Most friendships have their surprises. For all those gasps of delighted recognition, there are moments when you can only gaze in shock and admit that no, this time, you don't know exactly how they feel. For me, one of those moments came a few months ago. Wasn't it lucky, I said over lamb chops to my friend Rob, that when he was growing up, on an estate in south London not far from the one where Damilola Taylor bled to death, that the gun culture thing hadn't really kicked in. I had just seen Saul Dibb's sobering portrayal of urban gun crime, Bullet Boy, and had been reading a novel on the same theme. There was a long pause. "Oh, I had a gun," said Rob casually. "I still had it when I first knew you."
We met eight years ago at a fast-food stall in Elephant and Castle. In those early days of a romance that later blossomed into a close friendship we swapped anecdotes about our adolescence: mine sighing over Keats in suburbia and his fighting, and occasionally stealing cars. His initiation into violence was, he told me, entirely involuntary. At 11, he beat up the school bully and suddenly everyone wanted to fight the big black kid with the sharp right hook. At 13, he started getting in trouble with the police. At 17, after accepting a policeman's kind invitation to "give it to me, you black cunt", he ended up in a young offender institution in Ipswich, where he bumped into half of his classmates.
I knew about the occasion when Rob and his mates went to see Grease at the Elephant ABC, on the same evening as the boys from Lambeth Walk, and chaos ensued. His friend Gary got stabbed - but then he got stabbed so often they called him "the sieve". I knew about the time when three men drew knives on him in the Walworth Road, but were scuppered by Satan and Lucifer, his fiercely vigilant dogs. I knew about the time when a line of cars drew up outside a pub, the doors burst open and Rob's neighbour was beaten to death in front of him. I knew that he had buried at least half a dozen friends. But I didn't know about the guns.
It was when his old friend Shaun was blown to pieces in the passenger seat next to him that Rob went out to get a gun. His friends did, too. They set off, in a ring around London and Essex, to find the killers. Luckily - oh so luckily - the police got them first. Rob never used the gun, but he kept it for the next decade. On the prompting of a girlfriend - who actually used the line "either the gun goes or I go" - he dismantled it and threw it in the sea. Rob is now a homeowner with a thriving business. He feeds his children organic carrots. "What I'm like now is what I was like then," he told me recently, "but I had no choice. I had no choice but to grow up hard."
Rob's childhood was not one of major urban deprivation. He had two parents who worked, a Jamaican matriarch of a mother who could put the fear of God into any gang member, and grew up around the Elephant when the Heygate and Aylesbury estates, now bywords for urban decay, were shiny and new. So heaven help the people there, and in nearby Peckham, now. People like the Preddie brothers, who this week were finally convicted of the manslaughter of Damilola Taylor. Or the children described in Bernard Hare's book, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, children abandoned by their parents and social services, who spend their time in a subhuman haze of sex, crack and violence. Or in Camila Batmanghelidjh's recent book, Shattered Lives, about the children on those estates around the Elephant and Peckham who are exposed to violence, drugs and abuse.
Batmanghelidjh is the director of Kids Company, a charity which uses psychotherapeutic principles to provide a safe environment for children who barely know the meaning of the word. It does wonderful work. So wonderful that hug-a-hoodie Dave has been snuffling around, wanting a slice of the action and the credit. There are many charities doing excellent work in this area, but charity is not enough. Since the tragic death of that smiling boy on a staircase six years ago, the Government has been pouring money into Peckham. Some of it is beginning to bear fruit, but there's a long, long way to go. This is a project that will take massive investment, and near-superhuman energy, for many, many years. We have to do it. The Tories won't, of course.
It's a wild, wired world out there
It's not often you get to feel sorry for Damien Hirst. The man whose spray-on dots make more per canvas than the average worker earns in a lifetime has never moved me to anything other than intense irritation and occasional, grudging admiration. But the news that the website www.damien-hirst.co.uk had been acquired by an "internet artist", apparently as an act of artistic sabotage, triggered a flicker of sympathy - or at least recognition.
In my last job, running a small arts organisation, we all logged on one day to find that our website had disappeared. In place of the hundreds of pages of poetry-related paraphernalia, amassed over years, was a website offering Viagra and online casinos. At first we thought it was a joke. Then we realised that we had been the victims of "napping", a (largely legal) practice in which companies hover like hawks over domain names and gobble them up the minute they expire. We were lucky. With the aid of a clever, flirtatious lawyer, we got our website back. Many other charities don't.
The internet has, of course, revolutionised our lives. It's hard to police and - China apart - hard to censor. This great Wild West of a wired world that seeps into every corner of the planet is a metaphor for our times. Here is the good, the bad and the ugly. Here is the instant gratification and here are the dreams. And here are the paedophiles, the pimps and the pirates. Welcome to our world.
Don't be too quick to ditch the hierarchy
Happiness is in fashion, but not, apparently, in Japan. While each week here seems to offer a new publication promising lessons in what Lord Layard has called "the new science" of happiness, Japan is suffering a surge in mental illness and a spate of suicides. The cause, according to a new report, is the trend towards Western business practices such as individual performance and merit-based pay.
It's hard for most westeners to imagine a more stressful working model than that in the average Japanese company. In her hilarious novel Fear and Trembling, the Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb, pictured, recounts her own experiences at a large Japanese corporation in Tokyo. "Mr Haneda was senior to Mr Omochi, who was senior to Mr Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me," it begins. It continues by describing a year-long process of daily humiliation, which starts with days by the photocopier and ends with months in the toilets.
So is a traditional system, based on seniority, really better for your mental health? If so, shouldn't we revert to the delightful certainties of serfs and masters? Or is it change itself that's stressful? When open-plan offices were first introduced, most people were horrified by the prospect of sharing their colleagues' phone calls, space and smelly lunches. They would have been horrified, too, to hear that many of the pleasant distractions of office life would give way to a world of motionless, semi-silent communion with the screen. We got used to it, as we always do - and so will the Japanese.
Deborah Orr returns next weekReuse content