Teenage wasteland

Following another London gang killing, Ruth Hedges - who worked with youngsters on the estate where

The news headline came through: fatal shooting of young boy in Stockwell. My heart sank and I quickly looked at the TV. Instantly the red bricked, quad-shaped flats of Stockwell Gardens Estate were recognisable. The white tape fluttered, and my heart sank lower.

Once a week for six months between November 2006 and April 2007 I ran a journalism project in this estate through the organisation, Headliners. I worked with a group of teenagers aged 13-18, exploring issues important to them and trying to get their voices heard. Now the TV crews were there alright, but for the worst possible reason.

Over the six months that we met in the Old Laundry, it amazed me that after a day at school or college, people would turn up. It was tough finding things to keep the group engaged safely in the winter evenings, but they were often inspiring and made it work.

They took what was thrown at them, had fun, argued their points and produced some good things. But there was nothing else to do. It was cold and dark and they wanted to be out of their flats and to see their friends. They also needed for someone to take their points of view seriously.

Young men would regularly come in agitated from having been stopped and searched; one guy missing a college exam because of it. Three of the girls experienced murder in their school and family, having to attend funerals. Two sisters came in late once saying they’d had to go to their dad’s and godfather’s birthday. It took me a few seconds to realise this was the same person.

One 17-year-old, whose questioning of the media’s use of the word ‘gang’, would triumph any Question Time debate, revealed in a rap that his dad had died of cancer. His mum had recently re-married and he didn’t get on with his new step dad. None of the group had a mum or dad who were still together, and the vast majority lived with their mums. For an early-morning shoot, one of the girls was tired because she’d been hungry at midnight and so had gone off on her bike to get some chicken.

While there was never an overt threat of violence, there were occasional instances where I witnessed money changing hands, and older men would walk unannounced into the group to have a word with the younger ones. There were undoubtedly pressures to get involved in a sub-culture of drugs, but what real enticing alternatives were there?

It might seem that for these teenagers and many others like them, that they would be beyond wanting sports, games or activities to do, but that’s wrong. The thing that they wanted more than anything was a youth club. There is one down in Brixton – we did some interviews there – but they wanted one for their estate.

They had the space – the Old Laundry – and there were even facilities (a locked backroom of pool tables, deflated footballs, a stereo), but there was not the money for the necessary staff to run a regular youth club. It was possibly the most frustrating set-up I’ve ever witnessed.

I will never forget the first time I went to meet the group. Hyde Housing, the estate’s management, held a regular youth forum where ‘decisions’ about the estate could be made. After mumblings of disquiet, when asked what they’d been promised, one of the younger boys looked dejected and said "ping pong".

After a few more offerings from the floor, the chief housing officer from Hyde got up to give an illustrated talk. He showed a series of stills from CCTV footage of young people around the estate ‘hanging out’. The point of this seemed to be to say, we’re watching you – and even if you’re just hanging out with the wrong people, by association, you’ll be under suspicion. The ridiculousness of this was extreme, and I was as bemused and annoyed as the assembled group were.

Next up was me, a young white woman, to pitch a journalism course. Every person in the room was black, and one of the young boys asked me what I would think if I saw a group of them standing on a street corner? What I wanted to say was that I saw a group of tired-looking young people, some with puffy eyes and scuffed-up clothes who were justifiably pretty disenchanted with what had been presented with so far.

I just said I would see a group of young people standing on a corner. They let me off with a few disbelieving laughs and jeers. Their perception of how they were seen by the media and wider society was acute.

So we started. The group had an energy and verve, and an anger that was impressive. They laughed a lot, discussed issues, and grilled a local councillor with smart, well-researched persistence. Their needs were in many ways complex, yet in some ways very simple – a secure outlet, a focus and a challenge. When there was yet another false hope with the youth club, and they were told it was going to happen, the lad who had mentioned ping pong asked: "Will there be a tuck shop?" When the reply came in the affirmative he threw both arms up in the air and cheered.

By the time I left, there was still no youth club. Wouldn’t it have been so much of a better headline, even just in the local press, to say: "Stockwell Gardens Estate Opens Youth Club" or "Lambeth Council Opens Sports Centre", rather than: "Boy Gunned Down as he Cowers Behind Tree"?

What a waste. What heartbreak. Why should the young of this estate have to deal with that loss and that trauma, and keep trying to better things for themselves – to get the odd bench put in where they can sit down?

There is only so long you can neglect people, to not listen and not provide any alternatives, and expect them to bounce back or just keep their heads down. As one of the young men said, “They need to make a place for us to chill. That’s the most important thing, because if they don’t, that’s when people resort to doing crime. It’s a proven fact that idle hands are the worst hands. I feel like an animal here. Everything’s closed off, it’s like they’re caging us. People might think that’s not affecting them, but subliminally, when the mind keeps on seeing gates and railings, the mind is going to act like its got to put its hands up and have protection."

It is tragic that his prophetic warning has come true. When I heard about the shooting, I texted one of the girls whose block it was directly in front of to see if she was OK. She texted back: "Thank you ruth im alrite now he was my friend".

They were just looking forward to the summer when I left in April. I’m truly gutted for them that it has started this way, not to mention for the boy’s family.

There has to be serious, intensive investment in youth services, subsidised sports and cultural facilities if we’re going to turn things around. It’s wanted and needed, and in a country and capital where the divide between the haves and have-nots is so pronounced, where one set of kids demand focaccia and olives and the other are worried about being taken to Nando’s because to them it’s expensive, there’s got to be some attempt to offer a rebalance.

If there's not, a portion of our young people will continue to grow up on the defensive nursing bridling frustration, and the message goes home loud and clear: no-one cares about you, so how are you going to feel like a someone?

-- Ruth Hedges is a freelance journalist based in London, www.ruthhedges.co.uk

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood