I haven’t had much experience of rioting being frightened of the unleashed power of the people, which could produce a Prague Spring or the fall of the Berlin Wall but it could equally produce a kristallnacht or an urban over-heating such as the ugly and futile Bradford riots of 2001.
In 1987, riding my Honda 50 home from a shift at the Yorkshire Post, I came across a medium-sized riot in Chapeltown Road, inner-city Leeds. It was around midnight and the sky was alive with petrol bombs, shouting and harsh police lights. The rioters’ target was a sex shop believed (I found out later) to be used by police for surveillance.
With the fearlessness of the stupid, I slowed down and rode through the mob, being careful, because there were so many police around, not to contravene any traffic regulations and mouthing a string of thankyous to the rioters as they let me pass. Some of them put aside their petrol bombs and smiled at me, I think in amusement that a polite man on a Honda 50 could momentarily halt a riot.
Then they all got back to burning the hell out of the handsome building that housed the sex shop, leaving it derelict for decades and showing how even a short riot can leave lasting scars.
I was reminded of all this when I visited an art installation called The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, which is housed in a 40ft long shipping container and viewed through peepholes in its metal sides. What unfolds, as you walk around the container looking in, is a detailed and well-crafted miniature reconstruction of a post-riot scene, with evidence of destruction and streets empty of everyone except the riot squad.
The work’s creator is a musician called Jimmy Cauty, famous for forming half 1990s duo KLF and, heaven knows why, burning a million pounds in notes. He is taking his creation by container lorry on a tour of riot sites around the country, including the car park of my local pub, the Chemic Tavern in Woodhouse, Leeds. This has never been the scene of a proper riot, just some moaning about beer prices, but it is near Hyde Park, Chapeltown and Harehills, which have all seen violent disorders over the last 40 years.
I suppose the purpose of the installation is to invite some sort of reflection on or reaction to English rioting, although I mainly reflected that it was very clever to put the work inside a big metal box because most people are curious about what they cannot see, and that viewing the scene through peepholes is especially exciting – it’s as if you are being let in to a secret.
The week of the Chemic container exhibition, which was accompanied by all sorts of associated musical and artistic events, somehow echoed the riot theme in the wider world; the feeling that things were happening fast (Brexit, mass resignations, massacres, odd weather, Andy Murray) and might be about to explode.
And the mood was intensified as we watched the Theatre of the Dales’ exciting production of King Lear in the wooded and wild old quarry in Meanwood Park, Leeds. We saw a kingdom being split apart, a howling storm, evil manipulations and madness at the top... it seemed as if Shakespeare knew what might happen when a country drastically loses its way.
So if the alarming summer weather – unusually hot with the threat of thunder and a simmering mood of political discontent – continues, I think it might be perfectly reasonable to predict a riot.