I felt like I was one of the last people to know about the Riots last year. Earlier in the week, thanks to TURF, I’d agreed a book deal with Random House, and that coming weekend was the first chance I’d had to properly celebrate. And celebrate I did. It took a couple of days before I felt able to deal with reality again, and by that time the world had been turned on its head.
Inevitably, I couldn’t help drawing parallels with what I’d been writing about in TURF, even though the issue of kids getting caught up in gangs was a different one to what we were seeing being played out on our streets, there were too many similarities to ignore.
Shads, the gang leader, and principal bad guy in TURF, says to Jay at one point in the book, ‘People like us, Jay, we’re born with handcuffs on. No one’s going to give you a key. Most of the time you’ve got to steal a key.’ Even though Shads is a nasty piece of work, he has a point: if the society you’re living in doesn’t give you anything back, what are you meant to do? We all need something to live for.
I think a lot of what we saw in the Riots last year was a reaction to that sense of disempowerment. Of course, it’s hard to have sympathy with people who are smashing up shops, burning cars, destroying people’s livelihoods, and in some instances even taking lives, but people need to be careful where they apportion the blame – both for these things and for why they happened in the first place.
‘GET THE SCUM OFF THE STREETS’ ran a Sun a headline at the time; people were calling for water cannons and rubber bullets to be used… But why were they ‘scum’? And where exactly were they meant to go? Were water cannons and rubber bullets going to solve the problem? Surely a big part of the problem was the fact that an awful lot of those involved were being treated like scum in the first place, and were living in situations without opportunities, without pride or hope. We’re not meant to live like that. If you really want to get the ‘scum’ off the streets, make those people realise they’re not scum in the first place – they’re human beings, and if you’re not treated as such, it’s no wonder you end up exploding, making a mess of your life and your community.
I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for kids caught up in gangs and petty crime. That’s not to say I condone it – I’ve been a victim of crime myself too many times to think it’s acceptable. But deep down it’s got to be understood and dealt with, not just punished. Too often punishment, imprisonment, becomes a way of life. A habit. Just the way things are. It shouldn’t be the way anything is. The Riots proved that. What we saw last year wasn’t normal. That was a warning sign that something is going very wrong at a deep-rooted level – getting the ‘scum off the streets’ won’t help any of that – it’s just moving the problem from one place to another.
I’m an idealist – I believe we all have something to offer. We just need to be taught it and told it enough times until we live it. Above all else, the main reason I ended up getting a book published was because I had enough people around me telling me I could. Writing a book can seem like an impossibly hard, hopeless slog at times, but in my experience, if people believe in you, you can be justified in believing in yourself, and to keep believing in yourself even when all things seem to be going against you.
Trying to build an equal and just and happy society might also seem like an impossibly hard and hopeless slog, but get enough people trying, enough people believing – and who knows what could happen? It’s worth a go.