Right at the end of my living in London stint I started working at Pogo Café in Hackney. I also found myself in the middle of a riot.
One of the maddogs I used to work with
It was high summer and there was no teaching work for five weeks. I had considered getting a bar job but I couldn’t bring myself to work for six quid an hour – that is not why I went to uni for four years. Anyway, I went to Pogo one night to watch a screening of Noise and Resistance and starting yarning with one of the girls who worked there. It was an all-vegan anarchist co-op – completely volunteer-run, and all profits went to paying the bills and to helping various charities. Pogo would reimburse the workers for travel to and from work, and we were also allowed a free main meal while we were on shift. I explained that I would be moving back to Australia in a month but that I could work three or four days shifts per week up until then. I do realise that I went from refusing to work a bar job because the pay was beneath me to volunteering my services for free, but…it was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I really loved working there.
Everyone I worked with was amazing in their own way, and we were all there because we wanted to be, not because we had to. I worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds. One thing we all had in common was the café and the ethics and political lifestyle implications that came from that. All of us were vegetarians of varying degrees, mostly vegan. We all supported organic farming and fair trade. We were all part of various alternative subcultures and our lifestyle choices were not compatible with the dominant society. We were all misfits and outcasts in some way, some more obviously than others. We were homo-, hetero-, bi-, a- and trans- kinds of sexual. We were old and young and everything in between. Some of us rented, others lived in co-ops, a few squatted and a couple were homeless. Some used Pogo as their sole means of working and getting a free meal every day, while others just worked out of leisure. We all used it as a social hub.
Foraging in Hackney yields sweet returns
Some of the people I worked with in that last month showed me some of the best times out of the whole time I lived in London. The time Ana from Spain and I went bike-riding through Hackney, found hidden farmland and picked buckets full of wild blackberries, then sat in a field of horses, got blazed and munged out, and talked about human circuses, punk rock and literature. The time Seba from Poland and I sat at Pogo for two hours after it closed and showed each other up in the thrash stakes on Youtube. The day I first worked with the beautiful Eva from Italy and she allowed me the privilege of watching her make mouth-watering, healthful and colourful salads out of our garden, flowers and all. The day that Jozsef from
Russia Hungary and I made ten different kinds of scrumptious vegan desserts and taste tested them all. The day that Joel from Byron Bay first came into the café wearing the exact same Dangers jumper as I, and we sat and trouted about hardcore all morning. The day that Summer from LA told me she was a writer, and we read to each other bits and pieces of things we’d written over the years whilst listening to Rodriguez and Neil Young. The time Paul from Dublin introduced me to some low-down and dirty rocknroll from his hometown in the style of the Cramps. All these times were very special to me – bonding with strangers from all over the world about the things that matter the most in my life. I was sad to leave but grateful to have been a part of it. It’s something that I would like to start up here eventually, once I get tired of the academic rat race. A not-for-profit, organic vegan café that doubles as an art and music space, run by a community of like-minded and eclectic individuals that could make it greater than the sum of its parts. One day…one day…
Beauteous Hackney farmland
Anyway, you would have heard something about the England Riots of 2011. What started out as a legitimate angered response to police brutality and lies regarding the shooting of Mark Duggan turned ugly when the cops bashed a young girl in Tottenham on the Saturday night. This of course set the community raging even more so – police stations were picketed all over most of the poorer areas of London – Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney and Croydon amongst others – and full-on riots began that Sunday night and carried over for close to a week in different parts of the country. It started in these areas in London, and the High Streets were set ablaze and looters took advantage of the chaos. What could have turned into a righteous response to ongoing problem of police power tripping quickly turned scummy, and people lost their lives trying to protect the streets, their families and themselves. I witnessed the scumminess, and also the strength, of some of these people firsthand as I went into Pogo on that Monday afternoon. Here is an excerpt from my journal that evening:
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Monday, 8th of August, 2011
I just found myself in a pretty fucking intense situation. I went to go and watch a movie at Pogo; I left home early because I wanted to chill and have a feed at the café beforehand. There was a report that Hackney Central station was closed because of the riots yesterday, as was Brixton tube, so I took a train from Tulse Hill to St Pancras, then a tube from King’s Cross to Highbury and Islington, and then the overground towards Homerton, where I was going to get off and walk, but the train ended up stopping at Hackney Central anyway. That was a fucking mission!
