My time in Hackney: Implications for youth

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Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

By Patricia Daley.

[This article has already been posted on, and shared through the H-Urban email list. It was licenced on Pambazuka under Creative Commons, so we are reposting the full article here]

I spent my teenage years on the Pembury Estate in Hackney – one of the locations of last week’s riots in London. For the last 20 years, I have been an Oxford University don. I left home and Hackney in 1976. I have continued to visit friends and family in the borough. More recently, my visits have increased as I assist in the care of my elderly mother who still lives in the area.

I have listened and read members of the elite pontificating about the causes of the riots in London; most of which I find quite disturbing. The prime minister’s use of the term ‘fight back’ gives recognition to the divide in the society between Them and Us. He seems to be advocating civil war, between the morally good and the ‘bad’ – ‘the scum’ – while failing to recognise the deep schism in the society. The litany of contributory factors – whether they be unemployment, poor schooling, public spending cuts, racial profiling in stop and search, institutional racism, single mothers and poor parenting (I will say more about this later) – require radical thinking about the nature of our society and current economic policy, which our politicians do not appear equipped to handle.

I came to England just before my 12th birthday to join my divorced mother who wanted to reunite with the two children whom she had left in Jamaica. To say she and I did not get on is an understatement. This is partly because, at 12, I was already a fully formed, independent-thinking person whom she could not bend to her will. She wielded the rod uncompromisingly. Those who talk of the return of corporal punishment have no idea how brutalising it can be. My brothers and I did not report her to the authorities, even though we knew we could, because we were aware of the terrible situation of children in care. My aim was to get out as soon as I could and stay out. I am telling you this because the narrative of my rise to donship can be partly explained by my relenting desire to escape from the belt, broom – whatever came to hand – and from the poverty that I believe underpinned my mother’s abuse. However, it would not have occurred without the support of school teachers, the existence of a public library, friends and their family, and the state in the form of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) (disbanded in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher).

Having done most of my primary schooling in Jamaica, I was already aware of the value of education. My fervently religious mother thought that education stops people from being god-fearing, and though she would not have had us misbehave in school, she did not encourage us to aspire. We moved onto the Pembury Estate just before my 13th birthday; prior to that we lived in one room in a shared house in Dalston. We spent a year in a two-bedroom, third-floor flat in one of the 1930s blocks. The estate’s residents were primarily white working class. Often someone would daub ‘nigger’ or ‘NF’ on the stairwell and we would have to sidestep dog shit to get to our front door. I was thrilled when we moved into a newly built three-bedroom house on the edge of the estate. Finally, I had a room of my own, though there was only space for a bed and a dressing table. I often wondered about the architects who designed such spaces and their views on the humanity of the people who would live in them. Homework was done on my bed or in the public library. Hackney library on Mare Street was a sanctuary and haven for me. I read voraciously. In my early teens, I was a fan of Russia’s literary giants.

My school was the local girls’ secondary modern. I knew it was second rate because the grammar school up the road had better facilities and the majority of teachers expected us to become secretaries (I hated typing) or, at most, bank clerks. Those were the days when headteachers were so remote that I can’t remember ever saying a word to mine, except for ‘thank you’ at prize-giving. Staff turnover was high and there was bad behaviour in the school but, because my year group was streamed, I managed to avoid most of that except in the playground. What kept my aspirations going was the support from three teachers; all stayed at the school for a short time. My French teacher, who was fresh out of teachers’ college, recognised my flair for languages, while my geography supply teacher noticed my interest in the wider world. My Australian music teacher loved opera and kept me in the choir out of charity – my voice was not great. However, I got the opportunity to go the opera, ballet and musicals in central London. My trips out of Hackney were dependent on these organised activities. For a year or two, we travelled on the 22 bus every Sunday to our black church at World’s End in Chelsea, but we could not afford to break the journey. I would spend the time familiarising myself with London landmarks from the top deck of a double-decker bus.

