This is a story about something that happened nine years ago. It came to me in bits and pieces, and that’s how I’ll give it to you, because there’s no moral; no grand narrative you can take away, interpret and analyse. It’s just a thing that happened; a thing that happened on 9 June 2003. But actually, the story starts nearly a decade before, in the mid-1990s.
A little boy called Robyn Travis has joined London Fields Primary School in Hackney. He’s moved to the nearby Holly Street estate from Tottenham. Holly Street today is all modern, low rise buildings. When Robyn moved there, it looked like this.
Robyn’s mother is a black activist, and because of her work, she’s been targeted by the National Front. They threw things at the windows of her house, banged on her front door every night, and in the morning they chased Robyn and his brother from their home all the way to the school gates. It all got too much, so she moved.
Robyn doesn’t have many friends at his new school. One kid, a tubby lad a year older than him, asks him his name.
“You’re Robyn? Where’s Batman?”
“What’s your name then?”
“Jadie. Jadie Brissett.”
“You named after your sister or something?”
Jadie asks Robyn to come and play football with him.
On the afternoon of 9 June, 2003, a convoy of three cars set off for the London Fields estate with at least nine young men inside, most of them wearing balaclavas. At the front was a black Renault Megane, followed by a green Ford Escort, and a white Orion. The white Orion had been stolen from a man called Dean Da Costa. He would later tell police that his friend Pepe Brown had taken it.
Brown was a lumbering giant of a youth who’d presented behavioural problems at four different schools, eventually being sent to a special needs boarding school, returning to his home in the Holly Street estate in Hackney during the holidays. He was well-known to the police – he spent 12 months at a young offenders’ prison for stabbing a man at a New Year’s party, and he was later arrested in connection with the murder of an Asian boy who was stabbed to death at the Notting Hill Carnival.
Also in the convoy was a youth called Aaron Salmon. He, likewise, had been in trouble with the law. At this time he was making about £1,000 a week from dealing crack that he bought from a Jamaican called Yardie T. He’d been arrested twice for carrying a knife as protection, and was shot at, at a family barbeque, by some Jamaicans who were looking for him. He was also said to have stabbed someone in a crack house.
Three years earlier, in 2000, Robyn was a 14-year-old at a school in Hornsea, known to the local youths as D‘n’K (Dorothy’s and Katherine’s). It was the summer holidays, and he and his friends were bored. They heard there was going to be a fight between some older boys in the London Fields estate, a few streets away from his own – so they went there to watch. Robyn and his friends weren’t the hardest boys on the block. Robyn was more of a talker than a fighter, and the boys with him that day were – to put it kindly – a bunch of nerds.
When they got there, they were greeted by a bunch of kids from the estate. Robyn knew most of them from his time at London Fields Primary. The friends who were with him – who were from Holly Street’s estate and his school in Hornsea – didn’t. But it didn’t mean they were in any great danger. The idea of the postcode war – of safe and unsafe territories – it didn’t exist back then.
The fight never took place. So now there were just two groups of kids, bored and larking around: the locals, and Robyn and his friends. They started to test each other’s egos. One of the boys from Holly Street said to the kids from London Fields that none of them could fight Robyn. Robyn didn’t like being put on the spot like that. He laughed it off. Another of his friends, a hothead, said they should have a play-fight. He and another boy fought, and Robyn’s friend lost.
The little group went back to Holly Street. Back on the estate there were some bigger boys: they told them what had happened. “That was the D Team,” thought Robyn – “Let’s see how they handle the A Team.” Now he and the bigger boys went back to London Fields. It was time for a proper fight.
By the time they got back to the estate, the numbers from Holly Street had tailed off, as the boys had lost their nerve. Some say Pepe Brown was among the deserters. Regardless, the fight kicked off. The two biggest boys – one from London Fields; one from Holly Street – charged at each other, and splatted onto the ground in a heap. It looked ridiculous.
But now a fully-fledged fight kicked off. Robyn was in the thick of it; he smacked one of them in the face. Then his phone rang. He told everyone to wait. Bizarrely, they did. It was his mother. He told her he’d be home shortly.
After that, everyone just sort of stopped fighting and drifted away. The whole thing had been a bit silly.
I meet Robyn in a little park near his flat. He’s taken his young daughter out for a walk. She’s running up and down a green bank near the bench where we’re talking.
“What gets me,” he says, “Is how people keep asking when did I change – when did I turn my life around? I didn’t turn my life around. Don’t talk about me now – talk about when I turned into that person. What went wrong? Like – once I got rushed by some kids, stabbed in the head, then a guy stood over me and tried to shoot me. They stole my chain. I just felt angry about the chain. At what point did I start valuing a chain more than my own life?”
