A chapter from Paul Harrison’s 1983 sociology book about Hackney, Inside the Inner City. The liberal prejudices, as ever, are not that far from the surface.
Jumping Down a Hole
Stoke Newington Street Thieves
The whole of Hackney breeds crime, but the other distinctive subculture besides that of Cockney Hoxton is the one that has developed in the major area of West Indian settlement, across the centre of Hackney, embracing the worst private housing and some of the worst council estates.
We have seen the potent pressures that fragment the family of West Indian origin and destroy its capacity for discipline. Most West Indians over thirty-five are law-abiding, hard-working, God-fearing people, as indeed are many of their children. But a minority of this group has created a subculture that exerts additional pressures towards crime. One of the focal elements in it is the all-night party, where reggae music blares from speakers so big they are known as wardrobes, alcohol and cannabis are consumed freely, and there are displays of male finery worthy of birds of paradise. The tea-cosy hat and the bomber jacket are signs of plodding poverty: the style that the fashion setters have adopted is not Rasta, but straight from the pages of The Tattler, gold-buttoned, double-breasted blazers, silk shirts, camel-hair coats, Burberries. There are distinctive exotic elements too: broad-brimmed leather hats, tall peaked caps in pure-wool tweed, gold bracelets and pendants, and a whole status hierarchy of shoes in which sneakers are the bottom rung, leather is looked down on, and reptile skin is the rage: lizard, crocodile and ostrich-skin shoes costing up to £250 for a handmade pair. Other possessions are essential equipment too: portable stereos the size of small suitcases; fast cars, again in a hierarchy, from souped-up bangers to the most expensive coupes. It is a subculture of conspicuous consumption: no radical rejection of capitalism, but a caricature of conformity to its values. Full participation in it requires money – at least £50 or £60 a week on top of other basic needs. That kind of money is not readily available to most black youths in Hackney, hence crime is a standing temptation to those wanting to participate fully in the subculture, but short of cash because they are in school, on the dole, or in dead-end jobs. Everyone knows someone who is into crime and, given the detection rate, it does pay, allowing a life-style that very few young blacks could ever hope to achieve on legitimate means.
Ian (not his real name) is an eighteen-year-old who has not worked since he left school, except for an abortive three weeks as a junior clerk. He goes to clubs or parties several nights a week, and spends £10 or £15 inside, plus £10 or £15 a week on clothes. ‘I like to look good,’ he explains. ‘Clothes are important to me, it’s like a battle with other individuals, keeping up with the Jones in the way you dress.’ Total expenditure: £50 to £100 a week. Total income from social security: £17.05 a week (he is living with his parents). Result: not, as for Micawber, misery, but crime. Ian started housebreaking when he was fourteen, often while truanting from school. He now goes housebreaking a couple of times a week. ‘We try not to do black people’s house’s houses,’ he says. He also steals purses and handbags. ‘Sometimes you get a run (chase). At first you’re scared, but then it’s fun, it’s something to do.’ Ian is not strong on conscience or compassion. He does not relate th effects of his own actions to the risk of his own family suffering from the actions of others. I asked him how he would feel if someone burgled his parent’s house. ‘I’d go mad. I’d probably go out and do a burglary.’ Did it worry him if he hurt people? ‘It can’t be helped. If you ain’t got no money, what you supposed to do? I never think about the people I do.’ What would he do if someone mugged his mother? ‘I’d kill them,’ he says, and means it.
The majority of black youths resist the lures of the subculture. But far too many are drawn into a temporary but often disastrous dalliance. Macauley Jones (not his real name) is a tall twenty-year-old, one of seven children of an upright Jamaican couple. Macauley is at the bottom of all the heaps: he is black, homeless, unemployed, and handicapped. He has been epileptic since he was ten. The epilepsy led to strains with his parents, who regarded it as a form of madness. He had an excessively strait-laced upbringing, in comparison with his friends. ‘Even when I was fifteen I had to be in by midnight, when my friends were just ready to go to a party.’
He blames his involvement in crime on the influence of his elder brother, Delroy, who has just served a four-year sentence for robbery. Delroy, in turn, was misled by mixing with the wrong crowd. Macaulay had just come out of a special school for epileptics, only to find that his brother was in gaol. ‘I was mad at that, and because nobody told me, and that was when I started doing stupid things.’ He stole two platinum rings from a house he was decorating, and got two years probation. Then he took a clock out of a van that had been left open, and was given twenty-four hours at an attendance centre – two hours a week every Saturday.
