The City as a Warzone
By Penny Woolcock and Stephen Griffith
Penny Woolcock is a film and writer and director living in the Barnsbury area of Islington, half a mile away from the Copenhagen Youth Project (CYP) where Stephen Griffith is the senior youth worker and Project Director.
I live in the top half of a shabby Georgian house in Barnsbury, an affluent area of Islington in North London. Opposite there’s a pretty little park with massive horse chestnut trees and fifty yards on the left a beautiful larger park. We have three gastro pubs nearby, it’s a five minute walk to the Almeida Theatre and just up the road from the Screen on the Green where we can sink into a sofa and sip a cocktail while watching the latest cinema release. Pet dogs trot around amiably day and night but our pavements are spotless because well-behaved owners always scoop up the poop. It’s an oasis of calm, occasionally disturbed by a motorist and a cyclist yelling at each other at the narrow chicane on the corner of Thornhill Road. This is The Angel, Islington and it’s no longer one of the most undesirable properties on the Monopoly board.
I’m half way between Upper Street with its snooty estate agents, boutique shops and dozens of expensive bars and restaurants and the Caledonian Road - the Cally - still shabby but sprinkled with the tell tale signs of gentrification. Apart from remnants of the white working class and Asian market traders on Chapel Market, it’s uniformly posh and very safe.
Or is it?
Look carefully and you might notice a uniformed security guard outside the Macdonald’s on Chapel Market, a sign that there is a parallel world right here. There are young teenagers for whom this tranquil area is a deadly battlefield, laced with landmines and traps and this particular Macdonald’s is one of its most hotly contested territories. These same streets have doppelgangers, not elsewhere in the universe but under our noses. In his novel The City and the City China Miéville describes two tightly crosshatched cities, occupying the same geographical space whose inhabitants are forbidden to acknowledge each other’s existence and have to unsee each other instantly. In London we literally don’t see the young people dying right under our noses, their bloodstains just seem to evaporate. My eyes were opened after making two films about gang life in inner city Birmingham, leaving me no longer able to conveniently unsee this parallel world.
Two summers ago at the Copenhagen Youth Project, Steve and I were talking to a group of teenagers about the recent murder of a young rapper they knew in South London. Nobody seemed shocked or upset and Armani, one of the boys, showed me a stream of ugly comments on Instagram that started like this.
Mdot was one ugly shit he dead now (9 laughing emojis)
(a row of laughing emojis)
his mum rape him in morg
yh tryna get him hard one last time
no more shit come out of his mouth
and so on and on…
Myron Yarde’s mum had recently died of cancer.
This callousness towards murdered peers is normal, we could reproduce pages of this stuff. But before you snap into labeling them as the Other, a different species of heartless young people, think about the degree of toxic self-hatred expressed in this attitude and turn the judgment on yourself. On Us.
We had a discussion about what goes through a young man’s mind when he leaves his house armed, on a mission to harm one of his rivals. So many teenagers on the streets wear grey North Face or hooded tracksuits that one realistic hazard is stabbing the wrong person. But the boys were more concerned about the danger of leaving their immediate area at all.
OJ said, “Say I need to go Angel now, it’s only a short walk. Maybe I catch the 274 and maybe that’s safe. But it’s a warm evening so say I decide to walk, well I could be caught slipping and something happens.” Sadly a year later OJ was in intensive care after a stabbing. It seemed he had been caught slipping. OJ was one of the lucky one thousand London stab victims every month who survive. Over a single fortnight this May eleven young people were stabbed to death. This is not Chicago but we’re on our way.
Half an hour later I walk home to Angel not thinking about losing my life.
As I cross the Cally Road I think about turning left to buy a pack of deliciously salty olives at the little Turkish shop next to the Coop and I walk as far as The Tarmon on the corner of Richmond Avenue. This pub’s a remnant of the old Cally; a woman with carved wrinkles, dyed black hair and a voice she’s smoked hard for marches in past two tattooed men staring morosely into their pints. I see the polished black sphinxes and obelisks outside the houses on Richmond Avenue up the road and I remember my friend James telling me they commemorate the Battle of the Nile in 1799 when Nelson destroyed Napoleon’s navy. Apparently members of the famous criminal Adams family live in one of them. I decide I can’t be bothered to buy the olives and turn back to stroll up Copenhagen, go left at Matilda and turn up Everilda Street with the dog park on one side and a row of tiny houses on the other. I watch a Dalmatian lolloping around the dog park in a foolish daze, instantly unable to remember where a stick was thrown, unlike the sharp little mongrel dashing to fetch it each time. It reminds me of the owner of Cally Pets telling me that royal pythons are the ‘Dalmatians of the snake world, pretty but stupid’. I was looking after my friend Jake’s python at the time and we liked to imagine that Hex was an intellectual because he slept comfortably on copies of the London Review of Books.
