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It Was 10 Years Ago Today: The night I feared for my life

“Summer in London, the weather man said
Waking up late, got to get out of bed
So much to do, got to go everywhere
A day on the town and not pay the fare
Riots in London”

— Madness, Day On The Town

The 2011 England Riots occurred between August 6th and 11th that year, when thousands of people rioted in several London boroughs and in cities and towns across England. The resulting chaos generated looting, arson, and mass deployment of police and resulted in the deaths of five people.

Protests started in Tottenham, North East London, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man who was shot dead by police on August 4th. Several violent clashes with police ensued, along with the destruction of police vehicles, a double-decker bus, and many homes and businesses, thus rapidly gaining attention from the media.

Overnight, looting took place in Tottenham Hale retail park and nearby Wood Green. The following days saw similar scenes of rioting, looting, arson, mugging, assault and murder (five people died, with scores injured) in other parts of London, with the most disturbances taking place in Hackney, Brixton, Walthamstow, Battersea, Croydon and Ealing, before sheep-like ‘copycat violence’ spread to Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and the Midlands.

Oh, and of course, Peckham. Having lived in the North West London environs of West Hampstead and Golders Green for most of my adult life – where someone’s missing cat was often front page news – in 2010 I’d made the switch to the distinctly less extortionate South East corner of the capital.

I’d bought a three-storey townhouse on the Nunhead and Brockley side of East Dulwich, a small and leafy quadrangle where SE4 meets SE15, SE22 and SE23. Sadly, as I discovered on August 8th 2011, if you were heading home from the city via public transport, there was absolutely no way to avoid Peckham and the gangs of hoodie hoodlums.

Like the hoo-ha over the burqa, the hoodie strengthens our fear of what we can’t see, and there were things I saw that night I hope never to hasher to see again.

This was my hastily scrawled write up; a somewhat shook-up stream of consciousness once I managed to get home to the relative safety of suburbia. Let’s take a ride…

Peckham Under Siege. Now spreading to Dulwich. Nunhead next?

Very hairy and scary scenes tonight. Never thought I’d see the like.

Got in a right pickle trying to get home from Chiswick tonight.

Couldn’t get the 12.

“Buses are curtailed and unable to serve Peckham and are experiencing severe delays due to the emergency services having to block several roads while responding to police incidents on Peckham High Street and Peckham Rye.”

Tried Victoria Station to pick up the 343.

“Due to civil unrest trains are suspended between Victoria and London Bridge and are not stopping at Peckham Rye.”

Had to get the Orpington train and get off at West Dulwich.

Got P13 from the station, which normally goes to Peckham Rye and New Cross. All buses going no further than East Dulwich Sainsburys.

Went up Lordship Lane and at 21:20 saw The Palmerston in darkness. Strange, I thought. Then I spy six or so young guys all looking tentative, all wearing hoodies up.

Bam! First brick hits the pub window on the New Cross Road side.

Decide I don’t wanna hang around. How can this happen to leafy yuppy middle class Dulwich? Margaret Thatcher lived here FFS!

Rush on foot up towards Goose Green, tipping off the Londis guy and then the doorman at a packed EDT of what I’ve just witnessed.

Next stop call the police – let them know something’s started in East Dulwich, although they’ve obviously got their hands full in Peckham.

No sign of the 484 on East Dulwich Road. Run to the next stop, opposite the Tesco Express.

There’s about 30 youths all congregating at the junction with Gowlett Road, by Zandra Rhodes’s rusty bollards.

There’s a solitary white guy at the bus stop itself. He tells me just one bus (a 37) has managed to get through in the 25 minutes he’s been waiting. In that time he’s observed the gang up close. He seems calm, but tells me he won’t go any nearer towards them and avoids eye contact and hides his phone.

There are now more arriving from the nearby council estate on that side of the road. Some gather on the Tesco side of the road.

I notice there is a massive stash of unopened cans of lager on the pavement. Dutch courage before a night of wanton destruction?

Some of the gang already have their hoodies up and scarves hiding the lower half of their faces. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding in the air.

I’m in luck. A 484 is edging closer, only going as far as Brockley Cross because Lewisham’s also a no go area. That’s just fine for me though. I stick my hand out and the driver sees me and makes some strange forward-motion hand gesture. The bus doesn’t stop.

I stand and stare incredulously and more than a little bit angry and unnerved at the same time. “Sh*t, I’m gonna have to walk through Peckham Rye Common to get home. Any of this lot could follow me.”

“Where do you live?”

“The Nunhead side of the Rye.”

“Ah, you’ll be alright. It’s quiet there.”

I still have to get home first.

I try to flag a black cab that’s doing a u-turn but he’s not for hire, even though he’s empty. Don’t blame him I suppose.

Then I see the same 484 slow down and it looks like he’s going to pull in at the next stop, on the bit of road that cuts through the common.

I leg it and sprint faster than I’ve ever sprinted in my life before, despite two bags of shopping and a shoulder bag. At that moment it’s fair to say I’d have given Usain Bolt a run for his considerable money.

I can’t believe it. It looks like the driver has seen me and is actually waiting for me. Oh joy!

I leap on the bus with more than a spring in my step and look at him with a mixture of quizzical non-plusment and unadulterated relief.

Then I realise he knew it was me from the previous stop. “Sorry mate, but we’ve been warned not to stop at certain stops for our own safety.”

No worries. Right now he could say anything he likes to me and I wouldn’t care. Other than “get off the bus” of course. The fact is I’m on the bus and almost home. That five minute ride couldn’t go quick enough for me.

Phew, what a night! Just glad to be inside the relative safety of my house. And I’m more than a little thankful it’s in the quietest part of Zone 2 and nowhere near a parade of shops. But, of course, our sleepy little village is surrounded by Peckham, East Dulwich and Lewisham. I just pray Brockley remains unscathed. Ho hum.

Not travelling into town tomorrow. Stay safe everyone.

Steve Pafford

First published: Facebook, August 2011

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