Dark matters: on Jacqui Smith’s refusal to walk at night in London

Having previously assumed that our Home Secretary was a tough sort of creature — her no-nonsense school-teacher stare, proudly wonky teeth and assertive décolletage suggesting as they do reserves of self-confident robustness unavailable to a mere Willie Whitelaw or Michael Howard — she now reveals herself as a delicate soul, frightened to venture out onto the streets of smart Kensington, let alone Hackney, after dusk has fallen.

Who are we to question her judgement? Strictures of personal safety are, inevitably, intuitive in nature, predicated more on ‘what feels right’ than on reason, less on the rational stuff of facts and figures than the proliferation, locally, of those yellow signs that the police erect in the wake of rapes, assaults and murders. Such decision relate, more than anything, to issues of personal vulnerability, the chance that some really bad thing that almost never happens to anyone might, could, should in fact happen to you.

They are also self-fulfilling, in that people who look and act like victims have a remarkable ability to broadcast their status to others. But first and foremost, they almost always have some dark little heart of seriousness that demands, and deserves, respect. So, in other words, I’d be the last to tell Mrs Smith that it’s safe to walk around Soho at night, at least in any sense that might imply that she should try it herself someday. And yet at the same time, there’s much to be said for walking around Soho, indeed walking around London, at night.

The wild West End
Admittedly, even if we restrict ourselves to Soho, this may sound an odd contention. Crime statistics invariably highlight London’s West End as a glowing street-crime hot-spot. Thousands if not tens of thousands of Soho’s visitors depart its scruffy precincts minus mobile phones, wallets, handbags, passports, complacency. More, perhaps, are sold icing sugar, peat-moss and beakers of warm cola sipped in the company of distracted East European girls, all at inflated prices, but do not feel moved to recount their experiences to the police. Still others — whores, junkies, pimps, gangsters — end up on the receiving-end of the violence they’ve tolerated, courted or initiated. It’s not as if no one ever gets hurt here, or loses anything of value.

And it’s not as if Soho isn’t destined, one of these days, to find its place in the grim gazetteer of stabbings, shootings and so forth that killed an astonishing 26 London teenagers last year alone.

Not everyone who comes up to the West End, after all, is here to see a show or try for a seat at Barrafina. Intensified policing elsewhere in London tends to displace the violence to areas where policing is less intense. Anyone with a second-floor bedroom window overlooking one of Soho’s more secluded streets overhears, weekly if not nightly, contretemps implying that South London’s knife and gun violence is on definitely on the move. Whereas, it is highly unlikely that our hypothetical Soho insomniac, peering out through half-closed shutters at 2 am, will see any sign of police patrolling the streets on foot after dark. Perhaps, like their Home Secretary, the police do not feel safe on the streets on London in the evening. Perhaps she, and they, have a point.

The dark ages
Pressed on why she feared walking in Hackney alone, the Home Secretary changed the subject, opining that there never had been a time when she would have felt safe walking there, before collapsing into an almost High Tory retreat from logic into this: ‘Well, I just don’t think that’s a thing that people do, is it, really?’

Again, she may well be right. On one hand, it is incumbent on the young, perhaps even on the relatively young, to listen with deference to personal accounts of what it was like to perambulate the streets of nocturnal London in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. On the other hand, though, who would argue that St Giles Rookery, the seething stews of Westminster and sundry other dark quarters of London haven’t experienced an upturn in the gentility stakes over the past few centuries? In any event, it’s hard to believe that a respectable woman would have even attempted to walk alone after dark, whether in the London of Dick Whittington, James Lees-Milne or at points in between. She’s have gone out in company, or simply have stayed in. Most respectable men would probably have done the same thing.

Pre-modern people, after all, had the good sense to fear the dark almost as much as they feared solitude and unfamiliarity. We, on the other hand, tend to think that just as we have banished darkness with artificial lighting, and just as we have chased away the social interdependence of ‘safety in numbers’ with an amalgam of public policing, feminism and bold individualist rhetoric, we have somehow tamed the night. That we haven’t, that things still go wrong at night, remains problematic. There is also something vaguely troubling in the idea that, half a millennium of centralised government notwithstanding, every street and alley of London remains slightly different, each neighbourhood has a slightly different history and chemistry, and that ultimately, personal judgement, sired on intuition through a sometimes uncomfortable process of trial and error, may well still be the best guide through this twenty-first century city, night or day.