I hope to see the fat white man on the corner who feeds a couple of foxes every evening but he’s not there. I enjoy thinking about how we relate to wild things. My friend Nick’s brother collapsed in his garden one freezing winter night and before he died he said that foxes had licked him to keep him alive. Then I wonder why the Barnard adventure playground which looks like a Phillida Barlow sculpture, is always closed. I swing around and cross Cloudesley Road where some posh kids are playing cricket against a metal gate, I suspect they live in that gated community which annoys me: why can’t they have a front door on the street like everyone else?
Some evenings a group of Cally boys gather outside Angel Stores on bikes and mopeds and it can feel dodgy. I’ve had a couple of narrow escapes on that corner, one time I kept my wits and made eye contact, nodded and smiled at a boy who was swooping down to snatch my phone from my right hand with his three friends hovering on my left. He was disconcerted and backed away - his friends hooted and called him a pussy but I had briefly become more than a phone to him and it put him off. A street robber once explained that the story running through your head when you pounce is that you will make money and you can show off about it, the person you are robbing doesn’t figure at all. You’re not thinking about them being in pain or traumatized or the effect on people who love them. Your internal narrative is entirely positive. That’s how it works.
Today it’s calm. I remember the previous owner of Angel Stores, a Turkish left-wing atheist who changed my life by introducing me to feta cheese and salty olives for breakfast. I smile at the pigeon lady with her long grey hair but she ignores me, and make my way through the Sainsbury’s car park where an Asian homeless man with big hair slept next to the trollies for a while, past the owner of the weird second hand shop with her ratty leopard skin coat and erratically applied lipstick and into Chapel Market. A few stallholders are clearing up and a stooped old lady with white hair is foraging for squashed peaches in empty wooden boxes.
I pass the Macdonald’s and now I can see the gleaming silver Angel Wings outside the N1 shopping centre designed by my friend Tinker’s son-in-law.
For the young people I work with the same journey goes something like this: Is it a walk up to Angel or shall we jump on the bus? The bus brings back memories of a stabbing on the platform of Caledonian and Barnsbury Station last summer. The perpetrator, an EC1 boy – more about this later - ran out of the station and jumped on the 17 bus only to be confronted by a group of Cally boys unaware that he had just stabbed one of their boys on the station. They beat up the EC1 boy and left him in a bit of a mess but who knows what would have happened if they had been aware of the damage he had just caused to one of their own.
Once on the bus they’re pretty much trapped and often the question is where to look if another youth boards the bus; it could be disrespectful to look away and yet it could be calling it on to look. To look away could be seen as a sign of weakness and to look could be seen a challenge. So it looks like we’re walking, but we still have to watch the eye contact and be mindful of who’s about, so the best bet is to be looking around everywhere with a focus on escape routes should anything kick off.
The Cally Road shouldn’t be a problem, it’s fairly open with many known faces, however two years ago Alan Cartwright, a boy from our youth club, was fatally stabbed by an EC1 boy as he was innocently riding his bike up the Cally. Now Cally boys feel vulnerable even in the heart of their own territory. Across the Cally Road and through the Barnsbury estate, where there is a lot of cover, is probably the best route but EC1 boys now maraud around our area without fear looking for Cally boys, so whilst there is cover, it might be safer to stick to Copenhagen Street because there are more random people about. But on the other hand there's more chance of being caught if the EC1 are on bikes or in a car. So better stick to going through the estate up to Chapel Market, where it becomes seriously dangerous for anyone involved in this life. Lots of people, lots of hustle and bustle as you walk through the market but there are strange faces from different ends, so the Cally boys say it's too bait. And if we’re trying to go that extra 200 meters from Chapel to Angel it really is walking through a minefield.
This life style is a vacuum that never turns off and young people who are sucked into it accept it as the norm. People on the other side of the street don’t see the detail of it and therefore will never understand we can’t just turn off a switch to make the vacuum stop sucking. There are some young people who have an extraordinary talent that could offer a way out, but more often than not the force of the vacuum puts an end to any dreams. People like Lewis Johnson, a boy from CYP, who was signed by Crystal Palace, a good scholar on a fast track to becoming a professional player. At Crystal Palace, he was the model academy boy, but during holidays and off-season his involvement in criminal and gang activity grew and grew until at fifteen, after four hard years at Crystal Palace, he turned his back on football for life on “the Road”. The club offered him everything - a career, accommodation and private education - but he turned it all down to be free on the roads with cash, drugs, girls and exciting risks. He served two prison sentences in three years and was well and truly submerged in this life. I met him again at the funeral of one of his friends, Henry Hicks, who died after crashing his moped on Wheelwright Street while being chased by the police.
