I TOOK my youngest child to the local park one morning last week - an outing that I have made thousands of times over the past few years. We went, as usual, to the scruffy playground in the far corner; it was a warm day, and there were a few other mothers with children too small to be at school. But there was also a noisy group of 12 or so teenagers - too big to be in the playground, really - sprawled over the roundabout and monopolising the benches.
I was at first only mildly irritated by their presence. They looked about 14 or 15 years old - and were therefore doubtless truanting - but that was probably none of my business. And then they started hawking and gobbing on the ground, which was more irritating because babies, like mine, were bound to crawl through the little heaps of spit. But I didn't say anything; partly because the teenagers were black, and everyone else in the playground was white, and my politically correct conscience pricked at the other bit of me that was thinking, in a mean-spirited sort of way, "Why are they sitting in this park? Can't they go somewhere else?"
Eventually, after a particularly large gob landed close to my child, I went over to remonstrate. But before I could launch into my small, mealy- mouthed speech ("Excuse me, could you possibly not spit in the playground?"), one of the gang stood up, flicked open a knife, and said, "Yeah, and what are you going to do about it?" In that instant, my life did not flash in front of me, but I did notice that a few of the other boys had knives, too, which glinted in the sun like shiny new toys. It seemed implausibly surreal: this is Crouch End, not the South Bronx; a place where families move to from grittier inner London boroughs, buying modest Edwardian houses at inflated prices in order to be close to good schools, a leafy park, and a high street where you can buy freshly-made ciabatta. It is, in short, a safe, smug, predominantly middle-class ghetto - and all of a sudden, the worrisome world outside was looming in.
For a few seconds, I wanted to remonstrate, to tell them off like the schoolboys they still should have been, to point out that pulling a knife was an absurd over-reaction on that otherwise unremarkable weekday morning. But instead I scooped up my baby and scurried away. Two of the boys left the playground at the same time: following me, I wondered? So then I half ran, angry and also humiliated at being made to do so at the age of 33 by some jumped-up 14-year-olds. After a couple of awkward minutes, they veered off in the opposite direction and I found a park gardener and told him what had happened. I don't quite know what I expected him to do - spear them through the heart with his fork, perhaps? But he shrugged, and said that it was the responsibility of the grandly titled "Park Ranger", who unfortunately did not come on duty until lunchtime. I have seen this Park Ranger on previous occasions, and, to be frank, he does not inspire much confidence - a pale-faced skinny young man who pootles around on a green Haringey Council scooter looking like he wouldn't say boo to a cat, let alone to a gang of armed youths.
So I went home and rang everyone I could think of: the council's park department, the local secondary school, and the police. The council said, "Oh dear, you had better report this to the Client Service Agency." (The Client Service Agency, whoever they might be, were out at lunch.) The school said, "Oh dear, you'd better report this to the police. We have banned our pupils from the park, but a few of them don't always pay attention." And the police said, "Oh dear, not again, we haven't got the manpower to have an officer down there all day every day."
By this stage, I was fuming with impotent rage. If only I had taken an intensive course of karate lessons, and could transform myself into a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Failing that, why didn't I know an incredible hulk who could mash those punks into the ground? Or maybe a black-market machine-gun was the best bet? (Scratch a wimpy liberal pacifist, and a sharp-toothed fascist vigilante is itching to get out.) Luckily, before I did anything really foolish, the local homebeat policeman rang me. He was a kindly man - the type to restore one's faith in what we are so often told is a battered, brutal Metro- politan police force - who turned out to have three young children of his own. They went to the park regularly, he said, and there was no way that it was ever going to become a sinister, no-go area. He'd be at the playground the following morning, he said: why didn't I come along?
Feeling a faint sense of trepidation, I agreed to meet him. Everything was quiet in the playground when I returned: mothers, babies, toddlers, and not a vengeful teenager in sight. The home-beat officer was sitting on a bench, reading the local newspaper (which, as it happened, had the headline: "Schoolboys in stab attacks").
"You've missed all the action" said the policeman, cheerfully. "We had two squad cars in here 20 minutes ago, and a back-up unit outside the park gate."
I thought he was joking, but no, it was true: two of the teenage gang had been arrested for carrying knives, and on suspicion of being involved in other offences. They were safely locked up, he said, and the courts would take their crimes very seriously indeed. The park was safe again, and all good citizens could enjoy its pleasures without fear of harassment. Order had been seen to be restored, and life could go on as usual in our contented London suburb.
Except that I'm not convinced. What happens to 14-year-old delinquents? Surely they'll simply get a warning and a small fine? And even if they do go off to borstal for a short, sharp shock, they are unlikely to be moulded into reformed characters with a keen interest in macrame. What's more, they'll come straight back here again after they get out: angrier, bigger and far, far more scarey. What happens then?
Not that any of this has stopped me going to the park: it's just that, all of a sudden, it doesn't seem like mine any more. !
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