My cure for violent gangs: museums and a night at the theatre

The distinguished social affairs writer has made unusual friends: two teenage hoodies from Brixton

I first met Tuggy Tug a year ago. He was one of about a dozen 16-year-old boys gathered outside a chicken takeaway in Brixton, south London. He wore black trainers, a black tracksuit and a black cap beneath the hood. He was small for his age, and the tracksuit so big that he appeared lost inside it. They were the kind of boys that I, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman from Maida Vale, would normally cross the street to avoid. Instead I made straight for them.

Tuggy Tug was startled, then delighted when I stopped in front of him and explained I was writing a report. I wanted to know why so many black Caribbean and white working-class boys were failing to make the transition to manhood and a successful adult life. Tuggy Tug did not think he was failing at all. Although the smallest, he was obviously the leader and proud of his gang. “Everyone who bumps into us says sorry,” he boasted.

The others stood and watched in awe as he addressed me. He never stopped talking and moving, energy fanning off him like electricity. He announced he had no respect for his school, which he had all but stopped attending. “The teachers don’t even try. They only care about the wage at the end of the year,” he said dismissively. “You can sit on the desk with your shoes off, your socks hanging out, on the phone, doin’ your ting [drug dealing] and the teachers won’t give a toss.” He looked on education as a lie put about by the government to entrap him into a lifetime of paying taxes and car fines. His friends nodded.

“If you do it the government way,” he pointed out, “you will wait until you’re 80 for the time you can buy a nice, decent tracksuit.” He paused for a moment. “I probably be dead by then,” he conceded.

His heroes were the older drug dealers in his area: “I know a man of 21 who owns five houses and he never went to school.” He judged himself by his lack of fear and the number of all-important “links” he had in order to pull off the next deal.

His methods may have been criminal — mugging and drug dealing — but his ambitions were those of millions of other teenage boys. After five years, he planned to go “legit”, buy “a mean house in the suburbs and play golf all day”.

I had stopped for only an interview, but I could not put Tuggy Tug’s hopes for the future out of my mind. That middle-class dream of a suburban house and golf was as distant a prospect for Tuggy Tug as becoming an astronaut is for the rest of us. The comparison with my own 16-year-old son and his friends — studying AS-levels at a London day school — was stark. Tuggy Tug had no future. They had. His life was already wasted. Ahead lay prison, death or, at best, a lifetime on benefits.

Six months later I returned to Brixton in search of him. Nothing had changed. The same gang of boys were still standing outside the chicken takeaway. Tuggy Tug greeted me warmly, bounding up and waving his arms in the air. When I asked what he and his friends had been up to, they gathered around, eager to describe their crimes of “stabbin’ and shootin’”, as they sliced at the air with their hands. Despite the hard language, they looked peaky. It was about 4pm. My son always wanted food at this time. I asked if they were hungry. The bravado abruptly vanished. “We’re always hungry,” they said. I felt like Mrs Darling overwhelmed by Lost Boys.

No adult appeared to look after them — let alone feed them. “My mum sometimes gives me money for a packet of crisps,” one volunteered. Others had been kicked out of home by their mothers, were staying in a hostel or were, like Tuggy Tug, in foster care. The crisps story outraged me; they must be fed, I said. Their demeanour changed. They crowded around. “Will you adopt us?” they asked, only half joking. I offered to take three of them out to eat.

After much discussion Tuggy Tug chose a thickset, reserved youngster called Mash and a slim, baby-faced boy known as Crumble. He also chose Nando’s in Streatham as the place for a treat. In the restaurant Tuggy Tug addressed the bemused manager as “boss”, questioned him closely on the menu, then ordered for all three of them. Over spicy chicken, the boys explained what being part of a gang meant to them. Tuggy Tug said of his companions: “I get more from these two than I ever did from my family.”