As soon as I got out of the station shit was weird. Riot cops had shut off the ramp and directed us down the stairs towards Amherst Road. Across the road, there were about thirty people gathered in the square – some masked or scarfed over, but most brave-faced. Something was being anticipated. You could see it in the way everyone was shuffling their feet, hands in pockets or clutching drink bottles, eyes flicking in a 360° vista, placing themselves in relation to everyone else. Always feeling safer amongst my own and wary of the real bad guys, I stood amongst this crew and looked to the right, toward the ramp of the station. Four riot cops stood, blocking the way of the nobodies trying (yet) to get through.
I took my headphones out – I realised I would need to be catlike and alert to be safe – and that’s when I noticed the unholy noise of drone and doom from the sky. I usually love that shit but hearing it live and not at a gig is fucking unsettling. I counted four black choppers in my direct vicinity and a few more scattered further away and hovering in and out of sight. This shit was serious.
Well, no way was I going to get onto Mare Road where I usually walked to the café. As I walked north along Amherst Road to go the long way towards Dalston Lane, I could see through the alleyways on my right that Mare Road was blocked off – the cops clearly anticipated that rioters would be looting the shit out of those swanky High Street stores. Thing is, for all of their armour and batons and weapons, I could see even at this early stage that the cops were outnumbered at least four to one and this isn’t even the intense part yet. I kept walking along the strangely silent street, overdubbed with the sound of the blades spinning overhead. I got to Kenmure Road which is a side access to Mare Road and walked up to one of the cops blocking the way in.
“Hey mate, I need to get to Clarence Street,” I said.
“Where’s that?” he asked.
“Well usually I walk straight up here and past the estate, up that street.”
“Well that’s all blocked off, you’re best to walk up and around and then you’d have to go through the estate, but I would advise against walking through there by yourself.”
“Are you talking about Pembury Annex on the corner? Like, don’t go through there?” I asked, not sure of what he was telling me to do.
“Yeah. Stay away from the estate.”
“Why’s that? No, don’t worry. I know exactly why. I’ll sort something out.”
“Righto,” he said.
“Racist cunt,” I thought. “You think I’m one of you and so you’re trying to point out false boogeymen in the places where the brown and poor live. Well, I am brown and poor, and the only people on this earth that scare me in situations like this are white men in uniforms.”
I walked back down the way, debating whether to walk up to Homerton and jump on a train home, or just go around the long way to Pogo. “Fuck it, I’ve come all this way, may as well have a go.” As I kept walking I noticed a tall young man fall into step beside me.
“Hello, are you going through Pembury?” he asked in a heavy Eastern European accent.
“Yeah, are you?”
“Yes, I have to meet my friends up the road. I can walk with you if you like.”
“Yeah thanks. What’s your name?”
“I’m ‘Dot’. Where are you from?”
As we got yarning, I learnt that this young man was from Romania, and had just lost his job at a construction company. He’d been living in London for nine months, in Hackney, and wasn’t educated past Year 10, making it really hard for him to get work.
“How old are you?” he asked, peering sideways into my face.
“Too old for you love!” I joked.
“No, you’re only about twenty-one or twenty-two,” he argued.
“Actually I’m nearly twenty-seven mate,” I laughed.
“Oh! Oh okay. You look like a kid still. How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like these games.”
I turned and smiled at him. “Sixteen?”
“No, of course not,” he puffed, his manly pride clearly hurt, “I’m twenty-three.”
“Still too young darlin’.”
After a minute or so he asked me: “What makes you feel crazy?”
Unsure of what he meant, I asked him to elaborate. He wanted to know the things that made my blood heat up, that made my toes tingle, that gave me butterflies, that made me smile secretly. He wasn’t being smutty, and this was one of those interesting conversations that punctuates the mostly banal exchanges I have come to expect from strangers in London. No shit, I have been told too many times to count that I was the most interesting person that some people had ever met, and it made me sad because there are millions more interesting than me out there. This is what I crave – chaos, unfamiliarity, that which creates friction and so, growth. I am glad that I gave that young man the time of day. Anyway, back to the conversation.
