224 pages, Faber 224
Review by Marc Nash
Harriet Sergeant ought to be someone I'm opposed to all down the political line. A journalist for right-wing newspaper "The Daily Mail" and member of Conservative Think Tank "The Centre For Policy Studies" and yet she has produced a book about Britain's underclass youth that shows a real sensitivity, empathy and willingness to engage with people she ordinarily would never come into contact with in her daily life; kids from the 'other side' of the street.
She befriends and mentors a gang of South London teens, as she tries to help guide them from a life on the streets and crime, but comes to see how they are stymied at every stage by indifferent, box ticking State institutions and donation-hungry charities that do little with the money raised. They are trapped by not only their poor standards of literacy (so that they can't fill in complex bureaucratic forms) and chaotic lifestyles that mean they rarely keep appointments, but the move to break away from the 'Hood to a conventional life with such a remote chance of success through the paucity of life skills, is actually a psychologically rupturing decision, since once you repudiate your gang family, there is no returning back into their bosom when society almost inevitably rebuffs your attempts to try and go legit. So most don't even attempt to. Her natural political 'position' ought the criminality is due to family breakdown and a lack of male parental role models, is actually quickly overthrown for a far more sophisticated analysis into the plight of these kids broken at a very early age.
We get a very insightful report into the poverty of these kids' experience. Where everyday things we take for granted are completely unknown to them. However, everything is monetised inside their heads in their vain attempts to translate them into meaningfulness within their own shrunken value system. We get the crushingly sad outline of how these kids often are hungry and commit street crimes just in order to be able to eat. Because Sergeant shows them a bit of love and loyalty, she is utterly accepted into their lives, whereas the never-ending parade of social workers, parole officers, foster parents and other carers change monthly so that no rapport is ever built up. Sergeant responds to the utter humanity these kids still manage to retain, though she can see that while one-to-one they are essentially decent young people, together in the gang they are vicious and egg each other on. They are bright but untutored. They are analytical, but in a completely unstructured, untutored way. Their analysis runs to what is required for survival, how to read the signs and symbols of life on the few streets they can traverse safely without fear of being jumped by rival gang members.
So as a portrait of the mindset of the likes of those involved in the riots of 2011 the book is a triumph. And props to the author for entering such an alien psyche so far removed from her own. But there were a few psychologically troubling issues that the book didn't deal with. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I did wonder at the exact nature of the relationship between author and the main boy named Tuggy Tug. I don't doubt the author's real intentions to help him and she does admit she made several misjudgements in her actions that possibly gave him false hope and exacerbated his problems. But I also wonder why she became quite so intensely involved in his life over the course of three years. Was he a pet project to save and redeem? Was he a different sort of son she emotionally adopted, the antithesis of her privileged son at a private school and who points out that while she has photos of Tuggy Tug on her phone, she has none of her own flesh and blood son? I was just a little uncomfortable that she didn't make space in the book to seriously analyse these questions in her own mental makeup, because unresolved I think they potentially have sinister resonances. As enlightening as her portrayal of the lives of these benighted youngsters is, I can't help feel that with a lack of full self-awareness as to her own emotional drives, then she was doomed to fail Tuggy Tug. That she would always remain on the outside, not merely through class, educational and value differences, but because her attitude towards him of redemption or salvation is patronising. I had the sense that she was akin to a colonial missionary and therefore unwittingly and well-meaningly exploitative. What's worse, a missionary within her own country, but one so divided from itself that it feels like a foreign land in places. Nor was there any examination of her ready acceptance of criminal behaviour in her presence, particularly in her car around drug taking or dealing. It's clear her sympathies increasingly slide over towards the kids because of the barriers she comes to encounter on their behalf. But at no point is she reflective about why she is prepared to stand their criminality, other than without it they don't get to eat. Again, she may well have perfectly acceptable or understandable reasons for putting up with it, but she fails to offer them here and I think such omission is problematic.
Among the Hoods is an essential read and a troubling one, for both good and bad reasons.