Is Britain entering an age of aggravation?
Leatherings on the hard shoulder. Brawls on petrol station forecourts. From where Clive Martin is sitting, Britain is
entering an age of great aggravation – recorded on cameraphones and uploaded for a new kind of gladiatorial thrill. Should we be scared?
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Take one step into the undergrowth of the social timeline and you’ll find a festival of violence in the UK.
Men hurl punches in wild brawl on hard shoulder of M20… Moment mass brawl erupts inside Asda as hooded rival thugs smash each other with bottles of WINE in front of horrified shoppers… “Close the clubs again!”: Shocking moment a mass brawl erupts between revellers in city centre during the first weekend of freedom… Pub brawler bites his rival’s EAR off and spits it onto the ground in savage beer garden fist fight… Man pulls knife on queue jumper at London petrol station as fuel crisis intensifies.
These random flashes of barbarism hail from every corner of this island and from (almost) all walks of life. This being 2021, there’s usually video: or indeed, a Rashomon-esque array of videos from different angles and perspectives, all revealing something new and ever more disturbing.
There is a supply and a demand for these clips. In recent years, a cottage industry of social media accounts dedicated to citizen-documented punch-ups and police chases has emerged; a budget British reboot of the old WorldStarHipHop videos (which became so notorious in American life that people started chanting “WorldStar! WorldStar!” whenever something kicked off).
Often, the footage is shared (and sometimes bought) by bigger media companies before being blasted into the normosphere for all to gawp and tut at. In the last few days I’ve seen videos of a racist road-rage incident at a McDonald’s car park in Kent, the aftermath of a tasering in Birmingham and a group of lads breaking pool cues over each other’s heads as Things Can Only Get Better hums from the flatscreen TVs in a Swansea bar.
The considered response to this phenomenon is that it’s the result of a cameraphone society and a social media culture. A contemporary incarnation of what the writer Tom Wolfe called “porno-violence” in the late 1960s. Once upon a time, these fracases would have little oxygen beyond a story in the local gazette – now they’re thrown out in all their gory glory, the distorted yelps and crunches blaring out from inbuilt speakers like some particularly difficult Japanese noise album.
The comments and replies lurking beneath the videos certainly further the idea that these fights have become a kind of ultra-violent edition of Match of the Day; all crying-face emojis, tacky memes and cries to bring back National Service. Even from a position of moral outrage, the commenters reveal an instinct to escalate things, to fight fire with napalm. I couldn’t begin to count the amount of times when, below a story of some bloody teenage melee, someone replied: “Leave them in a room with a paratrooper regiment for an hour, that’ll knock some sense into them,” or made a feverish demand to turn the horses, dogs, tear gas and water cannons on those responsible.
When, this past October, Insulate Britain protesters staged a series of sit-ins at various motorway junctions and thoroughfares on the M25, the inevitable happened. The hopelessly naive troupe of aging academics and green entrepreneurs were quickly dragged off the roads by furious white-van-men and stressed-out school-runners, with a chorus of online onlookers braying for them to be given a further kicking. Because if there’s one narrative that Britain loves above all others, it’s people who step out of line getting a beating for it.
While you can certainly look towards 24/7 digital media as a root cause, it’s difficult to quell the idea that something bigger is brewing here – that there is a very real surge of rage and violence in the UK. There is an understandable conclusion that something in society is driving it, an uncertain agitation in the streets. A feeling that we are living through an age of great aggravation.
It’s hard to quantify this notion exactly. According to the statistics, violent crime has remained largely stable over the last few years. But what we’re talking about here isn’t necessarily “violent crime” (which is usually extreme, driven by desperation or criminality rather than rage). The petty nature of many of these incidents means they aren’t often recorded in convictions, arrests or even hospitalisations. Much of it is anecdotal, ephemeral. More of an intangible sensation than a measurable crimewave. At times, it can feel like you’re seeing something that isn’t there, or that you’re stuck in some highly subjective social media hellhole.
Those who study the nature of anger day in, day out certainly seem to believe something is afoot. Mike Fisher, from the British Association of Anger Management, sees a cause and an effect.
“I think people have a lot of reasons to be angry,” he says. “There’s an increase in stress, in mental health issues, an increase in addiction. And I think it has a lot to do with the era we live in.”
