IF you’re the mother of a teenage son, you must be scared of nothing. Emotional outbursts. Passionate arguments about politics which contradict your own beliefs. Strange items in the laundry and the nagging anxiety that one day your child needs to be capable of handling a job, home and children of their own.
I’d say that with a 16-year-old, I’ve learned to roll with the punches. Nothing alarms me about my son, Jack, but knife crime terrifies me. It is the scourge of his generation, curtailing young lives in one frenzied instance with no thought from the perpetrators about the heartbreak left in their bloody wake.
It’s the one thing that frightens me every time Jack goes to a party. I’m no over-protective helicopter parent. I’ve brought up both my children to be independent. I’ve never been a mother prepared to spend her evenings and weekends ferrying them around.
It’s a different matter at 1am when Jack is on his way home from some teenage soirée. He tells me not to worry, he’ll walk. My imagination, fuelled by horrific stories of random knife attacks on young lone males, tells me something very different. Nine times out of 10, we’ll agree that he gets picked up, or stays over. In extreme cases, we’ll even send a taxi.
I know that Barnsley, where we live, is hardly the centre of London where the number of offences involving a knife or bladed instrument in the 12 months to March 2018 rose to an alarming 40,147, a seven-year-high, as the capital’s murder rate soars.
However, there can’t be a corner of the country which isn’t aware of the threat. Last week police and council chiefs revealed that in Sheffield, our nearest big city, violent offences have doubled since 2014.
Sheffield’s rate of violence still remains the lowest of the English Core Cities in the 12 months to June 2018, but these findings do not offer much consolation to a parent. In October, for example, a boy aged 17 was attacked in a fracas outside a takeaway in Parson Cross. He survived but it happened at 6.30pm in a busy area – not the middle of the night on a lonely unlit street.
When I mentioned this to Jack, he told me that it should put my worries about him walking home alone into perspective. The reasons why this kind of violence proliferates are complex and difficult to understand, he added, with a sagacity I had to respect.
He should know. Like many of his age, he listens to what’s known as “drill music”, a form of hip hop which amongst other things, glamorises violence. The incessant thudding bass lines and incoherent ramblings don’t particularly bother me. Neither do I assume that mild-mannered Jack will come downstairs one day transformed into a nihilistic gang member.
However, it is just one of the many factors which needs accepting, as Labour’s Harriet Harman has rightly pointed out. It would be impossible and counter-productive to issue a ban, but there should be more education in schools about how destructive gang culture can be. Bring in respected speakers, do something useful in those PSHE (personal, social and health education) lessons and teachers could potentially save lives.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan says it could take a decade to reverse the knife crime situation in the capital. It sounds defeatist, but we have to give the man a break. Eight years of government-enforced austerity have hardly given some youngsters a chance to thrive; they feel alienated and beyond the reach of law and order, welfare and social services. Ministers should be forced to address this, rather than turning the other cheek.
Also, in so many communities, there is no understanding of what constitutes a stable family life. Fathers are absent. Mothers struggle to cope. Grandparents and other rationalising influences are ignored or derided. Young men (and women) are growing up with no sense of consequence for their actions, and worryingly, bringing more children into the world who have no choice but to share their distorted values.
I’m not sure what anyone can do about this, but in Sheffield at least a new multi-agency task force has taken advice from US police experts and set out a strategy to tackle the rise in violent crime.
The plan includes measures to make criminal activity more difficult, prosecute those running gangs, target areas where crime is concentrated and, crucially, involve all members of the community from major nightclubs to families.
This is what is needed. A coherent, faceted approach that does not shy away from harsh reality. Sadly, it comes too late to save the five people stabbed to death in the past year in the city, or offer succour to the 23 others who have suffered serious injury.
However, it might just be in time to offer some reassurance to all us mothers who worry about our child making it home alive.