Young teenagers join gangs, they explained, because they are afraid. There is nobody else to protect them, certainly no responsible adult. All three emphasised the importance of co-operation. “We are all linked together. We all bring something to the table. One got a knockout punch. Another good with a knife. We all got our little role.” Tuggy Tug pointed to Crumble, who looked no more than 12. “If I ever get into a problem, it’s him I look to. I know he won’t just gas. This one, he finish the problem. He go the full 100%. He shank [stab] the man.” Crumble carried on eating his ice cream imperturbably. Tuggy Tug continued: “Everyone got something. We just a mad team.”

Like any Victorian public-school headmaster, they believed team spirit vital for success. Tuggy Tug explained: “Most boys our age, they not thinking. They do it by themselves.” Mash interrupted: “You don’t make it in this bad-boy business on your own. You get robbed. You get a beef by yourself, you in trouble.”

The three had put a lot of thought into their activities. Most boys, they said, were either too “half-hearted” or went “over the top”. They took the middle course. Then, when other boys did make money, they “splash it around”. Crumble said contemptuously: “They don’t invest in nothing. You got to invest for success.” I asked what they invested in. “Skunk and guns,” he replied promptly.

How did they judge success? Eagerly they turned out their pockets. Each had at least three mobile phones. “Everything, boxers, socks, I bought myself,” Crumble said proudly. They had no parent to give them “£100 here and there”. Tuggy Tug was clear. Money equalled status. “The more money you got, the more ratings you got. You are the top man.” Mash defined success as having a phone “ring like mad because I am busy. I got the deals”.

I joked about keeping my wallet safe. They leant towards me, their faces softening. They would never hurt me, they swore. I was a link — someone who helped them in life — as opposed to a liability, “someone who holds you back”, explained Mash. If anyone mugged me, they would get him. Did I need anything stolen or anyone “mashed up”? Or maybe a disability parking permit? They would do it. Tuggy Tug, ever the entrepreneur, wondered if I had friends who could use them.

Why waste their energy on crime, I asked. They shook their heads. I did not understand. At 14, like 55% of black Caribbean and 65% of white working-class boys, they had the reading age of a seven-year-old. Humiliated in lessons, they had begun to behave badly in secondary school. They had dropped out or been suspended soon afterwards. They had been on the streets ever since. They would remain in a gang because they were qualified for little else other than, as Mash pointed out, “drug dealin’ and robbin’”.

When you are 16 and without adult care, money is all important. Tuggy Tug leant forward. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” he explained, “to wake up in the morning knowing you have not got a little £5 to eat breakfast.”

Since then I have taken Tuggy Tug and Mash to eat in restaurants regularly. I am under no illusion. They are gang members and the sort of boy I pray my son will not meet on a dark night. But equally they have a sweet side that has touched me deeply.

We eat in places I like — Chinese restaurants, neighbourhood Italians — because they want to get out of “the ’hood”. Eating together also allows me to help them the only way I can. Nobody has taught them the basics, such as shaking hands, speaking clearly and looking a grown-up in the eye. Understanding what they are trying to say can take two or three attempts.

They are bright, I tell them, and will one day be successful. If they are presented with an opportunity, I want them to be able to take it up. Knowing how to behave is a start. They proved eager to learn. The first time I demonstrated the gesture for ordering the bill, Tuggy Tug immediately focused. Here was a lesson he could see the point of. He practised scribbling in the air several times.

When the waiter finally brought the bill, I showed them how to check it. The next time we went out, Tuggy Tug took the bill and studied it. “They charged you an extra tea,” he exclaimed. Tuggy Tug was outraged. “That’s thieving,” he said with all the indignation of a thief himself. Then the entrepreneur in him took over. He looked around the restaurant, calculating. If every table in the restaurant did that every hour, “that’s serious money”, he said in admiration.

If they are alien to me, I am even more so to them. “When you are out with your friends,” Mash asked, nodding at the white-painted walls, silver mirrors and fairy lights of a bar in Clapham, “what do you do? Is it like with us?” Tuggy Tug was kneeling beside me on the banquette, back to the room, picking his teeth in the mirror. “Well, they do that in the lavatory,” I said firmly. Without a word, Tuggy Tug took himself off. They did not understand my passion for underdone steak. “Don’t it give your belly the runs?” demanded Mash.

