Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Canaries in the Mine

Please pause for a moment and think about 15-year-old Billy Cox, who has just become the third child to be killed in South London within a week. Six months ago, just half a mile from where I now sit, 15-year-old Jessie James was gunned to his death while cycling home from a party in Moss Side. Fatalities around here remain mercifully uncommon, although shootings are anything but. Five days ago the streets were taped off in the middle of the afternoon, just 50 yards from here, after another teenager took a bullet in his leg. Then there are the robbings, the beatings, the sexual assaults. Talk to any child in this area and they will know a friend, schoolmate or relative who has been the victim of violent crime, or indeed who has been the perpetrator of violent crime.

Is it any surprise to learn that our children have it harder than those of any other country in the developed world? According to UNICEF we come 21st out of 21 in terms of material and educational wellbeing; health and safety; family and peer relations; behaviours and risks; and children's own perceptions of wellbeing. The most telling stats are those that come straight out of the mouths of young people themselves: only 40% of British kids believe that their peers are friendly and helpful - around half the figure from the Netherlands or Switzerland.

Of course there is more to the UNICEF report than brutal murders. The vast majority of children in this country do not live in Old Trafford, Moss Side or Peckham. Most children in this country will never hear a gun fired in anger or find their street taped off as a murder scene, and they should not need to feel grateful for this. But it would be foolish to think that the problems faced by young people in small towns and safe suburbia are so different to the problems faced by the youth of the Tamworth Estate in Old Trafford. Children of all backgrounds are growing up with low self-esteem, excess stress, fear of violence, pressure to succeed, pressure to fail. The boy in Moss Side who responds to his circumstances by picking up a gun is really not so different to the girl slicing scar after scar into her arm in suburban Cheshire. The bags of skunk passed around after dark in Seymour Park are no more evil than those slipped into purple blazer pockets at the fee-paying Grammar School down the road. It is all part of the same sad picture. Billy Cox, Jessie James, Michael Dosunmu, James Smartt-Ford - these tragically-starred youngsters found themselves at the sharpest, deadliest edge of modern British childhood. Coming from our poorest, our most hopeless, and yes - our blackest estates, they have been forgotten, written-off, abandoned. Somehow these young people became little more than canaries in a coalmine - totems of a society gone off the rails. Little caged birds - helpless, fragile and ultimately disposable. Shame on us all.

I'm not going to sit here and feed you some easy, bogus solution. I'm not going to rant about the decline of the family or the legacy of the progressive sixties or the avaricious eighties. I'm not going to blame Big Brother or hip hop. There is no single cause for the situation we find ourselves in and no simple cure. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a vendor of snake oil and hidden agendas. Or a Daily Mail columnist. However I would offer one little nugget of opinion for you to chew on - something that may at least make a small difference.

In 1993, Prime Minister John Major said of juvenile crime "sometimes I think we should understand a little less and condemn a little more." Was there ever anything more dangerous said by a politician? Anything more damaging? And the terrifying truth is that this position has been echoed in policy for nearly 15 years. What is an ASBO but an attempt to understand a little less and condemn a little more? The Blairite 'Respect Agenda'? Understanding less, condemning more. Media coverage of feral youth? Understanding less, condemning more. It's so easy, so seductive. So wrong.

I see a lot of young people at Old Trafford News. Some come through the doors as volunteers, with an eye on a future in the media or just for somewhere to go, something to do. Some I meet at schools and youth clubs. Others come to us on referral from the Youth Offending Team, serving the community on the orders of a magistrate. They are a pretty good cross-section of our young people, some bright and cheerful, some sullen and angry, some shy and withdrawn. The boys mostly arrive on their bikes in their caps and hoods, their tracksuit bottoms flapping around expensive Adidas shoes. On their first sessions we sit down and discuss what concerns them, what they might like to contribute to our magazine. The same issues come up again and again: their fears of crime, and guncrime in particular; gang culture; the environment. And one word that comes up again and again - respect. What they want is to be taken seriously, to be listened to, to be cared about by adult society. At some level these young people understand the brutality of their situation - they know that to our wealthy 21st Century civilisation, they are considered little more than a nuisance. They are disposable.

They really don't want to be the canaries in the mine. Can you blame them?


Clare said...

Hear hear!

[round of applause]

Rob said...

Well said.

[Stands up clapping]

Zinnia Cyclamen said...


[stands up clapping with Rob and Clare]

Anonymous said...

It's all very well you lot standing around clapping. Your words are all well and good but something has to be done to turn this situation around and you are not making any suggestions. You keep mentioning Switzerland in your posts, I WONDER WHY having lived there for ten years your hated Daily Mail columnists have a point.

