I DON’T RECALL WHEN we realised we weren’t going to get away with it, whether it was the same afternoon the windows were smashed or the next day, when school resumed. Although we never gave it as our defence, we were bored. Boredom suffered alone is, naturally, boring; in a group, boredom becomes provocative. You can only kick a stone for so long before you want to feel its weight in your hand; once felt, you want to know how far you can throw it; once thrown, with what force – a test that glass is shatteringly sensitive to. We didn’t blame boredom and we didn’t blame our teachers, whose strike cleared the day off its usual commitments. With our parents working, we were free to plan our own day. This freedom must have been confusing, for we celebrated it by invading another school.
Although it was round the corner from my home, I didn’t attend St Mary’s: it was a Catholic primary school. I was curious, the school’s fence climbable. Paul, Barry, Martin and I descended to find another strike-emptied school. A car-park-like plain of asphalt, the playground was marked by hopscotch grids drawn in white paint; they reminded me of the chalked outlines of corpses seen in the American murder mysteries I watched on telly with my dad. Something eerie and desolate clung to the scene, an end-of-the-world feeling that excited a restless nerve. We climbed out again, and my friends popped a row of school windows. I didn’t throw any stones, but I watched. I might have laughed. I was nine, maybe ten.
Whenever it was that we were caught, our punishment was to return to St Mary’s to pick up litter. I wish I could say that this was the first and last time I merited the authorities’ attention. As a child, I was not a stranger to trouble. It came infrequently, but when it came, it was serious. Yet I was a quiet, shy, bookish boy, bespectacled, did-n’t like football, almost a burlesque of a milksop. About three years after St Mary’s windows were broken, I got into the worst trouble I’ve ever been in. I pulled a knife on another boy.
Paul was my best friend. I was with him when St Mary’s windows were broken, and when I pulled out a knife during a fight. Near neighbours, Paul and I had grown up together in Bonnyrigg, a small town where local sources of employment met the challenges of the Eighties by closing down. Mum worked in the carpet factory until it shut down, then the biscuit factory until it shut down. Dad was a painter and decorator and so luckier in his job than many of my schoolmates’ fathers, who were miners; watching the evening news, we cheered the miners as they charged lines of policemen, as if it was a rugby match.
Paul’s dad was self-employed, a plumber, and his grandfather owned a couple of chip shops in the area. Where I sometimes got 50 pence pocket money, he got £5 every week, an incredible sum. Although he had a little puppy fat, Paul was good at football, and made friends easily. He was tough too, a little street fighter. His mum outfitted him in all the latest branded gear – Adidas Kick, Pepe Chinos, Le Shark polo shirts, Pods, Arrow Astroturf trainers – that the play ground cognoscenti valued. As school uniform was not compulsory, you were what you wore at Bonnyrigg Primary. My catalogue-bought trousers were too short (Yer cat died?) or too baggy (British Flareways), my trainers an uncelebrated label. My parents could not afford to buy me a favourable position within this caste system. I could pass exams but flunked a more crucial test in the playground. There, my happy grades only thinned out whatever good standing I had with the other kids.
I resented my parents’ failure to protect me from taunts. Why couldn’t I have the clothes the others had? I suspected my family might be that worst of all things: we were poor. We weren’t poor. It was the Eighties and Scotland was struggling, but we were not poor. Both my parents worked. I suspect Mum and Dad didn’t earn much more or less than anyone else’s parents, excepting Paul’s. Where we differed was that I was a weak lobbyist and Mum and Dad were good at saving what they earned.
The light bullying I suffered might have been worse if it were not for Paul, who acted almost as my minder at times. He was generous, always happy to split the sweeties, although he was a little petted too I think. Spoiled, liable to go in a huff if you didn’t fill the space in his plans he’d reserved for you. Paul could be jealous if he thought you were ignoring him in favour of a new acquaintance. We didn’t really have much in common beyond a neighbourhood. What he saw in me I couldn’t say other than that we got on, although our friendship weakened once the childish reference points – the shared enthusiasms for comics, cartoons and computer games – faded as we grew into teenagers.
