TO sociologists, they are ‘the culturally deprived’. To educationalists, ‘the disadvantaged’. The police call them ‘slag’. Frankie Rice and Vincent John are both 16 and live on a big council estate in North London.
Frankie: ‘At school there was stabbings in the playground. The teachers, they didn’t know what to do about it. And then you’ve got them new teachers comm’ in and they think they know it hut they don’t. It’s just what they read in books. When we was 13, 14, we used to just go into school, get signed on and then bunk off. It was a load of crap, school. All we did was fight and we could do that just as well outside. We would give the little kids a kickin’ when they came out of school, nick their money, and then go home. We used to do that every day
To Vincent, all this is a picnic compared to what goes on in his own home.
Vincent: ‘I come ‘ome one day and my bed was in the skip! Me step-dad done it. ‘E says it’s cos the bill (police) come round the house Friday lookin’ for me. ‘E just done ‘is nut and that were it. My real dad used to get drunk and hit my mum an sister. But when he weren’t drunk he were all right.’
In the evenings Frankie and Vincent team up in search of houses to crack.
‘First you ring the doorbell to see if anyone’s in, and if they answer you just leg it down the road.’ Or there is always the odd vehicle left unattended, to take and drive away; or failing that, to let down the tyres and scratch up the paintwork. On Saturday afternoons, ‘We all form up into one big mob and go and watch the football.’ The consequences are predictable.
What are the answers? Law’n’ order? Short, Sharp Shocks? Detention centres hold no fears: ‘more like a holiday camp’. Besides, they have long been under the watchful eye of the police and courts, not to mention the social services. (‘There’s a social worker living in my kitchen,’ says Vincent.) They expect to get ‘banged up’ some day. ‘Probably for someink I didn’t do,’ says Frankie wryly.
How about Mrs Thatcher’s ‘return to the traditional values of family life’ as a solution? Sounds good. doesn’t it? Not a chance, in families where adults behave like violent, unpredictable children and the little children, glued to the pop heroics of Bowie. Duran Duran, Grandinaster Funk and the rest, try to behave like sophisticated mini-adults.
And what of the old cliche, the working class path to self-advancement through education? To a 16-year-old working-class school leaver whose parents are on the dole and whose own chances of getting a job are slim, that’s getting to be a joke.
Some observers would argue that no social tinkering could really help people like Frankie and Vincent. Are they not all the inevitable products of a modern class-bound society? Images of rebel youth may have changed, become more despairing than in the days of hippies and student radicals, but then, the underlying social inequalities have sharpened since the Sixties. Young people have been more severely affected by the recession than any other group. According to figures supplied by the independent campaigning organisation Youth aid, the rate of unemployment among the under 25s in the UK is twice that of older people. About a quarter have been out of work for more than a year. And the picture is the same in most of the Western democracies. Unemployment in the OECD countries has grown from 10 million to over 32 million in the past decade - and 40 - 60 per cent of the jobless are under 26. Absurd as it is, young people are among the first to be consigned to the scrapheap.
It is all too easy, then, for teenagers like Frankie and Vincent to feel alienated, to believe they have no place in our culture. Kids like this are not just going through a phase of adolescent upheaval. Their symbols of violence and hopelessness mirror society’s unambiguous message to them: as unskilled labour they are superfluous to the needs of the economy; as people. ‘a social nuisance’. More often than not, they come from homes where nobody gives a damn.
We ignore the conflict at our peril. It isn’t going to go away when these teenagers (chronologically at least) become adults. Detention centres will merely be replaced by gaols, dole queues by longer ones. With this generation providing the parents of the next generation, the downward spiral of disaffection can only twist another turn into despair.
David Robins is the author of ‘We hate humans’