London’s gang wars make me feel like I’m in 1990s New York

A record 24,546 knife possession offences were recorded in England and Wales up to March this year – around a quarter of them in London. I found a knife lying under a bush and took it to the local police station. “Oh yes, they leave them hidden all over the place,” said the officer, bagging it up. “So they can always find one if they need it.”

Who is this “they”? Is it the kids I see moving in murmurations around my neighbourhood, cocky on their bikes, in their uniform of black hoodies and balaclavas? They try hard to look intimidating and they succeed. But are they really frightened or vicious enough to be capable of cutting through another person’s flesh? Such intimate violence, more frightening in its way than the efficiency of a gun.

Last year there were more teenage homicides in London than at any point since the Second World War. I am much more afraid for my children than for myself. Yet even that primal fear, it turns out, is something one can learn to live with. Not comfortably: I track each child anxiously on my phone as they make their way home from school and whenever the app glitches and shows them frozen in one spot, I imagine them surrounded, scared, handing over their phone meekly as instructed, please God. So I call and they say “Stop fussing Mum, I was just going through a tunnel” and normal service resumes. But is it normal to live like this?

At least New York in the 1990s was cool. The fear was balanced out by the thrill of it. Everything about New York – the music, nightclubs, films, books, even the crime, even the Yuppies – was so famous that it felt surreal to be able to walk around it. Like visiting the biggest, dirtiest film set on earth.

Is London sufficiently fun to compensate for its dangers? I doubt it – but I am too old to know. I don’t go to parties or nightclubs or gigs. I’m only here because I can’t help loving the place of my birth.

On a good day, when I turn a corner and find a view I haven’t seen before – a handsome Regency row, echoing with imagined hooves, or a blackened, cobbled courtyard under the shadow of a glass tower – I can’t believe how lucky I am to live in a city so thickly layered with history, beauty and incident.

But it’s a delicate pact. I keep my fingers crossed as I raise my children in the city and pray that the gamble is worth it.

Back to top button