Robyn’s writing a book about his time as a gang member. You can see the promo video for it here:
A few days before that evening in June 2003, two teenagers, cruising in a car, had tried to chat up a girl they’d seen on the street. She was Pepe Brown’s girlfriend. Brown took serious umbrage, and phoned a friend of his – a drug dealer called Mark Lawrence. He said: “It’s beef, we’re rolling, are you coming? The Fields boys have been following my girl.”
Lawrence had lived in Clapton Square, but aged 21 he had moved to Borehamwood in Hertfordshire where he lived with his girlfriend and child, selling crack, coke and cannabis. Lawrence was tough and arrogant. Aged 18, he got six months in prison after his car collided with another – he chased the other driver, and savagely beat him. The driver was a 70-year-old pensioner.
On the afternoon of the 3 June, when he got in the car with Salmon, the latter showed Lawrence a rucksack containing some guns. He said: “No need to worry if it comes on top, I’m strapped.” Brown was wearing a glove on his right hand, to disguise his fingerprints.
A few months after the fight in 2000, tension had been rising between the boys on the London Fields estate and Robyn’s friends from Holly Street. Robyn was seen as a member of the Holly Street kids, but he barely saw himself as being in any kind of battle with the Fields boys. He’d been at school with them – they’d been in his house; even met his mother.
After one of his friends was attacked, there was another rumble between the boys from Fields and the ones from Holly Street. Robyn wanted retribution for his friend. Holly Street was seriously outnumbered. This time it was more serious. A boy, who had walked home with Robyn from primary school, every day, swung a baseball bat at him. Robyn blocked it, and punched him.
Then another boy punched him in the stomach. The blow knocked him to the floor. Oof, he thought: that was a good one. As he got up, a strange feeling came over him. He felt alone. He looked around him. Everyone was backing away. Then he heard a woman’s voice:
“Run! You’ve been stabbed.”
He looked around. The boys from London Fields were just staring at him, horrified. Then he turned to look for his friends from Holly Street. They were sprinting back to the estate. A wave of sorrow hit him. He staggered back to his house. Once there, he began to pass out. His brother drove him to the hospital, deliberately accelerating over the speed bumps to keep him awake. He nearly died in hospital.
Later Robyn would find out who had stabbed him. It was another of his childhood friends.
A couple of years later, Robyn is walking through London Fields estate with Jadie Brissett – the older boy who’d let him play football with him at primary school.
“Robyn, I can see your heart beating through your T-Shirt.”
“Of course I’m scared. I’m in London Fields. You know, I’m thinking of becoming a Fields boy. Is there an application form I can fill out?”
“Hah, course. Maybe I could join Holly Street?”
“I asked them. They said you looked too much like Gus from Eastenders.”
By now, Robyn has been stabbed again. Despite being a Fields boy, Jadie helped him get to hospital.
The evening of 9 June 2003 was hot and sunny. There was a group of fifteen or so teenagers in the shadow of one of the tower blocks that make up the London Fields estate. They were playing a game called “money up”. The aim of the game was to throw a £1 coin as close as possible to the brick work.
The older brothers, uncles and fathers who would normally have protected these boys were at a wake. A “spotter” had seen the two London Fields boys who had followed Pepe Brown’s girlfriend in the group, and alerted him.
But by the time Brown, Salmon, Lawrence and the others arrived there, the youths they were looking for had left the scene.
The fight in which Robyn had been stabbed raised the stakes between the London Fields and Holly Street boys. Holly Street wanted revenge. They’d extract it; then Fields would want to retaliate. It became London’s first ever postcode war. Queensbridge Road was the dividing line between the estates – London Fields by the park of the same name, Holly Street, soon to be demolished and renovated, just to the west of that.
A couple of years passed. It seemed to Robyn like more and more people were jumping on the bandwagon – kids who’d been too scared to get involved in the fist fights, but who were quite happy to use a gun or knife.
It was messy, and complicated. Robyn might have been seen by the kids from Fields as a Holly Street boy, but for some time he was able to play football for Shoreditch College, along with a whole bunch of boys from London Fields.
And while this war was going on, his best friend was the boy from London Fields: Jadie Brissett. Aged 16, Jadie was on the Shoreditch College team. He was still a tubby little kid, who played in midfield. He was right-footed, but would play on either flank. When he got the ball, he transformed. No one could understand how the weight seemed to disappear. They’d never seen a fat kid move so fast, nor with such close control. Their team was the best in the area. At least a few of them should have made it as professionals. None did. The streets got in the way.
Jadie was friends with everyone. Partly, it was his smile – it just made people feel warm. He seemed more mature than the others – he didn’t like the fighting. Unlike Robyn, he was good at bringing people together. And Jadie would talk to him about the Fields and Holly Street war, ask him how it could be that the boy who’d stabbed him had once been his friend, how he could war against people he’d grown up with. Wasn’t it all just silly? Like that first fight?
Robyn hated him asking questions like that.
