Paris, August 1792 – London, August 2011

9 August 2011

Late that night, Clementine watched in horror from her own sitting room windows that overlooked the Place Louis le Grand as a large jeering mob cheered on a ragged culotte wearing young man who shimmied swiftly up the statue of Louis XIV seated on a rearing stallion that had stood in the middle of the square for just over a century and tied the ends of several nooses around the king’s bronze head and that of his horse. Once he was safely down again, they pulled on the rope has hard as they could until the statue began to topple, cheering wildly as they did so.

‘Come away from the window,’ her husband said behind her. He had entered the room without her realizing. ‘We don’t want the mob to spot you and then turn their attentions to us.’

‘Lucien says that they are going to change the square’s name to something less royal,’ Clementine said with a sigh, not turning away from the window. ‘Place des Piques doesn’t have quite the same gravitas, does it?’

‘I’m only surprised that it has taken them so long,’ Charles replied, coming to stand next to her and staring down at the scene outside, where huge bonfires had been erected in the very centre of the square. Drunk women danced around the blazing fires, swigging from bottles and indiscriminately kissing any men who came near them. ‘They are no better than animals,’ he sneered disgustedly before turning away.

‘They are excited that finally things are changing for them,’ Clementine said quietly. ‘They’ve felt powerless for so long and now finally they feel like the things that they do are really making a difference.’

Her husband looked at her coldly. ‘I might have known that you would try to make excuses for them,’ he replied crossly. ‘I wonder if your heart will still bleed for the rabble when they come to arrest us both.’”

I wrote this passage, set in Paris in August 1792 yesterday morning and then spent most of the rest of the day watching the violence in London unfold on BBC News 24. I was planning to finish this chapter before bedtime but then found that I just didn’t have the heart for it any more. It felt weird and wrong to be writing about the violence, rioting and unrest of August 1792 with such horrific events unfolding right here and now.

We’re just showing the rich people that we can do what we want‘ – a young girl drinking looted wine just said to a reporter on the BBC News. I can imagine a cocky Parisienne grisette saying much the same thing in August 1792 as she swigs her stolen bottle of vin rouge. Maybe I’ll steal her line, just to remind myself that the fashions may change but the people never really do.

The east end of London is my favourite place on earth (Paris comes a close second but my heart really belongs to Spitalfields) and I was in tears last night watching the violence, looting and fires spread across London as my friends and people that I follow on Twitter gradually became more panicked and afraid.

As I’ve said before on here, our own city, Bristol has a long history of rioting and civil unrest and so it wasn’t a surprise when trouble broke out here as well late last night. Everything was quiet in the nice middle class street where we live, we couldn’t hear any sirens or helicopters but I wondered what we were going to wake up to. In the event, we woke up to nothing much but there’s rumours of more to come.

I’m going to finish the chapter today but it’s going to be impossible not to be influenced (‘inspired’ seems like entirely the wrong word doesn’t it) by events in my own capital. The heroine is still going to be running away through dark, dangerous streets but instead of my hazy ideas of grimacing sans culottes shouting ‘Down with this sort of thing’ and waving makeshift weaponry at the carriages of the rich, my mind is full of uncontrollable fires destroying beautiful old buildings; terrified families; shimmering broken glass covering the streets and masked people kicking in the windows and doorways of shops then running away with their arms full of anything they could snatch then carry.

I keep thinking of the photograph I saw in the Guardian yesterday, of an elderly man surveying the senseless damage in his looted barber’s shop. How is this right?