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

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.