I had worked with Lewis since he was eight and thought I could help him again. At the funeral, he was clearly on edge, looking over his shoulder after every few words and, after a hug and a brief conversation, he told me it was too dodgy for him and he needed to leave. The next I heard he had been killed while being chased by police. He arrived at a junction where he couldn’t go straight because the police were gaining on him, couldn’t turn left into a council estate because people were after him there, so he turned right into oncoming traffic and was killed instantly. Two weeks earlier another young man Stefan Appleton had been stabbed to death in Nightingale Park after being mistaken for this Crystal Palace prodigy.
I take the young people I work with into other worlds – to theatres, to restaurants, to Sadlers Wells, the English National Opera, to the Roundhouse to give them experiences outside the vacuum, to broaden their map of the world. Out of their environment a lot of the swagger vanishes, heads go down and insecurity emerges. But there is one place where this never happens. They walk into any Macdonald’s and they're in familiar territory, whatever geographical space it occupies. In Macdonald’s they have a license to behave however they wish, which often includes abusing the staff, leaving a mess, disputing the bill, claiming the order’s wrong and returning food. As far as they're concerned, if you work in Macdonald’s and are not one of their boys your only option is to hand out free food, otherwise you're an easy target because you're all the same, just like the fast food chain itself, where you are guaranteed to get the same food anywhere in the world.
Street robberies sporadically provide brief but meaningful encounters between our two cities, but most of the time, most of us float around in our own bubbles, blissfully unaware. If you’re a North Londoner you’ve probably hung out in Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell where the Islington postcode changes from N1 to EC1. It’s a short strip of hipster paradise, where you can pop into Caravan at one end selling ‘seasonally inspired sharing-plates with worldwide influences’ or squeeze into Moros and eat tiny tapas at tiny tables at whopping prices or drop into its sister Morito or any of the other twenty bars and restaurants squashed next to the hairdressers, gift shops, flower, jewellery and leather boutiques. While your bike is fixed at the cool bike shop, you can browse for books and cards in Bookends or drink Prosecco on tap at the local pub.
This area is also home to the EC1, also known as Easy Cash because of the ease with which they accumulate money through criminal activities. Shoreditch and Dalston provide not only a booming hipster market for recreational drugs but also lots of dozy punters with expensive phones ripe for the picking. Easy Cash have been at war with Cally for about fifteen years following the death of a Cally boy. The war subsided for a while but recently younger even more reckless groups have reignited the feud. These boys feel they have nothing to lose: they are usually in the criminal justice system, excluded from school and able to roll a joint before they have even considered what work they might do. The top boys are often those who are the most intelligent; they can call on back-up to implement their violent talk and usually little or no parenting and therefore no foundation. They are surrounded by negativity, which they accept as the norm. In my experience, without one adult who really cares about you, it is almost impossible to escape this life.
Nobody remembers the original reason for the feud and it no longer matters as it's now about who has the most cash in their rucksack and who is perceived as the most violent. Last summer, Easy Cash were using Periscope to advertise how far they were advancing into Cally territory, into the same parks that other people use to walk their dogs, lie in the sun and play with their children on the swings. These incursions into Cally are known as a violation. And when you’re violated you have to retaliate, otherwise you’re seen as soft. Walking the streets is genuinely terrifying so you carry a knife to defend yourself.
After a period of breaking up into smaller factions we are now seeing a new pattern of gangs merging to become bigger: Red Pitch, London Fields, Zero Tolerance, Hoxton, Cally Boys and EC1 have struck deals to make their groups bigger, stronger, more violent and richer.
This whole city is carved up into little bits of turf and the rest of us blithely cross invisible front lines every day. Where I live is one of these front lines and they are all over the city.
A couple of years ago I went for a walk through Camden, just west of Islington, with Hassan, a young man who grew up on the Queens Crescent council estate just behind the grand houses on Queens Crescent. Camden Lock, a mecca for tourists and teenagers, was a business opportunity for QC boys, perfect for selling weed or if you’re broke, picking a clump of grass from the pavement, wrapping it in cling film and pretending it is weed. Hassan felt sorry for young people from poorer areas like Tottenham without easy access to crowds of mugs. We walked from the Lock to the south side of Hampstead Heath, a favourite location for romantic comedies, a vast green space where the middle and upper-middle classes bird-watch or walk their dogs in the vast green space, swim in the various ponds and the Lido, picnic, play tennis, hike and fly kites. I asked him whether he and his friends ever visited the Heath. Hassan flashed his lovely smile and snorted, “Hampstead Heath is ours.” Hassan didn’t mean that the middle classes at play were trespassing on Q.C territory - they mean nothing to him. In his parallel world he would only see boys from rival gangs committing a violation by venturing into his green space.