Virtually all my extra-curricular activities were funded by the ILEA, because my mother, despite working full-time, had no money for treats. We were on free school meals and school uniforms had to be worn until you grew out of them, even if the polyester fabric was shiny from ironing. Among my friends, I was the last one in a mini skirt and the last one out of one. Thanks to the support of the education authority and to some teachers, who dipped into their pockets to pay the parental contribution, I was able to visit France twice. The local youth club also provided trips outside of the area – a memorable one was to watch the Drifters perform on Top of the Pops. Having come from Jamaica, I already knew that there was a world out there – one in which black people are successful. Immigrant children tend to be enterprising and their self-esteem does not buckle under the psychological pressure that comes with racism.

I left my secondary modern after O levels because I knew it did not have the capacity to enable me to pass my A levels, and enrolled at a local technical college. My mother’s hostility to me studying was even greater then. I survived because of the small grant (I suppose the equivalent of today’s Educational Maintenance Allowance) I got from ILEA to pay my bus fare and a Saturday job. My friends and their families were immensely supportive of me, especially after I enrolled on a degree course at Middlesex polytechnic, and left home for good. The polytechnic’s welfare officer petitioned the ILEA to allow me to be assessed for a grant, independent of my mother’s contribution. My mother had refused to support me with evidence of parental income. Luckily, there were jobs. I worked weekends and evenings in department stores in Brent Cross, during the summer holidays as a play scheme assistant for council-run play schemes in Southall, Ealing, Islington and Northolt and, at Christmas, delivering the mail in Hampstead and Plumstead. I got to know London really well!

It was at university that I first encountered people from wealthy backgrounds. I made friends with some of them – lasting friendships in one or two cases. I did not feel second rate, because I was confident of my academic abilities. After that I took advantage of every opportunity that existed to gain qualifications, aiming always for financial independence. Looking back at my experience, without the assistance of the welfare state, without the confidence in my ability which I had gained in Jamaica, I would not be here. I am not rich, and I am not immune from racism in my job or in my suburban street, but I have the resources to escape on a regular basis to a sanctuary – a place where, if people are sneering at me, I am 100 per cent sure that it is not because of my skin colour, where, as Martin Luther King states, ‘I am judged on the basis of my character rather than the colour of my skin’. The young black people in Hackney often have no escape routes and, more importantly, are more British than me – they have no memory of other places and ways of being.

So, it pains me when members of the privileged elite dismiss these young people’s claim that the lack of employment and youth club facilities are contributing to disaffection among them. I know I would have been at the edge of despair if I was trapped in Hackney at that time. The last time my brother and I were there to see my mother he looked at the youth hanging out on Clarence Road and said ‘I am glad I am not growing up around here now’.

Certainly, at one level there appears to be more money in Hackney. The borough is undergoing gentrification. Mare Street looks better than I have ever seen it. London’s intelligentsia visit the Hackney Empire frequently for West End-quality shows. There are farmers markets, loft-style apartments in converted factories and churches, and streets of Victorian terraces gated against traffic and ‘others’. My younger brother, who lives locally, told me a year ago that Hackney is even more socially divided now, with rich whites – ‘the wine bar crowd’, he calls them – and poor, predominantly black, on the estates. When I was growing up the social divide was less stark. The first person who defended me against racism was the father of one of my white friends on the estate, who had an altercation with a local shoe store manager, whom he believed had discriminated against me when his daughter and I responded to an advert for Saturday girls. The black population itself is now quite diverse – with Somalis, Nigerians, Congolese and so on – different cultures and tensions. I can attest that the living conditions of those in private rented housing are often much worse than what my mother experienced in the 1960s.

I do my research on Africa and, there, the proliferation of charismatic Pentecostal churches seems to follow the decline of the economy and the implementation of austerity measures in the form of structural adjustment. In Hackney, and in Tottenham, the proliferation of these churches promoting prosperity Christianity is also evident. Ministers are taking the wages of poor people and telling them that they should aspire to own Mercedes-Benzes. Materialism has become a religious ethic. Scholars, especially on the left, claim that this can only be expected in a hyper consumer and individualistic society, where your self-esteem depends on what you wear. I agree, but I would argue that physical appearance has deep social and historical roots in a black community that had been subjected to the racism of slavery and colonialism – whose bodies were commoditised and belonged to another. Poor African-Caribbean communities have always defined their self-worth in terms of appearance, cleanliness and material possessions. We are famed for our fastidiousness – a trait immigrants of the 1950s thought was missing in their working-class neighbours – and our respect for adornment, what the youth term ‘bling’. Members of my extended family are always exhorting me to ‘dress good’, because my English academic style does not generate admiration. There are deep sociological reasons for this phenomenon. My take is that dispossession, alienation and marginalisation play a role in this, but my wealthy Oxford neighbours in their luxury cars and designer clothes do not suffer from any of this, so we have to give consideration to the culture of profligate consumption that is promoted in the media by corporations and on which the basis of our 21st century economy rests.