“This,” I said, “this is what gives me butterflies – connections, warmth, belonging. Throwing a net out in the vast and overpopulated ocean, not to catch a multitude but just one or two special, rare and willing finds.” Not sure he wouldn’t take that as encouragement, I added to distract him, but no less honestly: “When I talk to and when I think about the person that I love, I feel a thousand times happier than I did before.”
“Mmm. This is a nice answer. I like it. Would you like to have a drink with me later?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
“What about a coffee then?”
“Look, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about me. I’m not interested in anything romantic.”
“That’s okay, I understand. Somebody is very lucky to have your heart,” he said sweetly.
I smiled, and thanked him, and wondered how accurate that statement really was.
We turned the corner and stopped, taking in the sight of burning bins on the rubbish strewn northern end of Clarence Road; hundreds of people, mostly masked and hooded, gathered around, sporadically visible through the black smoke of burning plastic and rubber, which moved through the air around us in zigzags, pushed this way and that by the helicopters chopping into the ether just above us. Mikael suddenly put his arm across my chest and pushed me back as something flew past us and glass smashed on the wall next to my face.
“Holy shit! Thankyou! There’s no way I’m going into work tonight.” I stared all around me. Mikael grabbed my hand and offered to walk me through.
“No, I think I’ll just go home. Thankyou anyway, and good luck!”
“So I can’t see you again?”
“Look, I think not. I’m moving back to Australia soon. But please, stay sweet. Its very refreshing.”
We hugged, then I smiled at him and walked away past a young woman and man putting out a council bin fire and moving it off the road. An older man was heckling them. The young woman had enough, stood up and looked him in the eye.
“You know what Uncle? My mum and baby brother need to drive home very soon. We live here, this is our street. So I’ll just clean up your mess Uncle, and you respect my family in turn.” Chastised, he let them be and wandered into the crowd, muttering to himself. I hope that strong young girl’s family got home safe and sound.
I wanted to walk north through the park of Hackney Downs, but was loathe to pull out my work smartphone in the middle of this, to check out my direction, which lines were down, and the best way to get back south without putting myself in any dangerous situations.
There was a pub nearby, and I went in to the toilet and pulled the phone out to check where the closest open station was. Satisfied with my orienteering skills, I went out into the bar for a few minutes. The pub was packed, all patrons with pints in their hands, staring at the news on the flatscreen. They were watching news of the riots in Hackney, when they could well have just looked outside for a flesh and blood update.
“Fuck this flatscreen culture,” I thought. “Hyperreality sucks everyone in.”
I walked through the community orchard, and the apocalyptic doomsday atmosphere got under my skin. There were random packs of other humans, and I was a lone wolf, a female, and very fucking thankful that I dress like a teenage boy in times like this. I pulled my hood over my face and my scarf up where my beard would be if I’d had a Y chromosome. I wasn’t hassled the whole way home – I kept to myself and stayed alert.
I caught a train from Rectory Road to Seven Sisters, and then into Camden Town. I treated myself to a nice dinner at Inspiral Café, and sat and wrote and people-watched. I caught a few more trains to get back, sticking to the peripheries of the city itself, giving wide berth to the hotspots. It was a long and winding road home, going around the tedious way, narrowly avoiding some crazy shop fires and opportunistic looting in the centre of Brixton, but I eventually got home safe and sound. I’m glad I didn’t get caught up in anything gnarlier!
London’s burning?! Camden Lock, Monday night of the riots.
<end of entry>
The next day I spoke to some of the Pogo crew. They had locked the café and watched the rioting from inside. Some of the photos they took were pretty full on. There was a car upended in front of the shop and set alight. It gave off so much heat that the front window of the shop cracked! A few shops down the street were looted and destroyed. We started up a fund straightaway to help our neighbours. It was rad to see everybody lending a hand.
Delicious Pogo food
Anyway, that was my experience of arson, stealth and romance in the London Riots of August 2011. Namaste.
Defender Of The Faith, 20.11.12