Everyday Dramas

The bookshop was the scene of drama yesterday. I was making tea for the three of us on shift that morning and chatting to my manager in the back of the store, when she was called away to the front desk. This often happens, I thought nothing of it. But when I came into the store myself, carrying our tea, I saw that something unusual was up. My manager was in a huddle with a group of people, a couple of them rough-looking, another dispensing some sort of practised authority. The elderly lady who has been working for the bookshop for longer than anyone can recall and who seems to have her finger permanently on the pulse of community life in our little area was also there, looking anxious. Then, with one accord they disappeared out of the front door. I asked the other volunteer minding the till what had happened but she wasn’t sure; some sort of break-in, she thought. So we sat there, sipping and ringing up purchases and all the time waiting.

After a quarter of an hour or so, our manager returned. The Indian restaurant next door to us had been closed for renovations for the past couple of weeks, or so we thought. It seemed that a few days ago, it had been broken into and trashed, with a thoroughness and a rage that spoke of personal vendetta. The floorboards had been broken up, the toilets had been smashed, the lights ripped out. The place stank of sewage and was in complete disarray. What to do first? Our manager knew she had to contact the police, but also wanted to be assured the restaurant would be made safe and boarded up; would the police do that? Should she ring the council? She went off to make phone calls while a stream of concerned locals trooped through our door. The lady who runs the Salvation Army a few doors up the road appeared to see if she could help. Her job had necessarily put her in contact with the police, and she suggested the city’s environmental offer be alerted. Our manager reappeared: the police weren’t answering the phone, always reassuring in a crisis, no?

‘It was so horrible in there,’ our manager said. ‘You could feel the violence in the air, the anger and hatred. I kept expecting us to find something any moment.’

We knew she meant a body.

‘It has to be closed up properly,’ the Salvation Army lady insisted. ‘It’s an environmental hazard as it is.’

‘I know,’ replied our manager. ‘The place is full of wires hanging loose.’

‘So someone was hoping it would catch fire?’

I think it was only at that point that the other volunteer and I both realised the seriousness of the situation. If the place had been rigged to go up in flames, it was not good news for the large pile of kindling we represented, sitting right next door to it.

It turned out that the restaurant hadn’t been closed for renovation, but because of some sort of court case pending. Rumours began to fly around about the owner of the place, who was supposed to have issued death threats, and to have tried to run a man down in his car.  At this point, an Indian man, short, squat, powerfully built, charged into the store, a bunch of keys in his hand. ‘She’s in the back, is she?’ he asked, and without really waiting for a reply, headed off for the office where our manager sat. I hopped off my stool and ran after him; we were startled and the purposeful way he was walking was unsettling. But when he opened the door, our manager (still on the phone) waved and greeted him by name, and I thankfully peeled away. Quite what good I could possibly have been in a confrontation, I have no idea. When he walked past us again on his way out he smiled and thanked us cheerfully, completely transformed.

Eventually the police arrived; one little homely looking officer in a bulky vest strapped about with walkie-talkies. I revised my opinion of how well I could do in a confrontation after a brief comparison with him. He was not exactly helpful. Having ascertained that a crime had been committed, no one was allowed to enter the building until the police had conducted their research. Quite when that would happen, no one knew, and until then, the restaurant would continue stewing in its sewage and broken fittings and loose electric cables.

 

This was not the only plotline, as it were, unfolding in the bookshop that morning. While we waited to hear what had happened next door, an attractive young Frenchwoman turned up with leaflets for us all, informing us of the details of a funeral that would take place the following day. When she said the name of the woman it concerned, we made the connection to an article torn out of the local press that had been left on the counter. This woman had been primarily responsible for organising the Winter Fair that closes the road for one day in the run-up to Christmas. I’d been told about this, because I hadn’t witnessed it myself, and assured I was in for a treat. It’s a special occasion, when the traders set out stalls and the street performers come and entertain the crowds, one of those genuine moments of community in a part of town where ethnic minorities co-exist uneasily, where the students and the down-and-outs cause colourful trouble, and where many small businesses scrape a living in scruffy stores (you should see ours). For that one day, the road is transformed with decorations and festivities and goodwill.

To honour the woman who founded this, it had been decided that the hearse should be diverted to travel the length of the road, so that the traders and the residents nearby could come and pay tribute in the street as it passed. If customers weren’t talking about the break-in, they were talking about this, and doing so with tears in their eyes. How much it would mean to the family, to see the gratitude and respect their lost loved one had inspired, what a chance it would be for the people who knew her, even just a little bit, to pay their respects and to say goodbye.

