What do you do when your personal instinct runs up against political acceptability? Or, to put it another way, just how guilty should you feel when you want to string up the teenage hoodlums who are terrorising your neighbourhood? Question number one is framed in liberal New Statesman language. Question number two is the way I would put it if I were writing this for a tabloid, replete with hyperbole. They amount to the same dilemma - and I would suggest that if you, reader, were being honest with yourself, it is a dilemma that has at some point afflicted you, too.
Our respectable, academic-oriented London street is once in a while turned into a racing track by two joy-riding, wheelie-stunt-performing, or threatening, sauntering gangs. They shout expletives at the top of their voice. They'll knock over a rubbish bin, and if they are feeling particularly aggressive, they run keys along the frames of a car, snap off a wing mirror or tip over a moped. One bright midsummer's early evening, my wife went out to ask them to stop hurling "bitch-rape" abuse at an elderly female passer-by. One of the boys - perhaps no older than eight - got out a baseball bat from his bag.
This is what in government-speak would count as antisocial behaviour - a more antiseptic term than befits the reality. In the couple of neighbourhood liaison meetings I have attended, I have found our two young beat coppers to be well-educated and decent blokes. They know who are in the gangs, but they admit they have perhaps a one-in-a-thousand chance of catching them at it. I never believed I would be the kind of person to rejoice at the sight of a CCTV camera being installed, but now that it is there, the trouble has decreased, or at least I think it has. It is safe to assume the kids have their fun somewhere else.
The reason I write this is not, as the election campaign begins, to score political points, but rather the opposite. It is to show how far removed the national political discourse, in which I participate - the who's up, who's down that fuels so much journalism - has become from the individual experience.
Parenthood impels one towards protective and sometimes irrational instincts. Should I allow my seven- and 11-year-old daughters out? They might just run up against these all-male gangs. Of course, I know the figures show that the chance of something bad happening is no greater now than in previous generations. Still I wonder. Inevitably, people exaggerate the frequency of crime, but it only takes one incident to have an effect.
When I do see these kids, the testosterone in me gets going, and I convince myself that I could, on my own, take them on, pin them up against a wall, and tell them what's what. I would be the first to write in my columns of the effects of family breakdown or social breakdown, or inequality, or drugs, or alcohol, on boys such as these. I know I should be concerned that maybe they are neglected, troubled, perhaps abused. And yet a little demon working inside me tells me that, actually, I'm not, or at least not as much as I ought to be. I don't step outside, and the most I do is to hide behind the curtains and phone the special hotline number that residents have been given. By the time the squad car arrives, the culprits have gone, back to their grim existence, from which the rest of the country, myself included, seeks to insulate itself.