Paul’s dead now, has been for over five years. I’m reluctant to speak ill, to affirm what my memory suggests. I don’t want to blame Paul’s influence for the trouble I sprung upon myself, but he was always there, constant witness – and accomplice? – to my self-sabotage. Often, I had to atone for his misdemeanours alongside him, because I’d been there. He was responsible for the solicitor’s letter sent to our home; he had thrown slabs of ice onto the neighbours’ front path, while their son, the one who was bullied and now went to a different school, watched us through the letterbox, a pair of darting eyes. On another day, Paul beat up that boy’s younger brother while I watched; I remember the assault as having almost a dreamy casualness to it; it was unplanned, spontaneous, over in moments after the boy put up no defence. As he gave Paul and me detention, the deputy headmaster likened the fight – although to call it a fight is to over-promote it – to a heavyweight put up against a bantamweight. Perhaps I can even blame Paul for when I dipped into Mum’s Christmas club kitty, a thick bundle she hid, badly, in a dimpled pint glass. Was I trying to keep up with him and his weekly fiver? Did I feel that the fact of the size of Paul’s pocket money gave me the right to steal, if my parents weren’t going to give me a real allowance? It fits, but I’m uneasy, not for the first time when examining my past. What was I doing while Paul beat up the neighbour’s son? Stolidly standing there outside of time and space? Or snickering? I was the one who couldn’t abide the battered boy, Paul knew him but slimly, and, thinking about it, I can’t dismiss the thought Paul wasn’t in some way making a gift of the assault to me, his friend.
At high school, we were put into twin classes, so although we took some lessons together – PE, technical, home economics – we spent our days apart from each other in the company of other children. We made new friends. I tried to fit in with Paul’s latest acquaintances, though it was hard. These were boys who made jokes about your mother or took football too seriously or borrowed your glasses to wear just to see what it was like and were slow to return them or boasted about fingering a girl and how much they drank last Hogmanay. Paul had equal difficulties with my friends, who were obsessed with music and to a lesser extent books, interests he could take no share in. We couldn’t do what you would do now, as an adult, to ease someone out of your life. Trapped at school in the Eighties, we couldn’t neglect to email, space out the intervals between phone calls, ‘forget’ birthdays. Besides, whatever role I held within Paul’s mind he was not ready to relinquish or to share.
Our encounters began to have an atmosphere. Paul continued to be the same friend, generous and amusing, should I meet him alone. But if I met him with his group, his friends would make jokes at my expense, and I would pretend not to notice or to care, as would Paul, though where I was suppressing shame, he appeared to be suppressing a smile. Even when we were alone, there was a toughness to Paul’s tone now, a need to let me know where I was letting myself down. He could be stricter than any teacher.
Quickly, I grew to hate high school. I continued to bank good marks, not that it did me any obvious good. Were Paul’s friends jealous? If anyone was jealous, it was me, of them. I was a frustrated conformist. I did-n’t have the right clothes and my pride, normally invisible, would not let me throw tests. I was stuck. I recall walking into our assembly hall during this period and comforting myself that if I could only wait another three years most likely my tormentors would leave school before I started my Highers. Three years!
The events that led to me arming myself with a knife began in home economics on a Thursday morning. We were making wall tidies as part of a module introducing my class to sewing. Not one boy in the class enjoyed the lessons. Bored and with revving sewing machines covering our noise, we chatted. I was sitting at a table with Paul, Mike, and Chris. I didn’t like Chris. He was sharp, with a gift for honing in on just the thing that most embarrassed you. Six months later, when I got a girlfriend, briefly, Chris and his friends would seek us out at breaks to ask in loud voices whether we’d shagged yet and laugh when we fudged the answer.
That morning, though, in home economics, I sat by his side, laughing, grateful even. They – no, we – were slagging off another boy at the adjacent table. John was a slightly chubby kid whose pink, wobbly face looked as if it had been carved out of tinned ham. He had made the mistake of having an enthusiasm and not keeping quiet about it. Passion for anything that didn’t involve a ball was held in suspicion. John was a fan of Marillion, a prog rock band whose pretentious album covers and titles (Script for a Jester’s Tear) we might have laughed away if we were a little older. At that age though, there was a challenge in John’s championing of Marillion. Their name, like a sweetheart’s, was marker-penned all over his jotters. Fish, the singer, came from nearby Dalkeith. The local connection did not endear him to my table mates. Fish was a poof, they said. If John liked Marillion, he was a poof too.
