After a former gangster enthused him, a hoodie was ready to reform. Then the system crushed his hopes
In a bleak room in a south London hostel, I recently found myself undressing an 18-year-old hoodie. Tuggy Tug, the leader of a south London gang, has been in foster care since the age of eight and dropped out of school at 14. You cannot get much more disadvantaged than Tuggy Tug.
I met him 18 months ago while doing a report on why so many black Caribbean boys and white working-class boys were failing to grow up into successful young men. I was charmed by his intelligence and energy and we have since been going out regularly to eat together and even to visit the odd museum. Now we were embarking on our most ambitious outing yet — lunch at the Liberal club in Whitehall.
There was just one problem. Tuggy Tug had to exchange his hoodie for a suit and tie — or, more precisely, for my son’s suit, tie and shirt. We were the guests of Bobby Cummines, a former armed robber and associate of the Kray brothers, now turned entrepreneur. Bobby is the founder of the charity Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, and the lunch was to put Tuggy Tug on the straight and narrow.
I did not have high hopes as I watched Tuggy Tug pull my son’s trousers over his tracksuit bottoms. “I get cold,” he said in explanation. I tied his tie. He stared at himself in the mirror: “I never been as smart as this,” he said, searching his memory for an equivalent occasion, “not even in court for the judge.”
Half an hour across the river and into another world: the Victorian dining room of the Liberal club — all dark wood and glazed tiles, a full-sized statue of Gladstone looming over us. Cummines was ordering. A small, dynamic man in his sixties, he had immediately taken to Tuggy Tug. Here, he declared, was his younger self. Tuggy Tug beamed.
“Me and you,” continued Bobby to Tuggy Tug, “we were doing the same stuff. We grew up on the same street.” At the age of 16, Bobby was jailed for possession of a sawn-off shotgun. He spent 13 of the next 20 years in prison for offences including manslaughter and bank robbery. In 1988 he decided to go straight. This meant stacking shelves in Tesco, “the hardest thing I ever done”, until he took a university degree.
He described life in prison. “You are living in a toilet, eating next to a toilet with a cellmate who may not wash and has been bunged up for so many f****** years he’s like an animal or so sexually confused he starts sending you love letters.” He detailed the different ways you die in prison: the petrol bombs, boiling sugared water or just a Biro stabbed into the throat. “You don’t serve a prison sentence — you survive it.”
Tuggy Tug shook his head: “But if you ain’t got no money to eat, you get me, you got to try something.”
It was time for a lesson in gang economics. Bobby told Tuggy Tug to imagine he was the supplier and Tuggy Tug one of three dealers who owed him money. “Now, the only two ways I do business is a pound coin or a bullet in the head. So I want to teach you three dealers a lesson. Number one owes me £3,000; number two, £2,000; and you, £1,000. Who do I shoot?”
“Number one,” said Tuggy Tug instantly.
“No,” said Bobby. “I shoot the young man who owes me the least. I shoot you. And when I come and get you, I am all smiles” — he jumped to his feet and stepped up to Tuggy Tug, smiling. He walked past, whipped around, raised his fingers in the shape of a barrel and shot Tuggy Tug in the back of the head. We froze. He adjusted his cuffs, sat down and picked up his fork again. He said to Tuggy Tug: “I know you because I am looking at me and you are on a very, very dangerous path, my friend.”
The words of this hardened gangster had an immediate effect on Tuggy Tug — where all my preaching had failed. Bobby said he believed in him and in five years’ time, if he went straight, would make him a member of this club. “So you like this club?”
“I could hang out here all day,” said Tuggy Tug fervently.
On the drive home Tuggy Tug started ringing around. “I just love that man,” he declared to his incredulous fellow gang members. “I want to go home with him and never do crime again.”
A few days later I took Tuggy Tug to his local jobcentre. He was still fired up. As we entered the centre, he announced: “One hundred per cent in my heart I want to get working. That’s the bottom line.”
I expected great things. Here were people trained and paid to care. Tuggy Tug is just the sort of young man they should welcome in. After all, the cost of keeping him in the criminal justice system is a lot more than getting him into work. The brightly coloured brochures of beaming ethnic minorities certainly promised that. But the reality was very different.
We were passed from department to department, sent away and told to spend an hour answering questions. Without me there, Tuggy Tug would have stumbled on the third one: “What’s your title?” He looked wildly at me. “Mr,” I said. “Oh, that’s what he’s pushin’ at,” he grumbled.
By our appointment the next day, Tuggy Tug’s enthusiasm had drained away — as had mine. After a long wait to see the special adviser team, a man interviewed us, or rather me, for Tuggy Tug had nipped out for a smoke. The adviser spoke cheerfully: “No one has a rat’s arse chance of getting a job here.” He nodded at the other advisers: “You are not dealing with a system that is here to help. Anyone that is not prepared to jump through the hoops, like your young man, they blow away at the slightest excuse.”
He paused and said we might try another floor “that finds work for people suffering from a mental or physical deficiency. Is he mentally deficient or just very young?”
I was speechless. Was he really referring to the young man whom I and Bobby Cummines had found so bright and engaging?
“There is nothing wrong with him,” I said tartly; “he has just been brought up by the state.” We left empty-handed.
Tomorrow Tuggy Tug is appearing in court — in my son’s suit.
Wasted — The Betrayal of White Working Class and Black Caribbean Boys, by Harriet Sergeant, is published by the Centre for Policy Studies
Bobby Cummines is in “The Krays by Fred Dinenage” this Sunday 21st at 8pm on the Crime & Investigation Network
Published 20 March 2010