REIGN OF TERROR
Why do people look the other way when children are violent in
public? Because they are scared, says Phil Craig, who describes
what happened when he rebuked three young hooligans on a train
FROM time to time Radio Five asks me on to its late-night phone-in programmes. They're chatty and light, and an ironic, mildly left-wing tone dominates. At 42, I'm at the upper end of the age-range of the journalists, writers and comedians that make up the panels.
Claire phoned in from a northern city; she didn't like to say which. We were talking about young people and violence, and the conversation turned to the question of whether things were better when she was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. I write oral history about the second world war, so know a little about the opinion of her generation on the subject.
Claire's trouble may give pause to those who howled with derision when the government suggested withdrawing child benefit from the families of young offenders. She lives in a poor area where local teenagers congregate near her flat to drink and smoke dope. They abuse her when she ventures out, and sometimes lob stones at her. She said that she'd called the police, but it appeared that nothing much could be done. It was making her ill.
There was a music critic on the panel. He was smart and witty, and the star contributor that night. Kids, he said, had always behaved like that. It was a fact of life, and anyway if you looked into British social history, you'd find many worse examples of youth violence than we see today. The trouble was that right-wing newspapers exaggerate the stories and build up `moral panic'. Why, even he had been in trouble as a lad for hanging around drinking cider. He told a funny story about how he and his friends would get the oldest-looking one to go down the off-licence to buy the stuff.
'Excuse me.' Claire cut in, 'but I think you're all being very glib about this.'
Glib. The word stuck with me for months. Because she was right. The Left — the fashionable, metropolitan, young, middle-class Left, the Left with which I've identified for most of my life — is very glib about this. People such as Claire don't need to be told that in 1890s London there were a lot of street gangs, or that in 1937 the Daily Express was worried about teenage hooligans. They know that in their own lifetime there has been an palpable decline in the standards of public behaviour, and especially in the behaviour of teenage boys. They know because they can remember that they would not have dared to behave as these kids behave.
I was brought up in a lower-middle-class estate in a northern town, in a society that had been moulded by the second world war and the years of austerity that followed it. When I was a child, fathers would still go round to 'have a word' with the parents of the local tearaways. They were big men, manual workers, former soldiers; confident in their own authority, and confident too that they could speak with the backing of the wider community.
People of Claire's age have lived through a social experiment: the shift from a largely authoritarian culture to a permissive culture in the space of half a lifetime. There have been many benefits from this, but 1 wonder how widely they have been shared. For most of us, the change has brought fun and freedom, a more colourful life, without the former drabness and intolerance. People such as I live in a world that is now far more agreeable. The world we grew up in was one of sexual and racial prejudices, where men would come home from the pub on a Sunday expecting to see dinner on the table, and beat their wives if it wasn't. So, yes, many of the changes have been positive, but especially for the middle classes.
For the working classes it is different. In poor areas, life always tended to be more chaotic. People lived close to the edge — financially and morally. The notion of 'respectability' in these areas was important in the two decades following the war. The old Left understood this: the Left of the Methodist chapel and the Workers' Educational Associations. Such a society needed — and still needs — a certain firmness to keep its members on the straight and narrow; not because the working classes are weaker or more feckless than the middle classes, but because weak and feckless people can do much more harm in a working-class neighbourhood than in a middle-class one The middle-class drunkard or drug addict and his family are insulated to an extent by money and social prestige. And, if things fall apart, then the family will most likely sell up and take their problems elsewhere. But in a poor neighbourhood the dynamic is quite different. A few bad families can wreck an estate and ruin many lives if the balance of power tips their way; once the fathers no longer feel they can go round to have a word, once the old ladies get scared to answer their doors after dark. In communities such as these, order and discipline are critical; they are a part of the long march from Gin Lane to municipal socialism. But the modern Left tends to be suspicious of authority. It's just not cool.
Tony Blair used to talk a lot about 'cornmunitarianism' and zero tolerance, a crackdown on the minor crimes and bad behaviour that can sap the morale of an area and drive respectable people off the streets. There have been initiatives, injunctions and banning orders. But, as we've seen in Peckham, the really bad kids just shrug them off. Hence the need for tougher ideas — such as withdrawing child benefit, or forcing problem kids into some kind of obligatory community-service scheme.
