Inner-city life: gang kids such as those portrayed in last year’s film Attack the Block are products of a horrifying reality alien to most of us
02 August 2012
Among The Hoods by Harriet Sergeant (Faber, £14.99) BUY IT NOW
This is a very different take on inner-city gangs. It isn’t written by a “gang expert” but by an outsider with first-hand experience, itself an oxymoron but that’s what shapes a story that is powerfully driven by the author’s compelling narrative.
The surprise is not that Sergeant, a white middle-class lady who has previously turned her formidable talent for research and writing on to such heavyweight subjects as the history of Shanghai and South Africa’s apartheid, should focus on the very current gang issue, but that she does it in such a personal manner — she befriends them and doesn’t give up when it all gets tough. She gets in so deep with these boys she is able to authentically reveal why they and others like them behave as they do. I’ve spent much time with boys like these, but still found Sergeant’s story choking. What she reveals is the horrifying reality kids like these face. And this is not exclusive to the black community; kids in Glasgow and Manchester also suffer similar situations.
Before you start crossing the road at every young black boy you meet, I must stress that boys at this level of criminality are in the minority (the leader Tuggy Tug is found guilty of more than 100 robberies) but their effect is far reaching, and often their influence within their own families and communities is devastating.
Take Mash, one of Sergeant’s gang members. A talented footballer with unmeasured potential but with no love, guidance or discipline, he ends up following his uncle, the only male role model he’s ever known, into serious crime.
Tuggy Tug’s story makes for particularly compelling reading. He is the same age as the author’s son, both treading the precarious path from boy to manhood, and she makes comparisons throughout between the dismayingly different worlds they inhabit. Even Swagger, Sergeant’s guide, himself a former security van robber, now equally committed to changing the course of the boys’ lives, struggles to escape his own circumstances, thus proving just how hard it is to reform yourself when this life is all you’ve known. As your granny may have told you, prevention is better than cure.
And this is the challenge policy-makers face; young people who end up in gangs, involved with serious crime, are not merely normal kids fallen on bad times. They quite literally inhabit a different world and this is what Sergeant reveals. Her writing challenges us not to judge, to read between the lines; they are little boys who have not known love or care. She even teaches one how to floss his teeth; at this point he is nearly an adult. They respond with unexpected readiness to Sergeant’s love and efforts for them, their trust in her is absolute, despite living in a world where trust is often fraught with danger and nearly always results in disappointment.
This story does not end as you would anticipate. It reveals with no mistake where those who have been entrusted with responsibility have fallen massively short, and demonstrates culture is stronger than policy. Among the Hoods challenges many of our liberal ideals on what modern society and family look like. If you are a baby mama, born of a baby mama, what chance does your child stand? We need to be honest as a nation about what our children need instead of tiptoeing around with political correctness; it only serves to hamstring our policymakers.
Sergeant dispels the biggest myth around these “bad boys”: they are often up to bad stuff but they are not bad from the outset. Gangs are made, not born, and her account of how gang members long to get out of this life but find it nearly impossible to escape makes for tough reading. Sergeant demonstrates that it is possible to get beyond the fears and limitations of these boys’ lives and show them real love and care. Reading this book will confront you with some of the realities these boys face. If you only read one book on gangs, let this be it.