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This is very interesting. It’s easy to complain about moral standards collapsing and young people becoming more reckless and hedonistic. But is it true? Not according to Department of Health statistics.

drinks by foilman

Take this one factoid: “the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011″. Early teens, in other words, are drinking far less than they did ten years ago.

Here is the article from Tracy McVeigh and Gemma O’Neill:

Young Britons, widely portrayed as binge-drinking hedonists, are turning into the new puritans, according to official figures and reports from student bars across the country.

Statistics showing a continuing decline in alcohol intake, especially among students, suggest they are increasingly rejecting the drinking and drug-taking culture of their parents’ generation and reversing the excesses of the late 1990s, said Professor Fiona Measham, a criminologist at Durham University, who has been studying drinking patterns for more than two decades.

Measham attacked health professionals for being unwilling to recognise the shifting patterns of behaviour, and for persisting with “shock tactics” designed to scare young people.

Department of Health statistics show a fall since 2001 in the numbers of under-16s in England who are drinking. The latest DoH report, Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England, reveals that the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011.

There has been a drop in the proportion of this age group who think drinking is acceptable for someone of their age. In 2010, 55% had never tasted alcohol (39% in 2001), while 32% thought it was acceptable for someone of their age to drink once a week, compared with 46% in 2003. Similarly, 11% of pupils thought that it was OK for someone of their age to get drunk once a week, compared with 20% who thought that in 2003.

Levels of binge-drinking among young people have also fallen sharply. In 2010, only 17% of 16-24-year-old women drank more than six units on their heaviest day of drinking, compared with 27% in 2005, and 24% of young men drank more than eight units, compared with 32% in 2005.

Measham puts this in plain language, without the raw statistics:

The trends are clear. From about 2002 onwards, the tide turned. I’ve seen it in my students and I’ve seen it when I do my research in pubs and clubs. Something is changing, a cultural shift, there is no longer the desire to go out and get completely obliterated. It’s true of drugs also – use peaked in 2002 and there has been a slow decline.

Each generation wants to be different from the one before. The 1990s saw the cafe bars and an end to pubs being male-dominated. The drinks industry targeted women who were caught up in the glamour of Sex and the City-style cosmopolitan drinking, and of ‘me time’ and drinking with the girls and there was a complete revolution in consumption patterns. But for this generation that’s all a bit passé and they are more responsible. Increasingly, it’s the older generation setting a bad example and teenagers are quite disparaging of that.

One of the trends I’m seeing is students spending more on one occasion, rather than going out all the time. When I’m out doing research in clubs, young people will be paying large amounts to get in, but you don’t see huge queues at the bar. Another factor is that the worst excesses of the drinks industry have been curtailed by legislation – the free drinks and happy hours and irresponsible promotion of drinking.

It’s partly to do with ID schemes, debt, and unemployment. But it’s also simply that students have discovered more interesting things to do than drink themselves silly. At Leeds University, Antony Haddley, union affairs officer, said:

Interestingly, although night-time drinking may be less popular, we have seen a significant interest in membership to our clubs and societies, so students participating in a massive range of activities with their friends from skydiving to equestrianism and everything in between. So students are not suddenly turning into recluses who don’t go out; they are still having a good time, without alcohol.

And, of course, it’s the effect of social media…

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People are still arguing about the root causes of the riots last summer, but no-one seems to deny that they reflect some kind of profound dysfunction or social malaise. You don’t loot a sports shop or set fire to a furniture warehouse just because you are bored or want a pair of new trainers.

I’ve just finished reading Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat. I found it terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. Terror at the realisation that this violent underworld is an ordinary part of so much contemporary urban life. Heartache at the suffering and alienation of the teenagers whose lives are documented here.

It reads like a thriller, and it’s packaged under the label ‘True Crime’, but it’s really a piece of investigative journalism. Knight spent two years ‘embedded’ with the police, talking to social workers, interviewing gang members and disaffected teenagers – slowly building up a picture of life on the margins of British society. The book is written as a non-fiction novel. It speaks about real experiences and real people, in their own voices; although many names have been changed, and one or two characters are cleverly created composites.

Here is the blurb:

In Moss Side, Manchester, detective Anders Svensson is on the trail of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow, a man so dangerous his type is said to appear only once in a decade. Among the bleak housing estates of Glasgow, where teenage boys engage in deadly territorial knife fights every Saturday night, police analyst Karen McCluskey is on a mission to bring a new understanding to the most violent city in Europe. And in Hackney, 19-year-old Pilgrim has made himself one of the most feared gang-members in East London, wanted for attempted murder and seemingly condemned to a life of crime – until he starts to help kids like Troll, a Somali child-soldier turned enforcer, who runs drugs through the Havelock Estate in Southall . . .