I can’t recall exactly what I said to John. I think I was more of an echoer than an instigator – a giggler, a chimer-in. Yet it was I, not Chris, not Mike and not Paul, who was challenged to a fight. Even at the time, it struck me as a clever move. John had been prodded to a degree that required a definitive response, or else he’d lose face. Not in our eyes, as he had no respect to begin with: in his own eyes. The other three were known to be able to handle themselves, although, apart from Paul, I had not actually seen them fight. Mike and especially Chris had such reputations for verbal aggression that the general presumption was they were as adept with fists and feet. Challenged directly, high on laughter, I accepted. I didn’t take John seriously. He outlined the time and place of our fight-to-be – a nearby park straight after school – and I agreed. I had no intention of showing up, and I didn’t think he was serious either. He’d forget about it once he had the chance to cool down over night.
Next morning, at registration, John questioned my non-appearance. His face was white now and tight. I was, he said, loudly, several times, a shiter. He didn’t say it because I had failed the test he’d set, and that was the end of it; it wasn’t so much a final verdict as it was a goad. He wanted to fight, still. I did not, for I knew how poor I was at defending myself. I had had a few fights at primary school, fights that swiftly became routs. I lost them all bar one. On that occasion, another boy kicked me in the face with more force than he meant to, propelling me into a rage. A teacher dragged me off the boy as I hit his head off a tiled floor. I remember that anger as one of the purest feelings I’ve ever had. Whenever I imagined myself threatened as a boy, I fantasised about reconnecting with that murderous mood.
My father set a lot of store by fighting. He enjoyed telling stories of which he was both author and protagonist. His subject was violence. Largely he reminisced about his youth or building sites, stories that would inevitably feature a challenge to his pride seen off by threatened or actual vio-
“I didn’t flash the knife from the off. I wanted to see if I could beat David without it, though I had no great hopes”
lence. The cumulative effect of these stories over the years was intimidating. I was not my dad and I felt the lack. Dad appeared genuinely puzzled that I could not take care of myself like he and his brothers could. On the occasions in my early childhood I had gone to him to tell him about bullies, his advice was to hit them back. But I couldn’t. I was a shiter.
Because I was a shiter, I agreed again to fight after school. During the morning break, I had gone to Paul, and he told me, shrugging, I’d have to fight. He didn’t offer to back me up, and I wouldn’t ask Mike or Chris. I was on my own. I didn’t want to fight but I had no choice. Internal pressure, some ragged remnant of something like pride, propelled me to keep my date after school, although I knew I would lose. I was balancing competing forms of humiliation, calculating which one I could best live with.
There was no one I could turn to. I was trapped inside myself. The teachers were holograms who existed in a world just above my head. For the rest of the morning, I felt as if I was in a dimension parallel to our own, which I could see although no one could discern mine. Who would I tell and what could I say, anyway? I would have been a grass, and looked weaker than I did already.
At lunch, as normal, I went home. Before leaving for school, I slipped a knife into my bag. It was one of a set we used to eat dinner, a wooden-handled knife with a barely serrated edge. You could stab with it, but not slash, not that I wanted to do either. It was easier to conceal than a bread or carving knife, which would have scared me, never mind John. My plan was to keep it in my bag until shortly before the fight, when, because the knife was flat and had a mild blade, I would slip it into one of my trainers; I rejected slipping the knife into a trouser pocket or waist band because, although the knife was not sharp, I still feared it might do me an injury should I bend suddenly. My plan was, at the right moment, to retrieve and brandish the knife in the belief that would be enough to scare him off. I could conceive of no consequences.
Once the final bell rang, Paul, John and I set off together. Over the short distance to the spot where we’d agreed to fight, we did-n’t speak. Blessedly, we didn’t have an audience as so many scraps had that I recall from that period, froth-mouthed mobs chanting Fight! Fight! Fight! Possibly John and I chose to keep our quarrel unpublicised; more likely we were poor box-office whose lack of flair when it came to fighting excited no great interest. If only our classmates had known what was in my trainer. John and Paul might have guessed there was something, if not a weapon, in there, had they not been focussed on the fight-to-come. Having an uncomfortable hunk of metal on the sole of my shoe caused me to walk with a mild limp I did my best to conceal. Already, without one punch being thrown, I felt like a chump.
