The scene where a man collapsed after being fatally stabbed in Hackney, east London, on 5 April. Credit: Getty
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To solve knife crime, we must admit that violence and vulnerability go hand in hand

I was assaulted on the street. But the debate has only dehumanised kids who carry knives out of fear, in communities the government has abandoned.

About six months ago, I was assaulted on the street. A man came up behind me in broad daylight, and tried to grab my phone out of my hand. When, automatically, I held on to it, he started punching me in the face. He carried on hitting me long after he had my phone, until I was on the ground, and only stopped when someone heard me screaming and came running.

Last Thursday, 5 March 2018, I circumvented Hackney on foot in the early morning before work. I walked from Bow through Victoria Park, to Dalston, then Stoke Newington, then turned to come back again. When I passed Morning Lane by the huge Tesco in Hackney Central, it was closed off with police tape, and a policewoman stood next to a car blocking the road. I looked past but couldn’t see anything, so I went a long way round to get home, which is by Mile End Park.

I finished work at six that day. I closed my laptop, put my coat on, left the house, turned the corner, and stopped. The air was full of sirens and someone – male – was screaming. At the end of the road, boys were running. A police car pulled up alongside one parked there already. When I moved closer, I saw two kids, both male, lying on the ground. Several others paced nearby. They looked very young, in their mid-teens. They were running their hands through their hair and glancing about wide-eyed as they spoke in agitated voices to the police, who were multiplying every minute, their cars coming from all directions. One policeman got that tape out again, and stretched it across the entrance to the park. One of the boys on the ground was covered in a silver blanket – the hand that stuck out from under it was shaking. The other was clutching his gut and crying. Then ambulances came, four or five of them, and the junction was choked with traffic as a small crowd congregated on the street. As the wounded boys were lifted onto stretchers and into ambulances, red stains spreading across their tops, one of them looked straight out at me, blank and still.

Teenagers don’t feel safe without knives, and it is killing them. Until recently, I lived on an estate a couple of minutes’ walk from the scene where those boys were stabbed in Mile End Park. The bashful young lads who’d offer soft chat-up lines in the lift or try to sell you a bit of weed sometimes were different creatures outside at night. One night, I was waiting at the bus stop with a couple of friends and one of the boys, who I saw every day, threatened to pull a knife on us. It was a pretty typical scenario. He said he wouldn’t because I “was cool”, then launched into a speech about how he had his designer clothes (they weren’t) “because of the streets”. He was clearly both high and selling as usual, as were the even younger kids who sat nearby all afternoon, watching their patch. It was heartbreaking because he was a nice kid really, but this shitty career looked like his best option. Something switched in his head halfway through his ramble about clothes, and he broke off abruptly and started begging: “You won’t tell my brother, will you?” Who knows if he even had a knife, the point is, he wanted us to believe he did.

After I got attacked my face puffed up absurdly, blotched with red and purple coagulation. I had two panda-like black eyes. An x-ray showed that the man had crushed the right side of my face, leaving a fist-shaped dent in my cheekbone. It took about six weeks for the swelling to go down, and I was concussed for three of them. The doctor said I was lucky not to have a more serious brain injury. There was CCTV all over the neighbourhood, and witnesses who saw the man cycle away. It happened minutes from a psychiatric hospital. Less than a week later I received a letter from the police saying they’d closed the case due to “insufficient evidence”. When I called up to ask why, I was told that there wasn’t a camera directly “on the spot where it happened”.

I’ve never had reason to begrudge the police. I’ve barely interacted with them in my life until this point. I’m not angry with them, but I am furious that they clearly do not have the time or resources to investigate unprovoked attacks that leave bones broken. I’m furious that last week our Home Secretary claimed slashing police numbers has nothing to do with the rise in crime, and I’m furious that, for whatever reason, the possibility he might kill me was less important to this man than getting hold of an iPhone with a smashed screen. I am wary in a new way when I leave the house now, and I feel sure that were by some extraordinary chance something similar were ever to happen again, I would again feel lasting consequences, but the aggressor would not. I can only imagine how much more anger I might feel had it not been a random attack, if someone had specifically chosen me because of something intrinsic about me, rather than the fact I was holding a phone. And I wonder how different my reaction afterwards might be if violence wasn’t only expected towards me, but of me, and I were part of a community that already felt abandoned and undervalued.

