This is usually a writing blog. A blog about childrens books and myths and all that. Usually, I say. But sometimes I make statements about stuff I feel strongly about. This is one of those. Feel free to look away if that sort of thing upsets you.
Last night I sat and watched as parts of London were smashed to bits, set alight, looted. My husband and son were there (luckily safe, thank you for asking). I also followed the riots as they unfolded via Twitter--admittedly through the lens of the (mostly) bookish or journalistic people I follow. There I heard about more personal stories. Friends locked in and terrified by sounds of sirens and breaking glass (or by an ominous-seeming sudden silence--the calm before another storm?). Another friend told by a teenage girl who had just looted an i-Phone that 'I'm just getting back my taxes'. A whole road of Turkish people in Dalston who stood against the looters. Unconfirmed reports of restaurant guests who, when threatened by rioters demanding their jewellery, were defended by staff brandishing knives plucked hurriedly from the kitchens. A young woman escorted to safety by gallant youths 'because you're a girl, innit?' Motorbikes pelted with stones amid cries of 'who's next, man?'. A Waterstones bookshop left untouched, but a Gay bookshop smashed. There was a lot more--I merely give you snapshots. I didn't look at Facebook much, after I heard that an event page had been set up, inviting people to the 'riot party'. (I'm pretty fed up with Facebook at the moment, actually. It's turned rather nasty over the last weeks, what with the vile online bullying of my friend Amanda Craig, and some very unpleasant 'class-hatredy' comments about Horatio Chapple--the wretched 'polar bear' boy.) But I digress....
This morning the papers are full of doom and woe. The mindless destruction has spread to other cities. The COBRA committee is sitting. The recriminations have begun. Most of it is not at all attractive to witness, and I'm not proposing to go into the rights and wrongs or causes of it all here (though I just want to say that I did lose all respect for mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone last night, when he started using the riots as an election platform). But I'd like to ask a question. What is going to happen when the police start arresting and bailing all the young people who took part in the looting and general smashing up (which they already have, because the incontrovertible evidence is out there in the form of all those clever 'trophy photos'--we live in an age where if it is not 'posted' then it hasn't happened)? I say 'young people' because a lot of them were. (And to be very clear, I'm not talking about beating people up, or injuring policemen or any of that--I'm talking about the criminal damage and the looting). Are we really going to lock all of them up in our overcrowded prison system? Because there just isn't room is there? And we can't afford to build more yet more places to detain people at Her Majesty's pleasure, can we?
We've been somewhere like this before, of course. There were the London riots over university fees last year, in which, for example, a young man called Charlie Gilmour got photographed hanging off the Cenotaph, jumping on cars and other drug-fuelled and destructive idiocies. He recently got sent down for six months, and is currently locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. His mother, fellow author and Twitterer Polly Samson says he shouldn't be. I think I agree with her, but not for the reasons you might imagine. I don't condone what he did one iota as far as the Cenotaph is concerned. I am the daughter and grandaughter of ex-serving officers. I was sort of in the army myself for a time (yes yes, it's a little known fact about me--get over it). I think that what he did was a disgrace. But here's what I would have done. I would have tagged him, put him in a very cheap B and B near Headley Court (run by Help for Heroes), and I would have made him work with injured servicemen for those six months (or even three). Scrubbing floors, cleaning loos, changing sheets, talking to and being around those guys all day (and maybe some night shifts too), seeing just what sacrifices they have made (and no--I'm not getting into the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan here either). Want to teach him a lesson about respect and civic duty, dear judiciary? That would be a far more effective, cheaper and more salutary way of doing it than locking him up for those 23 hours. But it's not how our system works.
So back to last night and those inevitable future arrests and chargings with looting and criminal damage. What would I do with all those rampaging young people? I'd make the punishment fit the crime. Make them clean up. Make them damn well apologise face to face to all those small shopkeepers and business who have had their businesses ruined and their staff's jobs put in jeopardy. Make them work hard to repair the damage. I believe strongly that actions should have consequences. But I also believe that prison for this particular sort of thing is not necessarily the answer. Throwing those kids in jail will solve nothing at all. But making them take physical responsibility for the mess they created and face up to what they did in a way that had a positive outcome for the victims would make damn sure the punishment fitted the crime, and would teach a much more valuable moral lesson than either a short stint in the pokey, a suspended sentence, a derisory fine or an ASBO. If I was Home or Justice Secretary, I'd implement it tomorrow (literally) and call it 'Positive Sentencing'. It's what I reckon any responsible parent would do. That's what I think, anyway, but I'm not a politician, and (apart from in the case of the proposed disgraceful closures of libraries, about which I feel passionately) I am not a political campaigner either. Feel free to disagree among yourselves about all this, but please try and be vaguely polite if you comment. I did warn you this wasn't a normal post, after all!