One glance at the cover of her new book is enough to tell you that Harriet Sargeant is a female Fleet Street journalist of the old school – fearless, glamorous and larger-than-life. However, there’s nothing unreal about her subject matter: Britain’s inner-city gang culture.
A standard-issue hack would rely on expert reports and the occasional fleeting visit to the frontline. Sargeant’s approach, however, was to strike up an unlikely, but long-lasting friendship with several members of a south London street gang.
Among the Hoods is serialised in the Daily Mail and provides one shocking insight after another into what Oliver Letwin once called the ‘conveyor belt to crime’. Perhaps the most revealing episode comes when, despite Sargeant’s best efforts, one of the gang members – called Tuggy – ends up in prison. Visiting him, she expected to find Tuggy "flattened by a system that had all but defeated me". But things turned out rather differently:
- "The first days, of course, had been terrible: the under-sized Tuggy had to prove himself to other inmates by knocking down an assailant — wham! He showed me how he’d done it.
- "That wasn’t his only achievement. He now had a job in the kitchen and was doing an NVQ in catering. For the first time, his life had structure and order.
- "‘All that time I was trying to find work on the outside,’ he said, ‘and I get it in prison!’
- "He described his day with pride — an hour in the gym between eight and nine, then down to the kitchen to work, followed by study time and a game of ball before bang-up. Recently, he’d actually started reading books — ‘well, comic-like books’ he admitted."
Of course, it’s good that the prison in question provides its inmates with work and ‘structure’, but wouldn’t it be cheaper to provide these things at a much earlier stage – i.e. before youngsters become criminals and the innocent become victims?
There were other reasons why Tuggy seemed to be enjoying prison life – in particular, he liked being with the other inmates and even the "bald Shrek-like" prison officers:
- "I was puzzled by Tuggy’s attitude — until it dawned on me that this was his first experience of spending time with adult males. He didn’t know his father and nearly all his teachers, social workers, probation officers and even the members of his Youth Offending Team had been female. I’d never seen him look so calm and happy. And I realised I’d underestimated the desperation of his previous existence. ‘Every day was a battle, man,’ he confided. On top of that, he said, he’d frequently been lonely in his ‘poxy little room’ in a hostel, and nearly always hungry and scared."
In the process of researching and writing her book, Sargeant grew in her sympathy for the hoodies, but also in her antipathy to the agencies of the state – in particular the education system. Noting that Tuggy’s aspirations weren’t that different from those of her son, she realised the real difference between them was that "Tuggy simply didn’t know how to turn a burst of enthusiasm into the day-to-day effort required for achievement and success":
- "Yet these crucial attainments don’t require government spending, an extra tier of professionals or spanking-new facilities. What they do require is an education establishment that’s convinced of their importance. Indeed, the failure of schools to teach them is condemning teenage boys from poor backgrounds to a lifetime of wasted opportunities."
Unfortunately, we don’t have such an education establishment; but at least we have the next best thing – a Conservative education minister willing make change happen anyway.