Midnight ramblers
Anecdote makes rotten political discourse. Still, the Home Secretary’s unguarded reply has projected questions of public policy back into the realms of anecdotal, private experience. Which is to say, no, if someone asked me, I’d probably admit that I wouldn’t want to walk alone through Hackney at night. This disinclination is not so much the fruit of knowledge — although the place does, admittedly, get a fairly dismal press — as it is the spawn of ignorance. I’ll happily roam the West End at any hour of the night because it’s home — my ‘manor’ — but I don’t know Hackney. I don’t know how the streets are laid out, where troublemakers congregate, what’s normal and what’s scary. Faced with an evening assignation in Hackney, I like to think I’d opt for a taxi, a retinue of clued-up friends, or possibly both. Clearly, this would be the rational response.

Except, of course, for the fact that rationalism and reality don’t invariably coincide. Having recently looked up Hackney on a map, in order to understand exactly what it constitutes, I now discover that last summer, I spent about an hour after a festival in Victoria Park, wheeling my son’s Bugaboo pushchair up and down various roads, no doubt radiating rebarbative prosperity and cluelessness in equal measure, seeking and eventually finding a taxi by nine o’clock in the evening. And then there was the winter evening about a year ago when my husband and I spent another hour or so wandering cluelessly around Stoke Newington, once again pushing that Bugaboo, on the way back from a party at a friend’s place. I’ve also roamed about in Shoreditch and Hoxton quite a lot at various points, alone or in company, not always entirely sober, sometimes late at night, but often very enjoyably indeed. None of these experiences have been bad ones. Some, indeed, even the bittersweet ones, take their place amongst my happiest London memories.

But then plenty of my happiest London memories took place outside, at night, in the dark. Crime, squalor and familiarity cannot quite obscure the realisation that our metropolis is quite simply one of the most beautiful and various on earth — by night as well as by day. Whether it’s a sudden glimpse of St. John Smith Square’s weirdly baroque roofline caught in the moonlight, or the shadows of the trees in St James’s Park swaying silently before the surface of the lake, or even just the shock of catching some dull and disregarded street depopulated by the darkness and hence suddenly made new, night seems to suit London. Constructed, at least in the centre, before the rise of the automobile, perambulation fits its scale and reveals its complex texture. And if, in some of my experiences — wandering up through Chinatown from Trafalgar Square afloat in a sea of polyglot, raucous humanity, or emerging from a sweaty but euphoric indie gig in Shoreditch to be shocked as much by the soaring mass of Christ Church as by the blast of cold winter air — there’s a palpable sense that something, anything might happen — well, that feeling can play either way, can’t it? London’s unpredictability can be thrilling or frightening. It can also be both at once. Oh, like everyone here I know people who’ve had absolutely horrible experiences with street crime in London — really, terrible experiences — so the last thing I’d want to do is to romanticise disorder, violence, their sometimes ineradicable pain. And yet I love walking at night, even walking alone, in the city that frightened and hurt them.

Fatalism, fear and failures
The Home Secretary’s comments have clearly touched a nerve. Part of this results from the way in which her words, however accidentally, reveal a comprehensible flash of the real (she’s female, she knows London isn’t paradise, she gets scared sometimes) amid the flow of insubstantial political rhetoric, worthy nothings and deadening generalisation. But they have also revealed an ambivalence on the part of many Londoners towards their mighty city. It’s our home but we’re not safe in it. We know it but now it’s changing. It’s not perfect, but at the same time, it’s ours.

To the extent that Jacqui Smith revealed a degree of fatalism about London street crime, she richly deserves the criticisms heaped upon her. Her job, after all, is to improve our actuarial odds of surviving life in London, property and person intact, not simply to surrender herself to them. (Having said that, though, her attitude is a recognisable one. One is reminded of the thing soldiers often say about combat: you can be prepared physically and mentally, and keep your wits about you, but at the end of the day, it’s either your lucky day or it isn’t. How many nocturnal journeys have been predicated on precisely that formulation?) Still, London in general, and the West End in particular, could do with a constabulary who are out on the streets at night, on foot, there on the scene before something happens, rather than simply — belatedly — afterward. CCTV is all very well, but its deterrent qualities lack the force of a couple of confident-looking authority figures striding loudly up a dark and lonely street.

There is also scope for cracking down on the petty disorder — pissing in doorways, smashing up street furniture — that somehow seems to licence more serious violence. The practical alternative — beefed-up powers for private security personnel — may not be long in coming. This, clearly, would solve many of our problems. Still, like the collapse of state-provided education and healthcare and the consequent flight to private providers, this is hardly a development about which any Labour party, even a post-Blairite one, should obviously be proud.