The rescheduled fight had a different venue from the one first mooted. We headed for an area round the back of the park, a semi-hidden pocket of turf square-shaped like a boxing ring. A church hemmed in one side, the local Girl Guide hut another, the third a back garden through which were scattered car spare parts and timber. As it happened, my uncle’s house was yards away behind a screening fence. I couldn’t see the house but I could hear the peaceable cooing of the homing pigeons my uncle kept; but for that, I might as well have been in Australia. The square was a sort of interzone, an interstitial territory into which poured the anarchic energies of adolescents. Kids went there to smoke and drink; later, Paul ate magic mushrooms there and had, he told me, a conversation with Bugs Bunny. That day, the grass was springy and overgrown, with rubbery dock leaves banana-skinning the ground. Mist was moving in, reducing the world down and down to that sodden patch.
As a referee, Paul was almost gentlemanly, doing everything short of dropping a handkerchief to begin the fight. I didn’t flash the knife from the off. I wanted to see if I couldn’t best John without it, though I had no great hopes. The miracle failed to manifest. John had a weight advantage, and a rage advantage. Within seconds of the fight commencing, he set my ears ringing and my vision swimming. His technique was untidy but effective; the best I could do was fall forward into a temporary grapple to mute the big, meaty fists drumming my jaw. Attempts to duck and spin out of harm’s way were hobbled by the knife, which sat on my sole, an overgrown thorn.
As much to save myself some discomfort as I did to bring the fight to a close, I brought out the knife. I held up my hand to stop the fight, John possibly thinking I was signalling my surrender. I fished the knife out – God knows what the other two thought I was doing – and held it up. I did-n’t lunge with it, didn’t hold the knife in a threatening manner. The knife had a power that spoke for itself. Then I dropped it. It fell to the earth, barely penetrating the mud before flopping onto its side.
John looked more disappointed than frightened. He held his palms up, shrugged, and declared he wasn’t getting involved in that kind of fight. He started to walk away. My plan had worked. Only Paul stopped John, and told him not to be daft, that I had no intention of using the knife. Wasn’t that right? I confirmed it was. Reluctantly, John returned to the fight, which went as I always knew it would. He battered me. Finally, Paul gave up his pretence of impartiality, and chased John away. They ran off, Paul returning alone a moment later. We walked home together, not speaking. I was grateful, and, though, I was upset, I had at least not cried. There were no significant wounds, only a gritty, crunchy sensation in my mouth where John had chipped a couple of teeth. I felt deflated, however, and suspected there would be consequences on Monday when I returned to school, although I could not imagine anything to the degree that transpired. John would tell everyone how he’d won the fight, and that would be it, which was bad enough. I readied myself for jeers and looks, although I could tell myself I had turned up, that this time I wasn’t a shiter. Before dinner, I slipped the knife back into the cutlery drawer, and tried to forget about Monday morning.
In that I think I succeeded, because when I once again walked into my registration class, I was surprised by the perceptible tilt in atmosphere. I was a little late and there’d obviously been some chat. John was in another corner of the room, refusing eye contact. The other kids looked over at me, some with wariness, others, amusement. No one approached me at first. I sat down next to Graeme, a new, high-school-made friend. Graeme liked music and books and was never likely, I was beginning to realise, to embroil me in a fight. He asked if it was true. I was a little surprised he knew. I’d thought my defeat would be broadcast, but not for some reason, the involvement of a knife. Because I hadn’t allotted any great degree of significance to it, I assumed the world would follow suit. Another boy, Titch, sitting at a right angle to us, turned and with a teasing smile repeated Graeme’s question. Is it true? I said yes, without understanding what I was agreeing to.
John, I discovered, had not only spoken about the knife, he had somewhat embellished the tale. In his version, I had unholstered the knife with a swashbuckling flourish before throwing it at his head. He, he said, had ducked at the last moment, the knife flying over him to embed itself in the Girl Guide hut’s wall with an audible twang.