Walking around with a knife is the same as carrying a mobile phone - for many of these young people it’s part of the kit. If you’re carrying a knife you’re going to have to use it or lose face, and in this world losing face can’t happen. Young people can be stabbed or shot or sprayed with acid over territory, or drugs, or criminal activities, over a stolen bike, over social media, over a girl, over being disrespected. If you’re an uneducated young man with no prospects, having a gun or a knife makes you someone, and too many times I’ve heard the words, “we have nothing to lose”.
Early this summer I walked past a large group of teenage boys standing with their hoods up in broad daylight by Tottenham Green on the Seven Sisters Road a few miles north of Islington. I felt something was about to kick off, but fifteen minutes later I heard that a sixteen-year-old boy was already lying dead in the bushes. Osman Sharif had been stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife by another sixteen-year-old, over a Snapchat argument.
Osman’s life is over. The boy who killed him will be swept into the prison system where he will be trapped in the bubble, the matrix where all everyone talks about is their next move. And like many soldiers they are traumatized and desensitized to the horror of it, and trauma leads to constant, deadly repetition. They clean up their own mess as efficiently as the dog owners, wiping each other out. Three more have been killed in Islington since I started writing this chapter six weeks ago.
The Caledonian and Barnsbury area, sandwiched between the Kings Cross Development with its expensive restaurants and fountains on one side and the leafy streets of Barnsbury on the other, contains six pockets of poverty known as Super Output Areas. These pockets are among the 20% most deprived areas nationally. It’s like a third world country on the doorstep of the richest, complete with its own language, incomprehensible to anybody else and its own rules.
People live in cramped accommodation, side by side and on top of each other, in little boxes with no space to breathe. If you walk along the balconies of these estates looking into windows, in the first you’ll see a family preparing food, in the next they're eating, next door music is blaring and next to that there’s a party. Arguments are frequent between people living in these conditions and they quickly involve everyone. Everyone in the flats above and below can feel and hear the aggression, the swearing and the violent talk; they are trapped whether they stay at home or go out, and finding alternative accommodation is impossible.
So the boys I work with choose a life style that seems to offer easy access to what other people have.
In the hood there are more words for money than the Innuit have for snow. We have taught them well. They worship money and they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. But the eight richest men in the world are as wealthy as half of humanity and we are fighting seven covert wars in the Middle East right now. Is there a connection between grotesque inequality and petty criminal activity, between state sanctioned violence and small turf wars? I believe there is.
What I do know is that if white middle class kids were killing each on the streets of London, we would see them very clearly.
Some street slang -
Addict – nitty, fiend
Ammunition – live corn
A person over 45 – Big person
A person a couple of years older – elder
A person a year or two younger – younger
Asking for trouble – bait
Bad or dangerous – peak
Beaten up – boxed
Car – drive, whip, wheels
Doing your own violence – putting in the work, getting stripes, doing dirt
Drugs – food, the fire, snow line, heroin and cocaine: dark and light, champagne and brandy
Enemy – pagan
Fake gangsters – Netflix bad boys, internet gangsters
Friends – fam, famalan, G, cuz, cuzzie, homie
Ghetto – gully, greezy
Going well - popping, taking off
Gun – ting, shooter, strap, burner (also a phone with no GPS), gat, skeng
Home – crib, yard, ends
Insulting – merking, dissing, violating
Joint - blunt, zoot
Knife – shank, blade
Killing – drop, clap, duppy, pop, ghost off, gone, slap, drill, gweng
Losers – wastemen
Money – p’s, papers, dons, scrilla, a bag (£1,000), a bill (£100), stacks, milli, cake, source, swag, mula, guak, gwop, racks, fetti, etc etc
Money (is making, or has a load…) – up or caked
Needing drugs – clucking
No mask - Bare faced
Pretty girl – peng ting
Real men – G’s, OG’s, certi, mandem
Robbing – jacking, jumping, taxing
Selling drugs – trapping, shotting, flipping a box, being a trap star, grinding, hustling
Sex – piping, mashing
Sex (a girl who is available for…) – ski, sket
Shoes – kicks, creps
Shooting – plugging, busting or bussing, bun, banging, drilling
Skunk – cheese, lemon, ammi, cush, AK
Stabbing – prepsing, wetting up, dipping
Stop – bun it
Swag – has source
Threatening – flexing
Violent disagreement or war – beef