Along with consumerism, looting is the norm in our societies, whether it is presented as legal, in the form of tax avoidance by the wealthy, speculation by bankers, bailouts of banks using public money, privatisation of public-owned services at bargain prices, fiddling of expenses by our democratic representatives or hacking into victims’ phones to make a profit. We welcome Russian oligarchs to make clean their money on our shores. There are numerous reasons for the people looting in London last week. While I condemn the loss of life and livelihoods, for some perpetrators the heavy handedness of the state’s retribution will be disproportionate to the severity of the crime. How can we teach our children to respect human lives, property and their communities, if those with power do not set an example? The disparities in the application of the law will only reinforce the alienation and disaffection that affect large swathes of our society. The hollowness in the mantra ‘we are all in it together’ is exposed for all to see.

In a television debate, the historian, David Starkey, blames the riots on whites becoming black by adopting black culture, thus implying that black culture is dysfunctional. Many commentators have attacked the racism of much of his retort. But look at it another way, in the 19th and 20th century, white working-class people and criminals were exported to the colonies, and in that way were able to retain their ‘whiteness’. There is a whole body of academic research on the social construction of ‘whiteness’ and its links with empire and the de-humanisation of non-Western people. Today, working-class white people have nowhere to go, so their poverty and alienation have become even more pronounced. They are dismissed from mainstream society as ‘scum’ and ‘chavs’, in effect, to the white elite, they have become as de-humanised as black people.

Let me now turn to parenting. Many commentators on the riots, including black people, have pointed to lack of discipline in the home and schools. There have always been problem kids in the East End; one cinematic depiction was in the ‘To Sir with Love’ movie with Sidney Pottier as the leading actor. Black parents, especially the older generation, are some of the strictest I know. Unfortunately, harsh discipline often leads to rebellion. I was lucky the support existed then to channel my rebellion productively. I cannot comment on the parenting skills of teenage mothers. But I know, as an ‘older mother’ trying to bring up a child on my own, at the same time as working full-time and even with the financial support of his father, it was immensely difficult. What I knew was that I did not want to be like my mother and I had to consciously hold back whenever I felt myself about to repeat aspects of the behaviour in which I was socialised. I am educated sufficiently to know that the abused often end up as abusers.

All parents are beginners, and the guidebooks are not that helpful either. The rich contract out parenting to nannies and boarding schools. The poor single parent has become even more atomised. Sales of council houses, amid high property prices, have meant that grandparents no longer live in the vicinity and young mums have no guidance, apart from social workers, who may appear to be judging them negatively. At least I had just about enough resources to pay for childcare: nursery, after school club, holiday play schemes and clothing (not designer), and to buy enough food when my child reached his teens and would eat a week’s shopping in three days. I wonder how many of the teen looters had a gnawing hunger due to insufficient food. Recently, on a trip to Hackney, one of my mother’s neighbours, who works in the care industry, asked me how much was a 2lb bag of flour in Aldi in Oxford. I could not say, even though I had switched my basic shopping to Aldi. She proceeded to compare the price in Netto and in the Co-op around the corner. Incidents like these remind me how far removed I am from the social reality of poverty in contemporary Britain. Can we therefore be surprised when we hear about looters raiding Lidl?

The issue of the absence of community keeps coming up in the media reports. I can only agree. Among the black community in London, there is no political community as such, no alternative to the church, which, despite the materialist bent of some of them, have managed to provide a sanctuary and a space for youth to express themselves. However, not all people are inclined to turn to religion. For me, I found camaraderie in the black political movements of the 1970s that provided a space in which I could find explanations about my condition and those of other black people within the society and elsewhere. My family were not immune from police racial profiling under ‘sus’ laws. We remain grateful to my mother for challenging the attempt to criminalise my younger brother. It is appalling that, some 30 plus years later, young black men are still subjected to similar levels of racial profiling.