In Hood Rat these narratives interlock to create a fast-moving experience of a contemporary British underworld that ranks with Roberto Saviano’s bestselling Gomorrah. Gavin Knight was embedded with frontline police units and has spent years with his contacts; here he tells their stories with sharp observation and empathy.

Knight has been criticised for his style (present tense narrative; short sentences; jumping between viewpoints), for the lack of social context, and for the fact that this kind of ‘factional’ documentary writing is more fictional than it cares to admit (the composite characters, etc) – see these thoughtful reviews from the Guardian and the Scotsman. None of this ruins it for me: I like the urgency of the style; I think the aim is not first of all social context but seeing the reality of individual lives, and then drawing some wider conclusions from that; and he is honest about the creative element in the writing. It doesn’t take away from the authenticity.

It’s been more than a good read or an eye opener for me; it’s disturbed something deeper inside me. It’s made me see how naive I am about the reality of day-to-day life for many young people and families in my own city, and in other cities around the country. And it’s made me wonder what on earth can heal this kind of social disintegration, and what can help the ordinary families trapped in these cycles of dysfunction and despair. There is very little hope in the book, despite the last chapter about pioneering work from Boston to help deal with gang crime in Glasgow.

Andrew Anthony gives you a taste of what the book is about:

Throughout history, young men have fought senseless territorial battles, but over the past two decades Britain has seen an alarming growth in lethal youth gang violence. Stories of drive-by shootings and teen killings, once thought of as distantly American, now arrive with dispiriting regularity from our own inner cities.

In the majority of cases the perpetrators are male and black (as are their victims) and almost without exception they are products of dysfunctional backgrounds with poor expectations and limited education. Often the most reliable employment for young urban Britons is the illicit drug economy, with all its inflationary brutality and social corrosion.

But once these bald facts have been established, where can the story go? There are arguments to be made about reforming drug laws, improving housing, raising educational standards and fostering a stronger sense of social inclusion. But what can be said of the gang members themselves, their core values and codes of behaviour, that doesn’t simply rehash gangsta rap cliches?

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is an unflinching account of life and death in the sink estates of Britain. It penetrates environments that most of us only glimpse in local news reports, and addresses the kind of people that we fear encountering on a dark night or, indeed, a bright afternoon. The question is, does it amount to genuine insight?

The book contains plenty of shocking anecdotes but few if any surprises. Anyone, for example, who followed the recent case of Santra Gayle, the north London 15-year-old who was hired to kill a stranger for £200, will be aware of the phenomenon of teenage hitmen. That’s no reason not to look deeper into the circumstances and motivations that lead adolescents to become assassins, but Knight seems less concerned with depth than focus.

He writes in an elliptical, impressionistic style, jumping around, stealing into the minds of young men and their police pursuers (we’re given access to a drug dealer’s concerns, a hitman’s internal monologue, a cop’s marital crisis). The book strives for a kind of urgent authenticity. The sentences are short and simple and framed in a relentless present tense that makes few compromises to chronology.

Knight is at his strongest in offering a gang member’s eye-view of the world, the sense of danger a street in the wrong postcode represents, the need to present a confident front, and the self-glorifying yet self-nullifying acceptance that career prospects are a choice between prison and death.

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I was in Newark on Thursday, giving a Day of Reflection about the Internet and the Church (that’s for another time). We met in Holy Trinity Parish, and I had some great conversations about a huge pastoral project they are involved in. Supported by Lottery funding, and with the help of Regenerate Trust, they are part of a Neighbourhood Challenge pilot scheme that’s trying to find new ways of listening to the needs of the community and responding to those needs through the commitment of the community itself. You can read about it here.

Fr Michael gave me one great example of how listening with sensitivity and openness can bring about unexpected changes. Like most parishes, there was a vague feeling that they were not doing enough for young people, and an assumption that they should start some kind of youth club, which reflected another unspoken assumption that young people wanted to be alone together – isolated within their peer group, and cut off from other relationships with their parents, older or younger siblings, parishioners, neighbours etc.

But when, as part of this project, they actually started asking families what the young people really wanted/needed (I know these are not always the same thing), the answer was: a family evening. Not to stop young people gathering together with their peers; but to allow them to do that in a context where the whole family could be together as well, and where other families – and parishioners and neighbours – could spend time together. So they did it. And it worked!

This is from Caroline Hurst’s blog-post:

On Friday 5th August a group of volunteers arrived at the Community Centre a little apprehensive but very excited, waiting to see what the opening night of  Family Friday’s would hold.

It turned out that well over 50 people came down to the centre and the atmosphere was brilliant. Young people were out playing games on the field, people were playing table tennis and pool. The hot dogs were very well received and tasted great (so I am told) and the tuck shop also went down brilliantly with old and young alike! Adults were catching up with one another and young people were either joining in with their families, playing games or sitting having their own conversations. It was fantastic to see people interacting together so freely and the concerns about ages and parents being around appeared to be unfounded as a good time was had by all.

