The night I faced 15 youths who wanted to kill a man

There was much to look forward to last weekend. An old friend - Kate Gifford, ex-wife of the radical lawyer Lord Gifford - was 60 and she was celebrating at the Brockwell Park Lido in Brixton. The place has gathered a Caribbean feel about it and, with the moon in crescent, the evening was rather romantic.

We spoke of her past work in the solidarity movement with the South African people and about the fall of dictatorship in Portugal, as well as about her work in Notting Hill - the housing movement, the carnival movement, the pioneering work in adventure playgrounds and so on. But there is little or no trace now of the mood and aspirations of those days - except perhaps the Notting Hill Carnival, which has degenerated somewhat. Socialism appears as some ancient creed; council facilities for children after school and during the holidays are no more. Here in Lambeth a local councillor trapped me in conversation as he waved photostat copies of Ofsted's praise for Lambeth in my face. Pity him! He knows not how teachers have gained the skill of rigging these results.

In the old days, there was a vigorous black movement outside the grip of the Labour Party. Political journals were part of the culture of the day. Zanla, the Zimbabwean liberation movement, campaigned here and so did the African National Congress.

I spent the evening drowning my sorrows in wine, song and barbecue. It was about 1.15am when I lifted my heavy frame out of a vehicle, slightly unsteady on my feet. A crowd had gathered a few yards from my front door. They were all young men, about 15 of them, armed with baseball bats, pieces of metal, knives. There was no hysteria, no sign of drugs. They spoke softly. They had come, one said, to kill Carl. "We are going to beat him to death." Just like that. The leader was about my height, six foot and then some, slimly built, sweating slightly on his brow.

Carl had had a fight with the leader's sister, who is a tomboy. They had already beaten him to a pulp. Now they had come back for more. I approached the cool and quiet group, known as the Somerleyton crew. I could only remind them of the currently unrelenting black-on-black violence. A few years ago, the Norris gang killed Stephen Lawrence. Now members of the rival so-called Yardie gangs kill each other. We need no racists from Eltham now - we are doing it ourselves. A year down the road, and I fear the baseball bats will become machine guns and pistols.

I would not move. I kept on at them, careful not to antagonise but solid in argument.

They live in a community, a capital city without vision. Portugal for them is a holiday place, sans history, sans everything but beaches. Zanla may as well be an African pub group, so bankrupt is their public education.

I have not in the last few years heard a single idea from a local councillor that would turn the head. The councillors are now terrorising a fine local restaurant, Staff of Life, into oblivion because some white middle-class people find it a mild inconvenience. They are playing with fire. Little do they know that this army of young men (they refer to themselves as soldiers) can create havoc in this city way beyond their numbers. During the 1981 riots, Willie Whitelaw had to warn Margaret Thatcher that Brixton was only 20 minutes away from parliament.

These are uneasy times in Brixton. Tim Westwood, the Radio 1 DJ, graced the Lambeth Country Show with his presence last weekend. It may have been road rage, music rage, stage rage, anything that led to his attempted assassination. This is no longer a police problem but a deep social malaise that begs a political solution. Yet the likely mayoral candidates - Ken Livingstone, Jeffrey Archer, Steven Norris, Trevor Phillips - are all as silent as mice. Heaven help us!

The armed crew drifted down the street and through the alleyway that leads to Somerleyton, a warren of ugly flats where Ron Davies recently had an encounter. I negotiated a peace on the following day and I hope it holds.

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