The lack of community is presented by some commentators as one explanation for the rise of gang culture. Gangs are not a new social phenomenon in the East End. However, the prevalence of black youth in gangs and their confinement to limited geographical spaces, postcodes or ‘endz’ is worrying, but not unusual if you look across the globe, in El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, for example. The tragedy of the economic crises of the last 30 years has been manifested by the descending of alienated youth into gangs. At a conference in Oxford last year, Professor Colin Clarke, Dr Rivke Jaffe and Yonique Campbell presented a terrifying picture of the future of societies where the state had abandoned the people to the hands of the gang ‘dons’. Gang violence is probably the main cause of the death of young black men in London. Too many parents have lost their sons and daughters. It is a phenomenon that black people should be organising to halt. To do so we cannot just rely on the law; we have to examine why the youth see gang lifestyle as the only choice and seek solutions that involve wider sections of the community.

And so to role models – the lack of a father figure keeps cropping up. It is shocking that such a high percentage of black children are growing up in households with no fathers – because the women must be struggling to cope on their own, especially due to the atomisation of household units. Despite being a fairly independently minded person, I do think it is important that boys have men in their lives. However, it depends on the man and the nature of the masculinity he portrays. Many women leave men because of violence, whether it be physical, psychological or material (failure to contribute financially to household well-being). The role models that black men have are predominantly of an aggressive masculinity – but I would hazard a guess that the proportion that subscribes to this conceptualisation of manhood is relatively small – yet influential, because it is this cohort that gets media space and is presented as hegemonic. Children need their fathers and the women need their men.

In the book ‘African Sexualities’, the editor Sylvia Tamale challenges the ways in which sexuality and loving relationships among Africans have been studied historically, represented as dysfunctional and perverse, and have become medicalised through attempts to control African reproduction and HIV/AIDs interventions. The exoticisation of African sexualities left little room for the complex and diverse ways in which they are expressed in reality – something which black people will have to address. There are numerous issues concerning the relationship between black men and women in Britain that beg further thought. Black women are faced, on a daily basis, with idealised and racialised visions of beauty to which they can never aspire. Even an LSE academic has used pseudo-research to try to depict black women as unattractive. Unfortunately, today, we do not have the 1970s black power movement to remind the men how beautiful the women are.

And professional role models – I find this a strange phenomenon. I knew from my experience in Jamaica that, despite what some teachers and the media in the UK said, I was capable of going into any profession with the right schooling. However, it was my confidence in my abilities and encouragement from those three teachers that helped me to achieve academic success. On my last visit to an East End school I saw similar aspirations in the young people, but the school playground looked like a prison.

Young black people’s career choices are often constrained by the visibility of other black people achieving in particular profession. We want to be hip hop stars, lawyers and doctors because in this society, those are the professions where we see successful black people. I became an academic geographer out of expediency in my teens, but I value the insight the subject has given me into the wider world. Yet I am always disturbed by the paucity of black geographers at professional conferences, especially in the UK. Bonnie Greer is reported in The Voice newspaper as saying that opportunities have so declined for black people in this country that they may have to play the ‘race card’ to progress. This is a sad indictment of the state of affairs, and suggests that we have entered a period of regression. Some of my white friends say they can see Britain regressing to the social conditions of the 19th century and that would not be good for black people – even if one has a fondness for costume drama.

Looking back at my time in Hackney, I don’t think I would have succeeded if I did not have the solid grounding in Jamaica, the few school teachers who encouraged me by helping to broaden my horizons and, most of all, the availability of free public goods: state housing, library resources, youth clubs and education. For today’s youth, virtually all of these resources have declined or disappeared.

Neoliberal economists often talk about the need of governments to create an enabling environment for capital to grow at the same time as advocating cuts in social welfare, but what about governments creating an enabling environment for people, whilst curbing the worst excesses of capitalists. Getting the home, work, social and physical (environment) space right so that people can flourish – that is the challenge of the 21st century. If we don’t heed the message of the August riots, we are in for a bleak future.


* Dr Patricia Daley is a university lecturer in human geography and fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. She is also chair of Fahamu Trust – the publisher of the online social justice newsletter, Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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