It’s also true, as the less congenial sort of Conservative might argue (only frothing slightly at the mouth as he does so) that immigration has played a part not only in the public perception of London’s crime issues, but in the reality of life here. There does seem to be an historical link between Yardie drug smuggling, gun crime and the development of London’s burgeoning gang culture. Then there’s immigration from parts of the world — notably the most war-ravaged nations of Africa — where, perfectly rationally, young men grow up believing that the violence is the key to survival, let alone success. Arriving in an alien society, possessing few relevant skills and, often, fewer aspirations, it would indeed be surprising if all of them managed to withstand the pressure to lose themselves in an underworld of drug-use and criminality.

Now, one would have to have a heart of stone not to wish for these young people a chance to escape the blood-spattered hells of Congo, Liberia and so forth in search of the better life which, remarkably, against the most enormous odds, some of them clearly achieve. Unlike those less congenial Conservatives, my heart is anything but stony on this topic. For heaven’s sake, let them all in! Cultural cohesion in Britain was never the sturdy and static thing some of these people dream it was. Assimilation and acculturation take patience, forbearance — and time. Still, as has always happened, police and criminal justice practices will need to develop alongside the changing threats to life and property, shaping themselves to the reality of current challenges. Crime only looks like a good option if the alternative is worse, and immigrants who came here, after all, in search of stability, safety and opportunity will never achieve any of those things in the absence of a robust criminal justice system.

Unreal city
Before, though, we blame our present-day, newly self-conscious urban nervousness on outsiders and newcomers, London’s establishment ought to ask itself what sort of culture it wishes to project as the truly local one, to which all recent arrivals ought to defer. And while sections of that a la carte menu are clear enough, and relatively hard to criticise — London’s history of tolerance, pragmatism, acquisitiveness, optimism, sporadic mass hysteria and habitual wry resilience have generally stood it in good stead — other parts are harder to read.

No matter how good the policing, our streets will never be safe as long as those hurrying along them, so often staring inward rather than outward, remain vague about the objective qualities of terms such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or as long as they regard their fellow Londoners’ problems as nothing to do with themselves. The London-based media, in particular, are guilty of serving up by way of normative description something cold, slick, cynical and subtly unpleasant, which, while it slips down easily enough, does little to nourish the decency, kindness, patience, good manners and moral bravery that still exist all around our city. Meanwhile politicians, dipping their hands into the rancid stuff of ethnic politics and hoping the prize is worth the contamination, deserve nothing but general contempt. This is as true of the patronising adoption of an under-qualified ‘community’ candidate for an ‘ethnic’ seat as it is of the repellent BNP and their dreary racist nonsense.

It isn’t spendthrift bread-and-circuses like the 2012 Olympics that will draw Londoners together, encouraging them to tread the same streets without killing each other — although, parenthetically, the undesirability of these games may be the one thing about which virtually all Londoners agree. It isn’t even the threat of radical Islamist violence — although, again parenthetically, it was heartening to see, in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, how unwilling Londoners are to be terrified, even briefly and superficially, by so-called terrorism. As much as anything, it’s a grudging defensiveness regarding the fantastic, flawed, unparalleled place into which we’ve been born, dragged by circumstances or compelled by dreams. No, If Jacqui Smith has made a real mistake, it lies in expressing an unwillingness to engage with this, our own grimy sphere of daily experience, our troubled, magnificent, complicated night-time London.

As I write this, the chimes of St Anne’s Soho have just finished striking 10 pm. The street outside, meanwhile, awash with the lurid sodium glow of our street-lamp, is silent. The silence has a neutral, uncomitted quality, neither sinister nor promising. Somewhere above the West End, there’s a full moon hidden behind the thick banking of clouds.

Despite the cloud-cover, however, it’s a cruelly cold night. The ecosystem of the West End, always so sensitive to weather, draws in upon itself. And then there are the facts of exchange and human interaction: the grey parsimony of January, cryptic postscript to lavish Christmas, is at its height in these late last days of the month. Who has the money to drink the town dry, or the physical fortitude to brave the frozen journey home? Better to rush home and then stay inside, half-engaged with the detritus of someone else’s daydreams as thrown up by the television, or lazily resentful of irksome and omnipresent flatmates, or — who knows? — at work on some battered Red Box of ministerial papers.

Two women pass outside my window, but they do so quickly, purposefully, wrapped up and on their way somewhere. The echo of footsteps dies amid the rubbish in the gutter. And there’s still no hint of that moon, which is either lost behind the clouds or perhaps just out of sight of the windows here. If I were outside, of course, a simple wander into Dean Street would solve the mystery. Tonight, though — and not entirely by choice, either — I’ll stay indoors.

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