There were people of all ages there from under 5′s to over 60′s and the interactions were wonderful to see. Several people remarked on the night and since how surprised at the numbers and the success of the evening. All we can hope is that Family Fridays continue to grow and develop. When term time starts up hopefully the word will start to spread and that  even more people will interested in coming and seeing what is on offer of Family Friday’s down at Holy Trinity Community and Partnership Centre.

The peer group is important. And young people need space and a certain privacy. But they also value the security of knowing that parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbours, etc are around. In the right context, there can be a magical balance of freedom and belonging in this kind of environment.

You see this, if you are lucky, when extended families get together, and cousins chase around together while aunties and uncles sit and put the world to rights.

You see this in Lourdes, when part of the joy for young people is spending time with the elderly, loving them for who they are, and also being able to escape in their own groups later in the day.

You see this, sometimes, in village schools, where because of the lack of numbers, children are not isolated within their own age group, but have to share a classroom with those younger and older than themselves, with the result that all sorts of relationships can flourish that would be impossible in a single year group.

I know there are problems as well; I just think we should be a bit more critical of the hidden assumption that the deepest desire of everyone between the ages of 11 and 18 is to get away from anyone who isn’t their age.

[I'm just piecing this all together from a quick conversation with Fr Michael. If anyone from the parish wants to say more about the listening process behind the family nights - please do add your thoughts in the comments below].

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and treasure books. I still have the first book I ever possessed: a pocket King James Bible, given to me on the day of my baptism by my maternal grandparents. I still have the first book I remember ‘reading’ (meaning ‘looking at’ or ‘being read to me’): an illustrated life of St Francis of Assisi for children. And, by the way, the most recent book I bought was Volume 3 of the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – ordered on Amazon on Monday evening. I suppose there is a religious thread here…

When I was old enough to get the train to London on my own I spent hours in the second-hand bookshops around Camden Town and Charing Cross Road, snapping up all the hippie books that were de riguere for any self-respecting teenager at the time – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rules for Radicals, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tao of Physics, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, etc. This is what formed me! But even while I was hunting out paperback bargains to sit under my Athena posters, I had one covetous eye on the small collection of Folio Society books that sat in the corner of every bookshop.

They were and still are the most beautiful books in the world. The covers, the binding, the print, the paper, the illustrations. And the box cases, with that distinctive curve at the front edges so you can pull the book out without having to shake it. Every one a work of art.

I dreamt of having a whole library of Folio Books. I own one now, Augustine’s Confessionswhich I blogged about last year. The second-hand bookshop round the corner here in Chelsea has its own Folio Society shelf – I might pop round tomorrow and see what I can find.

I write all this simply because there is a feature on the Guardian website about Folio books – more an advertisement really. But it does give a glimpse of what delights exist behind the covers – a taster for anyone who hasn’t come across them before. Here is the main feature. Here are ten classics, with examples of their illustrations. Here is the Folio Society site itself.

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I’m just back from Lourdes, the shrine to the Virgin Mary in the south of France. It’s a place of extraordinary healing.

The medical healings are well-documented. I was flicking through a magazine about the 67 ‘canonical’ cures over the last 150 years – those that have been officially recognised by the hard-nosed medical panel that sifts through the scientific evidence. I’m sure you can look them up on the internet somewhere.

I was struck this year by what you might call the ‘inter-generational healing’ that takes place in Lourdes. You see young people on pilgrimage, ordinary teenagers, spending time with the elderly. Doing ordinary things together – shopping, eating, drinking, partying, praying. Just hanging out together. The young not thinking that the elderly are boring or irrelevant. The elderly not feeling threatened or marginalised by the young. Appreciating each other for who they are, and growing in themselves through the process.

And this isn’t just an individual teenager showing devotion to a loved grandparent in the privacy of the parental home, which is not uncommon. It’s taking place in public, and it’s shared with their peers.

It makes you realise how strange most of Western society is, where young people and the elderly inhabit completely different territories, like two tribes living within the boundaries established in long forgotten wars.

It makes you wonder what is lost when different generations become alienated from each other, and what it would take to bring the strangeness of this inter-generational healing to the normality of a British high street.

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Last night I went to the launch of the Safer Streets Drama Project. It’s a programme for schools, youth groups and young offender institutions run by TenTen Theatre.

The heart of the programme is a play called Sam’s Story. You see a boy lying in a pool of blood. Sam stands over him, a knife in his hand, wondering how he had got to this place. And then we look back on the months leading up to this tragedy, and try to understand how a 15 year old boy with a good heart and a loving mum ends up in prison for murder. It was heartbreaking to watch: the pressures put upon him, the choices he made and perhaps couldn’t not make, the unravelling of his relationship with his mum…

You can see a trailer for the project here.

