You spent two years with inner-city police units and gang members in British cities – what did you hope to achieve?
I felt that gang crime was being reported very superficially. You would hear news stories of teenagers being stabbed but you weren’t getting the powerful human stories behind why this was happening. I wanted to find out more about the complexity of it.
I presume the police were happy for you to observe them in action. But how were you able to win the trust of gang members?
It’s actually not that easy to get access to front-line detectives and win their trust – they are guarded by the Cerberus of the police communications department. In many ways it was more difficult to get access to them than it was to gang members.
Various portals would lead me to gang members – one person would lead you in and then another person would take you to another level down, and so on. You had to be careful that the person taking you there was someone you could trust, be it a social worker, youth worker or ex-offender. Eventually you gain trust over a period of time and you get more access. It was patient investigative reporting. I’d stick with it and eventually find myself talking to someone and discovering a very powerful human story.
Did you find what you expected?
Not really. I had some idea about what was going on, but the human detail that you find from talking to people about their lives is something you never really expect. Take the heroin addicts I met in Southall [in west London], for example. These young guys had come over from the Punjab with the money their fathers had lent them from their farms. They had arrived on student visas and their money had run out. They ended up homeless and started taking heroin because they were so cold. Most days they went to this enormous temple to have meals, but they were too ashamed to pray because they felt dirty while they had drugs in their bloodstream.
I often found the kids on the streets of the inner cities articulate, charming and charismatic. Many had strong leadership skills. If they had been born in other circumstances they would probably have gone on to have good jobs. But because of the environment they were born into, these elements were being channelled into the drugs trade or gang crime.
Why do young people join gangs?
Many inner-city kids are under a lot of pressure – you’re an education failure, you’re abandoned by society, you’re downtrodden by your family and your associates. You have bad influences in your life and an inability to make good decisions.
The debate is often polarised between left and right. The right thinks that they are all in charge of their own destiny while the left thinks they are the victims of poverty and circumstance. They do make their own decisions and they make bad decisions like any other young person does – it’s just that the environment they’re in means the consequences are so much greater. It’s also difficult for them to free themselves from wrong beginnings. If you are a middle-class person with a loving and supporting family, a good education and a strong peer network, you can come off the rails as a teenager and it doesn’t really matter. But for these kids it does. Very often a small early offence can plug them into the criminal justice system and that’s where they stay.
To what extent do the activities of inner-city gangs go unreported by the media? The fact that gang members are killing each other on the streets of Britain seems to be largely ignored – until the criminality spills over into mainstream society.
That is absolutely right. It became an issue when the riots broke out in British cities in August 2011. The media suddenly became fascinated with gangs and for about a month my phone didn’t stop ringing – not just calls from the British media, but also the foreign press. But since the riots died down the press has been less interested.
Much of Middle England isn’t really interested because inner-city gangs don’t affect them. You’re right – they kill each other and they don’t kill middle-class people. There’s also a subtle form of racism. People believe that gang culture is about race, but in reality it’s an inner-city phenomenon. In Glasgow, the perpetrators of gang crime are white. Gangs are a reflection of deprivation rather than racial mix.
Has inner city criminality really got worse over the years? In Victorian London, for example, there were street gangs and no-go areas, weren’t there?
Henry Mayhew, in his book London Labour and the London Poor, was writing about these issues in 1851. He talked about an “undiscovered country of the poor”. Nick Davies in his book Dark Heart, which we will talk about later, uses quotes from Mayhew at the beginning of his chapters even though he is writing about contemporary Britain.
What has been a constant over the years is the exploitation of the vulnerable – particularly of the young and of girls. You also get the generational disadvantage being passed down – it’s quite likely that the offspring of people born into poverty are not going to raise themselves up out of that situation.
Let’s take a look at your books now. We’re starting off with a novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which I believe was inspired by a true story. Tell us more about Lush Life.
I love this book. Richard Price is famous for his detailed research and you can see that here in his descriptions of the cops and the kids. There’s a wonderful description of one kid growing up with his abusive stepfather and reaching the age that he can start to fight back. This is something I encountered a lot when I talked to boys in the inner cities. You have an abusive father or stepfather who beats them and their mothers, and then they reach the age of about 14 and they are big enough to fight back – this is a key moment in their life.
