Freedom from the womb, prisoner to the streets
Author: Robyn Travis
I had the privilege of being one of the very first people to read Robyn Travis’ new book, Freedom from the Womb, Prisoner to the Streets (abbreviated as P2TS from herein).
Here at London Street Gangs, we have spent over several years documenting what has been regarded as a burgeoning gang culture facing the streets of London, even before the police and politicians were willing to publicly accept that gangs might even exist.
Following the extremely concerning rise in the volume of teen homicides in 2007 and 2008, which saw almost 60 teenagers lose their lives, Londoners descended into a moral panic spurred on by exaggerated and sensationalised media reports of a feral underclass and a gang culture approaching something akin to the United States.
This crucial period where we should have been attempting to understand the problem in real terms and begin to address the root causes was lost, and instead the problem was simply reduced to one of “gangs”. Gangs were deemed to be the issue, and all of a sudden a reluctance to label young people in groups as gangs was turned into a situation where every group of young people, especially in deprived inner city communities, was now being afforded the label.
Whilst the government and authorities came up with knee-jerk responses, focussed predominantly on enforcement tactics, a number of journalists and authors capitalised on the issue. Swathes of media reports and books were published, often taking insight from young men purporting to be gang members who appropriately confirmed many of the stereotypes we might gain from watching US urban dramas. Even Ross Kemp jumped on the bandwagon with the at times ludicrous ‘Ross Kemp: Teenage Gangs of South London’.
Michael W Story sums it up well in his brief presentation on ‘London’s 66,000 guns’ where he points out such stereotypes – the gritty urban scenes, rap music, council estates and claims by young people that they ‘can get access to sub-machine guns in a matter of minutes’. Many of those gang members that defined the content of such media reports and other publications were young men, impressionable and wanting to tell their story, about how their gangs were violent, that they had atrocious upbringings that confined them to lives of crime as long as they could remember.
The stories we saw were bleak, and to many people they would have been shocking eye-openers to a world alien to most. However, it would not be completely out of the question to consider that young people are quite capable of telling lies, of boasting, and trying to boost their ego and enhance their own reputations, you all saw the Sky News interview with alleged looters by the River Thames in south-east London following the riots. Did anyone buy it?
Robyn, was perceived to be a gang member, although he wouldn’t describe himself as such despite earning a bad boy reputation with the Holly Street Boys. The Holly Street Boys and London Fields Boys from E8 in Hackney, separated by less than half a mile laying either side of Queensbridge Road, was the first ever war within a post code. Robyn was a key figure within the Holly Street Boys. He was the definition of a prisoner to the street and is not afraid to admit it. He would ride or die for the estates namesake and for his friends. This war triggered a breakdown in the relationship between groups of young people within estates in the borough of Hackney, a trend which later followed across London. The ‘Postcode Wars’ were born. A competitive mentality that had never been so localised, to the extent that reppin’ boroughs transcended to ‘Reppin the ends’.
His account in P2TS is one of an articulate young man who has had time to reflect on his teenage years as a ‘gang member’. This book is not about boasting of gang exploits, violent crimes and portraying a hard life. P2TS is a brutally honest reflection of Robyn’s own life and that of his peers who grew up to be part of the London Fields and Holly Street rivalry. I spoke to a friend who has worked with gangs in London for 10 years and we agreed that it is about time someone wrote a book to rival the more salacious texts that have dominated in recent years. This book will do much to balance the skewed picture, often perpetuated by those wishing to keep the gang alive, by simply telling the truth.
Robyn, like many who we read about that have been involved with gangs, has certainly had tough times and struggled through a series of unfortunate events. But he doesn’t use these as excuses or as mitigation for his own involvement with gangs. He does not accept that young people are born as ‘Soldiers’ from a young age, something many young people try to portray when interviewed on their gang experience. Throughout P2TS you will learn the human side of those the authorities are quick these days to label ‘gang member’. Through the hard times Robyn shares personal moments of good times and happiness, his love of football and desire to one day play with the Arsenal, his loving grandmothers home cooked meals and the celebration of his own children and re-entry into education.
There are no stereotypes in P2TS, the gangster dealing drugs and making a nice living is a distant reality. Robyn quite openly accepts that as a gangster he was broke, broke as a joke. Even so broke that at times he went without food. Whilst at the peak of his time with the Holly Street Boys, having a fearsome reputation on the streets of Hackney, young Robyn briefly made a living cleaning tables at a Chiquito’s restaurant in London’s West End, never was he a stranger to hard work. When he asked for more hours and an opportunity to progress from minimum wage he was continuously shunned, taking offence.
The branch manager then accused Robyn of petty theft and he lost his job. Another male, who looked nothing like Robyn, was found to be the culprit and caught on CCTV. You can’t help but feel that had he remained in work, he might never have become even more involved in the streets. Robyn’s life has taken him close to death, he has lost many people close to him and has served time in prison. He can now reflect on the rivalry that still burns to this day between Holly Street and London Fields, and can see it for what it is, pointless. Groups of boys who once were friends and attended school together fighting for the title of Hackney amidst two run down council estates owned by a system they so openly detest, yet continue to play into the hands of.
Robyn’s book is the sad truth, he isn’t afraid to let his ego stand in the way of that, and sees it as a key obstacle in brokering understanding between rival groups of young men. P2TS offers the full spectrum of human emotions that we can all relate to and most importantly it gives us real insight into the mindsets and mentality of young people caught up in gangs. This is unquestionably the most authentic portrayal of life on the roads.
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