At the heart of all this is the question whether the ordinary citizen has the confidence to impose good behaviour. Far too often we look the other way. We look the other way when young boys throw stones. So the boys move on to shoplifting, a bit of mobile-phone snatching and maybe GBH or a knife attack. And then what? The old lady killed with her fish supper? Damilola?
Without a clear lead from above, it's hard for the individual to make much difference. I know what I am talking about because about a year ago I did try to do something. Here's what happened.
The 19.56 from Richmond to Wimbledon was a quarter full of well-dressed commuters on their way to late suppers in Teddington and Hampton Wick. There were three teenagers too, aged 16 or 17. One was cutting his name into the window while the others stood and admired. All carried cans or bottles of beer. We've all seen it: hoods over heads, feet on seats, spitting on the floor, the body language pure 'You want some?'
I told them to stop it. The tallest boy looked at me as if I was mad. 'Just fuck off.' he said over and over again, as if to some eccentric who was pestering him with a completely unreasonable demand. 'Just!' 'Fuck!' Off!' His smaller ally, the glass-cutter, came up very close and told me what he'd like to do to me. His rat-like, spotty face was white and he was shaking.
The boys moved towards the connecting door. It was my station, Strawberry Hill. As I left the train, one of them started to argue with another passenger at the end of the carriage. I assumed that the stranger had taken my side. On the platform a woman who had got off with me offered support. Together we went to the driver and told him what was happening. I was worried that the boys would hurt someone. The ratty glass-cutter smelled of drink and. when he'd confronted me, there was a beer bottle in his hand. We advised the driver to call the police and have them ready at Teddington, the next station. We both offered our names and addresses.
Now this is the annoying part. The driver walked down to the middle of the train and threw the three boys off. They immediately ran towards me. As the train left the platform, so did 1. But they cut down an alley and caught me in the street. The ratty one came at me, arm raised, something shiny in his hand. A knife? A broken bottle? In the half-light I couldn't be sure. It was a beer can, and it caught me harmlessly on the side of the head as I ducked and twisted away, yelling for someone to call the police.
In the mêlée he'd dropped the can. I picked it up and aimed it back at him. His mates kept out of it, shouting but leaving me alone. A woman stopped her car and dialled 999 on her mobile. There was a stand-off and some more name-calling. Another woman came out of a shop, yelled at them and got a can waved in her face. Then they disappeared. By now I was the focus of an ad-hoc committee of concerned suburban mothers, and grateful for their company until the police arrived five minutes later.
After a sleepless night, I wrote to South West Trains, with a copy to every important local dignitary I could think of. Here was an opportunity to catch a dangerous group of menacing young people. Here were witnesses willing to help, at some risk to themselves. Jane Lee, the company's head of communications, was very nice. No, the driver should have called the police, but if he thinks a passenger might be at risk, he's supposed to clear the train. Yes, I suppose he could have stayed at the station with you until help was raised. Sorry.
The police were helpful too. They checked the station CCTV. Nothing. Within 48 hours my little crime was 'screened out'. The PC from Twickenham had 35 common assaults on his books, he said, and unless there was a good chance of an arrest, he had to let most of them drop. No 'zero tolerance' here, then; no determined effort to get at the young criminals before they learn that they can get away with anything. I got a crime number and a leaflet. So, I asked, if I see them on my train again, should I try a citizen's arrest? 'Well, yes,' he said, if I feel confident enough. but I would have to be careful not to hurt anyone.
But why are we all so scared of children? Forty years ago the situation was reversed. There were authority figures everywhere: park-keepers, train guards, men in uniform who looked as though they could handle themselves better than a fortysomething writer, and who could speak to rowdy kids with a firmness they knew would be backed up by the other men on the train. Would I want that world back? I don't think so. The dark side of all that authority was battered wives and, yes, battered children. too. But I think that I'd like a little bit of it back; the feeling that if we do dare to say something, then others would back us up. That's what's missing. And that's why so many look the other way, or leave the problem on someone else's platform.
The problem is real, and we must stop being so glib about it. At the end of my night shift at Radio Five, I shared a cab home with the music critic, the man who thought that crime was a moral panic whipped up by the tabloid press. He got out after a few hundred yards. Why hadn't he walked? I asked. 'What?' he said. 'Around here, after dark? Don't be crazy!'
Phil Craig is a television producer and writer. His book about 1942, End of the Beginning, is published this summer by Hodder dz Stoughton.