Writing the Riots, Part 1
MacKenzie Warren reviews Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Tyranny of Lost Things
It’s August 6, 2018. It has been exactly seven years since the start of the riots that saw 3,000 people arrested for antisocial behaviour, in more than a dozen cities across England, having caused hundreds of millions of pounds in damages through looting and vandalism. On August 6, 2011, protesters took to the streets of Tottenham in memory of Mark Duggan, a young man who had been shot dead by police two days earlier, and the crowd grew larger as the day went on. Violence broke out at dusk. By nightfall, buildings were burning. Rioting spread from London to the Midlands and the North, and it continued for a full five days.
Looking back on those events, it’s clear that they have come to be woven into a larger cultural narrative. This has something to do with the riots erupting in the wake of the December 2010 student protests, the anti-austerity demonstrations of March 2011, and widespread public sector strikes in late June. To blame for all of these things, it seems, were the awful economic policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government: policies too numerous to name, but which basically penalised young and disadvantaged people in an effort to dig the country out of a recession caused by bankers who walked away unscathed. So the riots have come to be seen as the apotheosis of public responses to the coalition’s austerity measures. The young people of Tottenham bore the brunt of the early cuts, as more than half of their local youth centres were closed in the first round of budget reductions. At the same time, they lived in the very definition of a disadvantaged area, as an unemployment rate of almost ten per cent made Tottenham one of the most deprived parts of Britain in 2011. If your prospects were as bleak as theirs, if your possibilities were as circumscribed, and if you saw the financiers of the City of London getting away with economic vandalism while your horizons shrunk, what else would you do but riot?
Now seems like an appropriate time to ask whether this cultural narrative runs parallel to the treatment of the riots in recent British literature. For the last seven years, only a handful of novels have taken the riots as their backdrop. They’ve all addressed a young adult audience, and they have all maintained a tight focus on individual experiences of the anarchy without interrogating the cultural context. Earlier this year, however, Joe Dunthorne’s The Adulterants broke some new ground, drawing a line of equivalence between the riots and the housing crisis, and more recently a couple of other books have tried to connect a few other dots. The newest of these is The Tyranny of Lost Things, the début novel by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.
Cosslett is best-known as a Guardian columnist who regularly critiques the ongoing effects of economic austerity in Britain. She is open and forthright about the experiences of her family, in which disability, unemployment, welfare reform, council cuts, and other aspects of economic vulnerability are facts of daily life. Her criticisms of the systemic forces behind austerity — its causes, processes, and beneficiaries — are especially piercing. So were her incendiary posts on sexism for now-defunct blog the Vagenda. Sad to say, then, that The Tyranny of Lost Things is… well… just sort of okay. It’s a novel, sure enough, but it’s twice as long as it ought to be and it lacks a raison d’être. What freedoms does the form of the novel allow Cosslett to exercise, which she can’t exercise in her journalism? This novel doesn’t really have an answer to that question.
The Tyranny of Lost Things is a curious combination of a Bildungsroman and a mystery novel. Its narrator is named Harmony, and her name offers a clue to her background. Her estranged parents were “hippies” (the “crystals and amethysts” variety) who “met at a CND rally” and moved into a commune called Longhope in North London. That’s where Harmony was raised “by a collective” until the age of four, at which point her mother felt the need to flee. Now it’s 2011 and Cosslett introduces Harmony as a young woman, early twenties, on the threshold of something important, some crucial act of self-definition. Harmony takes pains to be specific about the time and place of her experiences: “The ‘creatives’ of East London,” she says early on, “had decided at some point that year (2011) that looking as though you were raised on a New Jersey turnpike was the last word in cool.” In the first five pages of the novel, she reveals this much about herself: she has recently allowed her university studies to lapse and returned to Longhope, incognito, finding a room in the run-down sharehouse that has taken the place of the old commune. “For months,” she confesses, reflecting on the difficulties that led her to abandon student life, “I had felt that somehow the house represented unfinished business. … During my waking hours, I felt constantly restless, as though every cell in my body was buzzing at a higher frequency. A sense of dislocation, which I now know to be the depersonalisation that is so often associated with trauma, pursued me everywhere I went.” So, if she can just dig deep enough into her parents’ past, if she can figure out what happened between them at Longhope, perhaps she can have a clearer sense of the person she is — and the person she might become.
