I am a Londoner, through and through. For much of my life I have lived, worked and studied in about twenty different London postcodes, and shopped and socialised in several more. They are part of me, who I am, memories indelibly etched into my life's map. Of course, they are subject to change: shops change hands, roundabouts replace traffic lights, buildings change use, so that memories become blurred.... but they are still recognisably my memories, my landscape.
In 1981 I lived about five miles away from the Brixton riots - close enough to feel the tension. Now I live about fifty miles away from the whole city, in largely serene, non-riotous Oxford. In unworried safety I watched TV coverage of the violence and looting, feeling geographically distanced but emotionally close to home. Reeves Corner, Clapham Junction, Hackney Central and Mare Street: indelible parts of my life, now indelibly, brutally, destroyed or disfigured. Only Hackney did not surprise me: the other places have always been more stable, their indices of deprivation not so high.
And then the violence and looting moved on, flooding other cities, surprising us all with the diversity and the insouciance of its perpetrators. Horrified, we have seen people tragically losing their lives, homes, livelihoods and treasured possessions, and so much more: trust, hope, faith in others and the system, a sense of security. I have also been moved to tears by accounts of goodness and heroism: the quiet dignity of a bereaved father; the bravery of those defending their communities or helping with rescue efforts; the broom-wielders in Clapham Junction and all those providing practical help to those in need. Here, too, we have seen diversity - the "goodies", like the "baddies", have come in all shapes and sizes, and from all backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. There is no one determining factor, no single nature or nurture, which we can point at and call the reason for either goodness or evil.
Every day, commentators have sought to find and provide new explanations for why not just disaffected, unemployed teens, but schoolchildren, university students and those in good jobs, those with prospects, descended into Lord of the Flies writ large. Interestingly, I have seen articles by people of all political hues who remind us that Britain has also been greedily looted with impunity by bankers, politicians and wealthy, high-powered crooks. This rioting is not something that has happened in isolation: there is a sense that so much in our society's public and political life has broken down - broken Britain thrives in the corridors of power as much as in run-down council estates.
There are multiple causes, multiple effects, and potentially multiple solutions, though inevitably the choices will be narrowed by financial constraints as much as ideology.
We have a Spanish song in the Society, a haunting, prayerful hymn which has been in my head these past few days: Dame Senor tu mirada - Lord, give me your gaze, engrave it on my heart... It is what we all aspire to. But there are times when it is extremely difficult to view events or people with the loving, compassionate gaze of the Heart of God - and this week, watching the looting, destruction and thuggery, has definitely been one of them.