Harriet Sergeant: My edgy summer in the ’hood

Summer in the inner city is not complete without a riot. I should know. I started my very own. We were in a sports shop.

Everyone I know is in Tuscany or Provence. I am in London enjoying an inner-city summer. And summer in the inner city is a very different affair. Instead of carefree days and warm nights, it is a time of vigilance and fear. I asked one boy in south London how he planned to spend his time. Not for him the beach, a summer camp or even a local park. He explained that he would be staying put in his room: “There are too many people out there looking for me.” In summer, boredom drives many adolescents to violence and crime. As one remarked: “I got stabbed on Friday night. If we had something to do, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The residents of one inner-city estate, desperate to avoid the mayhem of the previous summer, hired Crusher, a former armed robber who helps with my social research, to provide activities for their youth. They hoped Crusher’s “life experiences”, as the association’s chairman delicately put it, would see an end to the knifings and car burnings of the previous summer.

Crusher’s answer was a game of rounders. We picked teams on a patch of grass between the estate and a railway line. Above us, a rottweiler, locked on a balcony for the day, barked dementedly. As the only female, I was the last to be chosen. I found myself waiting to bat behind Melchoir, a stocky nine-year-old from South America. He had been kicked out of his primary school, he told me. He had hit his teacher with a bat like this one and put her in hospital for two weeks. “She made me angry,” he said as if this was reason enough.

“He’s got ADH,” explained the others, “He can’t help it. He’s always whiling out.” Melchoir smiled complacently.

But then he hit a rounder. We yelled as he ran past post after post. He returned transformed and glowing. Unfortunately, I too then scored a rounder. Crusher’s team, older than mine, sulked, their confidence quickly shaken. They started to shout and butt each other. One swarmed three floors up the building to poke the rottweiler. As I left, a 15-year old said sadly: “Rounders is the easiest game.” He yearned for something to challenge him. Instead, his two older brothers, both in their twenties, arrived and started a fight. That was the end of rounders for the summer.

A week later, equipped with a list of holiday activities, I went in search of a gang of hoodies I had befriended. They were standing in the kitchen of a hostel, the room thick with the smell of weed. Outside it was a glorious day. “Where’s these things at?” asked Sunshine, a 17-year-old with a gold tooth and stars shaved around his head. He took one of the leaflets. How could they possibly get to these places? “Everyone’s on the road, Hari,” said Sunshine, “It’s sticky out there. I just stay in my yard, man.”

I insisted on driving to Richmond. Who would knife them with me there? But my attempts to broaden their horizons backfired when we passed a bicycle shop. Sunshine stopped, his attention snagged by the price tag: “Five bags, fam!” he exclaimed. His friends gathered round and stared at the £5,000 carbon bike. “That the price of them bare little t’ings?” asked Sunshine, “We could just lift one off the road.” Enthusiastically they discussed wire cutters and resale value. They paused to beam at me, the trip, they now all agreed, a big success.

In the inner city even the most innocuous summer activity takes on a sinister edge. One 16-year-old from the gang told me he would not be around for a few weeks. He was “going to the country”. I was enthusiastic. This was clearly better than smoking dope in the kitchen or stealing bicycles. Was he going on a hike? Maybe visiting a farm?

In the inner city even the most innocuous summer activity takes on a sinister edgeSmalls, who is more than 6ft 4in tall, stern-faced and very black, looked at me with incomprehension. He was going to a university town to sell drugs. I stared at him. I had always considered him the most mature and intelligent of the gang. I had hoped he might even study for a degree. Now he was attending university but not quite as I had planned. He said he went because the students, mainly white and middle class, asked him. The trip had its dangers. The police had arrested him the time before.

I asked if he had tried dressing differently. He shook his head. How otherwise would students know he was a drug dealer?

Summer in the inner city is not complete without a riot. I should know. I started my very own. We were in a sports shop. Sunshine and Smalls were firmly rejecting the winter jackets Crusher had chosen. They wanted trainers instead. I looked down at their perfectly good trainers — black with a flourish of blue and green laces tied in a big bow. “But these are best,” objected Sunshine. “We want you to buy our second best.”

As Sunshine walked out with his new pair of second best, the scanner went off. The manager, a small black man in tinted glasses, went straight up to Sunshine, leant into his face and started shouting. Sunshine shouted right back. The shop assistants, also young black men, started yelling at the other gang members. People stopped on the pavement outside and joined in. I noticed one shop assistant, a young white girl, starting to call the police.

Feeling responsible, I pushed through and placed myself between Sunshine and the manager. The manager did not move. He just yelled at me. I said if Sunshine had indeed stolen something, I would be the first to call the police. “We are going to strip him,” I announced. Sunshine was impassive as I opened his jacket and pulled up two hoodies and a T-shirt. Bunched over his jeans, he wore surprisingly sober underpants in small, brown checks. “Nothing,” I declared.

The manager was still shouting. By now, one assistant had opened the box of trainers to find the tag still inside. “He’s not taken anything,” I shouted. The manager, his face still thrust into mine, yelled back: “They were in here on Saturday, robbin’.” He pulled over Smalls who loomed above him. The manager was, I had to admit, a brave man.

Unlike the rest of us, Smalls did not lean forward and yell. He stared down from his great height and said softly: “Are you accusin’ me?” I was now seriously worried that Smalls, Sunshine or, for that matter, me was going to hit the little manager. He would not stop shouting. It was very tiring. I said no doubt Sunshine had been stealing on Saturday but he was not stealing today and the manager should apologise. The manager turned and spat. Smalls went very still. On the pavement scuffles had broken out.

Crusher pointed to the “Feds” (police) who had arrived and were watching from the other side of the road. Time, I decided, to leave. Next year it’s definitely Tuscany.

The Sunday Times
Published 15 August 2010

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