Ally said...

thanks for the comments everyone.

Anon - first let me say that in all my writing career I have probably mentioned Switzerland roughly twice. It just so happens they were both on this blog over the past week. It's actually a country I know virtually nothing about. (But these things usually happen in threes, so watch out for my devastating expose of gnome abuse coming up shortly.)

I've no idea which point it is that you think the Daily Mail columnists have, so I can't really respond to that directly. Have you got any suggestions? I'm genuinely open to ideas, as anyone who seriously cares about these issues should be.

But I will reiterate what I said in my post - there is no quick, easy and simplistic solution to the problems of violent crime, gun crime, embedded poverty or juvenile alienation. I would argue that there are a thousand small solutions, each of which would take us a step closer to a peaceful and better society. One of those is to make more effort what is going on in the lives and in the heads of our young people which was the point I was trying to make here.

Anonymous said...

Crime and Punishment.
I have to agree with you concerning ASBO's but this country has certainly gone soft on crime. There does have to be a deterrent.
'Hug a Hoodie' - I don't think so - give a hoodie something better to do than stand around on street corners?
I have also lived in the Middle East - we wont go there!
Respect is a word thrown around a lot these days. I was brought up to respect everyone and have tried to bring my children up the same, sadly a lot of children today do not know the meaning of the word .
Poverty, sorry but that's all relative. I'm not sure there is any real poverty in this country, there is certainly no need.
I could go on about working mothers, teenage pregnancy rates, strangulation of the police force and justice system. Above all children need to feel cared for and that can only start in the home. You say your life is pretty good, as would most of us I think, and all we can really do as individuals is take that feeling and try to help and educate others any way we can.

Ally said...

"this country has certainly gone soft on crime"

What do you base that on? The UK is the most punitive nation in Western Europe - we lock up more people for longer and for a wider range of offences than any equivalent country. The only feasible option to get tougher would be to follow the US example of '3-strikes and you're out' which is A/ ludicrously expensive B/ patently inhumane, and C/ blatantly ineffective. The US locks up a quite terrifying proportion of its young people, and yet retains a woeful crime rate.

"give a hoodie something better to do than stand around on street corners?"

Agree 100%. That's why I'm here!

"Respect is a word thrown around a lot these days.... sadly a lot of children today do not know the meaning of the word."

I think you're wrong about that - they do know the meaning of the word. They also recognise that it's a 2-way street - someone does not deserve to be respected if they don't respect you back. Many young people today do not have a blind, unthinking respect for their 'elders and betters' and that is plainly because their 'elders and betters' have no respect for them. This is the nub of my argument here, and I believe recognising this dynamic is the first step in improving the situation re British youth.


"Above all children need to feel cared for and that can only start in the home."

I agree. But while it starts in the home, it doesn't necessarily end there. Plus we have to ask what could or should we, as a society, do to care for the many young people who simply aren't cared for at home. I don't think it does any good to blame mothers, blame fathers, blame capitalism or blame evil spirits (however tempting throwing blame around may be.) It's like the old joke about asking for directions and being told 'well if I were you I wouldn't start from here.'

We're living in the real world here and sometimes we need to find the best real world solutions we can.

Ally said...

Oh, and missed this one...

"Poverty, sorry but that's all relative."

I really hope you meant that, coz it's an excellent joke!

In all seriousness, the debate around the nature and importance of relative or absolute poverty has been raging for at least 30 years and we aren't going to solve it here. My own position is that both are extremely significant.

Anonymous said...

Ally, you can pull my words to bits as much as you like, I am not a writer. I certainly don't blame mothers and fathers but I do blame a society that positively encourages teenage pregnancy and makes it financially very hard for women not to work.
I've seen poverty and it is not not having the latest trainers or an i-pod.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I would never advocate chopping off someones hand for stealing - but there is extremely little theft in countries who do (!)

Ally said...

anon - apologies if it looks like I'm 'pulling apart' what you write - you raise interesting points and I'm trying to address them as best I can. Please keep talking, it's an interesting conversation.

I'd disagree that society actively encourages teenage motherhood. In practice I'm really not sure what else we could do to discourage it. (although giving young working class women better prospects, better education and higher aspirations would go a long way.)

Poverty is a difficult concept to quantify. In 21st Century Britain the poverty that really hurts people is poverty of aspiration and poverty of opportunity (see point above). In other words, it's not the fact that your life sucks today that is the problem, it's the knowledge that if you live another hundred years your situation is unlikely to improve. That's the cause of despair.