Fisher points me towards his organisation’s website traffic, which he says has doubled over the last five years. During lockdowns, visitor interest in the site, he said, has been “unprecedented”.
His assertions about the era in which we live certainly ring true. At times it feels like the universe is provoking us. The geopolitical movements of now appear to throw fuel on the home fires: the rapidly mutating rage that gathered during last year’s lockdowns; the explosion of cartoon violence at the Euros final at Wembley; the bizarre “storming” of the wrong BBC building by anti-vaxxers in August; right up to the widely publicised fighting at petrol station forecourts during October’s “fuel crisis”. These world events have more often than not resulted in human furore – the macro manifesting in a micro of mild concussions and lacerated eyebrows.
Then there are the smaller, less politically inclined incidents that seem to touch on some greater nerve; the innumerable dashcam skirmishes on timelines, the risible “Instagram pranksters” who attacked a female Asda worker, the Great British pursuit of men in three-piece suits lamping each other at horse races, the chaos that seems to occur regularly at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.
Such events seem to react and exist within the times we live in: a natural byproduct of an adversarial age, accelerated by iPhones and egged on by a public with an appetite for broken bones. It’s something you can feel, experience, participate in. Even if you’re, say, a middle-class journalist.
It often feels like every time I step out of the house there’s trouble. I think about some of the incidents I’ve witnessed or been part of recently; a furious bald man headbutting a pub window, a weird stoner who tried to go for me in a coffee queue, two skateboarders I had a barney with in Dalston, a woman with a dog-ball launcher who screamed at me for stepping in front of her in the cheese aisle. In one particularly regrettable incident, I found myself yelling “people like you voted for the Nazis!” at a pair of boomers who had just reprimanded me for jogging too close to them.
In the mid-sized seaside town where I live, one of those viral video incidents occurred when a team of notorious local bouncers took it upon themselves to body slam a couple of teenage girls into the low-traffic, high-street paving. In this country, even the most sedate of locales seems to come with a sense of imminent brutality.
But it isn’t just the amateurs, the Sunday drivers of unchanneled rage, behind all this. There are also a wealth of professional bruisers and micro-mercenaries to contend with; a legion of uniformed, mandated goons that encompasses everyone from overzealous Covid marshalls to juiced-up doormen, the private security prospectors that run everything from asylum-seeker detention centres to music festivals, a booming bailiff industry and a seemingly invincible police force. With authority figures like that, what chance do we have?
What’s more, it would be short-sighted to pass this off as purely an issue of fat blokes and ’roid boys scrapping in supermarket car parks. Some communities, some groups, have a far more serious level of violence to contend with. Looking at the constant news of teenagers being murdered over obscure disputes and drug debts, the petrol station punch-ups seem rather insignificant indeed; the hobby of a bored, addled and broadly white, male class.
Delve beyond the pedestrian fisticuffs and a far more disturbing portrait of British violence emerges. In deprived areas, amongst struggling communities, the stakes have become far, far higher. By mid-October this year, a staggering 26 teenagers had been stabbed to death on the streets of London – with a couple of shootings thrown into the mix. It’s a proportionally similar story in the West Midlands, Leeds, Manchester, but also in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Surrey, a county obligatorily described as “leafy” in any newspaper report, saw an astonishing 614 per cent rise in knife crime from 2009 to 2019.
There is also an epidemic of violence against women occurring. Last year, it was estimated that 1.6 million women were victims of domestic abuse, with 207 killed in the year leading up to March 2020 and so many more cases going unreported. High-profile murders like that of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa this year, and Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in 2020, have exacerbated the pre-existing dread and fear that many women feel.
Looking at these distinct strands of violence, it’s clear to see that they are not the same thing. For many Black, Asian and minority ethnic young people, women and LGBTQ+ communities – who are often targeted, ignored or simply not believed – cameraphones can be tools of justice, as we saw in the case of George Floyd in 2020. While some can sit at home and enjoy the vicarious thrills of videoed violence, others do not have that privilege because it is their reality.
With so much grave, inescapable violence in our culture – just thinking about all the spilled-pint punch ups can feel rather trivial. Yet, there must be some kind of red thread going through a supposedly developed nation where all these different issues with violence and aggression coincide. Perhaps, by looking at how quickly and ferociously violence explodes in the most mundane of situations, we may get some insight into the graver ends of the spectrum. Because anywhere that turns the tiniest of grievances over parking spaces, queues, Facebook threads and funny looks at the bar into Deadwood-esque brawls must have something in the water.
