What if a statistic could speak its own truth? What if a stereotype could confound your expectations?
A few weeks back, I was riffling through the local papers when a story jumped out. A schoolboy in Tottenham, north London, had just won an award as a Foyle Young Poet of the Year. At the bottom was printed his poem. Called Welcome to Tottenham, it brought the news from a society that is only a few miles from Westminster but might as well be a whole world away.
When historians such as EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm took ordinary people’s lives and perspectives as their subjects, rather than stories of kings and generals, their work was labelled history from below. So let’s call this poem news from below, the headlines as if Liz Truss didn’t matter (imagine) and blue-on-blue combat was a soap playing on a far-off screen. The news, in other words, for the country in which most of us actually live.
Welcome to Tottenham.
Where we wake up to the smell of ‘Chick king’,
Mixed with the odour of the corpse from the night before.
Where we cover our blood stained streets with dried up gum,
Where kids have holes in their last pairs of shoes,
Where daddy left mummy and mummy’s left poor.
Giovanni Rose wrote his poem in a few hours on a Covid-era Chromebook handed out by his school. The teenager didn’t need to make stuff up; he jotted down the world he’d been born into. In person, he’s neither swot nor class clown, just a kid who keeps his head down and never swears in front of grownups and talks softly in the same rubbery twang as most working-class youngsters in London today. And with the same unblinking clarity that marks his verse, he knows how strangers see him.
A 17-year-old black boy, he has been stopped and searched by the police on his local high road and off Oxford Street, even once by armed officers when he was, irony of ironies, making a short film against knife crime. To policymakers, he’s a statistic; to ministers he’s a stereotype; and to the media, people like Giovanni are … what, exactly? Case studies, perhaps, to be allotted their 10-second clip on the evening news and then chucked away.
But a democracy that can’t or won’t listen to outsiders such as him is not only missing out: it’s falling down on the job. A political class that hand-waves about “the youth” would be best advised to shut up and listen to them. And the thing about Giovanni, and all the others who get talked over in our politics, is that they don’t fit their cutouts. They are so much bigger.
Giovanni knows wearing joggers and a hoodie gets him marked down as a thug – except they’re comfy, so he puts them on anyway. He grew up in one of the most deprived parts of England but he won’t let that define him either. His GCSEs were a string of 8s and 9s, and if his A-levels come in as predicted he should be off next September to study maths at a top university.
Let me admit also to a personal interest. To go from Giovanni’s childhood, in the shadow of the Northumberland Park estate, and mine, right by Edmonton Green, takes a mere 10 minutes by bus but nearly three decades of history. I grew up under Thatcher; he’s got Johnson. He is black; I am brown. Our paths cross and abut each other. His landscape is mine, almost, but as foreign as time renders everything. And so, after meeting and speaking a few times, he agreed to show me how my old world looks to a teenage boy today.
Where we ride around on stolen scooters,
Where we can’t afford tuition so the streets are our tutors.
His childhood home is in a street with a church-cum-foodbank but backs on to a drug house: a small terrace cottage out of which industrial quantities of drugs were sold. Every time police raided, the dealers would jump the fence into his backyard. Too young to know what was going on, Giovanni would panic that burglars were breaking in.
“The last straw for my mum was when a dealer got Tasered by the police in my garden,” he recalls. “It’s kind of funny now. But at the same time, it’s not normal.”
His secondary school has to help hundreds of kids growing up in abnormal circumstances prepare for a world that expects them to behave perfectly normally. “They come in with trauma, having faced violence or sexual abuse,” says Jan Balon, head of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham. He has recruited what is essentially a mental health unit, which counsels just under 10% of the student body throughout the week. It costs, Balon admits, “a stupid amount of money” but the NHS services are too underfunded and overwhelmed to rely on.
I love but I hate my home,
I still listen to the voicemails of my dead peers in my phone
One night when he was 14, Giovanni was woken by the sound of gunshots. Out of his bedroom window, he could see the aftermath of a drive-by. Seventeen-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake had been killed in a hail of bullets. For years afterwards, the road was decorated with memorials to her.
He was only 15 when a close friend went with a younger mate to try to retrieve a stolen £90 pair of trainers. The friend never came home. A 21-year-old man stabbed him 10 times. Not long before, he’d left Giovanni a voice note on Snapchat. “Just random, like ‘How are you, bro?’” Giovanni used to listen to it afterwards. “Because I missed him.”
Giovanni came into a world where adults of all kinds could not be automatically trusted: not the local gangsters, nor the police. Nor others who purported to be in authority. He was born as the war in Iraq went from false triumph into naked disaster. He started at primary as the financial crisis turned into a global depression. The year after, austerity began. He was seven when Tottenham erupted over the police killing of Mark Duggan and his family home was a mile away from ground zero of the riots that would consume London and then England. And over the past couple of years, he’s been out of school for nearly six months, his wifi breaking amid remote lessons and pleading with his eight-year-old twin siblings not to disturb him during class. But with his own bedroom, he counts among his peers as lucky.
We fight over streets we don’t own
Knife crime’s on the rise because the beef can’t be left alone.
Giovanni’s mum drilled him well, both in studies and on the streets: stick to the main roads, keep looking over your shoulder. He never just goes for a walk without a destination, always knows who’ll be there and when he should be back (roughly: he’s a teenager, after all). He lives in what Yvonne Kelly, a professor of lifecourse epidemiology at UCL, calls “a state of hyper-vigilance”.
“Just constantly worrying who’s about to come up behind him means a high level of cortisol will be swilling around his system,” she says. “If that’s repeated day after day after day, it could make him physically ill.” And so psychological threat can turn into bodily damage.
In a couple of weeks, Giovanni will sit his mock exams, having already faced tests that most of us will never know. And then … well, then he wants to get out of Tottenham, leave all this behind. His hero is the rapper Stormzy, “a rich black man who got out of the hood”. That’s his dream, and now it’s within reach.
“A bit of me feels: ‘I made it out!’ I’m relieved I survived, but I miss this space. Most of my friends are here, most of my memories are here. Even the smell of the chicken shop.”
While he’s revising for his A-levels, ask yourself two questions: how Great can Britain be, if a boy counts himself lucky just to survive here? And what is the value of a childhood home if you’re constantly taught you must leave it behind?