Twoccers just wanna keep up with the boys

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The Independent Online
TWO BOYS are dead and two more are lying near death in Lyons. They are martyrs to the motor car. Last week they crashed through a police road block, and when their stolen BMW kept going, the police opened fire. Gangs of boys have taken to the streets to avenge them.

The Lyons tragedy calls to mind recent combustions in British communities, and the fate of the career car criminals, Colin and Dale, whose incinerated bodies ignited the Meadowell riot in 1991.

Colin Atkins and Dale Robson are still remembered across Tyneside. When one of their relatives scandalised respectable law enforcers by trying poignantly to explain that his son was not a joyrider but a professional car thief, he was telling us something important about the invisible economy of fin de siecle Europe. He was giving the lad his humanity by giving him a career, a skill and a social purpose. In the absence of a clean, legal and decent living, these lads were virtuoso drivers servicing Britain's fourth biggest industry - crime.

Contrary to what is often said about them, the 'surplus' rogues of Europe are not merely a class without culture or conscience; they share the passions and fetishes of mainstream masculinity.

Young men in a stolen BMW have something in common with the legitimate master of a Cosworth, a car with an excessively huge engine that can move from 0-60mph in 5.9 seconds, or the Sierra company car man speeding down the M1, crying over his rivals' fuel injection. The Cosworth, an emblem of conspicuous consumption, has become almost uninsurable, and that explains why the few people who drive them are probably members of the police force.

The car is a unique commodity, a fetish of modernity, freedom and flight across landscapes loved and left - a bearer of fantasies that may be universal but in this case are celebrated in a uniquely gendered car cult.

Dale and Colin's people were trying to connect them to the world they lived in, to redeem them by saying that their suicidal virtuosity had a purpose beyond pleasure.

Their epitaph was inadvertently posted all over Britain a year later in the pounds 5m Home Office advertising campaign launched by the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker. He introduced the 'new face of car crime' - the hyena. Boys were barbarised as scowling scavengers, as beasts. The campaign - which was concerned with theft from as well as of cars - did not address driving as desire. Nor did it do the direct and dangerous thing: locate joyriders in the mainstream of masculinity and, indeed, mass pleasure.

The campaign effaced any empathy between joyriders, Cosworth cops and corporate man. And, unlike the Don't Drink and Drive or the Zero Tolerance campaign against male violence, the dominant image led us to identify not with the victim but with the car. Was that because the Home Office was targeting men, and men cannot be represented as victims? Was it because the car cult and car crime are connected with masculinity, and that is the problem that must have no name?

In the film that launched Mr Baker's campaign, the car was a glistening virgin, and the hyena slithered across her as she sat solitary and statuesque in the shadows. We identified with the car - and so the campaign repeated rather than challenged the fetishism that saturates car marketing and car crime.

It also erased the peculiar character of car crime. 'Twoccing' - taking without the owner's consent - is the offence invented in the 1930 Road Traffic Act to cope with a form of car theft that is really a kind of borrowing. It is committed by poor young men not only escaping from their enclosure but also avoiding ownership.

By identifying with the car rather than its owner, the campaign disregarded the vexing effects of car theft, which for most owners are less to do with the loss of an object of desire than the loss of its functions.

Similarly, it is not the having but the travelling that is important to lads living on the edge of everywhere, who just want to move around. Like a bus, a stolen car is only a mode of transport. It is not the having but the driving that is important to lads who eschew the burden of ownership for the brief delight of a display and a dangerous liaison with young police officers in Cosworths built for a chase.

Apparently, the hyena has reached saturation familiarity. A success? How then do we explain why, according to Home Office figures released yesterday, the theft of cars has risen while overall reported crime in England and Wales has fallen?

(Photograph omitted)