The smell of weed percolated under our front door. The ‘lads’ were back, hanging round our block of flats during the evenings.
They talked loudly, voices echoing through the corridor. A group of tall, young males, in their late teens, they were intimidating presence on everyone walking home through the narrow defile.
And my wife was anxious, exclaiming that something should be done by somebody; and that ‘somebody’ was obviously me.
We moved into our new house last year. It has a complicated entrance, through iron bars and entry-phone system, up some stairs and onto a common walkway, linking our block of houses and flats.
This security-conscious entry, and the high wire mesh fences above the garden wall, were a response to historic levels of crime and gang activity on the estate soon after it was built.
The design had made the area into a favourite route for youth gangs to escape from the police. The defensive precautions made the estate safer, while also making it uninviting.
The ‘lads’, however, circumvented these precautions, because one had a cousin living here, who let them in.
My wife suggested I call the police, but I decided counterintuitively to talk to them, resulting in four or five conversations.
And I made a point of greeting them, whenever I passed them, entering or leaving the block. I wanted them to know I was not frightened; this was where I lived, and I was not scared.
My strategy was therefore twofold. Firstly, the surprise element, friendliness; when they perhaps expected confrontation. Secondly, refusing to walk past, like others, in embarrassed, fearful, silence.
They weren’t, after all, looking for trouble. I found out they were all on apprenticeships. Without cash, they simply had nowhere to go; sheltering like children from the cold rain.
When I challenged them, they asserted they didn’t intend any harm. But whatever their intentions, their effect was harmful. One old lady confided in me, that she felt nervous whenever she had to pass them on the way to her front door.
Another woman lived at the top of a flight of stairs, at the foot of which they usually congregated. She was black, they were white. There were no sign of racist abuse, but the symbolism was there.
Because, although they were literally ‘doing nothing’, nothing is always something. When I was a youth worker, I read an article called “The dialectics of doing nothing”.
This ‘dialectic’ refers to the deeper levels of meaning, when youths are ‘doing nothing’. This includes two aspects.
The subtle interactions between group members, and the signification of their presence for wider society, our neighbours.
I reasoned that in a year they’d be gone: in prison, or having jobs and therefore girlfriends, going out to pubs or clubs.
And so, they did vanish. Did my bravado make it uncomfortable for them to stay? Was it a victory over anti-social behaviour?
Or did I fail: to reach out and befriend alienated young men, themselves scared and craving acceptance?