If you wanted an example of how the mood of the nation has changed, take a look at the events of September 2000, when Britain went through a genuine, tangible fuel crisis. When protesting lorry drivers set up blockades outside major refineries, there were serious shortages within days. More than 70 schools closed, the NHS went into emergency mode, there was panic-buying in supermarkets.
However, I don’t recall – and cannot find – any reports of fighting at petrol stations from the time. People panicked, but they didn’t start brawling with each other for the dregs of the pumps. Which is a stark contrast to this year’s somewhat confused version, where tensions hit boiling point over little more than media rumours. In turn came a glut of violent viral incidents, some of which involved weapons.
Of course, cameraphones play their part here; certainly when it comes to documenting incidents, and possibly with the “put up or shut up” scenarios they engineer – physical prowess potentially immortalised in a Mail Online embed for eternity. Yet, no matter how much perspective you throw at it, that sense of an impalpable rage in people’s hearts refuses to shift.
So what’s happened? My own, lefty inclination is that this is what happens when you continue to grind people up against each other in an increasingly competitive society. That years of austerity rule and a “fuck off” discourse are really starting to show. Having a Home Secretary that half-considered installing a wave machine in the channel to deter refugees can’t help either. Nor can a well documented, cross-societal issue with drink and drugs.
But part of me wonders if it runs deeper than that, if there’s something more intrinsic at play here. Something in the national make-up; that old cliche of the island nation, the one that colonised vast swathes of the planet with barrel and bayonet.
When the people with EU flags in their social bios yelled “Why can’t we just have a nice time?” when, during the summer’s Euros, England fans rushed the ticket barriers, fought with police and each other, and desecrated Leicester Square with a carpet of broken glass and bloodied flags, they seemed to be ignoring something at the heart of British identity; the perpetual cycle of repression, rage, repression, rage, explosion within which so many of us are reared.
“Britain is a culture of imploders that eventually explode,” says Fisher. “So when we explode… we really explode. This adds more tension to family life, mental health issues and the mood of the culture.”
Criminologists have a term: “expressive violence”. It’s one which takes on a whole new meaning when applied to the people of this country. There is a long-established stereotype that Brits are unable to express themselves properly, a trope that goes right back to the earliest days of cultural analysis.
“We British, according to many outsiders, are reserved, repressed, resilient, unemotional and self-controlled,” said Thomas Wright, a kind of proto-Jordan Peterson, in 1604. I wonder if, perhaps, through arguing and fighting, a more usable language is created. Some maniac means of communication, or indeed, a crude expressive artform. Painting watercolours with the blood on the pavement.
Perhaps the most telling aspect is how much many enjoy the spectacle of it. I certainly do. Rubbernecking at some ridiculous pavement scrap, we don’t exactly cheer people on. Rather, indulge it as a kind of Great British pastime. An endearingly grim part of our heritage, like Scotch eggs or Artex ceilings. Whether this is a kind of natural gallows humour or a sick coping mechanism, I’m not quite sure.
At times, it can seem like efforts to understand have made things worse. As discussions about mental health, addiction and trauma become more prevalent in popular media, things have only slid further into the berserk. What worries me most is that, rather than learning, we’re creating a breed of self-aware sadists, recalling The Sopranos psychiatrist Dr Elliot Kupferberg’s assertions about psychopaths sharpening their skills through therapy. The popularity of podcasts like Anything Goes With James English, where “reformed” villains veer between bawling their eyes out and boasting about cracking people over the head with shotgun butts, certainly suggests this to me.
The sense I get is that Britain’s chickens are coming home to roost. That our culture has upped the ante in recent years, turning people against each other in evermore lurid and unpredictable ways. A long-standing national motto of “What the fuck are you looking at?” is colliding with an age of hyper-documentation, creating a new kind of bloodsport to fill the vacuum left by public executions and full-contact British Bulldog.
Sometimes I wonder if the best course of action is to find a safe spot in the crowd, to just stand back and enjoy it. But not everybody has the freedom, or the inclination, to do that.