A teenager’s poem that reveals the cruel reality of life in modern Britain | Aditya chakrabortty
What if a statistic could tell its own truth? What if a stereotype could cloud your expectations?
A few weeks ago, I was leafing through the local papers when a story popped up. A schoolboy from Tottenham, north London, had just won the Foyle Prize for Young Poet of the Year. At the bottom was printed his poem. Called Welcome to Tottenham, he brought the news of a company which is only a few miles from Westminster but which might as well be in a whole world.
When historians such as EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm took the lives and perspectives of ordinary people rather than the stories of kings and generals as their subjects, their work was labeled history from below. So let’s call this poem news from below, the headlines like Liz Truss doesn’t matter (imagine) and the blue vs. blue fight is a soap opera on a distant screen. The news, in other words, for the country most of us actually live in.
Welcome to Tottenham.
Where we wake up to the smell of ‘Chick king’,
Mixed with the smell of the corpse of the day before.
Where we cover our blood-stained streets with parched gum,
Where the children have holes in their last pair of shoes,
Where daddy left mommy and poor mommy.
Giovanni Rose wrote his poem within hours on a Covid-era Chromebook distributed by his school. The teenager didn’t have to make things up; he noted the world he was born into. In person he is neither a guru nor a class clown, just a kid who keeps his head down and never swears in front of adults and speaks softly with the same rubbery tone as most of the working class youth in London today ‘ hui. And with the same unwavering clarity that marks his verse, he knows how strangers see him.
A 17-year-old black boy, he was arrested and searched by police on his local main road and near Oxford Street, even once by armed officers while he was, ironically, on the train to make a short film against knife crime. For decision-makers, it’s a statistic; for ministers, it is a stereotype; and for the media, people like Giovanni are… what, exactly? Case studies, maybe, to be given their 10-second clip on the evening newscast, and then thrown away.
But a democracy that cannot or does not want to listen to outsiders like him is not just missing out: it is collapsing in its work. A political class which waves its hand on the subject of “the youth” would be better advised to be silent and to listen to them. And the thing with Giovanni, and all the others that we talk about in our policy, is that they don’t fit their cutouts. They are so much bigger.
Giovanni knows that wearing joggers and a hoodie makes him sound like a thug – except they’re comfy, so he puts them on anyway. He grew up in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas, but he won’t let that define him either. His GCSEs were a string of 8 and 9, and if his A levels come as planned, he is due to leave next September to study math at a top university.
Let me also admit a personal interest. Going from Giovanni’s childhood, in the shadow of the Northumberland Park estate, and mine, just off Edmonton Green, takes just 10 minutes by bus but nearly three decades of history. I grew up under Thatcher; he has Johnson. He is black; I am brown. Our paths cross and meet. Its landscape is mine, almost, but as foreign as time makes everything. And so, after meeting and talking a few times, he agreed to show me what my old world looks like for a teenager today.
Where we ride on stolen scooters,
Where we cannot afford the tuition fees, then the streets are our guardians.
His childhood home is on a street with a church-food bank but backing onto a drugstore: a small terraced cottage from which industrial quantities of drugs were sold. Every time the police raided, the dealers would jump over the fence in his backyard. Too young to know what was going on, Giovanni would panic at the idea of burglars breaking in.
“The last straw for my mother was when a drug dealer got tasered by the police in my backyard,” he recalls. “It’s pretty funny now. But at the same time, it is not normal.
Her high school must help hundreds of children growing up in abnormal circumstances prepare for a world that expects them to behave perfectly normally. “They arrive with trauma, having suffered violence or sexual abuse,” said Jan Balon, director of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham. He’s recruited what is essentially a mental health unit, which advises just under 10% of the student body throughout the week. It costs, Balon admits, “a stupid amount of money,” but the NHS services are too underfunded and overwhelmed to trust.
I love but I hate my house,
I still listen to voicemail messages from my deceased peers on my phone
One night when he was 14, Giovanni was awakened by the sound of gunfire. Through his bedroom window, he could see the aftermath of a driveway. Tanesha Melbourne-Blake, 17, was killed by a hail of bullets. For years thereafter, the road was decorated with memorials to him.
He was only 15 when a close friend went with a younger companion in an attempt to recover a stolen pair of £ 90 sneakers. The friend never came home. A 21-year-old man stabbed him 10 times. Not long before, he had left Giovanni a voice note on Snapchat. “Just random, like ‘How are you, brother?’” Giovanni would listen to him afterwards. “Because I missed him. “
Giovanni came to a world where adults of all kinds could not be trusted automatically: neither the local gangsters, nor the police. Nor others who claimed to have authority. It was born as the Iraq war turned from a false triumph to a naked disaster. He started in elementary school as the financial crisis turned into a global depression. The following year, austerity began. He was seven when Tottenham erupted in the wake of the police murder of Mark Duggan and his family home was a mile from point zero of the riots that would devastate London and then England. And in the past two years, he’s been out of school for almost six months, his wifi cut in the middle of distance learning, and begged his eight-year-old twin siblings not to disturb him during the hours. Classes. But with his own room, he is counted among his peers as lucky.
We fight for streets we don’t own
Knife crime is on the rise because the ox cannot be left alone.
Giovanni’s mother trained him well, both in school and on the streets: stay on the main roads, keep looking over your shoulder. He never walks around without a destination, always knows who will be there and when he should be back (basically: he’s a teenager, after all). He lives in what Yvonne Kelly, professor of life course epidemiology at UCL, calls “a state of hyper-vigilance”.
“Just constantly worrying about who is about to come up behind him means that a high level of cortisol will be spreading through his system,” she says. “If this happens day after day, it could make him physically ill. And so the psychological threat can turn into bodily harm.
In a few weeks, Giovanni will be taking his mock exams, having already undergone tests that most of us will never experience. And then… well, then he wants to get out of Tottenham, leave it all behind. His hero is rapper Stormzy, “a rich black man from the neighborhood”. It is his dream, and now it is within reach.
“A little bit of me feels, ‘I made it out!’ I’m relieved to have survived, but I miss that space. Most of my friends are here, most of my memories are here. Even the smell of the chicken coop.
While studying for his baccalaureate, ask yourself two questions: How can Britain be, if a boy considers himself lucky to survive here? And what is the value of a childhood home if you are constantly taught to leave it behind?
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist and senior economic commentator
Excerpts from Welcome to Tottenham quoted courtesy of Giovanni Rose