It is strange for me, to find myself staking a tiny claim in this part of the town where life is lived with so much more naked emotion than the other places I have been. It is all on the surface here, love and hatred, violence and celebration. I felt there was a strange, natural balance at work, that nothing could prevent or diminish the horror of that vandalised restaurant, or the sadness of death, but that they cancelled each other out, or at least, they demonstrated once again that there is always more to any situation than one story. When we watched the riots across London on the late news last night, it felt horrible, but also so unreal after my experiences that day. This is the trouble with the media and the way we take in information; all we were shown was the hatred and the violence, without a glimpse of all that would be happening around it, all sorts of stories of love and sorrow and reparation and rescue that would forever be hidden. Nothing can justify those riots or make them any less appalling, but people are not just bad, communities are rich in every kind of human resource, we know how to work together and heal and mend. The bad stuff is so much easier to believe, but we do ourselves a disservice to focus on it exclusively, or to lose faith in the power of what’s good.

11 thoughts on “Everyday Dramas

  1. Wonderful post Litlove! I’m glad the place nextdoor didn’t go up in flames. I imagine the police in your area might be a bit on edge with the riots that have been happening in other locations. Things become so surreal during such times. I live in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots and while they never got close to where I lived it was all anyone could talk about. What a lovely tribute to the Winter Fair woman. I am sure she will be greatly missed but always fondly remembered.

  2. Yikes! I ate at that Indian restaurant on my last trip to Cambridge, last month. The Winter Fair sounds great, and what a fitting-sounding tribute. And yes – it is always good to be reminded that “there is always more to any situation than one story.”

  3. Fire is such a force, it was lucky, nothing happened to the place next door and the book shop. We just watched the news to see what happens in the UK… Some of the people they arrested were teachers and social workers, they just get carried away. Some damaged houses, those that burned down looked like there was a war. I cannot understand violence like this. I can’t.

  4. I like that about the good and the bad, love and hate and other emotions co-existing. We watched the footage of the riots (in Birmingham – where L lived for a while) with disbelief. We’re used to service delivery protests in South Africa but the level of violence in the UK seemed extreme. Anyway, that’s another story. (And from our viewpoint Cameron hasn’t come out of this well. It’s all very well for the elite to complain about law and order. Where’s the empathy for the seemingly no-hope youth?) But glad to hear that the drama in your bookstore ended peacefully.

  5. Stefanie – oh thank you! I wondered what on earth I’d done wrong with this post to make no one comment! It must be really terrifying to be close to riots and to be wondering whether your house or shop or whatever will be next. Things have been very odd here these past few days, that’s for sure. Although funnily enough, quite a lot of media coverage has gone towards the community spirit that’s been combatting the rioters – from groups doing mass clean-ups, to groups patrolling their area to maintain security. I’ve been really pleased to see that getting air space.

    Heather – it used to be such a good restaurant! We had take away the first day I was in the shop and it was lovely. I expect the Winter Fair this year will contain more tributes to the former organiser; it seems that she was a genuinely special person.

    Caroline – I think the point of violence is that it is in no way intellectual (thus incomprehensible). Violence is generally the place where language breaks down and force of feeling takes over. Not that that is in any way an excuse! Just a way of looking at the whole problem. The latest report I read suggested that the rioters came from all walks of life and all classes of people, which does seem strange too.

    Pete – so far as I know, the bookshop is still standing! I’ll find out the rest of the story (perhaps) when I go next Monday. I don’t have any idea what caused this string of riots, really, except that suddenly people realised it could be done. There hasn’t been much good news in the UK for a while now, very little feel good factor. I think these events have taken advantage of that, but more than that, I couldn’t say. But it does cheer me and give me hope to remember that things are never purely bad, just as they are never purely good.

  6. I really don’t have words to comment especially after hearing three young men standing in front of a store they were protecting were killed by rioters. At first I thought that’s the shop you’re writing about. Anyway, this leads me to think of that riot in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup final game (just a few months back)… I mean, any little thing can ignite appalling violence. But your post has also brought back some positive elements and beauty of humanity. Having said that, I believe too that there are organized crime and gangs who would try to benefit and maybe even expand their territories in the midst of chaos… not to mention some for individual gains, however unlawful, like the looters. It’s my sincerest hope that the Olympics next year will be a celebratory and peaceful event.

  7. How great to hear about a community coming together. Yes, it’s easy to focus on the bad, and the bad inevitably gets more attention, but still, the good is always there, if we are willing to look.

  8. You had quite the dramatic day! I hope all is well at your bookshop and the neighboring restaurant gets itself sorted out. Very sad about the Winter Fair lady, but it sounds like she was well respected–very nice of them to let the whole neighborhood mourn. You’re totally right about the media–they capitalize on the most sensational aspect of any story–grabs more eyes I suppose, but it’s nice hearing about all the people who come together and help clean the areas up–I was watching videos online and saw photos of the clean up efforts. The whole situation was shocking–I mistakenly think things like that wouldn’t happen there-but I guess people are the same world over and bad things happen everywhere.

