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David Lammy: My fatherless childhood helps me to understand London's rioters - August-03-12
Source: The Telegraph (David Lammy)
We don't yet televise courtrooms in Britain, so we know little about the details of the proceedings that brought 2011's class of rioters to justice. But as the parliamentary session petered out in Westminster last month, I finally had the chance to visit the trial of a rioter at Wood Green Crown Court in north London. In those eerie minutes before the judge came back, the defendant's barrister and solicitor were deep in conversation. I seized the opportunity to speak to him. He was well dressed for his day in court but his slouched demeanour vanquished any impression that he might be making an effort. He was belligerent. His raspy voice crackled as he desperately tried to come across as brave. I learnt that he was from Bermondsey, had left school with just three GCSEs and had been trying to get work as a labourer. This wasn't the first time he'd found himself in the dock. I gestured to the empty benches behind him and asked where his family were. There the last piece of this social jigsaw fell into place: he lived alone, he rarely sees his mother and his father left home years ago.
By then, the clerk had taken his seat and was politely gesturing to me that the judge's arrival was imminent. I turned back to the defendant and, without really thinking, wished him luck. Moments later, the doors at the other end of the court swung open. The court-weary barrister rose while the defendant had sprung up. The aggression on show just seconds earlier had vanished. His already pale skin had now turned a sickly, milky white. He was being tried for affray and for assaulting a police officer last August during the five tumultuous days of unbridled nihilism and hedonism that shocked our nation. If found guilty, he faced spending the next two years of his life in prison.
The defendant's involvement in the riots was his own moral choice and he was rightly being held to account that day. I had been shocked by the cruelty and calculation displayed by the rioters, and chilled by the obvious enjoyment on the faces of those caught on the police footage I'd seen. One only has to meet the victims of the riots - the shopkeepers who lost livelihoods, the officers who put their lives at risk - to understand the importance of a punishment that fits the crime. But what was also painfully clear about this young man was how the circumstances of his life had been shaped by the choices of others. A succession of schools and referral units had failed him. Successive governments have failed to tame surging levels of youth unemployment that condemned thousands like him to the scrap heap the minute they left the school gate. An unreformed and underfunded criminal justice system failed on several occasions to modify his behaviour. Perhaps the most important choice of all, though, was the one made by his father to walk out of his life. Standing in court that day was a boy trapped in an adult's body - no one had taught him how to be a man.
Today, one in four children is brought up by a single parent, compared with one in 14 in 1972, the year I was born. Overwhelmingly, it is the father who is absent. Many single mothers do a heroic job looking after their families, as mine did with her five children growing up in the shadow of the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham; but as she found, it becomes twice as hard to set boundaries with half the number of parents.
My father was a taxidermist, not a run-of-the-mill profession for a West Indian immigrant. Having given up on becoming a vet, he settled for working with dead animals rather than live ones. Dad was a true craftsman, an artist. At his workshop in north Tottenham, wooden cupboards filled with meticulously catalogued animal parts and tanning oils sat beside a safari of finished figurines. I remember watching his hands bring this menagerie to life, and his broad, bright-white-toothed smile when customers walked out wearing satisfied expressions.
But as the Eighties loomed, the recession meant there was less money in those customers' pockets. With a new agenda of animal rights, wildlife protection and licensing and export controls, Dad struggled to make a living. He started drinking heavily. As his business lost its way, so did he.
My most enduring memory was of being pulled towards him as we stood on platform five at King's Cross station. Just two years earlier, on the very same platform, he had told me how proud he was of me for having won a choral scholarship to boarding school in Peterborough. This time was different. Hugging me close, he whispered, "Take care of Mum, OK?" He was leaving the next day for the United States. Aged 12, I was returning to school. For my father, America held out the promise of a fresh start. He had always been someone I looked up to when he lived with us. He became unimaginably more important the day he left.
Mum worked non-stop, doing two, sometimes three jobs, throughout the Eighties. As commentators and politicians lambasted the assumed moral failings of single mothers, I came to appreciate the voices who wanted to stand up for people such as my mother - smart, dedicated and deserted by her husband. That defence came overwhelmingly from liberals, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, who realised that these women were performing heroics and needed help, not insults. The danger now, however, is that those same liberals who fought so hard for single mothers now give the impression that fatherlessness does not matter at all. They insist that it is the quality of parenting that matters, that the loss of a father matters only if it means a loss of income.
That's not how I remember it. Although I made friends and found kind and generous teachers, there were many moments when I struggled to cope with what felt like a betrayal by my father. My initial anxieties were predictable: when the first hint of stubble appeared on my face, who would teach me to shave? More problematic was what was going on back in Tottenham. I was 13 in 1985 when Broadwater Farm erupted and PC Keith Blakelock was savagely murdered by a mob. My greatest fear growing up was that I would end up in prison. I would exchange stories with black friends who had been turned down for jobs because of their skin colour or postcode. The anger, the sense of injustice and the temptation to lash out would grow - and I missed out on having a father who would set me straight. My mother fought desperately to hold her family together, reaching deep into a formative black cultural experience that relied heavily on faith and self-help. My siblings and I would be at church on a Sunday whether we liked it or not. Mum believed in God but, like many folk in Tottenham, she also took solace in the sense of fellowship surrounding our church.
