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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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What do I know about gang culture or St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite order in 16th century Spain? Very little. But that didn’t stop me making a throwaway remark trying to connect the two in a talk I gave in Avila on the way to World Youth Day. See what you think.

St Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila when she was a young woman, lived there for over twenty years, and then famously moved out to set up her own monastery half a mile away, under the patronage of St Joseph. It’s too easy just to say that monastic life at the Incarnation was ‘lax’, and she wanted to found a ‘strict’ Carmelite convent – as if they simply weren’t following the rules with enough rigour at the Incarnation. She had three quite specific criticisms about the form of religious life that had become established there.

Convent and Church of San José (St Joseph) - St Teresa of Avila's first foundation

First, it was too big to allow true community life to develop, and by that she meant a family-type community where people knew each other well and shared the lives of each other intimately, where they rubbed shoulders rather than simply crossing paths in their day-to-day life of prayer and work. The Incarnation held over 100 people; the ideal size of a reformed Teresian Carmel would be 12 or 13.

Second, there was no real tradition of enclosure at the Incarnation. Nuns could, more or less, come and go as they wished, entertain whichever visitors they liked, and even bring their servants into the convent with them to care for their needs. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of this, but it was a particular form of religious life that seemed to suit a certain kind of woman; it allowed for a more devout life, and a celibate life, but still with one foot in the world. Teresa never ceased to praise the holiness of many of the women who lived there. It worked for some.

But true enclosure became more and more important for Teresa. It was obviously a way of focusing the life of the community and the heart of each individual nun on prayer, on the Lord. It was also a way of getting some critical distance on the habits and expectations of the surrounding culture, and thereby allowing a new culture to emerge, a new vision of life. So enclosure is not just about escape or rejection; it’s about holding a space in which something new can be created.

Third, there was little commitment to poverty at the Incarnation. St Joseph’s would be truly poor. The nuns gave up everything. They lived a simple life, even a harsh one. They relied on Providence. They ate what they received. One of Teresa’s early rules was that at a certain time each evening the sisters were to eat…if they had any food! This kind of radical poverty can sound dualistic (a hatred for the body), or even masochistic (some kind of perverse pleasure in self-denial and suffering). But poverty and penance, for Teresa, when lived authentically and in the context of a balanced faith, helped the nuns to keep their hearts fixed on ‘the one thing necessary’ – on Christ, on his love for them and for the whole world, and on his Providence. Poverty was a way of questioning the values of the world, and re-evaluating the priorities of life within the convent.

What’s all this got to do with gang culture? Well, it struck me in Avila, after the UK riots and all the ensuing discussion about gang membership, that perhaps some young people join gangs for reasons that are not unconnected with those that led Teresa to leave the Incarnation and move to St Joseph’s. They live, perhaps, in a neighbourhood that has little sense of community or natural bonds; their senior school – if they still go to school – may not be an environment where they can connect and be valued; and there may be an lack of stability or even kinship at home. So they seek a smaller community where they are known, where they have a place, where they belong.

Like Teresa, they yearn for enclosure. Not to be confined to a monastery, but in some sense to withdraw from the surrounding culture, to create a protected space, to get some distance. And, at some level, they are exploring the meaning of poverty. I’m stretching the meaning of the word here. I don’t mean, of course, that there is any renunciation of material goods; but, like Teresa, there is a definite desire to distance oneself from the values embraced by the surrounding culture – by ‘the world’ – and create some alternative value structure within the group, one that gives a new meaning and a new perspective.

Don’t worry. I’m not naive; I’m not romanticising gang life – the pressures, the violence, the distorted loyalties, the lack of freedom. And I know that ‘joining’ a gang for many young people is not a choice or an answer to an existential search but a harsh reality they can’t escape from. I’m just finding a small connection between what motivated St Teresa to establish a new kind of community at St Joseph’s, and what might be motivating an alienated teenager who does end up choosing to join a gang. The consequences are hugely different, but some of the underlying motivations may be shared: a hunger for genuine community, for a protected space that is ‘enclosed’ from the world, and for a re-evaluation of the priorities of the prevailing culture.

It was a throwaway remark (now extended to 900 words). What do you think?

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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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Bullying by aeneastudio.I’d heard about these schemes that bring criminals face to face with their victims. I’d never given them much thought.

Gavin Knight writes about the work of David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard who helped to develop Operation Ceasefire in the US. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Boston was gripped by an epidemic of gang-related violence. The instinct of the police and courts was to come down as heavy as possible on those who were caught.

Kennedy suggested a different approach: talk to them; make them think about the reasons for their actions; show them the consequences of their behaviour — for their own lives and for the lives of those they had harmed; and help them to see that deep down they wanted something else, something better.

It’s an Aristotelian approach to moral reasoning: look at the ‘end’, the consequences — above all the consequences for you as a person — and reflect on whether this is what you really want. In the hard-edged context of gang violence it sounds idealistic and even naive. But apparently it worked:

He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems…

In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled…

Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.

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