This piece is from December 2009.
In my defence, I was simply looking for something to read. The clouds over Kingsway were chucking it down, I had a buy-nine-get-one-free mocha grande to get through, and there was nothing else left in Caffè Nero’s magazine rack. I knew it was wrong – of course I did, I’m not a fool – but a little voice in my head just kept saying Why not? What harm can it do? It’s only the once, and it’s not like you’re going to take it home with you. Just try it… no one will ever know… and it’s just a… Daily Mail…
So I took it from the rack, and spread it out on the table in front of me.
FERAL YOUTHS: HOW A GENERATION OF VIOLENT, ILLITERATE YOUNG MEN ARE LIVING OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES OF CIVILISED SOCIETY
I took a deep chocolatey draught, and read on.
The first time I saw Tuggy Tug, he was standing on a street corner in Brixton with half-a-dozen other 15-year-old boys. They were scowling at anyone who walked past. Every now and then, they shrugged up their hoodies to make themselves look more threatening.
As part of an on-going investigation into Society’s moral collapse, brave Mail reporter Harriet Sergeant had, I quickly came to understand, walked the streets of Brixton with only a solitary “minder” for company – she actually said “escort”, but I’ll assume she was just forgetting herself, and meant “minder” – to find out what lies beneath the hooded top of the average 15-year-old South Londoner. It turns out to be another hooded top. My God. The feral youth of South London are like Russian dolls.
Under his black hoodie, he wore a red one – in case he needed a quick change of identity. He was, he admitted, on the lookout for someone to mug. “I want no one recognising me after I done my business,” he explained.
Indeed, Mirey Poppins. No self-respecting 15-year-old boy, not even one who used such oddly inauthentic sounding syntax and apparently called himself Tuggy Tug, would ever want it known that he’d been chatting to a reporter from the Daily Mail.
The thing Ms Sergeant seems not to have grasped – other than that most of us don’t feel the need to employ a minder whenever we go to see a film at the Ritzy, or have a meal at Asmara – is that 15-year-old boys, especially those who like to hang out on street corners, are not always entirely truthful, particularly when discussing their own exploits. Braggadocio is a good word, but possibly a bit foreign-sounding for the Daily Mail – ironic, really, as it was actually coined by Spenser in the Faerie Queene, but that’s possibly a bit poofy-sounding for the Daily Mail, so let’s just keep it simple and say that 15-year-old boys are somewhat prone to exaggeration, auto-mythologising, and self-gangstafication. Teenage boys on Brixton street corners like to talk gangsta because they think it’s cool, even if – especially if – they’ve just caught a number 3 down Croxted Road from Dulwich College, and need to be back for evening prep, blud. 15-year-old boys of all classes, creeds and colours are, in a nutshell, insecure idiots, and this really needs to be taken into account when asking them about drugs, sex, violence and general naughtiness.
15-year-old boys also like taking the piss, especially in front of their mates. And a prim Daily Mail journalist, especially one accompanied by a hunky minder, would be impossible to resist. So, as well as winding her up with tales of doing business, of course they’re going to lower their lids and mutter sourly about lack of respect and opportunities, because that’s all part of the act. And it makes them feel real, and hard. Indeed, poor Ms Sergeant seems to have left Brixton fairly rattled:
After saying goodbye to him, I learned that I’d almost become his latest victim. He’d taken my escort aside to suggest they “bang” me together
[I think most agencies charge extra for that, by the way – your Clooneyesque smoothie is ten-a-penny, your authentic bit-of-rough is altogether more… elite…]
and steal my watch. “Well,” shrugged my escort, himself a former armed robber,he wants £1,000 to buy a Smart car. He sees stealing your watch as a career move.”
Hang on – a Smart car? An environmentally friendly, high mpg, not-too-fast but kind-to-the-planet hybrid runabout? Is this truly all he wants? To own a car that’s been perfectly designed for his everyday life? A car that offers him maximum comfort, agility, safety, ecology and driving fun? A pioneering vehicle concept that is one of the best with its low CO2 emission figures? As a coupé and a cabrio in the pure, pulse, passion and BRABUS equipment lines…
… I’ve no idea what any of that means, incidentally, I just looked it up. Not on the Mail’s motoring pages, as all they had were reviews of the latest models of handcart we’re all going to hell in, but on the manufacturer’s website.
We all know what a Smart car is, though. And, if that’s what our alienated urban yout’ genuinely aspires to, I’m impressed. He’s not just a scowl in a cowl after all. I might not approve of his means, but my faith in his humanity is restored. Obviously I realise he might still want to pimp it, add a boombox and some go-faster stripes and – no, I’m out of my depth here – but… surely we don’t need to get sidetracked into aesthetics? If that’s what he and his shrouded bredren wants, then I’m cool with that.
Which is why I didn’t mind too much when, the following evening, I was mugged by a weasely kid in a grey hooded top while walking through the China Walk Estate.
For a few seconds, yes, I was scared – but that’s because he caught me by surprise. Once I’d gathered my thoughts, and remembered Harriet Sergeant’s article, I was fine. He told me, sotto voce, to give him everything I’d got, and that he’d cut me if I didn’t comply; and I told him, as affably as I could, that I was just meeting a friend at the bus stop on Lambeth Road, so didn’t actually have anything with me, just my keys. He then repeated the request, and the threat, and I pulled out my keys and let him pat me down. And then, satisfied that I was telling the truth, he said “Sorry mate,” and I told him not to worry. Then we did a Terrorist Fist Bump, and I went on my way. And maybe I should be angry, or at least vaguely traumatised, but… I’m not, because I now know that the only thing these kids want is a fuel-efficient and ecologically sound two-door hatchback which will not only gain them the respect of their friends and help get them out of their rut, but which they can park sideways-on to the kerb. And that really seems like no bad thing.
Of course, if I ever find out that the lady from the Mail was wrong, and that what Tuggy Tug actually craved was a (lower-case) smart car – as in a flash set of wheels, a tasty motor – rather than an (upper-case) Smart car, then I’ll be straight into therapy before you can say my God, there’s an even smaller hoodie inside this one!