Peckham needs decent planning, not emotional speeches

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Just as charities cannot survive these days without a celebrity figurehead, so a campaign for justice or social change cannot really get off the ground unless it is symbolised by a victim for whom the general public can feel some sympathy. Thus the higher-status charities bag the higher-status celebs, who drift into the occasional charity dinner in a haze of stardust and cocaine and bless the proceedings with their presence; while the slightly nerdier, overweight celebs find themselves in a church hall in Warrington trying to be cheerful as they are ogled by the WI jumble-sale mob.

Just as charities cannot survive these days without a celebrity figurehead, so a campaign for justice or social change cannot really get off the ground unless it is symbolised by a victim for whom the general public can feel some sympathy. Thus the higher-status charities bag the higher-status celebs, who drift into the occasional charity dinner in a haze of stardust and cocaine and bless the proceedings with their presence; while the slightly nerdier, overweight celebs find themselves in a church hall in Warrington trying to be cheerful as they are ogled by the WI jumble-sale mob.

This is why Craig Phillips of Big Brother fame is a good thing (despite some of his more neanderthal televised chat-up lines), because he has introduced to the forefront of the public consciousness a positive awareness of Down's syndrome, as opposed to the tedious "mong" jokes one gets on the Eleven O'Clock Show which are then parroted by a series of embarrassed comics in search of a decent joke.

A death that is reported nationally will not be viewed as a truly tragic occurrence by the public unless the victim is socially palatable in some way. This means a child, someone very attractive, someone famous or someone rich. Conversely, if someone is a crook, a prostitute, a tramp, an asylum-seeker or, to be brutally honest, an adult from an ethnic minority, there is a feeling among many people that it doesn't matter quite so much. Damilola Taylor was a child of 10. What if he had been 14? What if Leah Betts had been ugly? What if the Russell family had been asylum-seekers?

The tabloidisation of children's deaths doesn't do any favours for the cause the newspapers choose to address. Rather, these crusades encourage a simplistic mentality that can tackle the problem in only the most obvious of ways. The problem with the North Peckham estate and the recent murder of Damilola Taylor is not a problem simply of race, simply of poverty, simply of violence or simply of child anarchy. It is all these things plus another thousand issues, which cannot be sorted by increasing police numbers, building a community centre or arranging a 10-minute visit by Dannii Minogue.

For a start, most people in this country have absolutely no idea of what Peckham is like or what life there is like. They glean their information from their preferred newspaper, so the place ranges in the public imagination from a crime-infested, murderous hell-hole to an economically deprived borough with high unemployment and a high percentage of ethnic minorities.

I don't claim to know it better than anyone else does, but I have lived in the area for more than 20 years, so I have some idea. (Yes, I hear the Daily Mail saying, "But of course she lives in a 12-bedroom mansion in Dulwich village with a gun turret and servants ... how could she possibly know?"). How I could possibly know is that I was a normal person until the age of 30, with a normal, low-paid job in a psychiatric hospital whose catchment area was Peckham. So how was it? Did I spend every day swinging from the light fittings in terror, being threatened with a knife or witnessing indescribable acts of violence? Of course not.

The issues about which people seem horrified in Peckham, such as kids carrying knives, are hardly new. OK, maybe each year sees a drop in the age of kids indulging in this behaviour, but that is reflected throughout society, as young kids try to aspire to mini-adulthood by carrying mobile phones and treating their parents as if they were morons.

Peckham is a mixture of good and bad things. Housing is an issue, for example. Nurses and teachers cannot afford to buy houses in the area as your average terraced house goes for a hundred-and-eighty-five grand, so the options are limited in providing for a balanced society of mixed individuals.

And not all of it is the no-go area people think it is. God forbid we ever become like that most liberal of countries, the USA, and allow miles and miles of black ghettoes to grow up unchecked and unquestioned.

This is still a hugely racist country, though, and until we can discuss even the most simple questions of race, such as black versus white racism, we certainly can't get down to talking about how groups such as Afro-Caribbeans and Somalis or Asians and Georgians feel about one another as we chuck them all into the same depressing boxes and then scratch our chins in amazement when they appear to be unhappy and unfulfilled.

The North Peckham estate, however, has been a no-go area for as long as I can remember, with postmen and milkmen refusing to deliver there, and the recent regenerative work can only be a positive thing. I would imagine, though, that what the inhabitants of the North Peckham estate would like is a feeling that they belong to some sort of society and that there are some people who actually care that they have missed out on the wave of prosperity that is sweeping all of the country except theirs and a few other windswept corners.

I won't romanticise Peckham by saying it's a perfectly happy, thriving community full of smiling, contented people. It's not. Sometimes our local paper reads like an encyclopaedia of psychopathy. On the other hand, it's not lost to the civilised world. It needs some hard thinking and decent planning to sort it out, rather than emotional speeches and empty promises by local dignitaries.

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