It was an outrageous fiction that might have been funny if the situation – as yet unknown to me – wasn’t so serious. I admitted having a knife but denied throwing it other than into the ground. I wasn’t sure I liked the attention I was getting now though I smiled thinly, my grin arising not from good humour but from embarrassment. I was glad, too, that it distracted attention from what I truly feared: the humiliation I had suffered at John’s hands. The girls kept their distance but some of the boys, the rougher ones, asked to hear the story from me. I wanted to believe it was, on their part, the dawning of a new respect, but truly it was just curiosity. It wasn’t merely that in those days and in that place knife-fighting was griffin-rare. My having brought one to a fist fight was, in their eyes, as incredible as a beetle with a bazooka.
Later that morning, during geography, a note was passed to my teacher; the headmaster wanted to see me. When I arrived outside his office Paul was already sitting there. I was ushered in first. The headmaster was a dough-faced man with a manner and hairstyle from the Fifties. He was fond of holding assemblies in which he delivered cloudy parables of his own devising. He illustrated his take on integrity with a tale about a boy who had a ring that made him invisible, which I, like everyone else, mocked, although if I could have had anything in the world right then, it would be that ring.
John, I learned, hadn’t merely told our classmates. After running from Paul, he’d gone home and told his mother. She called the school, doubtless scared and angry. I thought then that this was a bit off, grassing, though, as I was beginning to realise, I had disqualified myself from deciding what was and wasn’t acceptable behaviour. Still, I couldn’t understand why he’d told on me. He’d won the fight. Given me a pasting. What more did he want? I couldn’t conceive of what effect having a knife drawn on you at the age of twelve might have, that the fear might only last for a moment but the effects of that fear might last a good deal longer.
The headmaster told me he had to call the police. I nodded because I couldn’t speak.
When school finished for the day, Paul and I took a convoluted journey home, stopping to make a prank call to the newly launched Childline on a public telephone box. The call was a parody of the one I really wanted to make. Finally, we parted, and I let myself into the house. Mum was waiting. She was working nights and had been in when a policeman had come to the door earlier in the day. The headmaster had called the police but not Mum, who had no warning. The policeman stayed for half an hour, during which time he told Mum that the boy I had fought with came from a good family, a statement he let hang in the air for a moment. Mum insisted my actions were out of character but she was angry when the policemen left and angry when I arrived. When I stepped through the front door, I was beaten. When Dad came in from work an hour later, I was beaten again.
Some days later, another policeman visited our house. I was silent while he and my mother talked about me. An official warning was given. The policeman didn’t ask me why I’d taken a knife to a fight. No one did. That made me angry. What I did, I knew it was wrong – so wrong, I thought someone might ask why. But, no, the opposite occurred; knives generate dread, not conversation. I was held to be an idiot (that was a generous judgement, considering). Best move on.
One way in which I moved on was to end my friendship with Paul. I blamed him for what had happened. That was unfair of me. He didn’t know in advance about the knife, and when he saw me produce it, he defused the situation immediately. Had it not been for him, the fight may have deteriorated in a manner I could not have foreseen. And if anyone got anyone else into trouble in this situation, I landed him in it. I thanked Paul by beginning a slow withdrawal from him in favour of friends like Graeme, who I saw as a calmer alternative; ironically, I even got to know and like John. Paul and I faded out of each other’s lives, meeting only twice after he left school. The first time was a good natured encounter in a pub on Christmas Eve, where we both seemed amused to have once been the other’s closest friend; the final time was again by chance, at a bus stop. He was thinner than I’d seen him, his eyes glassy, and, although still friendly, he said enough odd things to make me wonder where my bus was. He asked me to go to the pub with him, and I said no. A year or so later, on a Sunday morning, my mum phoned to say he had died from a drugs overdose.
However angry I might have felt about the outcome of the fight, that was eclipsed by the shame the whole affair brought down upon me, and, worse, my parents. I had shown myself to be a true shiter. Even as I write this, I still feel threads of embarrassment grow taut within me.