The squeal of car brakes tore through the evening. It didn’t disturb the teenagers: a typical urban sound in an estate full of kids messing around on scooters and the like. But someone saw one of the men who emerged from the cars was carrying a handgun which, according to an eyewitness, was like the one used by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Another gunman was seen taking aim from the back of the car. There were shouts of “guns”, “drive-by” and “machines”. The group scattered. Some ran to a nearby shop, which pulled the shutters down. Four gunshots were heard. One smashed into a car windscreen. Another flew past the head of a ten-year-old on a bike.
And by the time that evening came to pass, Robyn was 17 years old. He’d ended up in a hostel on the Pembury estate. He didn’t like it much. He was trying to concentrate on his football, which wasn’t easy living in a room next to another occupied by a crack head who kept playing his music till 8am in the morning, the only facilities a squalid communal bathroom and kitchen.
He’d been put in care after his grandmother died. He’d had a fight with a boy on the doorstep of the home he shared with her: two weeks later she’d passed away, and his family had said it was his fault because the fight raised her blood pressure. On top of that, the boy he’d fought with was from Holly Street. So he was now persona non grata among boys from Holly Street, Fields, and (because of a gang alliance with Fields) Pembury, the estate on which he was living.
He was with a friend and his girlfriend. Suddenly, he received a phone call from another friend, who told him not to come outside. Apparently, some boys from Tottenham were in the area, shooting at people. It seemed crazy: why were they shooting in broad daylight?
Then the girlfriend burst in.
“They’ve shot Jadie.”
She ran out of the door. Robyn followed her. He reached London Fields, and a boy ran towards him, in tears. The boy put his arm around him.
Robyn didn’t feel any fear. Why should he? It was Fields who’d cheated the friendship, Fields who’d taken a play fight too far. Then an older man came over to Robyn, and put his hand on his shoulder.
“Who did this?” Robyn asked.
“It was your Holly Street Boys.”
Two shots had hit Jadie: perhaps he’d made an easier target because he tripped as he ran away. One hit his thigh – then a shotgun blasted a two-inch hole in his chest. He’d managed to get to his feet and clamber over a wall, across a patch of grass, over a low fence, then stagger on, ending up at the side of a tower block. He collapsed there, bleeding heavily, and died, beside some dustbins.
Two days later, a girl phoned Robyn to ask if he was the shooter. She’d been on a bus, and heard someone say it was him.
Aaron Salmon and Pepe Brown were charged with murder, along with four others: Mark Lawrence, a 20-year-old called Robbie Thomas, an 18-year-old called Danny Williams, and a 19-year-old called Jermaine Allen.
Williams said that Brown, Salmon and Lawrence had forced him to join the convoy. He said everyone was scared of Brown. Allen had fled to Nottingham, after receiving threats from the London Fields boys. He told the police he was terrified of Brown and Salmon, having had a bullet in put in his leg by the latter the year before. He was scared of the London Fields boys, telling police “They don’t fight you – they kill you,” but he was more scared of Salmon.
During the trial, Brown sat in the dock, sucking his thumb. Some saw it as a sign of emotional immaturity – but others in the public gallery thought it was a gun sign. The defence said he’d threatened Lawrence at Belmarsh prison. He reacted furiously. Lawrence, for his part, denied ganging up with Williams and Allen – all three were from Clapton Square – to blame everything on Brown and the Holly Street boys.
Brown, Lawrence and Salmon were all found guilty of murder. They received 15-year-sentences. Williams and Allen were acquitted. Lawrence’s lawyers said he would give evidence against Robbie Thomas. He was a full grass: he could expect a third off his sentence, but would have to spend it in a segregated prison unit to avoid reprisal attacks from the London Fields – and now Clapton Square and Holly Street – Boys.
The sun is setting over Robyn’s estate. I ask him if the right people went down for the crime.
“That’s some question. It’s like asking if Tupac really raped someone. I know what the court says, and I know what the street says. What I’d say is – those same boys that wouldn’t back me up in that first fight, they’re same kind of boys who use guns, who won’t look out for each other. You can’t trust them. “
Robyn’s little girl is getting bored. She wants an ice cream. It’s time for me to leave.
The sun sets too, over Lansdowne Drive, the road just to the west of London Fields, where one afternoon in 2003, three cars pulled up. In the park, mothers will be pushing their prams about. Drunk students will be chucking a Frisbee to each other, and perhaps, at the very top end of the park, there’ll be an evening game of cricket, fringed by thick sycamores and the low brick of the lido.
Not one person there will know what happened that evening, nine years ago – how a chubby, popular little footballer with a winning smile disappeared from the world – nor why it happened.
They won’t understand how a little fight between some teenagers could suck in so many others; and still does to this day. In September 2011, a 20-year-old man was shot at the junction of Mapledene Road and Queensbridge Road in what local residents said was a confrontation involving those attached to Fields and Holly Street.
Life goes on, in little bits and pieces.