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A bad society vs bad choices: who's to blame for gang crime?

Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang - review.

Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang
Harriet Sergeant
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £14.99

Once upon a time, there was an inner-city phenomenon; we called it black-on-black gun crime and it was a mainstay of violent crime reporting. Journalists knew there was more to it than the stories they told of organised groups shooting each other for control of drug-dealing territory but it was a compelling narrative that sold a few papers, so there was no need to look much further than the facts as told to court.

In 2007, things changed, because of some particularly callous murders of young teenagers. One high-profile case involved a white boy shot by another white boy as he made his way home from football practice. The narrative shifted focus and now it was called gang crime. Youth, not race, was the hook. A succession of middle-class, mostly white journalists, ventured into the inner city, attempting to understand how and why our country could reach a state whereby a 14-yearold could be machine-gunned to death in his bedroom. One of them was me.

Gang crime was a more complicated phenomenon than the last but it took us a while to understand how far its implications spread beyond the crimes. The journalists who went into Gangland – a place that exists, rigorously delineated in the minds of its incumbents yet invisible to people not involved in the lifestyle – had different ways to pitch their work. The prevailing tone, however, was the Ross Kemp model; swaggering into an estate in a Puffa jacket, glaring and nodding as the kids talked about how hard life was on the street. For all the supposed nobility of this crusading style, it didn’t help. It suggested the hacks were entering a foreign, dangerous world. But it doesn’t take as much nerve to talk to a gang member as you might think. They’re just people, like you and me, who might even live on your street.

Harriet Sergeant is a posh, middle-aged woman from a right-wing think tank, with a teenage son at public school, who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail. That she is unashamedly aware of all this is the first thing in her favour. The book’s awful cover may suggest otherwise but she was never going to convince us that the three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them. They may be violent criminals – one of them may have committed over 100 robberies – but as she repeatedly points out, they’re still just boys, whose aspirations and insecurities form a perverse mirror of her son’s.

What she discovers over the course of her research isn’t new. Many of the things she describes have been written about for years by writers, criminologists and think tanks. I know our message has been digested at the top levels of government; one interminable meeting after another has resulted in a set of promises that have never been kept. But if not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book. Time has allowed Sergeant to show, not tell, everything. She’ll find – as I did – it won’t make her many friends.

How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than to commit crime to survive. How they’ll moan at her assertion that racial prejudice is alive in the criminal justice system: but there’s a reason the gang rob other black boys – they know it won’t get taken further. Her cataloguing of a boy’s living conditions – drug-addled single mother, cramped hostels, one foster parent after another, endless poverty, week-long waits for a proper meal – form a devastating takedown of the line parroted by the likes of Toby Young or Peter Hitchens, that criminals simply make bad decisions. They do but there’s never any acknowledgement of the background against which these choices are made.

But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down. Those who claim the state education afforded to children in the inner city is better than we think will have to read about how the boys gradually stopped attending their comprehensive school and nobody there cared. Nor will they acknowledge that there is such a thing as a benefits trap: that one gang member who tries to enter the world of work earns £30 less than on incapacity benefit, that there are a huge number of young women getting pregnant because – like crime – it’s a valid career choice once you’ve been booted out of the educational mainstream.

And they’ll hate all the examples of how a bloated state has created a series of broken institutions that only exist to provide jobs for others – be it the nine-to-five council officers who haven’t a clue about the children’s lives, dodgy state-funded charities giving cash handouts to drug addicts to meet their attendance targets, overworked social workers who think a weekly text passes for engagement, or job centres with no jobs or training that simply advise the kids to go on benefits.

At one point Sergeant asks: “Since when had we abandoned teenage boys to this surreal and terrifying existence?” There’s a shrugging acceptance that this is Lambeth; this stuff just happens. An older man who hangs out with the gang joins a charity that puts on plays at inner-city schools. One play includes words like “pussyholes” in it. The gang’s friend is told language like this “makes it more real”. His reply is unimprovable: “Murder is real. Rape is real. That does not mean they are acceptable for schoolchildren.”

Read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense. None of us saw it coming on such a scale – but we weren’t entirely  surprised. How devastating a conclusion that Sergeant’s main charge, for all her love, ends up in an “adult” prison – how much worse that, for the first time, he feels happy because there’s routine in his life. It’s a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.

Alan White is the author, as John Heale, of “One Blood: Inside Britain’s New Gang Culture” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99).

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?