There are a thousand stories about where, why and how the reckoning began. As many stories as there are people, some said, in the way that the wannabe wise often do, hoping that we won’t listen to the actual words and attempt to divine some meaning from them. More stories than people? Nonsense. Trust me, nobody’s original. Everything’s been done.
My dad says – well no, he fucking insists – that it was a riot at Sports Direct warehouse just outside Cheltenham that started it all, which is a place (the warehouse and the town) I otherwise know nothing about, and that he watched it all kick off on television with his brother, my Uncle Ken, in the old house at Mulder Street, the otherworldly aroma of their mother’s sausage and mash flooding through from the kitchen to promise delight at the end of what had been, as per usual, a miserable bloody day.
‘Look at those fucking monkeys,’ said Ken, who, although fond of an occasional racial epithet, had intended the insult to be more inclusive, ‘swinging around on the rafters like the animals that they are.’
As he tells it my dad was more patient at the time so he sat back and waited for the news – and then Ken – to move onto the next topic, all the better to spill his rage onto, but the story continued to build and the cameras, relieved and then excited to be following breaking news which for once was both of those things kept filming, as the warehouse caught fire and then the crowd of men – it was mostly men, he thought, although it was difficult to tell in the confusion – charged the police lines and carried the hour through determination and sheer weight of numbers, if not quite the day.
Ken cheered and clapped when the presenter said that the Army had been called in.
‘You think this is a game of football?’ said my dad.
‘I think,’ said Ken, ‘that the importance of law and order has been lost in this country. It disgusts me.’
‘Maybe they’ve just had enough?’
‘Enough of what?’
‘Everything. Of being treated like arseholes, for one.’
Somebody on the television said ‘microcosm’.
‘You see?’ said Ken. ‘They’re already blaming the internet.’
The internet was key, of course. If you read about it now you’d think the internet back in those days had been a breeding ground for nothing except pictures of cats and arguments about privilege on discussion forums which sometimes went on for so long that the only people able to follow them had to be specifically employed to do so, often forgetting to perform simple day-to-day tasks as they typed their invective, jabbing and counter-jabbing in the search for a victory so pure, so complete, that only a blank space below their final message would confirm it. Yeah? You know it, brister. But back then, as my dad tells it, people used it to communicate, to reach out across towns and countries – even continents. They had a thing called the Arab Spring, he says, in Egypt and all around there, and they overthrew their dictators and got new ones instead. Different ones. New hats. He sighed when he told me that. ‘Revolution,’ he said, ‘sometimes happens for the lack of anything better to do. People get bored, Look at the Romans, for example – they got so bored that they invented Latin. ‘
So yeah, it went ‘viral’. My dad always laughs when he says that, and I get the feeling he’s half-remembering something that he won’t ever let me in on, probably because it involves some woman he would have been messing around with when he was still with my mum. ‘Viral’. Some pricks in masks attacked a police station in Birmingham, but they were pricks in masks so nobody took any notice except to wonder what time their parents were picking them up from mask-school. ‘Viral’. Some art students on stopped their cars near a busy exit on the M4 motorway, got out and walked down the slip road backwards in an act so deeply symbolic that nobody could quite work out what it meant. A seventy two year-old woman entered a Pets At Home store near Brighton and set almost fifty rabbits and guinea pigs free, the whole time shouting ‘Free the Sports Direct Five!’, which was viewed as a great insurrectionist act until it was discovered that she was protesting on behalf of the warehouse management, who had been trapped inside the building when the riot began.
‘Viral’. The image they always show is of the huge Sports Direct logo – the one that sat over the warehouse carpark gates (‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ said my dad, though I didn’t know what that meant until recently) burning up in the dusk, framing the line of police who were moving in on the rioters with the slow inevitability of tooth decay. What they don’t show you now, my dad insists, is how long it took to catch fire. Symbols come easily, he used to say, unless you’re the one tasked with making them.