This summer, during which teenagers stabbed their peers in London to the extent that the Metropolitan Police made knife crime its top priority over terrorism, I’ve reflected, reluctantly at first, on my story and what it might teach us about this wave of teen-on-teen knife crime. I’ve travelled round Britain, talking to politicians in Mid-dlesbrough, health professionals in Glasgow, and policemen in London. I’ve heard and read the testimonies of teenage perpetrators and victims of knife crime, and I’ve been struck by the similarities with my story: boredom as an excuse; depressed areas; poor feelings of self-worth exacerbated by the shiny clothes and consumer cherishables associates can afford but you can’t; self-defeating codes of male honour transmitted from one generation to the next; good friends who are bad influences; a mad regard for respect and a fear of losing face before peers; an inability to see the consequences of one’s actions; petty disputes that escalate rapidly beyond control.
The statistics are worrying. During 2007/2008, there were 22,151 incidents in the UK in which one person attacked another using a knife or sharp instrument. In Manchester, there is an average of six knife crimes a day; last year in London 10,000 knife crimes were reported, with more than 10 people per day arrested for possession of a sharp instrument. Another set of statistics reports that a knife crime is carried out every 52 minutes in London. In Scotland, it’s estimated that there are 1400 serious knife injuries per year. In Glasgow, hospitals treat a serious face wound every six hours. The number of stabbings and injuries caused by a sharp instrument treated at Accident and Emergencies nationally rose by 30 percent between 1997 and 2005.
Knife crime and teen crime are often used interchangeably, to the extent it’s worth pointing out that much knife crime occurs domestically and by adults rather than by adolescents. Even so, the statistics relating to teens and knives chill. As part of their anti-knife campaign, Operation Blunt, the Metropolitan Police seized almost 200 knives from teens in the last two weeks of May this year. Two out of three teenage homicides were committed with a sharp instrument in 2007. Teen males, you might not be surprised to learn then, are the most likely demographic to be the victims of violence, and yet also the least likely to report it. Research also points to a general lowering in the ages of victims and perpetrators.
Learning about other boys who brought a knife to a fight in the belief it would frighten off their opponents has made me realise how lucky I was. What if instead of backing off when he saw my knife, John had panicked and rushed me? John Carnochan of Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit emphasised this point when we spoke in April: knives turn fights into a lottery. Chance decides who lives and who dies. Some teenagers discover, after waving about a knife, that they don’t have what it takes to use it, but that their opponent does, especially when there is a crowd of youngsters watching and egging on. Many kids have been stabbed, sometimes killed, by their own weapon. Equally, had John lost his head and gone for me, he could have slipped on the wet grass and fallen onto my weapon. Who would have believed it was an accident?
In August, I interviewed Inspector Neil Simpson, a police officer whose responsibility is Bonnyrigg, a duty that brings him into contact with the town’s young people. He told me there had not been any major incidents involving teenagers and knives in the area for some time, and that if there were to be one, the procedure for dealing with it had changed since I received my warning. Whereas I felt betrayed because no one sought to ask why I had a knife, before taking action now the police, Simp-son said, would “look more into the background [of the offender], why someone would be carrying a knife, what was going on in their life”.
Since my trouble, there has been a change in the attitude of the police and public to young people and knife crime. Inspector Simpson’s remarks were welcome, but the insight he and his police force demonstrated is not necessarily repeated across the UK. In September I spoke to a woman who works in community safety in the north of England. The story she told me crystallises this shift in attitudes. In the course of her job, she encountered a fourteen-year-old boy who took a knife to school. He was bullied and thought the knife might release the pressure on him. Only once he got to his school, he had a presentiment and hid the knife behind some bins. A worried friend who saw him told a teacher. Confronted, the boy confessed, although his excuse, that he was bullied, counted for less when his tormentor put in a counter-allegation that he in fact was the one who was bullied. For what it’s worth, the boy who brought the knife in had never before been in trouble at school, while the other boy had.
The police became involved and the fourteen-year-old was excluded. He enrolled at another school, but deprived of the friends he grew up with, he felt excluded in a new way, and so stopped attending. He stayed at home, never leaving, until one day he swallowed a bottle of pills, another of alcohol, and hid himself in the local woods. He was found and his stomach was pumped. As a consequence of his attempted suicide, his original school let him back in, by way of their exclusion unit, a sort of quarantine ward where children with behavioural problems are kept apart from the main body of students until the pupil and the school both feel he can be reintegrated.
