Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Straight Outta Brentwood

My whimsical adventures in the world of advertising were unfortunately not my only observational distraction on my way to Essex. What I saw on the other side of London put me in mind of that classic Bartletism; “Is it possible to be utterly shocked and yet not surprised at all?”

It all started at Chelmsford, where for some reason there was a delay after the train doors closed. A boy of about fifteen sporting a proto-pubescent moustache arrived on the platform in grey shellsuit and baseball cap and tried the doors to no avail. An eighteen-year-old on board the train, similarly grey from head to toe and similarly tache-laden, went to the doors and, after a moment taunting his friend, helped him prise the doors open by force. The pair then came and took up the set of seats across the aisle from me, the younger of the two swinging between the seats and asking his compatriot “You been down probation?” Ominous is insufficient to describe it...

The pair then dissected the news from the streets, which largely boiled down to the theft of someone's hat the previous night and the likelihood that its recovery would require violence. This was something for which the younger was clearly qualified, as the elder told him of the times he had hired a taxi to take him and his friends to watch their battles outside the local leisure centre in earlier days.

Conversation then turned to the strictures of the elder's probation. Not that there was any opportunity for a heart-warming warning from the wise head of the old lag; after all, the younger lad was asking his friend if anything had changed since he'd been on probation previously. The elder was trying to keep his nose clean through the probation, though his justification was the dubiously satisfactory “apart from drugs my record's clean”.

Then with our mutual destination fast approaching, they returned to the affair of the stolen hat. The elder's analysis? That violence was to be expected, as the boy in question had already seen three of his friends die. The younger lad agreed that it was surprising that there hadn't been any killings recently and the elder opined that if things did kick off as he was expecting, he would move away.

Why mention all this? To emphasise the absolute normality of the conversation to its participants. None of the violence was calculated by the individuals or the collective; it was just a normal element of the social interactions of this particular network of teenagers. They knew the dangers, they knew they had options to get away from it, but they chose not to.

Ultimately, it's that normality that we're fighting when we think about gang culture and anti-social behaviour. What is absolutely clear is that Labour's approach, the unbearable criminalisation of being, will not only fail to reach out to that peer group, it will actively reinforce its belief in its own normality. Only a radical approach has any chance of reaching beyond treating the symptoms and actually curing the problem.

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