Although it is also true that there are many homes where the children have iPods and flash trainers, but where there are no coins for the meter at the end of the week and no food in the cupboard at breakfast time.

We live in a complex society of cheap consumer goods, which goes a long way to disguising the truth of modern poverty.

Anonymous said...

OK Ally your on.
I have two teenaged children, boy 19, girl 14. Two of the girls my son went to school with now have children of their own, one of them has two. The fathers are nowhere to be seen. One openly admits she got pregnant deliberately because she wanted to leave home - they both live off the state and will probably always will. They both attended a good school and came from reasonable homes. I think it was Clinton who cut benefits to single mothers and the US saw a marked reduction in teenage pregnancies.
My daughter has just had a woman come into her class for some sex education which mainly consisted of showing them how to put on a condom and telling them that the strawberry ones tasted the best.(!)
Poverty of aspiration - mmm, not sure, I think children maybe aspire to too much.....we live in a very materialistic world where everyone wants the latest new son has had the same girlfriend for four years, he would like to leave home and have his own place.....not two rented rooms as I had to start with, no no he would like to buy a three bedroomed house (and I do agree with the point of not wasting money on rent etc) aspirations are good but have to be realistic.
Daughter like all 14 year old girls who watch a lot of satellite channels aspires to being singer/actress/insert whatever, and having a sweet sixteen birthday party - have you ever watched that?
Poverty of opportunity? I remember the opportunities open to children when I was that age, I really do think there are more now ( I was pre-computer you know !)
Money? Well there have always been households with no coins for the meter but always cigarettes and beer, harsh I know but true.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound awful, but in a society where someone like Jade Goody can come FOURTH in a programme like Big Brother and go on to make millions on the back of it - What are our children going to aspire to?

Ally said...

Anonymous1 - re: single mothers.

I don't want to discuss your sons' classmates without knowing the full stories. But I will point our that people are contrary buggers and so we will always find exceptions to any rule. It is undeniable that teenage motherhood in the UK is strongly correlated with poverty.

The Clinton welfare reforms were a fascinating experiment. There seems to be little doubt that overall they have been beneficial, but the people who have suffered (the 10% at the absolute bottom of the heap) have suffered very badly indeed - and found their situation get considerably worse. There's talk of a new layer of criminal underclass evolving from those left destitute and also major problems amongst children left without an adult in the house for 14 hours a day because their mothers are being bussed to factories 100 miles away to work. And of course it is that 10% underclass from which we see the bulk of gang & gun crime emerging, bringing us back to the start of this debate. My hunch (bearing in mind I'm no expert) is that the Clinton reforms have been good for the US economically, but not necessarily socially.

Personally I'm not ideologically opposed to welfare reform for the Hell of it, but we do have to look closely for the devil in the detail.

Anonymous2 - I've never heard a child say 'when I grow up I want to be Jade Goody.' Have you? Although I have heard them say 'I want to be 50 Cent' which is much more worrying in my book.

Seriously though, it is true that most children these days grow up wanting to be 'celebrities' as a career choice. It's not healthy, but when I were a lad, back in the space age, we all grew up wanting to be astronauts. Or cowboys. Not sure too many of us succeeded on that score either...

Anonymous said...


You need to get out of Manchester more - travelling, they say it broadens the mind you know.


Ally said...

Thanks for the tip. I'm sure you're right.

I'm thinking Bolton...

Anonymous said...


We might not agree but I do like your style so I will be 'checking-in' as and when.
Thanks for the 'chat'

Ally said...

The pleasure is all mine.

Don't be a stranger y'all.

Rob said...

Anonymous - I'd hesitate to generalise but I suspect that part of the reason for the low incidence of theft in countries with Sharia law stems not from the penalties (people very rarely consider worsdt-case outcomes when committing crimes, which is one of the reasons why the death penalty is largely ineffective in deterring murder) but from the very high improtance given in traditional Islamic societies to what we would call "family values". Not to mention the whole business of shame, or "loss of face", and the sharing of it across whole families. Not so much "If I'm caught I'll lose a hand", more "If me Dad finds out he'll beat the crap out of me". I'm not necessarily saying that's an ideal way to grow up either, though it's not so different from Britain just after the war; merely that one can overestimate the causal relationship between severe legal punshments and low crime rates.

Oh, and your strawberry condom remark reminds me of the condom machine in the Fife Arms in Breamar, which sells Scotch whisky flavoured condoms and has a warning label "Do not attempt to drive while using this product". Now THAT's funny.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, both my husband and I were brought up in small communities where every one knew you and would be sure to tell your parents if you got up to no good!
Love your condom story - priceless!!