‘While I was gong there got caught for mugging a lady. I had no money at the time. I was on social security, but my mum was taking it all so I had nothing left, and I really wanted to rave (go dancing) that night. It happened just round the corner from my house. I saw this lady and I came up behind her and hit her with a stick, but she must have had some strong head because she didn’t fall down and she wouldn’t let go of her bag. I was tugging at it till she let go. didn’t know her but she knows two of my brothers and she called out the name, but I kept on running. I ran into a little alley-way, what they call jump down into a hole, and looked in the bag and dumped it. All that was in there was £1.50. I felt bad, you always feel bad afterwards the first time. I went home, got changed and went out to Cubie’s. The group that was playing was Shaka, but I didn’t like it, I couldn’t stand it for long. When I got back the police had picked up my brother, but he had an alibi, he was working when it happened. He must have sad it was me, because the next morning they knocked the door at 7 and took me to the station. They kept saying I done it and nagging me till I couldn’t take no more, and I gave in and gave them, what d’you call that, a statement.’
After this incident, Macaulay was remanded on bail, and started to go straight. He got a Youth Opportunities job serving at a garage, but he had an epileptic fit on the forecourt and woke up in hospital (as he often does) to find himself out of a job. He then got a place at a training workshop. The mugging was a distant memory by the time the case came up, eighteen months after the offence, at the Old Bailey. Such delays are common, and in the meantime the offender’s life suffers from a kind of trial-blight, for any progress he makes may well be totally wiped out by the sentence. ‘I only had ten or fifteen minutes with the solicitor. I didn’t really bother with what they said in court. I didn’t understand half of it.’ Another aspect of the British cultural dichotomy between Norman-Latin and Anglo-Saxon: spend a day in any inner-city magistrates’ court, and you will see dozens of defendants staring round the room while their destiny is debated, in terms incomprehensible to them, between the lawyer and the justices. Macaulay got borstal, and spent nine months inside. ‘I didn’t misbehave in there, was acting like a goodie-goodie, like a good little child. I had a few fights: if you show you can fight, they don’t bother you after that. Half the boys in there were black, and some of the screws (prison officer) were nasty, they’d call you “Wog”, they’d say “You, nigger, come here.” But I just swallowed it. What got me most was that my mother didn’t come to see me once, she didn’t even write. And when I came out, she didn’t want me to live with her.’
Macauley’s probation officer put him in contact with a short-life housing group, and he got a single room, in a semi-derelict house, with no hot water. After three months the council was ready to rehabilitate the place for letting to its waiting-list, and the short-life users had to move out. Macauley moved to a room in another short-life house in Clapton. He returned to his place in the training workshop, but then got a better-paid job of his own accord two weeks before I met him. In that time he’d had no money out of social security and had not eaten a proper meal. He was still waiting for social security to pay for dental treatment to replace his four top front teeth, knocked out in another fit three months earlier.
His criminal record, his epilepsy, his existence on the fringe of the Dalston subculture, all raise problems for going straight in stable employment. ‘I’m supposed to be getting £31.25 a week social security (1982), but it won’t be enough. My rent is £8 a week. It costs me £20 or £30 for a night out – £15 for drinks, £6 for weed (cannabis), that makes me feel better and think more positive, and £3 or more for a cab home. I don’t have any clothes except these I’m wearing, I made them myself at the training workshop. I got an order for a wool suit for £80, but I can’t save the money for it. I’m not interested in really expensive things. When I see these guys with eight-ounce gold bracelets on their wrists, really weighing their hands down, I just laugh. Those things cost £800. And the black girls expect gold things like that. If they know they can’t get it they don’t stay with the guy. And those people with ostrich-skin shoes costing £300, I laugh at them: if you step on their shoes they pull a knife on you. If you go to a shebeen (drinking den) these days most of the people there would be carrying a knife. You’ve got to. Whenever there’s a fight there’s always weapons. When I was thirteen we used to fight with our bare hands. But today even the little boys got knives in their pockets. They think they’re such big, big men, they got cuts and slashes all over their arms.
‘For my future, I really can’t see nothing. When I was working I used to feel better. Now I just get up, eat, walk, come back and sleep. My dad’s gone back to Jamaica: he got made redundant two years ago, and he used the money to build a house back home. My mum’s going back in two months. I’d like to go to Jamaica to see what it’s like, but I don’t want to stay. I think of myself as English.’