In the summer of 2018, Lucy Knell-Taylor, a youth worker at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, noticed that teenagers were talking more often about guns and knives. One girl said she had seen someone pistol-whipped at a party; other stories suggested that weapons were becoming more easily available. Knell-Taylor’s workload began to rise. She told Ciaran Thapar that she felt ‘a growing sense of doom’ when she started being asked to help young people, particularly teenage boys, travel home without using public transport. If all else failed, she booked them minicabs. The teenagers Knell-Taylor worked with were caught up in a growing wave of tit-for-tat violence. Local rivalries and adolescent feuds led to assaults and murders. The South London neighbourhoods near the hospital – Brixton, Camberwell, Kennington, Elephant and Castle – formed one hotspot, but there were others elsewhere in London and in different large cities. Knives were the weapon of choice.
Violent crime is falling overall. In the annual crime survey for England and Wales, 4.7 per cent of adults reported being a victim of violent crime in 1995; in the year ending March 2020 the figure was 1.6 per cent. Violence involving knives, however, has followed a less predictable trajectory. It peaked in 2007, with 272 knife-related homicides and just under 5000 assaults resulting in hospital admission. The figures dropped until 2013/14, but then began to climb once more. In London, recorded knife offences rose every year until 2020. The pandemic appears to have halted this trend only temporarily: 85 people were killed in knife-related incidents in London in 2021, including 30 teenagers, a new record.
‘Knife crime’ means more than violence involving a knife. It indicates a set of assumptions about the identities and motivations of perpetrators and victims. Politicians and journalists have blamed various things for the rise in knife crime, from ‘middle-class cocaine users’ – they fuel the drug trade – to UK drill, a style of rap music. Far-right agitators have linked the violence to race and immigration, while Beyond the Blade, a research project carried out by the Guardian, found that in 2017 nearly every mention of knife crime in the rest of the national press was in connection with young Black people in London.
According to Home Office data, almost half of all homicides in England and Wales are ‘drug-related’, but this is a very broad definition: recent analysis by Vice News found that it includes incidents in which those involved had been taking drugs or had previous convictions for possession. Black men and boys are over-represented in the statistics, but not overwhelmingly so. Beyond the Blade found that roughly half of all teenage knife deaths took place outside London and that the great majority of people killed with knives weren’t Black. Official studies, such as a report published in 2020 by the Mayor of London’s office, tend to conclude that a combination of poverty, childhood trauma, educational failure and peer pressure makes young people more likely to become involved in serious violence, and that violence is concentrated in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Experts recommend long-term intervention in the lives of children considered to be at risk: early years support from health and social workers, investment in careers training for teenagers, and social activities, including sport. Glasgow, which once had a reputation as ‘the murder capital of Europe’, is credited with having reduced stabbings by treating violence as a public health issue.
In recent years, however, government policy has become more punitive. In 2018, Theresa May’s government promised an extra £100 million in police funding and announced the introduction of Knife Crime Prevention Orders, Asbo-style injunctions restricting an individual’s movements (a pilot scheme began in London last summer). In January 2019, Skengdo and AM, a drill duo, were both given nine-month prison sentences, suspended for two years, for breaching a Metropolitan Police injunction banning them from performing their song ‘Attempted 1.0’ after a clip of a gig was put on YouTube. According to Index on Censorship, it was the first time in British history that a prison sentence had been handed down for playing a song. Meanwhile, more than a decade of austerity has resulted in a severe reduction in long-term interventions: between 2011 and 2019 London’s youth services’ budgets were cut by 46 per cent.
Cut Short is an account of Thapar’s experiences as a youth worker in South London. ‘A historic imbalance has skewed how we think, talk and care about violence,’ he argues, ‘as well as those who harm or are harmed by it.’ He is particularly concerned by the widespread distortion of the facts when it comes to young Black men, a distortion that ‘has perpetuated ideas in the wider, national imagination about this demographic being predisposed to criminality and violence – as opposed to being victims of a system which oppresses them from the moment they are born’.
