Knifed on my street: The ugly divide that ravages our capital city

We lived side by side, but in parallel universes

Deborah Orr
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:46

The living room was flooded with the white blaze of arc lights, illuminating men in silver suits as they dusted down the car of the shadow minister for Justice. They were looking for forensic evidence. So it was very difficult to believe the good news on crime figures emanating at that very moment from the television. The bit about the irrational rise in fear of crime, against the British Crime Survey's backdrop of civil calm, sat particularly badly. Just a few hours earlier, 18-year-old Frederick Moody had been stabbed to death outside his home down the road, by one of a group of children who had, witnesses say, been gathered in the area for some while. The bereaved family of the dead young man have, it transpires, lived on my street for some years. Until Thursday night, though, I didn't know that any of them existed. I doubt if Edward Garnier, the Conservative MP, whose Peugeot across the street now glimmers with iridescent fingerprint dust, knew them either.

You'd imagine, I think it is safe to assume, that living so close to such a dreadful crime, would make you feel that you were not safe and that you and your loved ones could quite easily become victims too. The weird thing is that the event has brought home the opposite message. I live among this mayhem, it happens around me, I write about it for the papers – and have done for many years now – yet I still feel this is a horror that affects other, less lucky people. In many parts of London – including this street – the wealthy and the struggling live side by side7, but in parallel universes.

When I heard the news of Frederick Moody's death I was at – of all places – the O2 Arena, watching a Leonard Cohen concert. Told on the phone that there had been a killing outside my house, I began to shake. My children, six and 10, were with a babysitter, while this horror erupted around them – and I had to get back home.

Naively, I was simply amazed to reach the end of my street to be told that I could not go any further. "But I have tiny children. I have to be with them," I told the officer, who would not give his name, and invited me instead to take down his number from his epaulette. "We've got an old disabled man out here," he replied, with what seemed almost like pride, "and we're not letting him home either".

My next-door neighbours were outside the cordon too. Their 13-year-old was alone in their house, and they were equally distressed about their inability to reach him. The children were not allowed to come out to us either. Everyone had been told to stay inside and the directive was being followed to the letter, by what seemed like hundreds of officers. A nursing mother, even, was not allowed back home to feed her baby.

The police would not tell us anything. When I asked after the victim, they even replied that they had not said that there was one. It was not until much later, thinking back, that I realised it had not occurred to me that the victim could possibly be anyone I know, even though I'm acquainted with perhaps a dozen teen-agers who live on this street.

Almost all my friends, in this multi-ethnic, area, are white. My assumption – which was correct – was that the victim was very likely to be a black boy. London is often described as a multi-cultural city, and most Londoners relish the mix. But what a crime like this brings home is that house by house, flat by flat, it is ghettoised.

My one black-British friend on this street is church-going single mother whose 13-year-old is a dream of a lovely boy. But he lives on the other side of the assumptions that I make so blithely and so casually. The consequences, in his own life, are sometimes not happy. Only the other day, he was waiting in the car while his mum popped into a shop. She returned to find the car surrounded by six armed officers. She and her son were separately questioned for 45 minutes. Top exchange was: "What do you do for a living, son?" "Nothing. I'm 13." This is stop and search in action. It is not the sensible policing it is made out to be. It is highly divisive, in a community that is remarkably divided already.

My friend and her son live in the same street as I do, but in a different world, a world that is far less benign than mine and that, therefore, follows some counter-intuitive logic. While I opted to send my sons to local schools, my friend has gone to great lengths to secure far-off schools for her boy, where he is less likely to get sucked into the street life of south London. I let my 10-year-old travel alone on buses. When her son was 10, and even older, that was simply not allowed. My friend is alive to threats all around her, and is fiercely protective of her son. I can afford to be much more relaxed. Crucially, and heartbreakingly, my friend's son is statistically far more likely to become a victim of crime, yet also far more likely to be suspected as its potential perpetrator. His experience does not encourage him to view the police as people who can protect him.

If our society is broken, that is one of the important fissures. Poor Frederick Moody lived on the other side of our street and, despite all the love and protection of his family, on the other side of that ugly divide.