London calling to the faraway townsNow that war is declared-and battle come down London calling to the underworld Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls London calling, now don't look at us All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust London calling, see we ain't got no swing 'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing
So, London is rioting. This is true. The reasons behind the disturbances are complex. On the face of it, the disturbances were triggered after a man was killed by police, but that's only the trigger, it's not really a cause. The cause seems to have more to do with 'Look, free TV!'
I won't talk to that issue here, but I will address the issue of how this must look internationally. After all, London can't now be somewhere you'd want to go, can it? If I saw 'riots in Paris', I'd think carefully before going to the Eiffel tower... except the banlieue is far from the centre of Paris, and I know that a tourist isn't likely to stumble on the banlieue. What about the Olympics?
In other words, should a casual visitor to London be worried?
I grew up in Catford, south east London - central London was a different beast entirely. It may as well have been a different town. When I was at school, there was something called 'The Brixton Riots' - these may have well been in another land, it was so far away. We used to play 'Brixton Riots' in the playground, a game that consisted mostly of running in circles until exhausted. Brixton was five miles away, that's nothing.
A mile in London is a huge distance, so much can be packed in. The other thing that you need to realise about London - it's a big place - huge. It's called 'greater london' for that reason. These things combined mean that there are Londoners who will not know places just a short distance away, but be very familiar with other places miles away. For many Londoners, London is a patchwork of known areas, and it's often a surprised when these areas connect up one day. These patches are usually centred on tube stations.
Central London, the bit the tourists would visit, is simply not where these riots are occurring. The problems are in Tottenham, Brixton, Islington, Walthamstow and Enfield. The average tourist visitor to central London simply will be unaware of these places. Heck, I grew up in London and travel there fairly often now (it's under an hour by train), and I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've been to these places.
True, look at a map, and Brixton isn't far south of Westminster, it seems really close, but it'd be a determined tourist to wander that far away from central London (everything touristy is in a region from the south bank of the river up to maybe 3km north of the river, stretching from the museums in the west, to the tower of London in the east - this will stretch further east for the Olympics).
Enfield and Tottenham are so far from the touristy areas, you'd have to catch a train to get there.
Islington is probably the most likely area for a tourist to end up - it's about the same distance from the northern edge of the touristy areas as Brixton is from the south. However, like Brixton, you'd have to be at the limit of the touristy bits, and then make a determination to keep going. It's about a mile and a half to two miles walk from the British museum. It may only be about 20 minutes walk, but that's a lot of London, it really is. Why walk north east from the British museum, when all the 'good stuff' is south and west of it?
Seriously, if you're going to London to see Westminster, the museums, the galleries and all those other touristy things, you probably would not be aware of the current disturbances unless you looked at a paper.
The best american Analogy I can think of is people in Manhattan being personally affected by stuff that goes on in The Bronx (not that I've been to either place) - the two are just different beasts.
This week, I'm going up to London as I've tickets for the Proms, I'll travel up without worry, and I will pass within a short distance of Brixton on the train (yes, i'm going in to Waterloo). (Update (9th August): That day was the 8th August, i.e. the day I wrote this - and I had no problems at all. I am always deliberately vague about locations ahead of time on a public forum. My notes on the Proms are here.)
My wife works in London, and she wouldn't be going in if she felt it a problem. Last year with the student protests in Westerminster was MUCH closer to areas we pass through and she simply passed a few hundred metres further east and it's business as usual.
Yes, it does look very bad on the TV, and in written reports, it probably looks worse if outside of the UK. I know that If I were planning a trip to a strange city, and parts of it were hitting the news in this fashion, I'd be cautious. This is quite reasonable, as you're unaware of how 'London' is. It's probably double checking exactly where things are - but should it make you cancel a trip? Probably not. Indeed, you may find that you can get cheaper fares due to others cancelling trips (I haven't researched this). Quite apart from anything else, this won't affect the Olympics at all, except in perception terms. That's a year away, and somewhere else entirely.
... What if, when I go in to London, I did turn a corner to see it had all spread to the centre, that there were some yobs looting, confronting police and rioting? Simply turn and walk away. Get a street or two away, and I'd be out of it.
The only thing that really concerns me is a peaceful demonstration being tackled by 'kettling' - as that tactic can leave a bystander with nowhere to go and it can cause tensions to rise. This is not an issue with the current situation. For these current riots, they're a criminal action by a bunch of thugs, and as such, it's not something I can't envisage being a problem.
In short, it's bad, but we're talking a few hundred people in a population of millions - and those few hundred are in only a few places. With the current situation, unless you're unfortunate enough to be a local in these areas, you're not going to stumble on this by accident.
----Update---- Just to be clear: It should go without saying that there are no guarantees in life, something might happen - that is true in any big city, the individual could be mugged, or worse. These events pose a non-zero risk, but for me, it isn't a significant risk. I was happy to go into London today, and had a perfectly fine and acceptable day. I'm fortunate (at least as far as these events go) not to live in London, so I can simply leave and sleep at home - and my thoughts are with those who live in the areas affected.
Since I wrote this, things have changed - it doesn't look like the Brixton riots of the 80s looks. It's spread out, lots of smaller (but serious) incidents all over. In some ways, this makes it seem more scary, however, a smaller event is easier to avoid.
For me, I'll be going in again in the near future. As of right now (1am on the 9th) I'm happy to do so as I know I won't be going near any 'suspect' areas. I know the TV news will be seeking out the troublespots - so the vast majority of London will be fine. Whilst out and about I'll keep informed via free wifi from places like Starbucks. Also, I'll use common sense - whilst out and about if groups of shady types start to gather, I won't hang around to see what happens, but then, I wouldn't hang about to see what happens on a normal day... I don't like shady types.
You should, of course, make your own judgements about your personal risk tolerance.