For all I’ve lived on estates (apparently) full of people carrying knives, I’m at little risk of being stabbed with one. I’m not poor, or a gang member, or male, or (that) young. I don’t have to worry about postcode wars. I’m an employed white woman, I have a degree and a CV. There are options open to me before I’d have to break the law for my rent money. When I had a rough patch in my early twenties and couldn’t afford rent, I was able to sofa-surf for months. The removal of benefits for 18-21-year-olds last year had no effect on my prospects or choices, and I didn’t slip through the net when the Tories cut mental health trusts’ funding to pre-2012 levels. I’ve lived in areas with high crime rates all over London for ten years, but I’ve never been stopped and searched. I don’t need a youth centre because I have a job and can do things after work that often cost money, and there’s a comfortable home to go back to when I don’t feel like it. I’ve always been careful walking home at night, because as a woman I am at a particular kind of risk doing so. But I don’t carry a knife, and I am much less vulnerable to a knife attack than a teenage boy or girl who does.

Vulnerability and violence go hand in hand. People who already have the things they need do not resort to seizing it by any means necessary, and they do not feel the kind of kamikaze rage or hopelessness it takes to push a blade through another human’s skin, or pummel them to the ground. They don’t need to be part of a gang network for protection, and they go about their day unconscious of pressure to defend turf. London employment hubs like Shoreditch and Canary Warf are surrounded by disadvantaged areas full of people who struggle to find sufficient work. If you’re unable to get a job, the benefits system is perversely rigged against anyone who isn’t highly literate and able to keep apace with criteria that are constantly in flux. To access the most basic aid you have to be in acute need, which means your capacity to fill in thirty-plus pages of forms against tight deadlines, make several phone calls, and travel for an interview is likely very limited. Accessing mental health care, especially in severe cases, can be even harder, and the funding for that care since the last budget cuts is pitiful. Without family support, or an exceptional degree of effort, usually more than someone at their lowest could possibly muster, a person is easily lost. People are being failed by a system that’s meant to catch them before they get to this point, and it’s getting worse. If nothing is done about this, street violence in all forms will get worse too.

The three boys who were wounded in the Mile End stabbings are all alive. At time of writing two of them, who are both 15, are in hospital but stable, and a third aged 16, who was treated at the scene, has been arrested. There were nine non-fatal teenage stabbings between Thursday night and Friday morning. News coverage of the attack tended to set it in this context – they made up three of the macabre total. The reporting is correct but so impersonal, featuring quotes from the emergency services on their swift response, and commentary focusing on the implications of the spate of attacks for the general public, rather than the victims themselves. The only thing which gives an idea of the immediate physical reality of the event is a minute of blurry video taken by someone in a car nearby. It shows a group of boys clustered together, and as a couple start walking away one of them falls back, holding his belly.

At least 35 people have been stabbed to death in London since the beginning of this year. One person, when I told them what what I saw on Thursday evening, exclaimed: “It’s just so terrifying that your part of town is at the heart of all this.” It’s not though. Maps showing the distribution of stabbings spread north, south, east and west: it’s “normal” in so many places, and becoming more so. What’s unusual is walking out off your posh street and being confronted with it in the painful flesh.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last week about whether the London has become more dangerous than New York City. This feels irrelevant, really. Whether or not we measure up to some statistical benchmark feels dehumanising and impersonal, as though this is a question of big and small numbers, rather than human lives. Welfare cuts have increased the count of vulnerable people left to fend for themselves in ways that are often invisible to those who take their livelihood for granted, and the ripple effect is only noticed by many whose lives are more comfortable when they too feel in danger. The added gut-punch of a critically overburdened police force is damning proof that both cause and effect have been disregarded by the people in charge. If you have brushed with violence already, you’re left with poor reassurance of your future safety. We are being led by a government which does not have to live the consequences of its actions. If the adults aren’t providing security, teenagers will continue to feel they must defend themselves. 

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor living in London. She tweets @holstat.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.