Janet Street-Porter: We abandon these kids at their peril

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The Independent Online

Another day, another report of a teenager killed in a senseless flurry of violence between two gangs. Twelve young men and women have died like this since the beginning of the year, three since last weekend. All the attacks follow the same pattern, and the events in Holloway in north London on Tuesday evening were no different.

After an altercation between two groups of young men in Beckenham, Kent, a teenager lay dying on the pavement. At the weekend Ben Hitchcock was murdered when he and six others were refused entry to a party. He was a member of something called Penge Block, and no doubt the two posses battling it out in Holloway had postcode identities too - that's what it's all about.

All these deaths will be marked in the usual way: inarticulate, crying kids will tell reporters that the dead young men and women were "fun-loving and normal", "happy-go-lucky" and popular. Dozens of bunches of flowers will be placed at the spot where the victim died, and, most ominous of all, the dead person will be referred to as "a fallen soldier".

Now we don't expect urban teenagers to use the language of the classroom or even popular television, but what is shocking is that street-speak now demands that anyone crazy enough to hang out in a gang which carries knives is seen as some kind of foot soldier in a war for control of the streets and someone worthy of that most ridiculous concept of all, "respect". How I loathe the bloody word "respect". It started out as a black way of greeting each other at the time when rap was really popular in the 1980s, and then morphed into something far more ominous. The rampant growth of bullying is just a way of one group of young men or women forcing another to "respect" them.

The fact that the government appointed a Respect tsar means they have little or no concept of the thoroughly evil true meaning of the word to anyone under 21. Respect is like a social tithe; deny it to someone who considers themselves worthy of it, and you will pay dearly - more often than not with your life. These kids have grown up post the initial explosion of rap music into mainstream and have spent their childhoods immersed in a culture of violence in pop music, computer games on the internet and on television. Their language has shrunk dramatically over the last 10 years by thousands of words. They communicate in text speak and slang, designed to reinforce their separateness. It's all they've got, living in second-rate housing and attending third-rate schools. Their parent (generally there is only one around) can wear their clothes, listen to their music, watch the same stuff on the telly, making it hard to feel different.

These kids are regularly regarded as an inconvenience at home, best left to their own devices. Small wonder that they hang out at night and form gangs based around "defending" their territory, which is based on something as rudimentary as a postcode. Now the internet fuels their morbid glorification of death by providing networking sites like Gone Too Soon, Tribute Times and Remembered for Ever.

There is no point imposing a curfew on teenagers - it will simply glorify gang members just as Asbos have done. I hate to say it, but the only way to deal with this spiral of knife and gun violence is to sit down and spend a lot of time talking to the teenagers involved. It's something that their parents have opted out of, but this is a generation in desperate need of attention.

Enough to make your flesh creep

One of the most thought-provoking exhibitions I've been to in years is at the newly refurbished Wellcome collection in London. You can explore weird and wonderful artefacts to do with the human body - from condoms and a guillotine blade from the French Revolution to a terrifying Chinese torture chair. Another gallery houses recent acquisitions by contemporary artists, and there's an interactive installation so that you can log in your own biometric data. A large purple jelly baby by Mauro Perucchetti makes a witty statement about cloning. The gallery plans to display the bisected body of a woman, created by Professor Gunther von Hagens of Body Works fame. Probably not a good idea to visit after a big lunch.

* I spent Monday in Yorkshire, waking at 6am to the sound of torrential rain and gales, which continued for about 24 hours. I watched the river near my house rise by five feet. The BBC TV Look North report of flooding in Sheffield on the 10pm news that night was pitifully inadequate and ham-fisted. A pair of reporters sat on a sofa and signally failed to deliver anything of any merit; an outside broadcast link was cut off before it got going. Information was patchy to say the least, even though the police were in the middle of a huge rescue operation in the city. The scale of the unfolding tragedy merited the entire schedule being dumped in favour of letting viewers know what was going on. And I would have thought that a visit to the area by a cabinet minister was in order, rather than sticking to the carefully choreographed exit of Tony Blair. To voters in Yorkshire and the Midlands, spending nights camping out in schools and sports halls, the idea of a visit from Arnold Schwarzenegger to discuss the environment just beggared belief.

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