Two brief but jarring sentences stand out in Ciaran Thapar’s account of his experiences as a youth worker in south London. At a secondary school near Elephant and Castle, a vulnerable, pitiful boy named Freddie is permanently excluded. After being threatened, he had brought a bread knife to school. “I would never see him again,” Thapar writes.
Then, working in Wandsworth prison, Thapar meets Abdoul, whom he had previously encountered through his voluntary work at the Jacob Sawyer Community Centre, in Brixton. A follow-up visit fails to locate him. “I never saw him again,” Thapar recalls.
The sentences are a powerful reminder that the boys of whom Thapar manages to keep track are, despite considerable challenges, lucky in some senses.
Cut Short focuses on describing vividly and often movingly how three of those boys navigate the critical, perilous years from late secondary school to early adulthood amid a surge in street violence. Demetri, Jhemar and Carl are all African-Caribbean and all face differing levels of deprivation. Jhemar has to cope with his brother’s death in a stabbing. Carl briefly succumbs to the temptation to make money quickly by selling drugs.
It is clear that Thapar is determined to help them to achieve their goals. Freddie and Abdoul stand for the thousands who miss out. The murders and stabbings that punctuate the narrative underline how high a price many pay — up to the end of May, teenagers accounted for 12 of the 50 homicides around the capital so far this year. Thapar, who grew up in west London as the son of a Punjabi doctor father and English nurse mother, looks for answers as to what might alleviate this suffering.
Cut Short is at its strongest cataloguing the lives of Thapar’s mentees. He chronicles compellingly their multiple humiliations, from strip-searches by insensitive police to confrontations with other youths for being in the “wrong” area. School performance charts posted in corridors rank pupils by academic achievement — Thapar’s mentees are used to seeing their names and pictures displayed at the bottom of such tables. One of the book’s most affecting passages recounts how, after a group has completed a successful programme at school, Thapar hires a photographer with a brief to make them “look like kings”.
While the book focuses on boys as the main perpetrators and victims of street violence, it makes a convincing case that wider society has created many of the problems. Most fundamentally, the mentees face racism — darker-skinned boys encounter more discrimination from police and teachers than lighter-skinned counterparts.
Thapar also argues persuasively that they are suffering from a gutting of public services. Cuts to police budgets mean there are no longer officers tasked with getting to know the communities they serve. Centres such as Jacob Sawyer — an invented name to protect users’ privacy — have become a rarity.
The book is less sure-footed when analysing how such failings relate to wider policy. Thapar attributes the problems mainly to a drive to save taxpayers’ money and the consensus that market mechanisms should be applied to public services. He blames the appalling Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 on a need to save money, despite the so far mixed evidence that cost was the decisive factor in a botched refurbishment.
One public institution that Thapar describes as failing comprehensively — Wandsworth Prison — is little touched by market-driven competition. The school where he works near Elephant and Castle, while clearly deeply flawed, sounds as if it has improved significantly since a charity took over management from the public sector.
The crisis in England’s public sector surely has deeper, more complex roots. A decade of austerity has cleared out the older staff that provided much institutional collective memory. Vital tasks — such as enforcement of fire regulations — have been outsourced to private organisations, blurring lines of responsibility. The common factor is a collapse in the competence and self-confidence at managing the delivery of services.
Thapar’s conclusion is nevertheless sound. Like many others, he argues for a shift away from treating street violence as a criminal justice issue towards addressing it as a public health crisis. The many complex social, economic and cultural factors that encourage violence need to be addressed.
Central government policy for England is pushing in a different direction. Recent ministerial pronouncements have focused almost exclusively on making prison sentences longer. It is an ideological act of faith, in contradiction of recent experience, to believe such an approach will succeed.
Thapar sounds justifiably proud of the progress that Demetri, Jhemar and Carl have made. But many more young people look doomed to follow Freddie and Abdoul in falling through society’s cracks.
Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City by Ciaran Thapar, Viking £16.99, 368 pages
Robert Wright is the FT’s social policy correspondent
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