Don't let an irrational fear of crime change your life

'The jostling together of rich and poor, white and black, hasn't seemed to produce much hostility'
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The Independent Online

This one felt very close. Tim Robinson, a 25-year-old estate agent, was parking his car outside his London house at 10 o'clock on a Sunday night when his girlfriend, standing on the pavement, was approached by two men. Robinson got out of the car, and some kind of argument followed. The argument escalated, and Robinson was stabbed. He died three days later in hospital.

A horrible, almost incredible story, and it feels so close partly because the victim was evidently "one of us": professional, amicable, loved by his friends and family, fondly remembered by childhood neighbours. It seems unlikely that someone leading that sort of life would ever before have found himself meeting a murderer. If you are reading this newspaper, you are probably going to meet 100 young men very similar to Tim Robinson over the dinner table, and it is not denigrating him to suspect that the most remarkable thing about his life was probably the way it ended.

But in a more literal sense, this feels extremely close. Warriner Gardens, the street where he lived and where he was killed is 10 minutes' walk from where I live, and not observably different in character from my street. I probably walk my dog down Warriner Gardens twice a week, night and day, and never thought anything of it, and certainly never suspected that there might be anything inadvisable in taking that particular route.

Battersea is not an exceptional neighbourhood; it is probably one of a dozen inner-London districts in its mix of rich professionals and the urban poor, diligently clinging on. I've lived here for 10 years, and it has become distinctly more affluent in that time; Queenstown Road, which used to be a strip of kebab shops and perching drunks, is now stuffed to the gills with French antique shops, wedding-dress emporiums and restaurants serving seared tuna with a coulis of loganberries. The school at the corner of my road is being converted into "lofts", for anything up to £1.4m, but many of my immediate neighbours are elderly south London working class, living in rent-controlled accommodation.

Nothing remarkable about any of that; much of central London is exactly the same now. The jostling together of rich and poor, white and black, hasn't seemed to produce much hostility, or much danger; neighbours seem to greet each other politely, and the local amusements are, to a degree, shared by everyone. Most people use the same newsagent, the same little supermarket, and most people enjoy Battersea Park.

There has never been much hostility evident. I suppose I have what the French refer to as les signes extérieures de la richesse; it's not exactly bling-bling, but I wear an old Rolex, and in winter my overcoat has a mink collar. Despite that, I've always walked everywhere in Battersea, at all hours, and it has never occurred to me that one ought to be cautious.

Tim Robinson's murder makes you think a little. It's fair to assume that his murderers were not rich, and that they would have been hostile to a white, middle-class man in that situation. That could have been any white, middle-class man. And because it is close, the event seems to loom large, like an object in the foreground of a painting, and even to be significant. Certainly, no one had any difficulty in finding middle-class Battersea mothers prepared to say that they were terrified for their family's safety and that they would think twice about going out at night and were reviewing the security of their houses and cars.

That process has already started; there are gated and secure blocks of flats near here, and developments with security guards where the rich can feel safe from urban dangers. But how real are those dangers? A recurrent refrain from those interviewed on the street was that "they would feel safer in Manhattan". But that is absolute nonsense, and dangerous nonsense. The number of violent incidents and murders in London is a fraction of that in Manhattan, and negligible compared to a really violent city such as Rio, or even Naples. Moreover, very few murders in London occur between strangers; the middle classes are the victims of even fewer. If you are young, and black and dabbling in a bit of petty crime, then you are in some danger. If you are white, respectable, with a car and your own front door, then you can sleep peacefully at nights.

And certainly that perceived risk doesn't justify something that would irreparably damage the fabric of London and that in the end really would make it a dangerous place to live: living behind locked gates, having no contact with people less fortunate than yourself, not daring to walk the kids home from school. London has always been a democratic city, and it is safe because it is so democratic. That is a big benefit to sacrifice to a risk so tiny it is virtually imaginary. Tim Robinson was just extremely unlucky. From his horrible death, we should hesitate to draw large conclusions about the way we live, or ought to live, now.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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