There is a knife crime crises in London at the moment. Four people were fatally stabbed in London over a 24-hour period last week and there seems to be a new incident every few days. I struggle to understand what is going on here and there is not much in my past to help me get my mind around it, but with a young son nearly of "roaming the streets in a hoodie with his mates" age it worries me a lot.
The only direct experience I have of this issue relates to the time I myself was stabbed in the leg when I was a teenager. That was about 30 years ago but I remember very clearly what happened and I can still see the laughing face of the teenager who did it. Now I will reveal here for the first time ever what really happened.
But first, what on earth is going on in the heads of these young people roaming around with knives tucked away ready to be whipped out, and used at the first sign of "disrespect"? Goodness knows. It's inexcusable and I have a fear that any attempt to try to understand what's going on in their minds feels like one is making excuses for them, which is definitely not the case.
I think one direction to look in is this apparently intense feeling of the need to be respected. There is an assumption that they are not respected or to put it another way, not valued. And I think on the whole that may well be the case. Also I think often they don't respect or value themselves or worse they feel worthless and powerless, leading to anger and resentment. They give up on their own future, they really just don't case.
The smart ones are the most dangerous. Some of those lads you read about in the media wielding the knives will be the clever guys who in a different school, a different life would have been identified as "gifted and talented" but in this setting they emerge as classic and extreme underachievers. Sometimes we help them get there. I was on a stall at a school careers fair. A lad walked up and asked what it was all about. I told him about the IT industry, becoming a programmer, a project manager, a salesman and we got chatting. He was keen and interested. Bright lad. Then his Dad came up, snatched the papers out of his had, threw them back on the table and said to him "this is not for people like you, boy. Come over here to the Sainsbury's stand and let's see if there is a job going in the local shop".
And don't underestimate the realities of the environment these guys have grown up in. Why should we be surprised that they are in a constant rage, ready to strike at the slightest dis? I have spent several years involved in inner city education and was a governor of a secondary (high) school in inner London. The stories that I'd hear staggered me. The 14 year old girl who ran away from her mums house because her mums boyfriend was abusing her, so went to a classmates house, until the friends mum's boyfriend started abusing her too. So she went to sleep in a broken down car instead and her friends would bring her food. Yes, here in London! She still came to school though, but you do not want to disrespect her, believe me, because she would lash out so fast you wouldn't even see it coming! The 12 year old lad whose mum had skipped bail and gone to live in Bristol but kept sending him on his own four hours on the train to school in London every day so that no one would raise the alarm that she had gone missing. He would arrive tired, dirty, scared, angry every day. Go on, disrespect him if you dare!
I asked one of the Ghanaian Dad's at the school why the teenage boys of Ghanaian parents,who looked like the same big, tough, black 6 foot 6 tall, hooded lads as all the rest seemed to get through school okay and many go on to university. He said that the parents operate as a tight community, they all know each others sons and they all look out for them and report on them to each other. What's that African saying? "It takes a village to raise a child". That system is alive and well amongst parts of the Ghanaian community in South London.
I said to him "what do you do if one of the lads goes astray". "Ah" he smiled "all us men go together to his house, we sit him in the bath and put bricks on him until he promises to behave". He laughed. I laughed. Oh, how we laughed together. The old "put him in a bath of bricks" strategy. Never fails. Blimey...is that what we mean by getting back to family values?
So you want respect? You want to project power? That "Don't mess with me" look? But why knives? In my day it was boots. Doc Martens to be precise (ok, I admit it "my day" was London in the 70's). We wore them to be seen as "hard" by our mates. We didn't actually expect to have to kick anyone but we'd all stomp about in our "DM's" being "hard". Occasionally someone would get kicked and the result would usually be that they would say "ouch, that hurt a bit, stop it". It's a bit different if the thing that makes you "hard" is a 6 inch knife.
I got my first Doc Martens as hand-me-downs from my big brother. They were a few sizes too big but I stuffed newspaper into the end to keep them on and that worked. With the size of the boots I had to take quite high steps to walk along otherwise the toes caught on the pavement and I'd trip over onto my face. Clowns use the same walking technique. I also had a 5-inch big round Afro. Clowns often wear large, round wigs too. However I was definitely not a clown, ohhhh no, not at all. I was "hard" you see. Don't mess with me. If I could get my huge boot up in time I might do a sort of jabbing motion and try to kick you with it, although that tended to get me off balance so I tried to avoid doing this. I just stood around looking hard. With dark glasses on. Hopefully no photos survived this dark period of my life.
And it was part of this attempt at being seen as "hard" that got me stabbed in the leg. The right leg about 6 inches above the knee. I've still got the scar. Fortunately it wasn't too deep and didn't hit an artery but it still hurt a lot.
In those day young thugs didn't carry knives. I'm not sure I remember why, I think it was because there was some law about not carrying a knife and I think young thugs thought "oh, if that's the law I'd better not carry a knife then". Thugs were very law abiding in those days. Besides we all had hard boots on to make us feel tough. And anyway all the talk was about bottles. The weapon of choice was to smash a bottle on a table or a wall, like in films, and hold it up with the jagged bits pointing at the enemy shouting "come on then, come on then" looking really fierce and praying that the other fella would run away before you had to.
I never actually got into a situation like that and in fact now I think about it no-one I knew every got into that situation, except perhaps "Butch's" legendary elder brother who no-one ever saw. However me and my mate did find a crate of empty bottles round the back of a restaurant one day and decided to try the smashing and shouting "c'mon then..." bit to see what it was like.
The first thing we discovered was that breaking a bottle against a wall is harder than you'd think. They tend to just fly out of your hand when you hit the wall. However if you persist you can get it done, and thus it came to pass that I was standing there with a jagged broken bottle shouting gleefully "c'mon then..." as a furious restaurant owner came charging out the door to find out what the hell was going on. We legged it, laughing like only irritating little snotty nosed teens can. (For those not from the 70's "Legged it" = "ran away as fast as our little legs could carry us"). Unfortunately I had forgotten to throw away my bottle so as I rounded a corner I managed to stab myself in the right leg, about 6 inches above the knee. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Getting stabbed really hurts you know.
I apologise if you think I am trivialising an important issue (it's a true story by the way). I don't mean to. I am just illustrating the point that if you mess around with dangerous things because you want to look tough then someone is going to get hurt and it's a damn good chance it will be you!
How do we tackle it? Understanding the lack of self-worth and the need for respect? Creating real opportunities for the young leaders and opinion formers? Baths full of bricks? I really don't know but we can't let this generation go to waste and we can't lock them all up. We've got to do something. I feel quite helpless.