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7/18/2008

I Live in Peckham. I Feel Safe.


I regularly walk the streets of Peckham, New Cross, Deptford and Bermondsey at night, alone, without feeling afraid. So do many other people I know, of both sexes and all sizes, and all of us have done so for many years without any trouble. How can this be possible in an areas which has seen such terrible slaughter? Especially in the past six months. We are loudly told that nowhere in Britain is safe. So my friends and I should be cowering behind double-locked doors until the mini-cab angel appears to escort us safely through the apocalyptic urban charnelhouse to our destination - if we are to believe the media, rather than the official statistics.
Meanwhile, the teenage boys who live in neighbouring flats are definitely terrified. They rightly feel in danger, and have the experience to justify their fears. They retreat into drink and drugs and TV, and choose to play the waiting game, putting their lives on hold until they reach an age when they imagine they will be safe. Several have even given up on school for this reason. In much the same way, teenage girls skip a stage of the real, dangerous world, and rush into motherhood to gain an identity of some kind, and with it some status. Teenage boys can gain a sliver of the same status by being the father, but this is not enough alone.
Why are young, fit, strong men, able to run like the wind, more afraid of their environment than me and my peer group? Why are they killing each other? The simple answer is because their environment is as suitable for them - as a species - as a desert is for a dolphin. In ecological terms, it is a hostile environment. Young homo-sapiens is not an urban animal - at least, not the kind of urban we have in London now. And as less real money is invested in nurturing them through their adolescence, and as the last shreds of community (look it up in an old dictionary) are torn apart by the tax-subsidised property industry and the road transport lobby, the chances of them growing into fully functioning human beings in this wasteland are getting longer with each shopping mall and gated yuppie estate.


The reason I feel safe and they don't is because, in spite of being immediate neighbours, we live in completely different worlds. My peer group have a non-geographical surrogate community created out of work and experience.
Teenagers have not had the time to establish such networks, and because of the failure of the education system and destruction of community spirit, many will never have much of a chance to. They are forced to fall back on the only support they know, from the tribal Old School network, which can carry with it all kinds of infantile vendettas and can be intensely territorial. Also, many will not get jobs, and any they do get will be menial and demeaning - and as such they are branded as a Loser among their peers, who watch the same TV and see the same images which glorify wealth as the only quality deserving of Respect.
They also see politicians and businessmen, the most respected members of society, routinely lying and breaking the law to get richer and even more respected, and they naturally assume they are just as entitled to resort to crime as anyone else.
They see politicians and businessmen starting wars to get rich, and naturally assume that if human life is that cheap to the most respected members of society, that they are just as entitled to place the same value on life to get what they want.
The media have recently been accused of glamorising knife crime, and of deliberately making people afraid, all of which is naturally true, but the overriding message glorified in the press, on TV, in music, movies, online, and by the games industry is that You Are On Your Own. Nobody will look after you but you. You are responsible for your own fate. There Is No Such Thing As Society. Their parents are bombarded with the same crippled ethos, and this is the result.
The media are striking back by accusing the government of lying. The recent statistics which show violent crime to be no worse than in the past are being distorted. The real rate of stabbings, in particular, being blunted by the reluctance of victims to report to the police.
There are no ways of knowing how much real truth there is to any of this speculation, but none of it alters the essential truth, that children across the country, but particularly in the inner cities, are being systematically robbed of their right to a normal, productive adolescence, and robbed of their opportunities to lead healthy, fulfilled lives. They are being robbed of their true individuality, and a synthetic substitute personality installed instead. One indifferent to the suffering of others, and ruthless in pursuit of its own interest. Perfect Alan Sugar material, in fact.
They are being robbed left, right and centre, and all the metal detectors, curfews, mandatory sentences and boot camps in the world won't undo the theft without massive, wholehearted, profit-free investment in communities and their people - all of them.
 In a world in which long-distance gap-year grand tours of the world are routine for some young people, others, such as my young neighbours, live in a virtual state of seige, behind invisible walls built of schoolday allegiances and a dozen petty squabbles which escalated into violence.
'Stevie's' friend sells a dog to someone else. A friend of
his recognises the dog as belonging to a friend of theirs, and so it all kicks off, ending up with stanley knives drawn and 'Stevie' ending up in hospital.
After that, a quarter mile section of the Old Kent Rd is out of bounds. As is the area near either of two rival schools, and much of Peckham and New Cross because of previous, pointless squabbles for Respect. Squabbles which would never happen if there was some achievable purpose to their lives. It is easy for the columnists and radio shock jocks to sneer that they had it tough and they made it to the top. They had the benefit of communities which still worked, and in many cases free university education. They grew up before the profit fetish had destroyed the youth service and the spaces children used to play and grow in. To today's generation of teenagers, the city is a battlefield, not a playground or the cornucopaeia of 'opportunity' and 'choice' touted by the media. It is their version of the cutthroat competition displayed by the nice adult middle class they see ruling the world. And this bearpit is how we teach them to be adults. This is their Nanny State. And their almost constant anger and resentment is entirely natural.

TBC

5 comments:

  1. This is one of the best things I've read in a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Charlie Whitaker7:27 pm

    The last paragraph suggests that violence in poor districts is a mirror ('their version') of sublimated aggression in the wealthy. You may be right, but this line of argument tends to be dismissed as liberal hand-wringng.

    There's another way of expressing the situation:

    1. Certain members of the wealthier part of society sustain a misleading fiction (the 'Alan Sugar story') in which success owes nothing to societal support (which was in fact given). This fiction is expressed via mass media channels.

    2. The poor part of society _really is_ bereft of societal support. But this part of society, via mass media, also tunes into the 'Alan Sugar story' (and similar product) and they may see confirmation in it.

    It's a nasty combination. We'd do well to roll back the mythology of 'success' while, at the same time, doing what we can to provide the support that's missing; but they are separate tasks.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's a terrific piece. Now all we need is to get what society we have to get on the same page..

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your comments:

    'The last paragraph suggests that violence in poor districts is a mirror ('their version') of sublimated aggression in the wealthy'

    I was trying to say that in the absence of any other 'role models', teenage boys have to get what they can.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good article.
    Problem is, the "Establishment" don't, and wont listen, it is not in their interest to do so.
    We see it on TV, even on the BBC, teenagers being interviewed about the latest stabbing, but the teenagers they are speaking to, are in most ways, normally rounded individuals, and not the ones we need to target.

    ReplyDelete

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