When the producers of Top Boy asked for permission to film on an estate down the road from me, Hackney council said no.
The series, it said, would perpetuate "negative stereotypes". It would, said the local mayor, have a "detrimental effect on the area". It wasn't fair, he said, for Hackney residents to have "their neighbourhood stigmatised on national television as riddled with drugs and gangs".
If I were the mayor of Hackney, instead of just someone who seems to pay it an awful lot of council tax, I might be tempted to say the same. I might want people to talk about its cafés, and artists, and not to talk about horrible things like drugs and gangs. I might want, like the Chinese government before the Beijing Olympics, to make sure that some parts of the area I was in charge of were hidden, or knocked down. And if I'd seen the script of Top Boy, I might well want to say that it was very far-fetched, and so different from the kind of thing I'd seen on my doorstep that it made me laugh.
I might want to say all these things, but if I'd actually seen Top Boy, on Channel 4 this week, I think I'd have to admit that nothing about it made me laugh. Seeing young black men kick, and stab, and shoot each other didn't make me laugh, and hearing them talk about their "bitches" didn't make me laugh, and seeing them get children to help them sell drugs didn't make me laugh. And nor did hearing them talk about fathers they never saw.
But it did make me cry. It made me cry because it's very, very sad to see children selling drugs, and being sucked into a cycle of crime and violence by gang leaders who tell them that "we're your family now". It's sad to hear about children who are scared to step into a different postcode, because they think they might be wounded, or killed. And it's very, very, very sad to hear a child tell an adult that they don't even know "where the fuck" their father is.
Top Boy, written by the Irish writer Ronan Bennett, who has lived in Hackney for 25 years, made me cry not just because it's a brilliant piece of drama, which it is, and not just because it's beautifully acted by people who mostly hadn't acted before, which it is, but because it's true. Anyone who knows people who have grown up on some of the estates in Hackney, and the ones in Brixton and at the Elephant, where some of it was filmed, and where I used to live, knows it's true. Even the actors know it's true. Ashley Walters, whose time with So Solid Crew was interrupted by a spell in jail for carrying a gun, said that "researching" his character wasn't "really necessary". It was, he said, "not far from" the life he "used to lead".
There are children on these estates who live with two parents, who both have jobs, and who check that they do their homework, and that they go to bed when they're told to, and that they don't hang around on street corners, and who make sure that they listen to their parents and teachers rather than a bunch of teenagers in baggy jeans who speak a pseudo-Jamaican gangsta patois they seem to have copied from rap albums, but there are an awful lot who don't. And these children are far too likely to end up in jail, or dead.
They aren't all black, or mixed race, but more are than aren't. Of the nine teenagers shot or stabbed in London this year, one was white. Fifty-five per cent of the convicted rioters were black or mixed race. In a country where less than 4 per cent of the population is black or mixed race, this is an awful lot.
People who grow up in areas where there are a lot of poor people are always more likely to commit crime, and get involved in violence, than people who don't. We don't need Romeo and Juliet to remind us that gangs aren't new, but the gang culture in London – there are about 170 – does seem to be turning into an epidemic. It's a culture where girls are often treated like a piece of meat to be passed around, and where "respect" is something you get with a knife. It's a culture which seems to have got its idea of what it is to be a man from a comic, or cartoon.
Labour's billions didn't help. Labour's billions may even have made things worse. If you tell people it doesn't matter what shape their family takes, and that the state will pick up the bill, and will pay more to parents who don't stay together than to those who do, and more the more children you have, and don't ask for anything in return, you're unlikely to create the kind of stable family environment that helps children do well.
This government is trying. It's trying, with help from health visitors, and therapists, and teachers, and police, and by studying models that have worked, to stop children being sucked into gang culture. There isn't nearly enough money available, and professionals can only do so much. But it also has the balls to say where the main responsibility lies: with parents. And to say what all the studies show: that two parents are better than one.
"Our children," said Barack Obama, when talking about absent black fathers in America, "don't need us to be superheroes. They need us to show up, and give it our best shot." Which is another way of saying: brothers, man up.
Just thinking about it makes me stressed
When Lloyds Banking Group said its chief executive was taking a "leave of absence" for an illness thought to be stress, it may not have realised that it was making the announcement on National Stress Awareness Day. It may not have known that there was a special day for stress, or that anyone actually needed to remind you of it. But those of us who fear that if cut, we'd bleed cortisol, can only wonder that so many people in terrifying jobs seem so calm. Centre-court final at Wimbledon? Open-heart surgery? World Cup? Can you imagine? And then, of course, there's that little job known as running a country. David Cameron, our affable PR-man PM, named this week by Forbes as the 10th most powerful man in the world, still looks, in the middle of a global crisis, like a giant toddler who's just won pass-the-parcel. Angela Merkel, to her credit, doesn't.
Tittering and teetering on the brink of cliché
There are certain words which, when you hear them a lot, begin to sound a bit strange. The word "topple", for example, which only ever seems to be used of dictators losing power, and which this year has been used every time an ancient despot with dyed black hair has been dragged away from his (kitsch) armchair, or throne. And the word "teeter", which, after Papandreou's sudden desire for democracy, was used in almost every news bulletin to describe the state the world was now in. We are, apparently, "teetering on the brink" of economic disaster. And we are, but "teetering", like "toppling", makes you think of Charlie Chaplin tiptoeing on a tightrope. It sounds something it isn't, which is funny. Better, perhaps, to keep it simple: we may be screwed, but fingers crossed.
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