Lush Life is about this character Eric Cash, who is out with a charismatic colleague from the restaurant they work in called Ike Marcus. Two street kids come up to them and pull a gun. Ike Marcus says to them: “Not tonight, my man”. He is then shot dead. The following police investigation is a narrative engine that allows you to deeply examine Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The book is very textured, pacey and has fantastically layered characters.
If you compare it to great New York novels like Bonfire of the Vanities, it does touch on similar themes. There are some great scenes when the lead detective finds sweatshops and apartments overcrowded with illegal immigrants. There are great metaphors in the book for the ant-hill, termite-type living that goes on in New York.
Let’s move to Italy now and a passionate exposé of the Camorra mafia in Naples and Campania in Gomorrah. To what extent does this book put into perspective gang culture in Britain, given that the violence in Italy is on a far larger scale?
It’s true that the numbers killed by the Camorra are so much greater than anything in Britain. Also the way people are killed and disposed of is different and much more brutal. There is also the pervasive influence of the mafia in southern Italy, especially when it comes to the dumping of toxic waste.
Can you give us an overview of this book?
It is a great piece of investigative journalism. Roberto Saviano spent many years researching it and risked his life by writing it – he now has to live under armed guard. He looks at the many ways the Camorra has corrupted public life in this part of southern Italy. He looks at the port, for example, where a lot of goods are smuggled in. He also examines toxic waste dumping and the Camorra’s control over domestic waste disposal, which is a huge part of their empire. He also writes about the garment industry and the illegal sweatshops the Camorra run in Naples, where they copy designer clothing. It’s a business empire on an enormous scale and affects the lives of so many people. The violence they use is extraordinary, especially considering they are in a European country. You really can’t see Italy in the same way again after reading this book.
He writes about it in a very passionate and emotional way.
I love his style. It’s very readable. His reporting is excellent – he’s a very thorough journalist. What links him to two other writers I have chosen – David Simon and Nick Davies – is that not only do they write extremely high quality pieces of investigative journalism, but all three are fuelled by an anger about injustice.
Your next book, The Corner, is set in West Baltimore and spawned the successful HBO drama The Wire. Tell us more.
As you say, this is the book that led to The Wire, which David Simon created. The corner in the title is on West Fayette and North Monroe streets in West Baltimore. It’s an open-air drug market in a post-industrial landscape where the drug trade has taken over. The authors look at the area through the lives of the McCullough family – two drug-addict parents and their 15-year-old son DeAndre.
David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun for many years and worked closely with Ed Burns, who was a homicide and narcotics cop before becoming a teacher. This book shows how the drug trade recruits children, which is also a theme of my book. They bring these children to life with strong characterisation and the human details of their stories. These are children that are lost in this secret, oppositional world of the inner-city drug trade.
There are similarities between places like West Baltimore and inner cities in Britain. It’s a post-industrial landscape and there’s a “school of the street” or the “classroom of the corner” in both – it’s where many inner-city kids get their education and earn a living. In the UK the drug trade is worth about £4.5bn. It has a recruitment structure where primary school children who are excluded [from school] are drawn into selling drugs by “the olders”, as the older kids are called. The recruitment of young kids into shotting – street dealing – is all-pervasive now. You see it in The Corner, in The Wire, in Moss Side [in Manchester], Glasgow and London.
I was out with the cops in Moss Side and we came across some gang members shortly after a kid was shot dead. I asked one of them why he was doing what he was doing and he said: “It’s all in the game. You’ve got to play or be played.” That’s actually a quote from the character Omar [Little] from The Wire, which shows its influence outside the United States. All the natural abilities and promise of these kids is just taken and plugged into the drug trade – that’s one of the saddest things. David Simon and Ed Burns capture the despair and hopelessness of these kids so well.
In terms of structure, how do Italian mafia groups such as the Camorra differ from inner-city gangs found in Britain and the US?
The mafia is structured like a large corporate organisation in that it has its fingers in a lot of pies and runs a variety of business enterprises. The narcotics trade is a huge cash-based business and the money has to be laundered through these enterprises. There are certain businesses that lend themselves to cleaning large amounts of dirty money – nightclubs, lap dancing clubs – and that’s why the mafia sets them up.