  9. Dear LL – I’m so out of touch with where you are…in a bookshop? Taht rings all kinds of positive (and wonderful stereotypical) bells with me. Is it full time? for the summer only? something you’ve always done? How could I be so adrift in terms of a writer (you) who I find so engaging? Well, for one things, I’ve been so sporadic in blog world…true confession: it goes back to when the company I have been working for was purchased in April. Sigh. We’ve all been working twice as hard to keep our footing and ultimately, it’s ridiculous. I need to rev up my hippy mentality and stop freaking out about t.he career merry-go-round.

    THat aside, the restauarant situation next to your shop is frightening in its reality. So diffecult to imagine and yet, not, there it is, plop, happening right there. Yes, it’s true about media, picking up on the bad and ultra bad which is the sole purpose of news, they would say. I once interviewed the manager of a news station who was going to do good news: about the community, about the world…but he said, it likely wouldn’t last long. People didn’t care about the fact that ultimately more people went to bed warm and happy than not. ANd he was right. That statoin’s little campagin fell flat after a month.
    Now mix in all the civilian journalism (internet, blogs, etc) where stuff gets reported and informed that has not been vetted…yikes, it can have disastrous results on what we see, hear, respond to.

    I am finding that by disassociating myself wiht writing for media means a certain chunk of income lost. Crazy the decisions we make sometimes.
    We need to regroup, gather around the community, celebrate awareness and caring (as shown on your plotline about the course of the hearse of the beloved woman) and keep going.

    wow. I’m nattering on here.
    Also, I would love to hear more, anytime, about your tales and observations from the bookshop.
    ANd hope all goes well with healing of the restaurant next door.
    Those things that sustain us: good food and good books.

  10. Arti – oh I couldn’t agree more – it would be to awful if the Olympics was spoiled by incidents like these. I keep hoping it will give the country a much-needed boost in morale, although the media will try to pick it to pieces, whatever happens. The incident you mention with the three men killed in a hit-and-run was dreadful. The only bright(ish) lining is that the looters will turn the country against them very easily by doing things like that. There’s been a fair bit of sympathy for the poor (although not the organised gangs) but when that sort of stupid horrible violence takes place, it will soon be squashed. Things have been a bit quieter thankfully these past few days, and now I just hope that some serious thought goes into what has happened and what it means.

    Dorothy – it’s funny, and I’m the first to forget it, but there are often compensations in unexpected ways. You have to cling to that.

    Danielle – it all blew up out of nowhere, but then we have had lots of trouble with violence from football supporters and the IRA in the past, and I guess there are always people ready to take advantage of any bad situation, awful as it is to think about that. When I got to the bookstore today I couldn’t get in. I was opening the shop and there’s this big metal shutter that folds down infront of the windows and the door. The remote control wasn’t working to lift in and in the end I had to go away and call our manager. I felt such a lemon not being able to get into the shop! The manager wonders whether our electrics have been affected by what happened next door, and she was going to try to get it fixed. But other than that, thankfully I think it’s all okay now (although the restaurant is still in a state).

  11. Oh – dear Oh, no you’re really not that out of touch. I work at the Amnesty secondhand bookstore as a volunteer once a week. And sometimes mention it. But I wouldn’t expect you to have followed all the ins and outs! I’m doing it for the summer, but might have to stop when term begins again – we’ll see how it goes. But it’s lovely to work with books, and the manager here is the same one I had 20 years ago when I worked in a big bookstore in the city centre and it’s wonderful to be with her again. I am SO sorry to hear that your company has been taken over – why does that always mean everyone has to endure dreadful working practices? It happened just that way for my husband in his previous job. Lovely firm, nice job, taken over and bam! suddenly everyone has too much of what they don’t want to do on their plate. I really hope things calm down for you very soon.

    How lovely of that man to even want to try to talk about good news! And so sad yet so inevitable that it would fail. Why are so many people so hung up on scaring themselves silly with sensationalism? Isn’t life hard enough as it is? I can’t believe in conspiracy theories because no one is that organised, seriously. But there does seem to be this persistent and relentless pressure on the bad, when reality is an unsteady but ongoing balance. I admire you for turning away from the media, but it’s sad to think it had to come at the cost of your income. Gah! How frustrating.

    I do think that community is the way forward, because everything is easier to bear in a strongly bonded, steady community. Here’s hoping that we will all gradually move that way over the coming years. And in the meantime? Oh yes, good food and good books, please. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up morale!🙂 Keep in touch, my friend.

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