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currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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January 10, 2006 || 10:38 pm

On the night the 'Respect Agenda' was launched by Tony Blair, I walked home past a classic example of what he's trying to stop. Zooming dangerously down my street came two cars, full of local lads sitting on the edge of the windows, hanging out, standing up on the seats so that they were heads above the roof of the cars. They were yelling at each other - in high-spirited couldn't-care-less competition rather than rage - and waving their arms before coming to a screeching halt at the end of the street.

This is, perhaps, the thin end of the 'anti-social behaviour' wedge - but certainly what Blair might describe as 'disrespectful'. I see worse, of course - kids on crack, threatening each other or random strangers, nicking bikes and phones and hitting their girlfriends. But I don't see how any of this behaviour is going to be changed by beating them with the stick of withdrawing their housing benefit, punishing their parents, evicting them from their houses or hauling them up in front of vigilante neighbourhood 'community' groups.

If people - not just teenagers - are to discover some 'respect' (and how I hate the cap-doffing associations of that word) for their neighbours, that is going to come about through better and less formalised communication between different groups, rather than one gang - the vigilante neighbours - confronting another one - the 'feral', 'anti-social' 'tribes'. And if kids grow up with no help, no real friendship shown to them from anyone, no investment from school or family; well, I don't know how they are meant to grow up to be normally socialised human beings.

At Christmas several of us - who have worked at various times with highly disadvantaged kids, including the criminal and nearly-criminal - recited the old cliche that everyone who works with these people knows, that if you just pay them a little bit of kind, normal attention - not patronising, just what 'we' might consider normal - they are fantastically bright and responsive individuals. And again, we all repeated, if this is so blatantly obvious to all of us, how is it possible that the policy guys have never managed to get hold of this idea?

It is not as dramatic as some people make out, but I agree with this blog post that we should be paying attention and worrying about the decline in what might be termed 'civil social relations'. But this is an incredibly long-term problem that will not be solved by £50m from the government and a whole lot of hope-less people feeling resentful because they've been made to take parenting classes. One might, if one was taking the historical perspective, say that what we are seeing now has its roots in the pretty disastrous social policies of the last forty years, where the ghettoisation of at-risk, low-income families has been state-sanctioned and even encouraged, and it will take a generation of serious investment into social infrastructure to get rid of these problems.

The fact is, maybe its not the 'problem families' that need parenting classes. Maybe the rest of us need to train as social workers, or somehow rediscover a sense of real engagement with our neighbours that goes beyond calling the cops on them. We need to learn a) not to be scared of people from a different social group and b) to go a little beyond the call of duty in befriending, getting involved and so forth. I can't remember whether I blogged about this before, but six weeks ago we happened to walk into a pub just as a pretty serious fight was breaking out. An incredibly drunk guy got glassed in the head by another drunk-ish guy, and after a brief but vicious fight, the second man walked out with his mates right through the crowded pub, right past me (still practically in the doorway) and out. No-one stopped him - and I'm not sure I would have even if I was a big burly man, for fear of a knife. But what shocked me more than anything was that when the cops pulled up mere seconds afterwards, no-one in the bar went to talk to them, or would give them a description of who and what they saw. I had gone to find a friend but coming back, overheard the cops saying that no-one would talk so I immediately volunteered, giving a description of what I saw and driving around in the cop car for a while to see if we could spot the guys.

Why did no-one want to get involved? Surely to give a description of a guy who just kicked someone else in the head isn't a big commitment, a big chunk out of your Friday night? Similarly, why do people just stand and stare, or walk by looking the other way, when they see other unacceptable behaviour take place in public places? I've just got over 100 people to sign up to a dumb pledge about George Galloway, yet 100 people in that pub would not give a few minutes to talk to the police about a guy getting hurt. And if we nice liberal middle-class people haven't got enough spirit of goodwill towards our fellow man to do that, no wonder the social fabric here is seen to be tearing.

Update: Simon Jenkins has an excellent piece in the Guardian that says it all fiercely and eloquently. As opposed to the leader column which makes some decent points but also this clanger: "Curbing incivility - noisy neighbours, teenage tearaways, Saturday night yobs - is less serious but much more difficult than tackling terrorism". Erm - I think 'tackling terrorism' might just be the harder task there, given that we can't even define what it is?



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