Reclaim the streets

Fear of muggers encourages teenagers to try their luck.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Mugger off

Last Sunday morning I was the victim of a would-be mugging. It was in the early hours in London’s Oxford Street, as I awaited a night-bus, when a youth approached from a loitering group and demanded a cigarette. Even though I had a lit one in my hand, I refused, taking exception to his particularly curt manner. He went on his way.

A minute later, his slightly larger friend returned to ask what my problem was. I shrugged my shoulders. This accomplice also asked me for a cigarette. I said no to him too. Affronted, he then asked me for money. When I refused once more, he raised his arms, then his voice, and shouted ‘Give me your money’. I told him to go away, politely. He didn’t, only repeating his request. We were stuck in this stand-off until, within a minute, the night-bus duly arrived. I boarded it; he melted into the crowd.

It was not a particularly dramatic encounter, or courageous performance – the bus was a bit of a rescue. But it’s an important one to tell, as I think people too easily cave in to street robbers (as I have done myself on four previous occasions). This is understandable. Although we do live in a scary world, we also inhabit a disproportionately scared one. We are particularly attuned, thanks to the media, to the sorry fate of those who try to ‘fight back’ – they are branded vigilantes by the police, or worse, they end up maimed or dead.

I remember a friend of mine, William, walking down Holland Park Avenue in 1993, being approached by two boys of similar age. They asked him for his watch. William promptly head-butted one, smashing his nose apart, leaving his accomplice to scarper.

In 1996, a group of lads approached Harry in Fallowfield, Manchester, and asked him for his money. He said no. One pulled out a gun and put it to Harry’s forehead, telling him to hand over the wallet. Again he refused. This carried on for a minute, much to the bemusement of the gunman – ‘don’t you realise I’ve got a gun to your head?’ – before Harry reaches into his wallet, where there is a tenner and a fiver. He very obviously pulls out only the fiver and hands it over. The gunman takes it, and wishes Harry ‘respect’ before departing.

On a lighter note, an Irish relation of mine, subjected to bad language and threatening behaviour from young teenagers on the Tube, wagged her finger at them, telling them that she was in the IRA. The poor little urchins were reduced to silence.

Apart from the names, all of these stories are completely true, and I’m sure everyone knows friends who have had similar experiences. This is not to say that you should try it on with blatantly dangerous characters (who might have real guns), but I do think our culture of fear is damaging, even self-perpetuating, in that would-be criminals pray on our dread. They are sometimes mere teenagers trying their luck, possibly for the first time, in the knowledge that many adults will be cowed easily. If you tell a potential mugger to bugger off, politely, you might be doing him and society a favour.

  • Stick it in your pipe

Quite how Ireland is going to enforce its new anti-tobacco laws is anyone’s guess. Last week the Irish health minister Micheál Martin announced that from January 2004, smoking will be banned in all pubs throughout the twenty-six counties. I’m sure the Gardai have got quite enough on their plate without having to enforce this ludicrous law. It will be to the Irish public’s eternal shame if this legislation is observed. A population that servile will be prepared for any kind of governmental tyranny.

Surely the country that gave us Wolfe Tone and Michael Collins would surely not stand for this? I suspect that it will be flouted. Not in the French style of in-your-face complete disregard for unpopular laws, but in more clandestine fashion. Smoking ‘speakeasies’ will be the order of the day in secluded areas once reserved for poteen distillation or IRA shooting practice.

What is for sure is that Ireland can wave goodbye to its tourist industry. Visitors to Ireland have in particular always been promised a land where you can forget about your troubles, indulge in ‘the craic’, and make merry in a pub with a stone floor and mahogany bar. The English love pubs in Ireland; the Americans I’ve met there even more so – smokers to a man, taking a break from the USA’s ever-ferocious ‘war on tobacco’. These people are not going to come to the Emerald Isle to be subjected to this treatment too.

The Irish can also bid farewell to their international image of being a merry, easy-going people. A hundred-thousand welcomes? You can stick that up your bollix.

  • Soldiers in being masculine shock

This week, researchers from Newcastle and Sunderland said a ‘historically masculine’ culture in the army was hampering the prospects of women in the service – who are stereotyped as either highly sexualised or tomboy figures.

I don’t doubt that women make good soldiers – they were certainly feared in the Soviet army during the Second World War, renowned particularly for their sniper skills. But to cast the role of masculinity in a negative light seems perverse. As Joanna Bourke pointed out in An Intimate History of Killing (1999), soldiers at their best adopt a highly masculine persona and take great, macabre delight in the act of destroying human life. In no sphere is male bonding more pervasive, is ultra-masculinity more necessary, than in war.

Heaven help the fate of a country whose army is empathetic, in touch with its feminine side or undergoing anger-management therapy.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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