I was only six when it all happened and never that into sport, playing or watching, so the death of low-price sportswear chain meant very little to me, especially at the time, although the TV pictures were dramatic and, I guess, fun to watch for a kid. It was a death, too, because it turned out that the company weren’t properly insured, that the corners cut in the production of their training shoes and barely luminous running tops had extended to the accounts department, who were as badly paid as the poor bastards who were there in the car-park facing off with the army and police.
‘They look so proud,’ said my dad. ‘Totally fucked of course, but proud.’
‘Cometh before a fall,’ said Ken.
‘They’ve already fallen,’ said my dad. ‘They know that, I think. Pride is all they have left.’
‘Bollocks. Don’t they have families to go home to?’
‘That’s probably the point,’ said my dad, and as he tells it he could see the hope forming in their eyes on his TV screen as the younger men in the crowd pulled their jackets tightly around them and began to thrust their arms towards the sky, as much in celebration of their own existence as defiance.
And that’s when the army went in. All in.
There were a lot of think pieces over the next few days, as my dad tells it (he printed some off at the time to show us when we were older, but ended up using them as impromptu Christmas decorations during the paper famine of 2025). What were think pieces? Well, they were torturously assembled articles in which the writer would select pieces of evidence which suited his or her pre-ordained viewpoint and proceed to ignore or belittle everything else. There would usually be a photograph of the author sitting atop the piece doing their best to look wise which often meant spectacles and a tight beard (in both men and women) or the kind of giddy all-inclusive smile which could, in the right weather conditions, bring down aircraft on a starless night.
‘Like bodybuilders,’ said my dad, ‘holding their pints at right angles to accentuate the bicep.’ This was one of his favourite sayings, although I cannot deny the veracity of it. Truth is a complicated beast, though – it’s entirely possible that he was just jealous. He had little arms, after all, and had never been asked to write a think-piece by a national newspaper or the Huffington Post, which was a (little) better than it sounds.
What did these think pieces say? They apportioned blame which, although fun (who doesn’t like to blame somebody else for your problems?) ultimately changed nothing, least of all anyone’s mind. Big business and their representatives, Sports Direct amongst them, stuck to a party line of decrying the culture of entitlement which had led to, by 2019, sixty-three per cent of the UK workforce declaring themselves mentally unfit for work despite owning large televisions and drinking imported lager, most of which tasted like warm disappointment. The left quoted the same statistics but placed them in the context of a wider cultural war being waged on the poor by Prime Ministerial candidate David Beckham, who by that time had so much writing inked onto his body that he had actually begun to develop sentient thoughts, some of which were hawkish in the extreme.
‘It all burned the same,’ said my dad. ‘Fire doesn’t understand ideas.’
He was right. He usually was, the old bastard.
Ken still comes over now, from time to time, traipsing over from the other side of town with his wheelbarrow and an airgun, which isn’t ever loaded but looks as though it might be. They’re still brothers, of course, him and my dad, even though they’ll never be friends which is fine because friends are hard work, especially nowadays what with the apocalypse and everything.
Sorry! I’m not meant to say that word. Anna will sigh and look over her glasses and tell me that there can be no such state as ‘post-apocalyptic’, and although I think she might be wrong (we’re living in it, whatever she wants to call it) I am tired most days and can’t be arsed to shake my head, let alone argue with her.
The television that they watched the riot on, a fine flatscreen specimen some 58 inches across, still sits in the house at Mulder Street although it hasn’t worked now for over twenty five years, the last TV channel having stopped broadcasting around about the same time that a national ordinance limited the use of electricity to hospitals and other essential services. Ordinance – listen to me! I sound like a lawyer. Well, what I imagine one would sound like, if I could watch one on TV.
‘You could have been one too,’ says my dad, ‘if it wasn’t for the … well, y’know,’ but he doesn’t sound unhappy, just interested. He was never too tied to the modern world, I think, interrupting as it often did his favourite pastimes of sitting down and talking. ‘Listen to the night,’ he says sometimes, and he’ll describe the cars which used to race past the house like they were monsters or ska-bands (I do not know what these are, but he laughs about them anyway) distractions sent from another planet to remove man, this arrogant arsehole, from the pleasures which lie in wait for him within his own mind.