Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ghost Town

I’ve purposefully avoided writing about the riots in the UK because news coverage in America has been remarkably thin and I don’t want to comment about something that sensitive without knowing the facts. But all of this is eerily reminiscent of the strife that gripped that country in the early 1980s, and immediately upon hearing about the violence I thought of this: “Ghost Town,” the 1981 record by the English ska group The Specials.

Turns out, my musical instincts were correct.

From Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian on August 9, 2011, discussing “crisis music” that captures the mood of social upheaval:

Certain genres are aflame with crisis music: late-60s rock, mid-70s reggae, punk, early-90s hip-hop, the bleaker end of grime and dubstep. I can’t help notice that a common newspaper headline echoes the title of a Clash crisis song, London's Burning, but the one most mentioned over the last few days is Ghost Town by the Specials.

Like all cultural myths, the myth of Ghost Town can be annoying and overstated. The charts, as a rule, are not stuffed with records documenting social anxiety. My colleague Alexis Petridis is fond of pointing out that the single competing for the No 1 spot when riots exploded across Britain in the first week of July 1981 was Bad Manners’ version of the Can-Can, which would certainly make for a more antic soundtrack to archive footage of Brixton and Toxteth. …

But still, [“Ghost Town”] was the No 1 single and a remarkable one at that. Forget the lyrics for a moment: the mood is the message. As I wrote in my book: “It is the negative image of a song like Babylon’s Burning: hollowed out rather than crammed with incident, smouldering instead of blazing. Like all great records about social collapse, it seems to both fear and relish calamity.” …

Ghost Town is a prophecy that sounds like an aftermath. The ghost town it describes, gutted by recession, is the terrain before a riot (“people getting angry”) but you sense it will be as bad or worse after the anger has erupted. Hence the song’s circularity: it begins as it ends, with a spectral wail that could be either a cold wind or distant sirens. When the riots did break out, the Specials found the experience frightening rather than vindicating. …

In its nauseous fatalism Ghost Town expresses how I’ve felt watching the chaos on London streets over the past few days. The comments, in newspapers and online, which chime with me are the ones professing sadness, confusion and a willingness to wait for more information before jumping to conclusions, the latter being particularly welcome.

Understanding what’s going on in the UK far less than someone like Mr. Lynskey, I, of course, will jump to no conclusions, but I do want to echo something my friend Danielle Blake (@DCPlod) said on Twitter earlier today. Danielle lives there, so she knows what she’s talking about; and so I took notice when she said this:

I have so much respect for Tariq Jahan - the guy’s just lost his son, and he’s urging peace and calm. Cops better catch his son’s killers.

And then:

Also, Tariq Jahan’s response and the bravery of the three dead young Muslims is the strongest possible rebuttal to Islamophobia. #ukriots

What she’s referring to is this:

The pressure on [Prime Minister David] Cameron followed a day of rising tensions in Birmingham as community leaders and police appealed for calm following the death of Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shazad Ali, 30 and Abdul Musavir, 31. The three were part of a group of around 80 guarding a petrol station and shops from looters in Winson Green when they were victims of a hit-and-run in the early hours of Wednesday. A murder inquiry has been launched, and a 32-year-old man is being questioned.

Amid fears the deaths could spark inter-communal reprisals, the distraught father of Jahan made an emotional appeal to the community, revealing he had desperately tried to resuscitate his youngest son.

Holding a photograph of Haroon, Tariq Jahan, said he was nearby and rushed to help. “I ran towards the commotion and the first guy I found was someone I didn’t know. I started giving him CPR until someone pointed out that the guy behind me was my son on the floor,” he said.

“So I started CPR on my own son, my face was covered in blood, my hands were covered in blood. Why, why?

“He was trying to help his community and he has been killed.” Describing his son, a mechanic and keen boxer, as “a very well-liked kid”, he said: “I can’t describe to anybody what it feels like to lose a son. He was the youngest of three, and anything I ever wanted done, I would always ask Haroon to sort it out for me.

“A day from now, maybe two days from now, the whole world will forget and nobody will care.”

In a message to the local community, he implored: “Today we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stand united.

“This is not a race issue. The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of society.”

Visibly emotional, Jahan added: “I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, whites – we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home – please.”

As I say, I don’t pretend to fully grasp the underlying cause of the unrest there, but I do understand basic human decency, and it’s clear to me that Tariq Jahan embodies that virtue. I hope his message, ultimately, is the one that prevails.


  1. Wow, Dave. Thank you for the powerful post. My heart goes out to the people in London. I, too, hope the message uttered by Tariq Jahan is the one that carries the day.

  2. That's - tragic. My heart goes out to Tariq Jahan and I wish I thought anyone would listen to him.

    The bad link I mentioned was apparently only on Facebook, I raised this from Google+ just fine.