Gang culture seems to be endemic in UK cities. Lurid headlines have made certain London areas synonymous with knife crime and murder. Take a short stroll from the bars of the South Bank or the clubs of Dalston and become the potential victim of young people who have rejected, and been rejected by, society.
This might be hyperbole, but it certainly seems to frame the attitude of the chattering class. Gangs are just awful, they lament, unaware that for some young people gangs are the crucial support mechanism that official education and social services have failed to provide. One charity has realised that rehabilitating these young adults, many of whom have lived in extreme poverty and violence, is the only way to break this vicious cycle.
I hesitate to call its educational drop-in centre a school, for no school I know employs bouncers on the door, has a panic button concealed within a floral
arrangement in the class, or a staff room with doors that could withstand a battering ram. It provides young people who have dropped out of formal education with a new start, offering courses from GCSEs to personal hygiene, driving tests to financial management. There are no set hours, allowing students to spend as much or as little time there as they want.
My time volunteering there was short, but satisfying. My students were three girls who brought a level of sophisticated analysis to “fashion merchandising” that I had not expected. The elephant in the room was clear: this was not a lesson in interpreting differences between merino and angora or categorising millinery styles, as much as a reading class. All three spoke with a wide
vocabulary and in an articulate way that disguised near-illiteracy. This fact was not acknowledged: rather, we played word games with Vogue articles and spelling tests through copying out paragraphs of Elle. Discussions of rap lyrics and the syntax of Lily Allen songs formed the literature component. These girls, who had experienced horrific abuse on the streets, were more intelligent and self-aware than many of my peers at private school or Cambridge.
In theory, I played the role of the teacher. But I learned more from them than I like to admit. The concept of “respect” on the street and the importance attached to one’s reputation or name go some way to explaining the loyalty and camaraderie of “gang culture”. The universal experience of deprivation and constant fear of loss create a system where group identity and belonging are one and the same. By never conceding that our classes were about reading and writing, I showed them respect. In return, they respected me (and organised a collection of brothers and boyfriends to walk me back to the nearest Tube station after dark).
If we hope to make the tale of London that of one city, and not two, this is the kind of understanding and mutual respect that really makes a difference.