brunt of the bashing. Six windows were cracked and holed, although, as at Clapham Junction, the damaged door was the main entry. Quiassaca assured police he hadn’t been a smasher, his interest had been in bagging clothes. He wore a stolen bodywarmer on the walk home (nights cooled fast this August) and carried back £1,133 worth of jeans, shirts and accessories. His comrades did as well — Boss claimed 80 items were taken — yet seemed easily satiated, or picky. Nothing seems to have stood between them and the thousands and thousands of items of Free Stuff along two miles of super-high-street that is the King’s Road, starting with the Vistavision-wide televisions in Peter Jones’s windows (don’t assume that the John Lewis partnership is sacrosanct; the Croydon branch was breached while the emergency services were concentrating on that fire), but they didn’t even rove as far as Rigby & Peller, the Queen’s corsetieres, 100 yards from Boss. They seem to have disdained Gieves & Hawke’s gear, as not being to their taste — and to have felt the lack of an audience, live or lensed.
Police raided four addresses at Churchill Gardens two days later, assembling in single file, dark blue against the pale stucco of an expensive terrace just north of the estate. A dozen piled into each targeted flat, although the narrow hallways denied them the choreography of “assault” (from a Latin verb, to leap). In Quiassaca’s room, seven Boss garments were still on their shop hangers, or with their counter folds: the price tags visibly dangle on the stills and footage released of the raids. Quiassaca was dropped immediately by his football team and, after his plea, was remanded in custody to await sentence, probably jail, at a higher court, along with a friend too young to be named. The friend, an apprentice from Battersea, had joined Quiassaca after watching the Croydon blaze on the telly, but fled back home bootyless to confess all to his mother when the mob in the square “behaved like a pack of animals”. He told police he went on the expedition because he “felt up for it to cause havoc” (from “cry havoc”, a military order to pillage in the Anglo-French 100 years war, which soon escalated to mean devastation). I think he was hoping for an interactive augmented reality experience, and a free pair of Air Jordan trainers.
Veronica Horwell is a writer and journalist in London.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.