Shattered lives

Last year, 26 people, mostly young men, were killed in gang-related shootings in London. Each death

On 15 November last year I received a phone call from my eldest son, saying that his best friend's bro ther, Etem Celebi, had been shot dead in Stoke Newington at 9.50pm the previous evening. We both felt disbelief, grief and a sense of hopelessness. Within hours, the killing had been named the 23rd gun crime of the year in London. A statistic.

Underneath was a devastated family, a shattered community, and broken friends. Etem's brother Firat had gone on holiday with us and both were regular visitors at my home, watching their beloved Arsenal.

Etem was 17. His parents, Kemal and Hayriye, were from northern Cyprus. Etem had attended local schools and was a student at Brooke House Sixth-Form College studying sports science. He played football for Leyton and, in recent months, for the under-18s at Dagenham and Redbridge FC. He had been Player of the Year and Players' Player of the Year, winning trophies since the age of 11. His many aunts and uncles, nieces and ne phews, lived around Famagusta.

Friends said of him: "He constantly made people laugh. He was bright and intelligent." His father said: "People loved me because I was his dad and loved him because he was my son."

I went with my son to visit the scene of the shooting on the Friday following the killing. We arrived at 8.30pm. Already the community had made a makeshift shrine, with scores of bunches of flowers, football shirts and mementoes. The scene was extraordinary, a gathering of more than forty 17- to 20-year-olds, their faces showing utter disbelief and shock. I had known many of them since they were at primary school.

The next day, I visited the family. Etem's father was unable to speak, his mother was under sedation, the extended family was in bits. During the next few days, relatives flew in from Cyprus, all unable to comprehend the enormity of what they were seeing. Over the following weekend, the family asked me to act as family spokesperson and to liaise with the police. I agreed and helped prepare statements.

The circumstances of the killing began to emerge. A small group of friends had been returning from the Angel in Islington and were hanging around a street corner talking to a friend who was leaning out of a window. Later, according to local youths, two young men approached the group. They asked them if they lived round the estate and the boys said they did. The two newcomers then pulled out guns and fired indiscriminately. The group fled, running to houses, heard screams, and within seconds realised Etem had been shot.

His parents ran to where he had fallen and held him in their arms for the few remaining minutes of his life. Within seconds, scores of neighbours were out in the streets, phoning the police, phoning for ambulances, trying to keep Etem conscious. The police arrived within minutes, the ambulance moments later. The emergency services did what they could, but the wound was too serious and Etem died.

In the days after the killing, Etem's friends and neighbours were struggling to cope with grief, but wanted to get organised. I suggested holding a ceremony and tribute exactly one week after the murder. The young friends printed T-shirts with a picture of Etem, made badges and dog-tags. I prepared a short speech and suggested a two-minute silence. As the day approached, there was significant interest from the Turkish and Cypriot - but not the British - press. I held an impromptu press conference at the scene on the afternoon of 21 November.

Mapping the problem

Later, hundreds of members of the community, mainly youths, gathered at the shrine. By 9.15pm it was pouring with rain. Despite the downpour, Etem's neighbours and friends stood in silence. I read out the statement and four or five of Etem's friends attempted to make contributions. All broke down in tears. Etem's teacher spoke, as well as a clergyman from the local church. Etem's grandfather spoke through an interpreter. Etem's mother arrived and thanked the crowd through a welter of grief and tears; and a local woman, who had lived on the estate for years, made an impassioned plea for an end to gun crime. She received moving applause.

Throughout these terrible days, the murder squad, through a family liaison officer, kept the family informed and gave full support. Arrests were made and charges followed. But the family's grief was made worse when the coroner was unable to release the body. Eventually, and thankfully, he was able to do so. A service, attended by hundreds, was held at the local mosque and Etem's body was flown to Famagusta for burial. About 20 of his friends, including my son, went to Cyprus to show solidarity with the family and support Etem's brother Firat.

I struggle to think of anything that has affected me personally more than this killing. It was unnecessary, senseless and an appalling waste of life. The incident tore the heart out of the estate. Families have moved, and immediate relatives do not want to visit the area ever again. Since Etem's killing, two more young people have been slain by knives and guns in London. As a consequence, there are more armed police on the city's streets than before. The police can still use prevention measures such as acceptable be haviour contracts and con ditional cautions with most troublesome young men but, chillingly, the number for whom enforcement (tags, curfews, incarceration) is the only response is growing. Placing further strain on overstretched police resources is the fact that increasing numbers of witnesses require protection placements.

As I write, tension between gangs in north London is described by community workers as being at the highest level anyone can remember. Some youths even wear body armour. Half a dozen gangs operate in the Borough of Hackney and scores more in the surrounding areas. The tension seems territorial, the influence of the gangs linked to postcodes. There is evidence of intimidation and involvement with drugs.

Essentially, these gangs do not care about the damage they do to others. The macho culture dictates that gang members be "badder" than their opponents. Consequently, the crimes increase in seriousness, their behaviour becomes more threatening, and punishments such as tagging, antisocial behaviour orders or unacceptable behaviour contracts start to look meaningless. The levels of alienation and exclusion are extraordinary. Many feel coerced into joining gangs in order to feel protected from rival teams and from fear of victimisation if they do not.

Efforts are being made to find a lasting way of marking Etem's memory. Police, local clergy and the constituency MP have held meetings. The community is planting trees and painting murals. It is possible that the youth club will open again, with structured activities that the community wants and needs. Attempts will be made to bring together all the bereaved families of gun and knife crime in Hackney.

But a political response is needed, too, not just in London, but in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, where there is evidence of out-of-control weapon crime. We need to map the extent of the problem, consider the facilities available to bring young people into mainstream society rather than exclude them, and look at the relevance of education, standards of parenting and the quality of life of those involved. If macho behaviour and guns are the only ways young men feel they can gain status, the problem is certain to careen out of control.

More armed police may lead to more armed gangs and more deaths. Increasingly, we will suffer the economic consequences of violent crime. Certain areas will become unviable as places to live or do business in. If, or when, this happens, perhaps the necessary investment in excluded youths will happen. If not, we face the Americanisation of our estates and communities.

The government must act now, and visibly.

Harry Fletcher is an assistant general secretary of Napo, the trade union and professional association for family court and probation staff

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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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:

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