If my experience is anything to go by, I would wager what that boy wanted most was understanding. That was what I wanted. I felt if they knew my story, they’d understand, and when they understood, they’d forgive. I was forgiven finally, but forgiveness appears increasingly to be a big ask. There’s an interesting disjunction between the popular imagination and popular sentiment. While the narrative arc of serial programmes, and the back stories of reality TV contestants, often involves an element of redemption, people themselves are less likely to speak with any conviction of forgiveness. Witness the astonishment – and occasional acerbity – when the mother of Jimmy Mizen appeared to forgive the killer of her son, the thirteenth teenager to die in London this year from a stab wound.
Today, to a degree, I understand why some teenagers arm themselves; I understand why these kids overwhelmingly give as their answer ‘protection’ (85 percent of knife carriers gave this as their reason when asked, in one poll I’ve read). I only carry a shank because everyone else does. Call it Cold War logic. Their thinking bears the desperate calculations of Mutually Assured Destruction without, tragically and all too often, the deterrence of the nuclear option. So I understand that, although the kids with the lock knives in their pocket don’t yet appear to, or else they bury their knowledge in a chilling fatalism. It’s my time, as they say with inarguable nihilism; it’s just how it is.
Even where understanding exists, for giveness does not necessarily follow. By its nature, knife crime militates against it. The wounds even a 2 inch penknife blade can inflict sicken to a greater degree than the most uninhibited horror film can. What truly revolts though is an awareness of how intimate knife crime is. The defining act in the relationship between killer and killed takes place within a span no greater than an arm’s length. What do we feel when we realise that the aggressor must have made eye contact with his victim before his attack and seen in those eyes horror or pleading or even defiance, at any rate that he was stabbing a human and not a cabbage? Shock. Nausea. Anger. Not forgiveness.
Although I asked for forgiveness, I understand, and sometimes condone, the public’s refusal to grant it. This is not an argument on behalf of hypocrisy. For, you see, three years after I hid a knife in my trainers, my sixteen-year-old cousin Steven was stabbed and killed by a former friend. Whatever insights I may have as an adolescent carrier of a knife, they’re overshadowed by what I and my family have suffered.
Sifting my memory once more, I don’t recall anyone mentioning at the time of Steven’s death that I had taken a knife to a fight. But then, no one had mentioned it in the intervening three years either through shame, while, I suspect, the silence on that subject which followed Steven’s death was an act of kindness; my grief was full-bodied enough and didn’t need guilt to thicken it. Over the years, as I passed through university and into work, I rarely mentioned to new acquaintances that my cousin had been murdered, and never that I carried a knife once. The first instance was too painful to raise easily; the second, I felt was a bit, to borrow from Irvine Welsh, ‘schemey’, and I’d had enough when I was a kid of feeling my origins were low.
But last year, as the children of London killed and maimed each other to an unprecedented degree, and the booming headlines made this spree unignorable, memories returned unbidden, and parallels coloured themselves in. I began to collect clippings, read reports, to ask what had happened to Britain in the two decades since I picked up a knife, a relatively rare and unreported incident in my part of the world at the time. Then, I returned to the scene of my crime.
I visit my uncle – the uncle who flies pigeons, not Steven’s dad – every weekend, have done for years, yet never once did I stop to look over the site where John and I fought. Finally, I made myself. The blue gravely path which was almost devoid of gravel is paved now. Far from the soggy nowhere I recalled, the patch has been brightened up, the Girl Guides having built an extension to their hut over the exact spot we thumped each other. Moreover, the fence and tall weeds that divided the church from the path are gone, implying the entire territory was now ecclesiastically-owned. I felt as if I was intruding on hallowed ground, that to summon the dismal memories that were now rising again as I stood there was to engage in a minor act of demonology.
With the church prompting me I might have said a prayer but I wouldn’t know who to pray for. Steven? Or Paul? Perhaps it was my childhood I should say some words over, for while, by the fight’s close, physical damage had gone no further than bruising, that fresh, first phase of life ended here for me. I was standing by its grave. Before I could mumble something like an incantation, a black dog began barking hoarsely in my uncle’s neighbour’s garden and would not stop. Feeling like an intruder, I fled back to the world. I would not return. I would not finish my prayer.
Colin Waters is writing a book about knife crime in the UK. Some of the names that appear in this article have been changed.