It wasn’t just the power of the drama that impressed me, it was seeing how drama could be used to open up issues for young people in the follow-up sessions, and actually help them to reshape their lives and their choices. Drama, and the reflection that goes with it, can be a powerful tool for conversion.

Colleen Prendergast, who plays Sam’s mum, writes about her experiences of being involved in the workshops:

Ten Ten are setting up in a school hall. Children drift in to buy breakfast, peering curiously round the half open door of the hall. Bells shrill out as we put the last chairs in place. We’re getting ready to perform a scene from ‘Safer Streets – Sam’s Story’ to an assembly for Year Nine.The scene we’ve chosen to perform – an argument between Sam and his mum – provokes gasps and flurries of movement from the audience. The relationship between the characters – personal, real, believable – is what grips the students.

[In the workshops] we introduce the concept of the ‘thoughts, feelings, actions’ triangle, and work in small groups to identify moments where Sam reactions could have been different. We look at tiny changes in one of the areas and how they impact on the outcome for the characters. With this one exercise, we can see the students making the connection between their emotions and their behaviour. One boy raises his hand. ‘If you choose to change one thing, they all change, don’t they?’ he asks. ‘Is that a choice you can always make?’ Anthony, the facilitator, asks the class. Yes, they nod. It is.

Some of the lads, in particular, are keen to preserve their ‘hard’ image. One boy sprawls across the floor. He describes himself as a ‘G-man’ – a gangster. At fourteen, he may not be part of an actual gang yet, but the idea clearly holds attraction for him, giving him identity and status.

Over the week, we work with these groups again and again. Each time we introduce a new concept, relating it to the play. We deal with themes of belonging, peer pressure, relationships, goals and dreams. It’s evident that these kids live in the moment; they are constantly jostling for status and attention, demanding respect from their peers but not necessarily giving it in return. It’s our job to give them alternatives.

Through the exercises, we begin to explore how they can shape their future and their identity from their inner choices and attitudes. That concept – of vision, of possibilities, of self-determination – is what marks us out as different. One girl dominates the group. She’s tall, striking, with a distinctive voice. Whatever we ask her to do, she does with gusto, but we can see she’s used to pulling focus. Yet those qualities – confidence, a desire to be the centre of attention, physical presence – that might make her a disruptive influence, are also the qualities that might give her focus and direction. After the class, as she’s gathering up her things, I go up to her. ‘Can I have a word?’ Her face shuts down – she’s guarded, mistrustful. It’s clear she’s expecting to be told off. ‘Have you ever thought of joining a drama group?’I ask her. ‘No,’ she says warily, ‘why?’ ‘Because I think you’d be good at it,’ I say simply. Her face suddenly softens. ‘Do you think so?’ She looks younger somehow, flushed with praise. ‘Yes. I do.’ And I leave her to think about it as she goes to her next class.

On the final day, we set up once again. This time, the students are primed – they’ve been working with us for a week, and have a sense not only of the characters but of the deeper concepts behind the play. I hear little gasps of recognition as something we’ve suggested in the workshop suddenly connects with the events of the play. There is laughter – the piece is, in places, very funny – and shouts of outrage at some of the choices of the characters. Yet by the end of the play, as I get up to deliver my final speech, I see one of the ‘hard’ lads surreptitiously wiping away tears.

In the plenary session, the kids are animated but respectful. When Anthony describes a triangle in the air with his hands, they immediately know what concept he’s referring to. ‘Thoughts, feelings, actions!’ they call out. ‘Change one, you change the rest!’ Anthony draws a Venn diagram – they know, instantly, that he’s talking about the different ‘circles of belonging’ – areas of your life where you feel under pressure to behave a certain way, and what choices you can make. The themes of the play have connected with them on a deep level. Sam’s story has become their story.

The week is over and we’re clearing away. I reflect on what a privilege it’s been to be involved with this project, giving young people a sense of possibility, of the future, of what they can achieve and who they can be. But I wonder if they will act on those possibilities. Suddenly I see a movement at the corner of my eye. It’s the tall girl from earlier in the week, waving to attract my attention. Her face is shining, and she calls across the hall, ‘I’m going to be an actress! Watch out for me on the silver screen!’ I wave back and she disappears out of the door. I carry on clearing away with a grin on my face. I believe her.

I’m sure this isn’t in the programme notes, but this is an Aristotelian conception of virtue – of how even within the most constrained circumstances we can rethink what is important to us, and begin to change our lives by making better choices and holding onto higher values.

Do look at the TenTen website. And if you are a teacher or youth worker do get in touch with them and make a booking.

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