Fear and murder in the comfort zone

Battersea: a nice postcode, a nasty killing.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Around the corner from where Tim Robinson was brutally stabbed to death by two robbers last week, Battersea Park Road is not terribly different from other London high streets. On a quiet night in Warriner Gardens, where Mr Robinson's life ended after a mere 25 years, you may catch through an open window the barking from the dogs' home. At night, however, all windows are closed: bolted, steel-grilled or curtained with a fear that is palpable even in daytime.

Jane Crafts, the owner of No 84 – 14 doors from the Robinson house – recalls a recent rape nearby. One of her young tenants, Tara Lee, says a man accosted her outside and "threatened to kick my face in unless I gave him a cigarette".

At No 60, only two doors from the murdered man's house, a gardener is busy demolishing a 10ft privet hedge. Tracy, a management consultant who lives there, says: "The police have said high hedges should be removed." Some residents have laid down gravel in their tiny front gardens. "With gravel you can hear anybody approaching the front window," the gardener remarks. Tracy nods in agreement.

All this may strike a visitor as slightly paranoid. But paranoia stalks London as relentlessly as violent crime. "Yardie" drug-war shootings. Violent muggings of the wealthy for their Rolexes. Last week the trial began of four boys accused of murdering 10-year-old Damiola Taylor, and a journalist was unconscious for five hours after two men, apparently East European, beat him for refusing to divulge his PIN number. Television pro- grammes advise citizens not to wear jewellery in public because of the prevalence of gangs modelling themselves on Caribbean "choke-'n'-rob" predators. A judge proposes four-year sentences for mobile-phone thieves. Another judge in recent months was mugged in broad daylight near his local railway station. A third judge lamented the other day that we seem to be returning to the criminality of 18th-century London.

In that century the area known as Battersea Fields was one of the darkest and dreariest spots in what was then a London suburb. It was described as a "no man's land of ruffianism". At long last the police managed to clean the place up. Battersea Park came into being – one of the prettiest of London parks. The park remains grand, overlooked on Prince of Wales Drive by old red-brick apartments with such names as "Overstrand Mansions". Ruffians would stand out here among the smartly coiffed joggers and chaperoned poodles. But Warriner Gardens runs parallel with and between Prince of Wales Drive and Battersea Park Road; it is, in consequence, sandwiched between the district's upper crust and its soggy heel. Embedded in the latter, characterised by high-rise crime hatcheries such as the Doddington estate, are Battersea's poor and often wayward.

They apparently concentrate on causing as much mayhem and pain as seems necessary to them. Evidence of their intention is clear along the parade of shops and small businesses on this stretch of Battersea Park Road. The mini market has endured constant thieving. At Thresher's off-licence, the manager, Denis Anthony, has raised the height of the counter and locks the door electronically after a customer departs. "This shop has been done several times," he says. "I let people in to use their mobile phones because they're scared to use them on the street."

St Saviour's church has its windows boarded up and steel-meshed. The gymnasium's banner, exhorting us to "Look Good, Feel Good", flaps impotently: the gym closed down not long ago because clients had their cars stolen or vandalised. In the funeral parlour, where a small Jesus hangs from a small cross, the manager – a Battersea woman born and bred – speaks of how she will not venture out at night. The middle-aged woman who cleans Paul Chesney's fireplace shop has been mugged five times. On the most recent occasion, she says: "They smashed up my face, but they didn't get my rings."

Until about two years ago, criminal violence and vandalism appear to have affected this main road, while Warriner Gardens and other gentrifying streets had been left largely unscathed. A gas-meter inspector on his way from Warriner Gardens pauses to say approvingly: "Hordes of young people used to gather outside the fried chicken shop on Battersea Park Road, attracting drug dealers and making trouble. But the police finally started moving them on."

Coincidentally, perhaps, trouble then began creeping towards the middle-class terraces in the sandwich. Here people are fairly comfortably off, with a one-bedroom flat costing an average of £200,000 and a whole house £600,000-£700,000.

Jeremy Loudan, a director of a local property management company, says the neighbourhood is now nervous and security-conscious. He walks down the street with me.

"Over there," he points, "there was a mugging last month. You can see many of the houses have security cameras. That happened before Mr Robinson was murdered. But they only focus on someone in the doorway. They didn't save him because he was in his car."

Rolls-Royces, Porsches, Range Rovers and other expensive marques are no strangers to a street of ambitious professionals. Tim Robinson, a junior partner at the estate agent Winkworth's, was attacked after parking his £20,000 Audi A6. The two robbers first went for his girlfriend, Gemma Joyce, but turned on Mr Robinson when he tried to intervene. They stabbed him repeatedly in the face and chest. He died in St Thomas's Hospital.

To talk to neighbours is to encounter a disconcerting blend of nervousness and steadfastness. As a workman measures up her property for a new gate, Jane Crafts fixes her eyes on a young black man in a red woolly hat behaving oddly. "Look!" she says as the youth approaches.

I look. He walks past, with a half-smile, crosses the street abruptly, disappears, reappears, comes sauntering back with another half-smile, and repeats the manoeuvre thrice. Probably it was a harmless performance, but it made more than curtains twitch.

Two burly Scotland Yard detectives pass the half-felled hedge at Tracy's house. One nods a good morning. Tracy, who had been acquainted with the murdered man, is pale and faintly anxious, but she insists: "I've been here only six months. You don't want to give in."

But, as hedges come down, fences will go up. "It's like World War II around here," says Paul Chesney, the fireplace man. Already, small sections of Warriner Gardens – smart, new developments – are gated against intruders. It used to be said that creating a fence was as much a part of man's nature as making a fire. The fence, separating one person's land from another's, came to augur economic conflict as much as a desire for protection. While such boundaries grow and proliferate in London, those auguries seem bound to go on tormenting us.