Growing up without a father didn't mean I had to lower my sights. It just meant that I had to work harder so that his choice didn't define my life. I was lucky. I had an older brother who looked after me. Teachers, priests and youth workers all helped fill the great father-shaped hole in my life. The choir - as corny as it sounds - provided me with a diversionary activity that gave me a goal: to fulfil my mother's wish for me to be the "black Aled Jones". It also taught me the pursuit of excellence and the hard work necessary that set me on course for university and Harvard Law School.
But since my youth, many of the social structures that provide boundaries and direction for teenagers have disappeared. Our neighbourhoods have become more atomised - we are less likely to know our neighbours or live near our relatives. Churches have less reach into communities than they once did. As for schools, one in four primaries has no male teacher (and 80 per cent have fewer than three male teachers), meaning children with absent fathers can go many years without sustained interaction with a male in work.
Meanwhile, the subversive forces that make easy prey of impressionable teenagers are as strong as ever. They are buttressed by a consumer culture where identity and self-esteem can be purchased (or looted, as we saw a year ago) from your local Foot Locker and, in the worst instances, a gang culture which dictates that power and respect can be won through being feared. For boys with little else to teach them how to express their masculinity, the result can be toxic.
Nine in 10 of the August rioters were male. It is time for masculinity to be looked at seriously: how many of those male rioters would have benefited from learning about what it means to be a man from someone they can sit down and talk to, rather than from rap music and video games?
The state cannot replace a father. Fatherhood cannot be nationalised or mutualised, nor can it be outsourced to G4S. What government can do is reinforce the responsibilities of fathers from birth. Making it standard practice to register the names of fathers on birth certificates would be a good place to start. Currently, 45,000 children every year do not have their father's name on the register. When parents are unmarried, the mother's name is placed on the certificate but a father's name is recorded only if the mother agrees to it.
To ensure that men stay involved in their children's lives we must ensure that fathers have the same access to services and parental leave that mothers have. Parental leave is still too skewed towards mothers. It means that women are often discriminated against by employers nervous that they may have children, while men go back to work having spent barely a couple of weeks with their children. Couple this with low wages and the culture of long hours in Britain, and even those fathers who want to do the right thing can become strangers to their children. We need to value the father-child bond more than this.
If a relationship is stable, having two parents living under the same roof is an advantage for a child. But what also matters is whether fathers continue to play a role in their children's lives when relationships between parents break down. At the most basic level this means paying their way. The Government's plans for the Child Support Agency to charge commission on every maintenance payment that is made or received is an error that must be reversed. Much better would be for fathers to register their National Insurance numbers as well as names on birth certificates so the money could be taken at source.
Beyond these questions of maintenance are the relationships that cannot be so easily replaced without a concerted effort. The Government's "Big Society" initiative is woefully lacking in substance, but increasing the presence of positive male role models in our inner cities would be a good place to start.
Our vision of philanthropy has to be broadened out from just the chequebook - it is time that our boys need. City firms send armies of successful adult men to schools to paint fences and tend to gardens as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, so why not bring them into the classroom? Countless benefits would come from inner-city boys meeting and building a relationship with successful men not much older than themselves as part of a mentoring programme.
Maybe none of this would have helped the young man I spoke to in court that day - perhaps he would have made the same choices had a father been around for him to learn from as he grew up. But unless you have lost a father from your life, it is difficult to comprehend the void this can leave - and the risk that darker elements of modern culture can easily fill it. For too long we have let fathers become absent, disengaged and disempowered when it comes to their children's lives. The riots that took place a year ago were a wake-up call - we must act before a culture of violence robs more young men of their future.
My own father never found a way to be part of my day-to-day life again. Only when I became an MP in 2000 did we speak briefly on the phone. I'd tracked him down to Texas. I'd learnt he was poor and drinking heavily, but I savoured his words: "I knew you'd do it; I knew you'd do it." Three years later, he suddenly fell seriously ill. I went back and forth over whether I should visit him in his last months. I wasn't ready to open the Pandora's box I'd kept closed for 18 years. A few months later he died.
It wasn't until 18 months had passed that I felt ready. On a visit to the States, I decided to head to my father's grave. A vast plain, the cemetery backed on to a teeming freeway. At one end was a gas station; at the other a tawdry hardware store. Endless tombstones lay higgledy-piggledy across the expanse. I struggled for about half an hour to find Dad's grave. All that differentiated it from a mound of dirt was a small plaque marked "No. 224313". Dad had died a pauper, penniless and broken. Tears welled in my eyes but I was unable to cry, unable to realise any attachment to the moment. What's in a life, I thought, staring at the dusty grass beneath my feet. I knelt down and whispered, "I forgive you." What more could I say?
In a daze, I wandered to the nearby gas station and bought some plastic flowers. I plonked them in the ground in front of my father's plot. It was nothing much, but it was some sort of marker - not just for my father, but also for me. I had long before decided there was no point in bearing a grudge against my dad.
I like to think of him not as an inherently bad man, but as someone who lost his confidence, his self-respect and his way. He is a constant reminder to me of the sad spiral of destruction that can occur when a man loses sight of his purpose in life, and the fallout borne by the family he leaves behind.
• David Lammy was a Labour minister from 2001-10
• His book Out of the Ashes is available from Telegraph Books at £8.50 + £1.10 p & p.. Call 0844 871 1515, or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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