When Jack Straw visited the North Peckham Estate three days after the murder of the Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor, he was roundly upbraided by a resident saying that senior politicians and the media take an interest only when there is a crisis.
It takes a rail crash for politicians and (most) editors to show any interest in rail safety; and it takes a riot or a grim murder for policy-makers and opinion-formers to show concern about the state of society. I cannot speak for politicians, but some journalists, at least, do know about these things and try, against lengthening odds, to get editors to publish what they know. It is an uphill struggle.
What, the editor will ask, is the “news peg”? The real peg is the rotten condition of whatever it is the journalist wishes to write about, but that is not the peg the editor has in mind. Short of a disaster, he wants a new report; interest from a royal personage; an anniversary; a celebrity angle. Soon after he was elected, Tony Blair visited a south London estate and, for the next few days, the papers bristled with “inner-city” and “social-exclusion” stories. Then, until Damilola’s death, virtually complete silence.
I spent two weeks on the North Peckham estate for a book I was writing. If anything, it was worse then than it is now, in that none of the demolition and reconstruction had been started. I wrote about the bleak lives of residents: the fears (robust, middle-aged people who never ventured out after dark); the crimes (the local dairy had just received a grant to armour-plate its milk float); the housing conditions (outer walls that were little more than plasterboard, and walkways that were polluted by drug dealers).
North Peckham is scarcely a stone’s throw from Westminster, but the residents feel they are in outer Mongolia as far as their problems are concerned. It is a virtual no-go area for the police (as Jack Straw was emphatically reminded), and I was surprised one day to see a cluster of boys in blue. “Oh, a bigwig’s paying a rare visit,” said a bystander by way of explanation. She added: “The people who have the power to make changes are so far away from the problems that they haven’t a clue what it’s all about.”
An attempt to raise aspirations by moving in middle-class students ended in disaster when one was raped and her flatmates fled in justified terror. The vicar, one of only three people in his parish not living in council property, was at the end of his tether: “A leg infection blows up out of the blue and immobilises me. I assume it is the stress.” The poverty that surrounded him was crippling. A £2 bunch of flowers was an unattainable luxury; the need for a new pair of shoes was a financial calamity.
The vicar organised a trip to the country. It was a mournful, wet day. “Oh, isn’t it lovely?” an elderly woman burst out. “Isn’t what lovely?” asked the vicar. “To see the grass,” she replied. She had not been off the estate for two years.
There were (and still are) drugs, muggings and burglaries too numerous to keep count of – people I asked would start adding up on their fingers. Residents were beyond the reach of services that the middle classes take for granted. Try getting home contents insurance on the North Peckham estate. To report your neighbours to any sort of authority was both dangerous (because of reprisals) and futile (because no one did anything about it) .
I picked my way carefully through the estate, moving between safe houses, following recommendations of whom to meet next. In a context of predators and victims, which is the essential environment of the abandoned inner-city estate, an outsider is an object of suspicion. To the predators, a stranger is, at best, a potential snooper; at worst, a copper or council official. To the victims, a stranger is another potential predator.
Some victims manage to live much as normal people anywhere aspire to live – in decent, clean homes, bringing up their children as best they can in an environment where the play space is contaminated by truants and druggies. One of the best-kept flats I visited belonged to a Nigerian family. A notice above a door proclaimed: “Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.”
I was travelling as a “book writer”, a more comfortable carapace than a jour-nalist, largely because few people are familiar with books, whereas many people – despite their feelings about reporters – read the tabloids.
I was always jumpy. The fear, locked and bolted behind so many doors, oozes out. One evening, as I crossed a long, dark walkway like the one where Damilola was killed, a beer can rattled into sight. Kicked? Thrown? Blown? Who was lurking there? I nearly turned and beat it, but it proved to be nothing more than a gust of wind. Although no one had witnessed my dilemma, I was crazily relieved that I hadn’t chickened out and run.
When my book was published, it was (flatteringly) lumped together in a broadsheet editorial with work by Ian McEwan and Hanif Kureishi. We were, the editorial told us, “a lost tribe, retreated into its own left-wing laager, where erudite moaning is taken for wise critique . . . Rarely have the ideals of the country’s intellectual elite [more flattery?] been so out of kilter with the aspirations of plain folk.” Further, we were “smugly negative”. After Damilola’s murder, I think it is fair to say: “I rest my case.”
See Darcus Howe, page 22, and Cristina Odone, page 24