London Riots: A View from the 42nd Floor

Sheilagh Matheson finds a huge gap between the two Britains as she travels home to Tyneside from a riot torn capital

The 42nd floor of the NatWest Tower in London is a champagne bar called Vertigo, entry by reservation only, breath-taking views. It’s early evening and small groups of 20-30 year olds chat and laugh, sipping fizz that costs at least £14.95 a glass. Our young, professional daughter is treating us.

Outside, the London panorama stretches to the horizon. We’re spotting landmarks like St Paul’s, the Gherkin is next door, and the Thames snakes round to Greenwich. It’s a fabulous scene with sunlight glittering on rooftops and vivid green parks.

Then we notice three helicopters pinned to the sky, not moving. Smoke rises beneath them and blows along the skyline. A trail of vehicles with flashing lights moves along a main road in the opposite direction. We assume they’re police cars.

Where’s that? That’s Tottenham.

Where are the cars going? I think it’s Lewisham.

A girl overhears the conversation and points out more plumes of smoke in a friendly, matter-of-fact way.

On the other side of the champagne bar the sun is setting but the sky is completely hazy. Surely that’s not smoke? Half of London’s been torched if that’s smoke.

As it drifts closer I realise it’s a heavy shower which eventually envelopes us and moves past. There’s a beautiful rainbow and we all take photos on mobile phones.

Everyone is drinking and laughing and pointing out hotspots. They are now much more interesting than the landmarks.

What’s it all about anyway, asks Anna who lives in Victoria but doesn’t follow the news. When I tell her she says indignantly “It sounds like you’re siding with the thugs.”

“Everything I’m telling you is what I’ve read in the newspapers, the Times, The Telegraph and the Guardian and heard on the news. I’m not siding with anyone.”

Then we discuss eating at an expensive restaurant where broccoli is a tenner but it really is the best in the world, or the cheapie near her house which has great food. We decide on the Italian Gastronomica because she can get home quickly. Convenience, not cost, wins.

In the lift smoothly plummeting down we realise no one paid the bill – around £40 for two flutes of champagne and a glass of red. The guy beside us laughs “On the house,” but you never know when we’ll want to go back and we don’t want to be blacklisted so we pay up.

Far above street level, not for a single second does anyone seem nervous about gangs of hyped-up rioting kids in hoodies bursting in on us.

Probably, nor do our less fortunate bon-viveurs in The Ledbury, a Michelin two starred restaurant in Notting Hill. But while we are safely on the 42nd floor, masked youths smash through the glass door of street level The Ledbury, ransack the dining room and snatch jewellery from diners not once, but twice.

Clients are locked in the wine cellar for safety as staff chase the assailants off with rolling pins and kitchen implements. Afterwards, jangling nerves are calmed with champagne, whisky and petit fours.

Customer Louise Yang is reported as saying:” I was kind of hoping to finish the rest of my tasting menu, but all the broken glass and turned over tables wasn’t conducive to a nice dining environment.

“I was sad for the wonderful smelling cheese cart which had glass littered all over it. So much cheese gone to waste!”

Meanwhile, the corpse of a man shot by police whose death allegedly sparked off the riots still lies in the mortuary, shops are torched, businesses that had built up over generations ruined, and looting is rife.

An out-of-towner, my short trip to the capital is slightly marred the following day when my friend cancels lunch. She works for John Lewis house magazine and needs to report on a ransacked Waitrose store. Her husband is quite miffed. He wanted to take advantage of a special wine offer but discerning looters stole all the stock.

On the train home to Northumberland, I wonder why copy cat riots that are spreading round the country haven’t happened in Newcastle and decide it’s because we’ve had so much rain lately. No one wants to run around when it’s cold and wet.

But it’s a beautiful evening for the final leg of the journey on a two coach train that follows the Tyne Valley. A fox follows the edge of a field, spectators sit in sunshine watching a cricket match, a horse and rider trot along a lane.

I reach into my bag and pull out a bag of Burts crisps. I helped myself to them – four bags – in the First Class travel lounge at Newcastle Station, along with several individual packs of biscuits as I was transfixed watching news of the riots on the TV. I don’t need them and could easily afford to buy them and it would be very embarrassing if anyone was watching the CCTV and saw me doing it. But hey, they’re free anyway.

Who cares? MPs have been plundering expenses, bankers get their bonuses, the police are in cahoots with Murdoch, the press are lying toerags who lie or buy their stories. It’s not like I threw a coffee table through the window of the First Class lounge, or smashed a chair, or nicked the television. It wasn’t plasma screen anyway.