The larger gangs with about 200 members in Manchester have a hierarchical structure. At the top you have the generals, who command the three tiers below them. At the bottom you have boys as young as 10 or 11 who do the drudge work. So urban street gangs do have this slightly military structure. You can see that too in the language they use – they talk about “soldiers” and “the fallen”.
Your next book, Code of the Street, is by the American sociologist Elijah Anderson. Can you tell us what the code of the street actually is?
The code of the street has to do with the difference between “decent families” and “street families”, as Anderson calls them. The decent families believe in family values, provide their children with a supportive network and an accepted code of behaviour. In street families, in poor urban areas, it’s all about respect and aggression. To be respected in this environment you have to give the impression that you are capable of extreme violence quickly. In Britain, for example, people have pit bulls, prison muscle and tattoos. Giving the impression that you are capable of extreme violence is very important. The code of the street says that the moment you are disrespected you have to avenge that with violence. If you combine this desperate search for respect with the hormonal nature of teenagers, you have a very explosive mix.
Anderson puts the blame for this street culture on feelings of hopelessness and alienation in inner-city communities. But that doesn’t explain why some people go down the gang route and why others don’t. Would you agree that there’s an element of personal choice here and it’s not inevitable that you will grow up to be a gang member if you live in certain inner-city areas?
Choices are massively influenced by peer groups. Quite often the influence of the older kids is very powerful, especially when there is no father around. Young boys are impressionable and are looking for role models. It’s the luck of the draw if you get influenced by a malevolent male role model or a good one. That’s why I think mentoring is very interesting. Mentoring as an early intervention gives these kids with behavioural difficulties a chance to have a decent role model for a period of time. Ex-offenders command huge respect among the kids and are able to turn them away from gang crime.
Once kids are already involved in gang crime, it’s very difficult to make them stop. Group dynamics play a big part. You get toxic groups of boys and young men. People are carried along by the group, and make very bad decisions as a group that they wouldn’t necessarily make as an individual.
For your final pick you have chosen Dark Heart by Nick Davies, one of Britain’s most respected investigative journalists. Tell us more.
As you say, Nick Davies is a brilliant investigative journalist. Dark Heart is not so much about crime but about poverty, but he does show how they are linked. He was at a fairground in the centre of Nottingham and noticed two boys hanging around, whom he befriended. They take him on a very dark journey around the streets of Nottingham – one that involves child prostitutes, pimps, vice squads and drugs. The title Dark Heart has got echoes of Conrad. You go deeper and deeper into poverty. Davies uses a quote from Henry Mayhew: “The undiscovered country of the poor.” That is basically where he takes you in the book, into areas that no one really knows about – a world of violent estates and people so poor they have no electricity and have to use candles.
What’s interesting about this book for me are the human stories. It does not read like a long column in the society section of The Guardian – it’s a book of powerful human stories. It was a big influence on me when I was researching Hood Rat, because I realised if I was going to write about social issues that I would have to write powerful human stories to make it readable, otherwise it could easily become earnest and worthy.
The strength of the human stories in The Wire and The Corner was the reason for their enormous success too, wasn’t it?
If you are going to write about social justice, you need to take the reader with you. That’s where the powerful human stories come from. Nick Davies spent a lot of time with the people he writes about in his book. So did Roberto Saviano and David Simon. With Hood Rat, I spent a lot of time with drug addicts and gang members, talking to them face-to-face. I wanted to find our common humanity, so that the reader appreciates what they are going through and doesn’t just see them as something “other”.
What’s also interesting about the books by Saviano, Davies and Simon – and also mine – is that to a certain extent they show the demise of newspaper journalism. In the old days journalists would be going out and reporting these stories and spending time on long investigations. This is no longer happening. It’s a sad thing because we need to get out there and find out what’s going on. In Britain today we are hearing reports about gangs grooming young girls in Rochdale, many of whom come from care homes that are owned by private equity groups. These are the kind of things that should set off alarm bells in people’s heads. Someone needs to get out there and spend time speaking to the people involved and find out the true picture. That’s why these types of books are important in the absence of that kind of journalism.
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