David Bebber for The Times
Yesterday I was called as a witness to give evidence to the impeccably impartial Planning Inspector, appointed by the Secretary of State, to assess whether the plan for our local area, put forward by Southwark Council, was appropriate. The plan is for dense and high rise buildings on the last remaining undeveloped land round here. My vision is for the whole area to be turned into an Arboretum and Ecological Sanctuary.
As I sat in that room, all set up to be official, in Southwark Council's offices, I couldn't help but feel that we were fiddling while London burns. The plan we were discussing was totally retrospective, a throwback to the corporate self-aggrandisement of the 1980s. Looking around at the vacant and smug faces of the suits (male and female) I pondered if the greed in the room was so different to that looting which was going on in the High Streets and Shopping Centres of Southwark.
The agenda had slipped so although I was there to discuss Green Spaces, we spent the morning discussing something else; don't ask me what exactly because it was full of jargon, letters, numbers, reports, assessments, policy, strategy and a very high dosage of bullshit. The language used was not so dissimilar to that which I use when I'm teaching class but the usage was quite bizarre. We were asked to consider having spatial direction for a quantum development, flexibility in the existing hierarchy, aspirational beauty of height, and a high quality public realm. Get the picture? I didn't. We spent an hour and a half discussing a report which was so embarrassingly badly prepared that I even began to wonder what they teach in schools. When asked a question by the Inspector the poor lamb-to-the-slaughter fumbled in her notes to say that if you look at point la-la on page la-la then it answered the question, which it patently didn't. The only consoling factor was that her accent betrayed her, and her colleagues: they weren't from our manor so we can't blame Southwark education for that one. Not once throughout the proceedings were the words quality of life, human, community, well-being, inspiration mentioned. It was an eye-opening experience.
Meanwhile, we're now on day 5 of the so-called rioting. I'm not entirely sure that's what it is though. The Paris riots of 1968, which my father accidentally got caught up in when he was leaving a restaurant on the Left Bank leaving him emotionally scarred, had a purpose: the students knew what they didn't want. The Brixton riots of 1981, which I could hear from my bedroom window just over a mile away, were also fairly traumatising but were based on social unrest, a feeling of disenfranchisement, a desire to express their pent-up need to be heard, they violently objected to the rich and the police. Both these events seemed to me to have a power to transform, the outcome was to make the world a better place, even if in the process some streets got vandalised, police got hurt. It was a case of you can't make an omelette without smashing eggs.
When I arrived yesterday, carrying my ever-trusty Pink Brompton on which I'd biked the couple of miles up the Thames, past the billowing sails of a yacht just heading out to sea from St Katharine's Dock, I asked the security guard if he, his family and property were OK. "No, ma'am, they're not. Woolwich was pretty bad last night, a lot of looting. I know a lot of those kids because I used to be a youth project advocacy worker and I told them to leave off destroying our area." So what needs to be done? "They need spaces where they can go to let off steam", he replied with more wisdom than any of those in the meeting, who just dismissed him as the janitor, had themselves. It was a Delphic Oracle moment: the answer was on the door as you came in.
Back in my City days one of the many lessons I learned is that the culture of a company percolates down from the consciousness of those who run it. It's why investors want to meet the Chairman, Chief Executive and Finance Director. They also want to see what that culture looks like, hence the numerous company visits, at ground level. The person at the top of the company most likely earns the most, he (and it usually is a he, but that's a whole other can of worms) has the most responsibility, is most accountable and most able to make things change. Allegedly. Those on the shop floor just turn up, check out their personality with their punch card. It's a crude diagram, but you get the picture. It's called a hierarchy.
The word hierarchy came up a lot yesterday although not always used according to its dictionary definition. Hierarchy comes from the Greek: hieros meaning sacred, archos meaning rule. It therefore means that the consciousness at the top pervades to the bottom.
There have been a few memorable scenes from recent days which sum up where we're at. The idea of kids looting shoe stores, trying trainers on to get the right size, then queuing at the checkout to remove the security tags before putting the merchandise in the branded carrier bag, is one. It's calculated greed.
Another is the sight of some hoodies helping up a young kid with a bleeding nose, only to rob him of the contents of his rucksack in the process. This one's probably more heartless, opportunist greed.
But the point is these are sights on the streets, visible for all YouTube around the world to witness, and it begs the question: what is the consciousness behind that greed?
In the last decade or so, the news in the broadsheets has been filled with greed: Ennron, RBS, City "bonuses", MP's expenses, phone-hacking to sell more newspapers, cash-for-peerages, hedge-funds, Madoff, and so the list goes on, and on, and on. It's just that that greed was not easily visible, it was in corporate reports, smart looking glass-coated towers, with suits and Bond Street or 5th Avenue branded black leather polished lace-up shoes with leather soles. The perpetrators' arrogance in the validity of their greed is no different from that of many of the hoodies with their designer trainers on our streets currently causing hayhem.
In all the reporting of these current troubles I haven't heard any of the perpetrators claim to have a cause, they don't even seem to have a focus for their violence, they just are expressing something inside them. Finally, the consciousness of greed has seeped down to the very dregs of our society. It is now there for all to see, the manifestation of bank account greed has finally made its murky way down to the streets of our inner cities. The sordid broken-shopfront-glass truth of what greed looks like when not wrapped up in white-collar moral corruption is not a pretty sight. Do you look at that footage of the hoodies nicking from that rucksack and now see the horrible symbolism of it all?
The footage of the Hackney Heroine, the grandma who tells the youth what's what, will probably though emerge from these scenes as one of the other iconic bits of footage of our era. It's the moment when a woman turned round and said "stop, that's enough" with the power that everyone listened. We need to recognise how the greed within us has become a thoughtless monster ruling our lives. From here on in, nothing will be the same. It never is. You can't deny that somehow these looters are a reflection of your own consciousness because that's how hierarchy works.
The upside to all this is that, as Lao-Tzu so pithily put it, the darkest moment is just before the dawn. Britain woke up to an army of residents with brooms and floor cloths to clean up the streets rekindling memories of that wartime spirit which meant we were never conquered. The dawn of a new age is coming where giving will be the new greed.