Climbing through the crack

When social worker Barrington Fagan says that drugs make sense to the socially deprived, he talks from bitter experience. He used to be a dealer in Crack City.
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The dealers are more discreet these days. They conduct their business by mobile telephone, out of sight of meddling residents. But they still hawk their lethal wares here, on the Mozart Estate. There are rich pickings on streets stalked by boredom and despair.

Barrington Fagan came of age when the infamous west London estate was beginning to earn its nickname, Crack City. He remembers the kids smoking joints on the concrete walkways, shooting up in the dank corridors and graffiti-laden stairwells. He remembers the dealers congregating on street corners in broad daylight with their macho, arrogant posturing. He was one of them.

Barrington spent 15 years in a spiral of crime, prison and drug addiction. Somehow, against the odds, he came out the other end. Last week, at a debate staged to coincide with European Drugs Prevention Week, he argued that drugs are a logical alternative for the socially excluded.

The debate, where speakers included Mike Trace, deputy to the Government "drug tzar", Keith Hellawell, was held at The Avenues, a youth project on the fringes of the Mozart. For nearly two decades, the project has offered a pinprick of hope in a neighbourhood scarred by poverty and neglect. It is here that the estate's most difficult youngsters end up, expelled from school and kicked out of other youth clubs.

The challenge is to motivate these largely Afro-Caribbean children - to funnel their energies into something positive - and Barrington, now a youth worker himself, knows how formidable a task that is. He knows that they are prey to the same malign influences that also sent him crashing off the rails in the early Eighties.

There had been a time when it seemed that Barrington might rise above his environment. Despite inauspicious family circumstances - an absent father, a mother focused on day-to-day survival - he left school with a few GCEs and found two apprenticeships, firstly as a chef, and then as an electrical repair man.

But the lads he hung around with on the Mozart Estate were not impressed. "They didn't want to know about your work," he said, reviewing his misspent youth on the eve of the drugs debate. "The only thing that they were interested in was cred. We'd spent the whole of our time at school trying to prove ourselves, whether by beating someone up, or nicking their dinner money, or bunking off school to go shoplifting. The riskier it was, the higher your ratings."

So a pattern of petty crime was established early on, Barrington explains, twisting a short dreadlock between finger and thumb. Had there been a father around to take him in hand, he speculates, an older brother even, perhaps events would have followed a different course. Instead, as he cast around for male role models, he alighted on a group of older men who wore sharp suits, drove flash cars and had plenty of money to burn.

They sold drugs, and also did a bit of pimping on the side. Barrington was fascinated by them. "They drank champagne like it was Coca Cola," he says. "I used to sit in gambling dens until 3am, hanging on their every word. One day, they asked me to pick up a parcel and deliver it to an address. They gave me pounds 80 for half an hour's work. It was more than I could make in a week as an apprentice. I thought: this is the life for me."

From then on, the only way was down. He became a dealer himself, earning more than pounds 1,000-a-week and entering a world where disputes were often settled with a 9mm automatic. A friend was gunned down at his side in a nightclub. Within two years, he had attended nine drugs-related funerals.

Crack marked a turning-point, says Barrington, his two gold teeth glinting. He had long snorted cocaine; it went with the lifestyle, and he enjoyed chopping out lines to impress the lads on the estate. Crack, the highly addictive derivative, was a completely different story. "The buzz was so powerful, you didn't want anything else - not food, not sex, not anything. But the buzz never lasted more than a minute." He was hooked.

Selling drugs was now a necessity - a way to finance his habit - and he was obliged to supplement his income through burglaries and armed robberies. There were prison sentences, too, half a dozen of them, and enforced periods of detoxification that finally persuaded him to break the vicious cycle. It was not that he suddenly saw the light. He was just fed up of being caught in the thrall of crack: "pissed off with spending Christmases in prison."

Going straight, though, it transpired, was no simple matter. When Barrington sought help, life turned surreal. "I wanted to stop this shit that was mashing me up," he says. "I told my probation officer that I had to get into rehab. She said I needed a court order from a judge, but the only way to get that was to commit a crime and get caught. So I did, but I ended up being sent back to prison. The judge didn't believe I was really an addict. Everyone was trying that line at the time."

The other route, his probation officer told him subsequently, was to go private. But to pay his way into a rehabilitation clinic would cost more than pounds 1,000. To Barrington, the solution was crystal-clear. "I went out and sold some more drugs to raise the money."

Eight weeks later, he was clean, and looking for a new career. A decade earlier, he had carried out a community service order at The Avenues, and found the work unexpectedly rewarding. He decided that this was the path to pursue. "I visioned myself helping young people to avoid my mistakes, giving them the support that was missing for me at key times of my life."

Strolling around the Mozart as dusk descends on the red-brick blocks of flats, Barrington reflects on the changing face of the estate. Urban planners have prettied it up a bit, planting new gardens and demolishing walkways that once were a haven for muggers. A police crackdown has swept the dealers underground.

For all that, it remains a bleak place to live. Less than one-quarter of residents are in full-time work and the neighbourhood has one of the highest rates of drug abuse in London. Little over a mile away, in Maida Vale, head teacher Philip Lawrence was stabbed to death outside his school, a casualty of the violent rivalries between local teenage gangs.

Barrington, despite being a reformed character, is not exactly a role model. He has, to date, four children by three different women. His Saab and chunky gold jewellery attest to a love of material ostentation. There is a note of pride in his voice when he talks about his tough past.

Yet he probably makes more impact on the youngsters he works with than any number of well-meaning teachers. Barrington understands the nihilism engendered by a slum environment, the temptations facing people on the margins of society. He is an infinitely fallible man who has looked over the edge of the precipice, stepped back and found a meaningful alternative. "I can help. I know this shit first-hand," he says.