Thapar focuses on three boys he followed from early adolescence into adulthood. Demetri, a pupil at an academy in Elephant and Castle, wanted to go to university to understand why people carry knives. Jhemar, whom Thapar mentored at a homework club in Brixton, was also determined to avoid violence – ‘I don’t care what people say, I’m not getting cheffed [stabbed] for nobody!’ – but was increasingly worried about his older half-brother, Michael, who had ‘been moving a bit mad recently’. Carl went to a community centre in Loughborough Junction where Thapar volunteered; he started getting into trouble after his father walked out, and was later expelled from school.
As boys in these circumstances get older, the threat of deadly violence grows. It’s often territorial, the threat increasing when someone strays into the wrong neighbourhood. One weekend, Jhemar was staying at Michael’s mum’s house in Penge. The brothers took a break from playing Grand Theft Auto 5 to go to the corner shop. On the way back, they were confronted by three older boys in hoodies. ‘Where you from, cuz?’ one of them asked. Jhemar didn’t want anything to do with them, but Michael stood his ground. One of the older boys pulled a knife halfway out of his pocket. For a few minutes, there was a stalemate. The boy with the knife blinked first, putting it back in his pocket and walking on.
‘Postcode war’ is the usual shorthand for these hyperlocal rivalries. Thapar thinks the term is misleading:
Postcodes, or anything written on a page or a map, had something to do with it, but not everything. The laws of the land were defined by birthplace, personal association, organic, unpredictable swings in allegiance and plots that condensed with protectionism after every act of betrayal. Beefs vary for those at the centre of them, who’ve often grown up together, attending the same handful of schools, playing in the same football teams and inviting one another to the same birthday parties.
A generation ago, he writes, teenagers in South London might have grouped themselves into gangs, with names and identifiable allegiances. Gangs of a sort persist, but the violence is increasingly atomised. Everyday teenage male aggression – the territorial and personal rivalries you find in schools anywhere – is given a deadly edge by the presence of weapons. Disputes are amplified by social media. When UK drill was still an underground scene, crews would post music videos straight to YouTube, threatening rival groups or talking about ‘scoring points’ (stabbing enemies). On Snapchat, people taunt their rivals. ‘Certain man are copying GMs [gang members] on social media,’ Demetri tells Thapar. ‘It gives them power, because even if they don’t actually live like a gang member, if they do it for long enough, people start to believe them. At some point they’ll believe it themselves.’ Rappers seen as authentic are praised as ‘certi’, ‘active’ and ‘verified’ – the social currency of the digital era.
Carl, the teenager who got expelled, went to a new school, but by Year Eleven he was getting into fights and his face had become ‘bait’ (recognisable on social media). He went out looking for ‘opps’, rivals from other neighbourhoods. On the way home from school he saw an opp pushing a bike. Carl punched the boy in the face, stole his bike, then shared a photo of the bike on Snapchat, accompanied by a mocking message. ‘Carl was getting messages from people sending him love,’ Thapar writes. ‘Now he felt untouchable. Now he had opps, for real.’ On another occasion, he and his friends were attacked by two young men on mopeds, one of whom had a gun. Carl ran away; one of his friends returned to the scene and took a photo of an empty bullet casing. He posted it on Snapchat.
Demetri and Jhemar tried to stay away from violence, but it still affected them. Demetri was shocked by the murder of a boy in the year above him at school. In November 2017, Jhemar’s brother Michael was stabbed to death in a fight in his local park, the 42nd minor in the UK to die from a knife wound that year. Friends encouraged Jhemar to take revenge, but he resisted. ‘These man think they can take life?’ he says of his brother’s killers. ‘Fam, what is going through their heads? Are they God? Did they give life? No! So how can they take it?’
