Taking the Prime Minister's words to heart, I expected 'frightening' streets and 'aggressive louts'. According to him, I should fear being 'jostled' and 'jeered at' by 'rowdies'.
The fans at Tuesday evening's Barnet vs Rochdale Third Division football match emitted the sound of torture victims being forced to gargle with sand. Equally disturbing was the sight of grown men clapping their hands to kindergarten rhythms. One could hardly ignore the casual use of the word, 'bloody' ('Hand- bloody-ball]' and 'Off-bloody- side]'). Was this what Mr Major meant?
The expletives I heard from this crowd came, almost invariably, from men in their late forties and early fifties. Youths - those in whom 'yob culture' is generally manifested - seemed more correct.
A teenager clambering on top of a barrier was frowned down by his peers. A man in his early twenties shouted at the referee: 'Be consistent with the European directives]'
The Prime Minister warned: 'It is not the big armed robberies that keep older people away from the city centres . . . It is the fear (of) rowdy or offensive behaviour.' So, on Wednesday, I tried the city centres of St Albans and Watford, both in Hertfordshire.
It was market day in St Albans. A stallholder said: 'Yobs? You won't see them out in this rain, mate. They're indoors watching TV game shows.' A tall youth with a pony-tail, a tattoo and a sutured face-wound swaggered by swinging a dead chicken. The stallholder said: 'If you're looking for yobs, try the House of Commons'.
In Watford's vast Charter shopping centre, I asked a boy why he was not at school. He stared at me truculently, until his mother rushed from a shoe shop to hug him protectively. Four burly youths sniggered past, yobs from their skinhead haircuts to their Doc Martens. Menacingly, they paused in the doorway of a cafe, eyes raking the tables of the elderly. 'Oi]' called out the beefiest, irritation darkening a face sculpted from mashed potatoes. A young looked up from a corner table. 'Where'd you piss off to last night then?' the beefy one shouted, not waiting for an answer.
From a discreet distance behind on the gleaming walkways, I witnessed two of the four entering Marks & Spencer where they examined granddad shirts. A third crept up behind a woman with a child in a push- chair and clapped her on the shoulder. Seeing her terror, he apologised, saying he had thought her to be his sister. The fourth ambled into a bookshop.
The Prime Minister's crusade includes 'youngsters' whom we have 'allowed to slip further into bad habits by condoning or repeatedly cautioning their offences, when early action could have set them on a better path'. I followed it up. 'Youngsters' attending schools along the Northern Line piled into Underground seats. A boy flopped down beside me, his schoolbag driving wind from my lungs. Reddening with embarrassment, he said: 'Sorry, sir]' His friends chortled at his discomfiture. Where were the 'dirty boys, shouting boys, whistling boys, fighting boys . . . pushing each other', from the William books of my childhood? Where was William himself, 'the lust of lawlessness growing on him'? He neither boarded nor left the Tube between West Finchley and Kentish Town. The most intimidating dialogue was:
'What scares you most?'
'Dunno - rats, I suppose.'
'My sister woke up one morning and saw this earwig on the wall above her nose.'
City of London wine bars are said to be hotbeds of yob culture. That evening, Coates' Karaoke Bar and Restaurant looked promising. It is on London Wall and is popular with young City gents for unwinding after a day at the bank, the insurance house or the FTSE 100 index. I dropped in before going to Liverpool Street Station, where I expected to see - but did not - yobs sloshing aboard late-night trains for Chelmsford, Clacton, Billericay, Chingford and Southend. Not one of them ignored the station's 'No Smoking' signs.
Coates' bar was packed: in places, a veritable stubble-field of yobbish heads. Young men swigged Canadian and US beer from the bottle. Young women jigged suggestively under the strobe lights. Skirts and decibels rose, perfect conditions in which to take note of unseemly conduct. Many customers turned out to be from a City security firm, having a frisky night out.
Perhaps I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps people behave well when I am around. Once, when doing some crime reporting, I was addressed as 'Sergeant' by a small-time criminal whom I questioned on his doorstep. As I grow older - and more attentive to my barbering - higher ranks are sometimes assumed for me.
A blonde woman in her 20s yelled at me through the karaoke din. I couldn't hear what she said. She put her lips to my ear. 'Am I under surveillance?' she said.
A young man moved in. 'Wot you doin'?' he said.
'Observing,' I said.
He grinned, sizing up my grubby, 'Columbo' raincoat. 'You've certainly done a fantastic job blending in,' he said.
I could have nutted him.
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