Adult authority is so knowing, so sanctimonious, so frequently full of it about youth violence. But it isn't an adult experience, most of the time, to be regularly chased, smacked in the head, kicked in the stomach, baited, spat on, challenged to a fight, ambushed, have a weapon waved in one's face. Adults aren't the ones that have to deal with this.
Adolescence, for boys, especially working-class boys, is a violent threshold. When you're a teenager, you live in the state of hyperbole: where every misery is singling you out, where each sleight and disappointment is unbearable, where all emotion is consuming, and where humiliation is ultimate. And if there's violence, you think it will never stop. You think there will always be bullies, big sticks, and boys wielding them. Ambushes, sadists, knuckledusters, and gangs. Knives, sucker-punches, broken noses, and boys put in hospital.
This is what it's like, and you don't need a special theory -- say, of 'gangs' -- to comprehend it. And you don't have to seek the violence; it will find you. I can't tell you how many times I had to block blows, improvise escape, contrive to hide, or just run and run and run, hurdling barbed wire fences, tearing skin and flesh, charging through back yards, bombing across busy roads. As a boy, I ran so blindly from a boy that I dashed straight in front of the school bus. It had just enough time to brake so that all I got out of the interaction was a small groove in the back of my skull.
And how badly I wanted to come back at them, with anything, anything at all. It doesn't surprise me at all that young people -- and they're getting younger -- want to carry weapons. I wanted to carry weapons. Weapons seemed intrinsically impressive, the unanswerable answer. They were magic wands that would transform any difficult situation. They were the techne of rage, glamorously lethal. Nunchucks, knuckledusters, stanley knives, the fat end of a pool cue: this, the paraphernalia of teenage flicks, was all in the repertoire of boys of my age.
It is not difficult to imagine how some boys might think that carrying a knife will protect them. It is not difficult to imagine how frightened they are and, by contrast, how powerful having a weapon (and sometimes a side on whose behalf to wield it) could make them feel. And there's a perverse 'user effect' in play. The more people have weapons, the more people feel powerless without them. The more that daily life realistically resembles a game of hunter and hunted, the less chance there is to opt out. And a lot of boys, when I was growing up, had already learned this game from their fathers. They were running after me, running away from them.
Of course, the magic of weapons is jinxed. Once you have a weapon, the logic is that you have to use it. Pull it out in front of dozens of seeing eyes, and it's hard to put it away. Don't use it, and it will be taken from you, and used to more accurately injure you. Or kill you. Even if you walk away, the lesson that you will back down, that your words aren't for real, will radiate, and the hunters will come for you. So what do you do? Hospitalise or kill someone over a fight? Go to jail as a boy, with this on your conscience? Apparently, yes.
Whether or not the violence of adolescents ends, the violence of adolescence usually does. Not always and not immediately, but it winds down. The struggle for survival and social position changes gears after secondary school. It stops being about who can batter whom at least, for most people, one-on-one. The tempo of social violence shifts. It stops being so omnipresent. It becomes more avoidable. Helplessness is, by increment, reduced. Boys are being murdered, or becoming murderers, in squalid circumstances in tube stations and chicken shops before they get the chance to find this out.
When you're a teenage boy, helplessness is a sensitive subject. The models of adulthood that we imbibe from pop culture are, especially for those who aim to be men, actually models of omnipotence: plenitude, sexual power, effortless dominance, never ever feeling helpless. You spend years as a child being helpless, having no chance at all of doing anything about your plight unless an adult cares. In adolescence, you are forming adult expectations, dreams, plans, but you're still dependent, still subject to the caprice of authority, and there's still so little you can do to live as you choose. Adulthood doesn't, ever, eliminate helplessness. There are only relative states of being without help. But adulthood-as-omnipotence, toward which goal many boys try to grow up as fast as possible, is the fantasy solution to being helpless.
And adolescent boys who have good reason to fear attack, and that is an awful lot of them, have precious little protection. There's almost no one they can turn to. Adult authorities can present as dithering, indifferent, canting or downright callous: full of fire only after something disastrous happens, rather like the politicians who, as Gary Younge puts it, "respond to the coverage not the crime". They often think the same way as boys with knives do. The demand for more cops, more stop-and-search, tougher daddy figures, is a demand for bigger and better weapons: implicitly to protect the 'innocent' from the 'wicked'. It's what you get when working class lives only become visible at the point of catastrophe, as a pathology to be stamped out. It's fairy tale logic, magical thinking for adults, faced with their own helplessness.
It makes you wonder what an adult response would look like.