Thapar worries that he is helping to prop up a system dominated by the idea of winners and losers, what he calls ‘the zero-sum game of the education market’. As a university access officer, he picks out bright students and takes them to talks at Whitehall departments, the Canary Wharf offices of investment banks and large NGOs. At one corporate law firm, portraits of children from a local academy are displayed in the foyer. All the schools he works in are academies – between 2010 and 2018 the number of academies in England rose from 203 to more than 7000. Successful academy trusts, which manage chains of schools, are ‘run like charities and businesses at the same time’. Struggling schools get eaten up by competitors. Thapar sees a parallel between this market dynamic and the way academies treat their pupils. The academy Demetri goes to ranks pupils according to their ‘data score’, calculated from information such as attendance, behaviour and punctuality. The scores are shown on spreadsheets displayed on the walls of the school corridors, ranking pupils from first to last.
This kind of competition is present in other areas of life too. Many of the children Thapar works with end up in precarious jobs in the gig economy: the gunmen who attacked Carl and his friends were wearing Deliveroo jackets. Public services have been cut, and the charities that support young people compete for the same pots of private funding. When things go wrong, punishment by the state has become harsher. A police officer interviewed by Thapar complains about the decline of neighbourhood policing and the loss of officers who know the communities they work in. Instead, the police have become increasingly reliant on stop and search – which, in London, disproportionately affects young Black people – and heavy-handed raids based on shaky intelligence. When Thapar took a job as a life coach for young people in prison, he found a system collapsing for lack of resources, with little attention paid to rehabilitation.
At the academy in Elephant and Castle, Thapar ran a workshop at which the pupils discussed Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. It made them think of CCTV cameras and an ‘undie’s whip’ (an undercover police officer’s car). Demetri felt under scrutiny in his own neighbourhood: Elephant and Castle has become one of the frontlines of gentrification in the city. As the sociologist Joy White recently observed, gentrification in London doesn’t only push some people out of neighbourhoods but hems others into shrinking spaces – side streets and estate courtyards – as prime locations are developed for the benefit of wealthier, whiter residents. One night, a white thirty-something man Demetri didn’t recognise went into his tower block ahead of him. The man didn’t hold the door open for Demetri, a tall Black teenager with braided hair, and looked at him ‘with a mix of fear, disgust and confusion’ when Demetri gestured through the glass. Demetri let himself in and walked by, kissing his teeth.
In this system, Thapar suggests, the children most at risk of becoming involved in violence end up being pushed towards it. After Carl started to misbehave at his new school he was put in an isolation room. ‘He felt like he was a failure and that there was no point trying any more, because his record was tarnished,’ Thapar writes. ‘Any time he tried to speak to the teachers they just ignored him, or made out like he was being stupid or aggressive.’ He went to college at sixteen to do a BTEC in sport, but was more interested in ‘shotting hard food’ – dealing Class A drugs – than studying. He bought eighths of cocaine and heroin from a wholesaler for £120 a time, splitting them up into smaller ‘pebs’ that he sold on, mostly to poor addicts in Brixton. At first the money supplemented his income from Burger King. Eventually he was making so much that he left his job and started paying other kids at college to do his work for him. But there was a humiliating aspect to all this. To carry the pebs around, he wedged some under his tongue and the rest in a bag between his buttocks. His main customers were addicts at a ‘bando’ – a house where people go to get high. Carl felt his life was ‘like a depressing movie’. He kept getting arrested, and stole his mother’s kitchen knife to protect himself from rival dealers. It seemed only a matter of time before he was sent to prison, or got hurt, or hurt someone else.
At the youth centre, Thapar noticed that Carl had changed. When they first met, he had enthusiastically taken part in discussions. Now, at seventeen, Carl ‘usually looked drained of energy’. ‘Why do you think boys like me are involved in all this mad stuff?’ he asked. ‘Risking our lives for the block. Nobody cares about us, that’s why. I have to help myself. I have to do crazy things to stay alive. The more I do them, the less crazy they become.’
No single intervention helped him turn things round. Thapar arranged to meet him at the youth centre, and kept trying when he didn’t turn up. A charity in Brixton gave him careers advice. Another charity, a boxing gym, let him go to training sessions. People from all these organisations met regularly to discuss his progress. A ‘pastor’ from SPAC Nation, an evangelical Christian church that runs programmes to draw adolescents away from crime and violence, gave him a place in a house the church owns in the suburbs of south-east London. Thapar has misgivings about SPAC Nation – it has been accused of financially exploiting its members – but at least it took Carl to a different environment. He went back to college and applied for a sports coaching course at university.
