All right, I probably shouldn't have been strolling alone down Dalston Lane at 10pm, my Organizer bag dangling enticingly. But I've walked down dark streets all my life, and last September was the first time a hand came out of the dark and gripped me with an anonymous hostile strength. Well, I thought, here it is. The primal inner-city scene.
He didn't mean to hurt me. He thought he'd grab my bag by its shoulder strap and run. But he yanked too hard and caught me off balance so I fell on to the street, trapping the strap between arm and body. A quick getaway out of the question, he tugged silently at the strap, dragging me several feet along the pavement. He was scared, I knew, the desperate protagonist in a drama enacted opposite a bus queue of 20 people.
Shocked, winded and speechless, I could feel his adrenalin racing through the purse strap, an electric current of craziness that linked us. Finally, the strap broke and he vaulted over a metal gate and disappeared into a housing estate, along with my make-up, the minutes of a meeting I had attended and the pounds 7 that were the spoils of his sad adventure.
Still sobbing on the concrete, I made despairing gestures towards the queue, but no response. I struggled to my feet thinking I must get home. But a sharp pain in my leg told me I would not make it to the corner, let alone De Beauvoir. I gave a last wave to the queue just as a 38 arrived and everyone scrambled aboard. Then I thought something I rarely think. Police. (In New York I'd been taught to fear and loathe the well-armed Boys in Blue.) I staggered into the nearest kebab house and asked to use the telephone.
The place was a set for a Fassbinder film. By the door a group of black girls, sensationally dressed, eyed me with disdain. Some Turks and a couple of Englishmen wandered in and out of a back room. There were no customers, no food and no one was talking. They were waiting for something, and they were not pleased to see me. When I announced to the young Asian man behind the counter that I wished to phone the police, the silence deepened.
The police said they'd come in 20 minutes. 'Look,' I showed the boy my elbow, 'I'm bleeding all over your table. Could I have a napkin?' He walked away. Minutes later he returned. 'What's wrong with you?' I repeated that I'd been mugged. He handed me a single napkin. A similar routine ensued when I asked for a glass of water. Then the police arrived and bad vibes flew like jet-propelled needles. There seemed to be nothing in the rear of their van but a puddle and the strong smell of urine. Then I saw what appeared to be a naked baby. Its legs had been torn off and its face and torso crudely painted black. I screamed. 'What is it?' 'Oh,' said the policewoman airily, 'don't pay any attention to that.' The baby was a rubber doll.
The pulled thigh muscle meant that for two months I could walk only with difficulty. Friends asked, aren't you furious, resentful, bitter? When I said I was none of the above they refused to believe me. One even suggested therapy, though all I wanted was my victim's compensation (which I never got). I was told it was crucial for my psychic health to vent hatred on my attacker. Why couldn't I feel this obligatory rage?
I had returned to a kind neighbour with spare keys, a lover who sped round to comfort me. What had my mugger found at home, if he had one? Or did I believe privilege invites, even deserves assault? After a year of reflection I suppose that what I've felt all along is relief. I grew up in a country with the most lunatic gun laws in the Western world, promoted by a lobby of rich, brain-dead hawks who have made the right to self-defence indefensible. If London were New York I might not have survived. England has, among the industrialised countries, a worse than average record for minor crimes (though the number of muggings is minuscule compared with America). If all these 'minor' incidents involved guns, Dalston would hardly differ from the South Bronx. A 10-year-old could acquire an Uzi, and drive-by shootings would be a recreational norm.
The difference in attitude over firearms may stem from social archetypes. The cowboy and gangster are not revered native icons, though Thatcher did introduce commercial equivalents. Here, the criminal philosophy of policing stresses consent rather than enforcement. And most policemen do not want to be armed since even they know guns always beget guns.
I may resent my new-found street caution, but whatever doubts I entertained about leaving New York 20 years ago are dispelled. If you think I've gone soft or you're swayed by the moral panic generated by this Government to camouflage its own crimes, think again. Think of New York, San Francisco, Detroit. And be happy you live in this particular urban hell.
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