They accepted without question I could pay the restaurant bill, but were stunned when I stopped for petrol. “In all my days,” said Mash, “I have never met a person who fills their tank to the brim.” But this was nothing to our museum visit.

Neither had ever been to one — not even the Imperial War Museum, a 10-minute bus ride from Brixton. Reluctantly, they slouched into the central hall. The sight of first and second world war planes overhead and rockets thrusting upwards amid submarines, field guns, tanks and armoured jeeps stopped them in their tracks. Their faces lit up. They insisted we look at everything. I had promised we would stay only half an hour.

Two hours later, my knowledge of guns and tanks long exhausted, I had to drag them away. They were particularly interested in the recreation of a first world war trench and the fact the soldiers had been their age. “Did they really have no choice?” asked Tuggy Tug. “Couldn’t they just run away?” In the car they thanked me for taking them. “I don’t mind goin’ again,” conceded Mash.

My attempts to turn around their lives proved less successful. Over one meal, Tuggy Tug admitted he enjoyed gardening. He even had some gardening tools. Why not start a business, I said, digging up allotments for old people. An allotment, I thought privately, had no house to rob. I urged them to make a poster and distribute it. Nothing happened for several weeks. They did not know anyone with a computer. Finally they produced a poster: “L Plate Gardener No Job 2 Hard”. I was thrilled. Misty-eyed, I described them in five years’ time, successful entrepreneurs with a fleet of vans.

Tuggy Tug stared at me dubiously. “Yeah, but how much do we get paid like today for all this digging?” he said. I thought about £30. Tuggy leant sideways towards me and flipped open his back pocket. I caught a glimpse of a wad of notes. He shook his head. “I can make £300 in an hour. Why would I dig all them hours for £30?”

The next time I saw Tuggy Tug, he had nothing in his back pocket, his hair was wild and he had eaten only a packet of crisps the whole day.

I realised then what our failing education system had done to these boys. They had never experienced the repetition and effort needed for school work. They had never learnt selfdiscipline or how to concentrate. It was the biggest gulf between them and my son. They did not know how to turn a burst of enthusiasm into the day-to-day effort required for success. It had crippled them as surely as if someone had hacked off a limb.

Over the summer they got into trouble. Not for them, holidays, tennis camps or a trip to the local park. “There’s people out there looking for us,” said Tuggy Tug. Confined to a few streets, they had nothing to do but fight and commit crime. After Mash ended up in Balham youth court, I took him to Connexions to get advice on an apprenticeship or a college course. He never kept his appointments. “All these little courses,” said Tuggy Tug. “What we need is money. If just one course led to a job, I would do it, I swear.”

He and Mash, I now understand, have disengaged from society for a reason. They see nothing in it for them. And in this they are right. They are semi-literate and in competition with skilled and motivated immigrants; what employer is going to look at them?

I have now known Mash and Tuggy Tug for a year. What they have got out of this friendship is far from clear. I have not changed their lives as I hoped. Mash has not started a course and Tuggy Tug is due in court next week for assault. This is no heart-warming story of success. I have failed to make up to them the years of bad schooling. I cannot get them a job or start them on that first step to an independent existence.

What I have got out of our friendship is more certain — the emotional anger to write my report. Here is the reality behind all those bad statistics. Here are bright boys whose lives are being thrown away in front of my eyes.

I got so depressed by my failure to help, I stopped seeing them. But next week we are going to a play — Seize the Day by Kwame Kwei-Armah — because, as they point out, they have never been to one. Then to Tate Modern: Tuggy Tug thinks he might enjoy paintings. Meanwhile, the courts, not to mention rival gangs, are losing patience. Crumble was shot at recently outside B&Q. One day soon their phones will ring and not be answered. Until then we are going to enjoy ourselves.

Wasted: The Betrayal of White Working Class and Black Caribbean Boys by Harriet Sergeant will be published by the Centre for Policy Studies on November 12

Sunday Times
Published 1 November 2009

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