For Thapar, this is an example of the painstaking ‘multi-agency’ work needed to reduce youth violence in the long term. Belatedly, the government appears to have recognised the importance of this: in the last year, the Home Office claims to have invested £35.5 million in violence reduction units across England and Wales. But these have been accompanied by yet more repressive measures. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act introduces Serious Violence Reduction Orders, which give the police the power to stop and search individuals who have already been convicted of knife offences without reasonable grounds for suspicion.
In Thapar’s book, the community centre at Loughborough Junction stands as an example of what a community-based model of dealing with youth violence could look like. Serving the mostly working-class local residents, it is ‘a youth service, home, base and kitchen’. Tony, the centre’s manager, is a middle-aged South Londoner from a similar background to the children he works with. Youth work ‘ain’t just about coming into their lives for six months’, he tells Thapar. ‘It’s to become someone they can rely on. Someone they can ring when they’re in trouble. Five years down the line, when they graduate from uni, you’re the one they text saying thanks. When they’re getting married, they want you to be there. That’s when the work really shows.’ But this level of involvement is now rare in a market-driven system after a decade of austerity.
Books about marginalised groups run the risk of exoticising their subjects. Thapar avoids this trap by making his own role in the reporting process visible, and by being open about his motivations. Born in West London to a white mother and a father of Punjabi Hindu background, he uses a shared history of immigration to help forge connections with the young people he works with. But he’s still a middle-class LSE graduate. ‘Are you an undie?’ the children at the community centre ask him when he starts volunteering.
Youth work comes across as more of a collaboration than a traditional teacher-pupil relationship. ‘I wanna get better at dissecting words, ’cause English is looking a bit peak [bad] right now,’ Jhemar told Thapur at the after-school club. They reached an agreement: if Jhemar did his homework, they would write lyrics together afterwards. They picked apart rap songs so that Jhemar could learn about simile and internal rhymes. Thapar got him to read ‘The British’ by Benjamin Zephaniah and ‘Half-Caste’ by John Agard. Jhemar was surprised to hear Thapar describe himself as ‘mixed-race’; he’d only heard Black people use the term.
Thapar is honest about his mistakes. When a teenager was murdered near the community centre and TV crews descended, his first instinct was to defend the area’s reputation. He gave an interview to ITV News London. Tony was furious: the interview upset the ‘mandem’, the boys who use the centre. ‘It looked to them like you were using what happened to get your face out there.’ Thapar concluded that his ‘writing mind’ was taking over. To do his work as a journalist properly, he had to take a break from youth work.
One of the book’s strengths is the way it brings together a range of voices. The chapter on policing, for example, begins with an account of four young Black men driving a new car in Loughborough Junction being aggressively stopped and searched by the police. When the police didn’t find anything, Tony told them off – ‘Do you realise what this sort of thing does to the community?’ – before giving Thapar an account of the violent, racist policing in this part of London which led to the Brixton riots in 1981. Thapar talks to a senior police officer and to Adam Elliot-Cooper, an anti-racism campaigner who thinks policing is ineffective and unjust. But the last word goes to the young people themselves. Stop and search is ‘like them “sus laws” that used to exist back in the day’, Carl says. ‘It’s happened so many times I can’t even count.’
One evening, after a session at the community centre discussing wealth and class – ‘just ’cause you live in rich ends doesn’t make you rich. If you live near some of the new blocks, but you still live in an estate, you’re still poor, fam’ – Thapar walked through the estates of north Brixton to a house in Oval Quarter, a new private development in Kennington. He was buzzed in through ‘an electronic gate made from polished wood’; inside a drinks party was going on. ‘My friend showed me into a mood-lit living room where jazzy hip-hop instrumentals were playing from Bang & Olufsen speakers. I was introduced to the host, a man who was wearing a white shirt tucked into some chinos, loafers on his bare feet.’ As they went into the garden, Thapar remembered Demetri’s story about being ignored by his new neighbour. Would any of the people at the party have let Demetri in?