I was lent a copy of Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang by Harriet Sergeant by someone who’d read it, was fascinated by it, and thought it would be of interest to myself.
Harriet Sergeant’s new book has the potential to alter the way a generation engage with the urban poor. It highlights the shocking figures that of the 6,000 children who leave care at the age of 16, 4,500 leave without a proper qualification. A third will be in and out of employment, education and training, and one in 20 will end up in prison. Following the London Riots plenty has been written in Editorials and Opinion pieces, think tank reports have tried to make suggestions as to how we could engage young people, but the fact is that unemployment for 18-24 year olds is ever increasing, and the hopes of this next generation live in tatters.
Harriet develops a three year friendship with a teenage gang, and in particular the gang leader, Tuggy Tug began when she was researching a report on why so many black Caribbean and white working class boys are failing. It was an unlikely friendship. She is a middle class, middle-aged white woman who writes for the right-wing press and a right of centre think tank. Gangs like Tuggy Tug’s are responsible for the majority of crime in our inner cities. During the riots of August 2011, they were the young men setting our streets ablaze.
Over the next three years she got more and more involved with the boys as they make the awkward transition to manhood. All the issues she had read about – single mothers, absent fathers, lack of education and social mobility, the criminal justice system – suddenly took on new meaning as she encountered not just Tuggy Tug and his gang but their relatives and friends. She enters their world and sees institutions through their eyes. It is a revelation, and unsurprisingly, their journey is far from harmonious. Many of the gang are making this transition as they are leaving care homes. These boys are illiterate, hungry and frequently homeless. They have no families; they are out of school and delving into criminality to get by.
This fascinating book isn’t a Lonely Planet guide to “Broken Britain”, nor is it a rant about the nation’s “slow-motion moral collapse”, in the words of David Cameron after last summer’s riots. “Tuggy Tug”, the gang leader, is aggressive and impatient but also charming and personable. “Swagger”, Sergeant’s fixer, busies himself trying to be the one positive male role model in the gang members’ lives, yet is trying to find a job for himself and access to his son. This is an honest, detailed and accurate account about black Caribbean and white working-class boys left to fend for themselves.
The book does not exist in a political vacuum: Sergeant is explicit about who and what has failed these young men. We join them after they’ve left school and we follow them through the paltry youth facilities, the perverse incentives of street life and the benefit system, the squalor many call “home” and the inflexibility of state bureaucracy.
By the end of the book Tuggy Tug was found guilty of committing over a hundred street robberies. He and two other gang members are in prison, one is in mental hospital and one appears to be a successful criminal.
What makes this book unique compared to others in the genre is Sergeant’s changing role. In the beginning she is a think-tank observer; by the end she is almost a surrogate mother. The text is laced with the pain and frustration of someone who has invested time and emotion into turning lives around to no avail. The most poignant moments of the book come when the author compares the lives of Tuggy Tug’s gang with those of her own son, who is of a similar age. She recognises the innate talents they share, but starved of positive avenues to pursue them, the lives of the gang degenerate while her son goes from strength to strength.
In a moment of reflection, Sergeant admits how much the past three years have changed her outlook and politics. Although still convinced of the responsibility of individuals for their actions, she now appreciates how our environments and circumstances can shape those individuals. This book is a window into the personal journey of a remarkable woman, and shows how the forces in society can conspire to condemn some people to the scrap-heap.
This is an incredibly personal story and thoroughly depressing, but as Britain faces the first anniversary of the riots, this book should be required reading for us all.