Escape with Joan: Letter #5 from London

Escape with Joan: Letter #5 from London

As I write this, police are standing at every door in Wimbledon Village, making sure the proprietors close their doors. There are rumors that riots will start in Wimbledon between 4 and 5 p.m. Rioters are communicating (organizing) using mobile phone texts (especially BlackBerry smartphones) and social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There have been riots–fires and looting–across London the past few days, beginning in Tottenham on Sunday, causing headlines in the Daily Telegraph such as: Lockdown in London after Third Day of Riots. And Police Losing Control of the Capital’s Streets. According to a former Scotland Yard commander quoted in the Telegraph, “By using mobile phones and social networks `these people can mass and change directions very quickly and the police tactics are being subverted.'”

I attended a Hotspurs (Spurs) soccer match Saturday evening in Tottenham with 26,000 fans, but there was absolute peace when I left Tottenham at 10:45 p.m. I did notice that two policemen on horseback had riot helmets with plastic covers–and that their horses had plastic covers over their eyes as well. (This struck me as funny at the time. It isn’t so funny now.) No amount of armor has done any good, as there has been rioting, looting and fires across the United Kingdom ever since Sunday. Police have been outnumbered and overwhelmed. The riots started in Tottenham Sunday when police supposedly hit a 16-year-old girl with a baton. When word of that spread through the crowd (and I’m still now sure why there was a crowd), the “riots”–being called civil disobedience–began.

The newspapers say, “The violence, which began in Tottenham, north London on Saturday spread south and east to Brixton, Streatham, Walthanstow, Edmonton, Enfield, Oxford Circus and Islington on Sunday. By last night (Monday), further outbreaks of disorder involving hundreds of hooded yobs (their word, not sure what it means) had taken place in Hackney, Clapton, East Ham, Lewisham, Harlesden, Elephant and Castle, Ealing ,Woolwich, Notting Hill and parts of the West End. Locals accused the police of abandoning them.”

Mostly, it seems to be young men who want to loot. The newspaper writes, “In Clapham Junction, astonishing footage emerged of hundreds of masked looters running through the streets unchecked, breaking into shops such as Debenhams and stealing thousands of pounds worth of goods.” Rioters have cleaned out the local DVD and CD stores around the UK (Birmingham was next, after London) over the past few days. They’ve set fires that threatened lives. It’s reminiscent of the LA riots years ago. The police have been ineffectual in stopping the riots once they’re started–hence closing all the stores in Wimbledon Village before the riots are rumored to begin.

I went to Wimbledon Village around 1 p.m. to mail a package and do some grocery shopping, but everywhere I went, police were standing in doorways and proprietors were turning people away. I mailed my package first (post offices in London are situated in the back of local stores), and by the time I got back to Morrisson’s, one of the largest grocery stores, it was closed. The theatres (Odeon and HMV Curzon) are closed because they’re too hard to evacuate. There’s very little left open, and I suspect it will all be closed before 2 p.m. I bought some supplies at a Little Waitrose, a smaller grocery store, because I’m not sure how long this emergency will last, and hurried back home on the bus. Packs of young men are standing around on the street. Bunches of policemen are loitering along with them. I’m located far enough from downtown not to be bothered by whatever happens. (I hope!) But this is putting the kibosh on my plans to see a lot of theatre in the evenings in London, at least until things settle down.

That makes all the research on England I did a week or so ago with a friend of mine from the States all the more valuable. We took a bus trip to the Cotswolds (beautiful countryside, everything built with “golden” bricks) and fabulous, Blenheim Castle, childhood home of Winston Churchill (who was related to the Duke of Marlborough on his father’s side). Visited Canterbury Cathedral and walked the very sharp stone “Roman Wall” that once surrounded and protected Canterbury. Took a trip to the Royal Mews near Buckingham Palace and saw all the horse-drawn coaches British royalty ride in, and attended an astonishingly creative and moving play, War Horse,which I understand Steven Speilberg is making into a movie. We rode down the Thames on a riverboat from Parliament (and Big Ben) to the Tower of London and saw the Royal Halls of Justice across from Ye Olde Cock Tavern, which has been in place since the 1500’s.

traditional afternoon tea

We also met some friends of a friend of mine for lunch at The Audley, a historic tavern in Mayfair. We were then invited to that friend’s home on Grosvenor Square for “tea and cakes.” That address was the home of the Duke and (infamous) Duchess of Argyll in the 1930’s. The Duke divorced the Duchess, and to do so in those days you had to prove adultery. The Duchess, it turned out, supposedly had 88 lovers, one of the most infamous of whom (Polaroid pictures had been taken–but not of his face) was a well-known actor. The home was absolutely gorgeous, with five floors up and one down, and gave me an idea of just how elegantly Bella Benedict, Duchess of Blackthorne, should be living in the Benedict Brothers series I’m currently researching in London (next up is Unforgettable).

Yesterday I spoke for about 50 ladies at the Woodford Golf Club, which is over a hundred years old, and backs up to Epping Forest, where King Henry VIII used to hunt. I met my hostess on the Underground, when I was riding from Wimbledon to Fulham Broadway to have dinner with a friend. I was reading my Kindle and asked her to be sure I didn’t miss my stop. We started talking and I mentioned I was an author and she asked for my card. My new friend told me that after I got off the train, a gentleman standing behind us had already Googled me on his Smart Phone–which they all handed around the car. Shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to speak, which I accepted. My publisher, Random House, was kind enough to provide copies of The Cowboy, The Texan and The Loner for attendees. I talked about how I became a writer and what it’s like to live the life of a writer (lots of fun–and lots of hard work!).

I’d planned to go to the theatre to see a new production of South Pacific in the West End after I spoke, but the ladies gave me an enormous bouquet of roses and lilies and a heavy book on Epping Forest, so I decided to go straight home (approximately an hour of travel including bus, train and Underground) to put the flowers in water. In light of the news on riots in London, I realize now it turned out to be a good decision. I also have plans to see Pygmalian (with Rupert Everett), a play about WWI called Journey’s End, and a couple of other shows (As You Like It)–once I can be sure I won’t be caught in riots if I’m in the West End.

I have the copy-edited manuscript for TEXAS BRIDE in hand, so I have plenty of work to keep me busy. Will let you know when things settle down again here in London.