In telling Harmony’s story, however, The Tyranny of Lost Things grows sluggish in a miasma of conservatism. It has only one interesting structural feature: each chapter opens with a description of an inanimate object (“Royal Doulton porcelain shepherdess figurine holding lamb, pale blue frock. Made in England. 20.5 cm high. Modelled by R. J. Tabbenor.”) which connects to subsequent events and revelations. Otherwise, there’s not much artistry to liven up the plodding plot: questions are raised and dutifully answered, suspense is relieved with catharsis, characters develop in sensible ways, and the prose offers boilerplate cultural commentary. It’s all a bit serviceable, a rote composition. It has tepid patches and vivid patches. It is, ultimately, a safe book, surprisingly languid in light of its author’s skill with journalistic provocations. True, the novel’s tameness could be seen as an expression of its narrator’s sentiments. Part of its point is to contrast the material and spiritual fortunes of clashing generations. It suggests that Britons of earlier generations, such as Harmony’s parents, could afford to live carefree lives, behaving with abandon, because state aid in the areas of education, housing, and unemployment provided a baseline material security, whereas the erosion of these things has now forced millennials into more itinerant, precarious, higher-risk lifestyles, in turn stoking so many anxieties about the future that it ignites a fundamentally conservative desire for stability. But since the narrative setup alone makes the contrast between the generations so evident, it’s hard to avoid wishing that Cosslett had been more inventive with the novel’s structure than simply alternating between the present and the past. This alternation, chapter by chapter, gives The Tyranny of Lost Things all the momentum of a metronome for the duration of its three hundred pages.
Where the novel is genuinely interesting is in its final pages, as Harmony becomes unwittingly embroiled in the riots. Despite the belated outbreak of the riots, they are categorically central to the novel’s indictment of its milieu: Harmony discusses the anti-austerity protests, and recalls having participated in the student protests — “march[ing] down to Millbank, yelling ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’” — and given that she returns to Longhope in “early summer”, only a few weeks ahead of the riots, the impending anarchy looms large throughout her narrative. Yet when they arrive at last — and this is what makes them so interesting — they are presented simultaneously as events that are simpatico with Harmony’s political concerns and events that she opts not to participate in. “I hadn’t been watching the news,” she says, recalling her first awareness of the riots, “so when I emerged from the train [at Brixton] and was met with the eerie silence of the station I was completely unaware of the chaos that had already begun to sweep the city.” In leaving the station, she draws close to the action. “All I heard this time as I mounted the stairs,” she says,
were the sounds of smashing glass and police sirens. As I came out of the exit, something lobbed from the other side of the street and made contact with the window of the adjacent Sainsbury’s, and I jumped. There were no cars on the high street, just groups of teenagers in dark clothing clustered in groups, their faces covered.
Notice the strangeness, the dissociative nature, of the language. In Harmony’s account of it, the “something lobbed” didn’t smash into a nearby window, didn’t shatter the window, didn’t explode upon impact; it merely “made contact with the window”. And although she says she “jumped”, it wasn’t the case that she was startled, or disarmed, and then had to regain her bearings; first she had time to register the fact that the window belonged to “the adjacent Sainsbury’s”, and then she “jumped”. And what is the meaning of her overdetermined remarks on those teenagers? She notices “groups of teenagers” “clustered in groups”. With “their faces covered”, their appearance recalls the student protesters who Harmony recalls having marched alongside: “kids in black balaclavas [who] smashed their way into Conservative Party HQ”, “eager manarchists” whose actions express “the righteous anger of the young, left-wing and newly politicised”. But Harmony sees these rioting teenagers and places them into “groups” twice in the same sentence, so that, for her, their behaviour is doubly exclusionary. Then, a moment later, she meets up with an acquaintance, Gabriel, and the two of them speculate on the relevance of the riots to their lives. The scene is described in intimidating terms, but the behaviour of the characters doesn’t speak of intimidation. Harmony sees “a large bonfire” in the street, and “looters running back and forth”, and she blatantly calls Brixton a “war zone”. Yet Gabriel suggests that they leave because the police will probably try to arrest him — pointedly not because they are under threat by the rioters — and when he lightheartedly suggests that they loot a sportswear shop, Harmony parries with a remark that makes him grin. They walk at a leisurely pace, slowly enough for him to explain the causes of the riots to the bewildered narrator, and then he implicitly connects the riots to the earlier anti-austerity events: “[T]o be honest”, he says, “it was only a matter of time. It’s been bubbling for a while.”
Indeed: and isn’t “it” an odd phenomenon? Whatever “it” is, Gabriel and Harmony understand it, sympathise with the people who suffer it, and have some sort of stake in the deprivations that fuel it. At the same time, they stand far enough away from “it” — enjoying the luxury of distance — to participate in this manifestation of it, or to refrain from participating, basically in accordance with their whims. They lead more privileged lives than the rioters, yet they are not so privileged that the actions of the rioters are incomprehensible to them. Finally, then, as a narrative of intergenerational politics culminates in their responses to the riots, The Tyranny of Lost Things seems to say this: in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008, the reigning powers in the United Kingdom made a political decision to overburden millennials in shaping the post-recession economy — to target them for dispossession of economic advancement, now and into the future, much to the advantage of older generations — and the riots were an extreme but logical outcome of this situation. In consequence, Harmony tacitly concurs with the view that people of her generation at least felt an incentive to riot — an urge to make material gains, by force, against a systematised revocation of honest opportunities for it — so that the riots are a predictable effect of the coalition government’s choice to make enemies of the young.