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Posts Tagged ‘riots’

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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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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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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