Monday, 21 January 2008

Kids! What's the Matter With Kids Today?

I have a tough time keeping all the yob-attack stories straight in the British press. "Yobs" (or "chavs") are what the Americans might call teenage delinquents: no-goodniks who terrorize the community. I've already described some of My Lovely Wife's encounters with British youth. Those incidents pale in comparison to the horrible headlines in the British press.

The latest case involves a 47-year-old father of three named Garry Newlove who went outside when he heard some teenagers vandalizing one of his vehicles and ended up getting beaten to death. Three teens were sentenced to prison, including one who had been out on bail for earlier assaults. These cases, awful as they are, seem to meld into one another, so frequently do they seem to happen.

The perception that crime--and teenager-induced crime especially--is on the rise wasn't helped by a story in the Sunday Times that Britain's home secretary, Jacqui Smith, is afraid of walking in certain London neighborhoods alone at night. She's catching hell from opposition politicians over this, but isn't she just guilty of being honest? I don't remember the Conservatives being able to eliminate all crime. It's a shame we can't walk anywhere we like, anytime we like, without feeling a little nervous or "being aware of our surroundings," as the tourist guides put it. But wasn't it ever thus?

The BBC's Have Your Say site has a forum going asking users to suggest ways to get teen gangs off the street. There's the predictable "In my day we would have sent them off to Australia" response. The teens I've seen interviewed on TV all want youth centers. Hey, if it gets them beating up each other in a building rather than beating up the rest of us on the streets, I'm all for it.

Britain's always had a bit of a thug culture, a creepy undercurrent of violence that runs through everything like the vagus nerve. I remember when I attended school here as a teenager. There was a kid named Pete in my year who had a sniveling little toady assistant whose name I can't remember. Pete was the one to worry about. He'd come up to you in the morning and say, "Gissus a sarny." Translated, that meant "Give us a sandwich." If you'd brought your lunch it was wise to hand it over.

Did he ever hit me? I don't think so. But he only had to hit a few people to make everyone else fall into line. He'd move from threatening body language and near-incomprehensible yob-speak into actual violence very quickly. One minute you'd be joking in a quavering voice, "Ha-ha. No Pete, I don't think you'd like my sandwich" and the next he'd be pummeling you with his stony fists. It was the shock of it, the suddenness, that was so terrifying.

I remember watching from 50 meters away as my friend Adrian got taken down by Pete on the blacktop. Adrian was bouncing a soccer ball against the wall of the playground when Pete came up, wanting, I guess, to steal the ball. He swept Adrian's legs out from under him and Adrian tumbled to the ground. Adrian popped up and Pete did the same thing again: a practiced kick that sent Adrian to the tarmac. Up Adrian got again. I kept wanting to shout "Stay down! Stay down! He won't knock you down again if you're already down!"

That probably would have been bad advice. Those poor suburban fathers who got their heads kicked in probably stayed down.

I suppose Pete came from a broken home and had an alcoholic mom and was abused as a child. I certainly hope so anyway, the bastard.

Oddly, I have something of Pete's. No, it's not his tooth embedded in my scalp. When I was younger I did magic. He found out somehow and said he had a magic trick he wanted to sell me. It was a a little guillotine. It had two holes: one for your finger and the other for something like a carrot. You'd first use it to chop a carrot, then you'd put your finger in the top hole and a carrot in the bottom hole. Push down on the blade and the carrot flies off in two directions, but your finger--if you've done it corrrectly--stays attached to your hand.

I already had one, but Pete really wasn't asking if I wanted to buy it. He was telling me I was buying it. So I did. While my other version of the trick was clean and surgical, his finger chopper looked like it came from about 1840. Mine was shiny plastic. His was wooden, held together with tiny brads, the blade alarmingly rusty and dull. He had carved his initials on one side of the wooden frame. (Like a lot of thugs, Pete was always carving things. I seem to remember he had some of those dull blue tattoos on his hands that you only get from using ballpoint ink and the point of a compass.)

I suppose he'd stolen the finger chopper and didn't want it anymore. I still have it, in a box up in the attic. It probably beats up all my other magic tricks.

But for all this talk of violence, I feel relatively safe here in Oxford, and in England in general. I certainly don't fear that I'm going to get my head blown off by a gun, which is always in the background in America. Here there's a different potential worry, as this sign illustrates:

Although being stabbed or slashed by a knife is an unsettling prospect--so messy, so Shakespearean--I think I'll take it over getting shot by a gun anyday.


Richard said...

We were having this argument in the office today -- has it got worse, or do people just think it's got worse? The long term homicide rate is much lower than it was 500 years ago, but is higher than it was 100 years ago - but not by much: 14 per million in 1997 as opposed to 9.6 per million in 1900. What about other violence? It's declined since the mid 1990s. And 89% of those offences categorised by the police as "violent" did not require medical attention.

Why is it that we're convinced that our society is more dangerous than it was? I think part of the reason is that we love "declensionist narratives", assuming that we are all falling from a golden past. Homer started it, banging on about how much greater Achilles was than the Greeks of his day. We love it too.

Not that this will provide any succour to Your Lovely Wife, who was harranged by thugs. But remember Brighton Rock, and the seaside pitched battles between the Mods and the Rockers. Wasn't it ever thus? Hasn't youth always been horrible?

Richard said...

PS: just checked. The murder rate is down a hundred fold in the past 500 years. Sources available on sending me a brown envelope full of used fivers.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

You can't compare murder rates from 100 or 500 years ago, though. People survive injuries now that they wouldn't have survived back then. Same with comparing body counts from Vietnam and Iraq. Many of the soldiers injured (but saved) in Iraq would have died 40 years ago.

And is it wrong in a civilized society to expect to be able to walk unmolested down a street? I should hope not.

Joyce said...

As background for its coverage of "Jacqui's own doner-gate" (after the kebab she so bravely ventured out to buy in Peckham) the Monday edition of the Evening Standard reminds us that "Last year 27 children were killed by other children on London's streets." (Yes John -- I've dared to step out of our Oxford FT / Guardian reading habits!)
When I stayed with a friend in Whitechapel a while back, there were big signs put up to remind people that it was a "high crime area." They served the purposes of a) scaring the life out of residents and visitors; b) not preventing crime; and c) using up money that could be spent on, oh, a police officer. I guess signs are cheaper.

Ruth said...

I was intrigued by all the backlash over this Minister's comments; I wasn't surprised she wasn't comfortable on the streets of the city - what woman has ever felt safe on the streets of a city, alone, at night? Sad, yes, but such is life. Is it any different from our presidents using secret service? There are bad people out there. Yes, it's this particular Minister's job to fight crime, but would it do any good to get mugged just to prove a point?

mark, not from alexandria said...

"Why is it that we're convinced that our society is more dangerous than it was?"

Because we have much broader and faster access to information than we used to.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering what your source was for saying the homicide rate is "lower than 500 years ago"? There was no police force, recorded statistics etc of any kind in 1508. The printed press itself was only barely in operation.