Reading between the lines…

For a few weeks last month, my life got as close as it will probably ever get to that of a drug dealer’s, or what I imagine it might be (I mean, I’ve watched the Wire so surely I’m an expert, right?). My sister made the comment as we were having lunch in Kings Cross and I received a phone call, telling me to call somebody else to arrange a meet up with a third person, leading to an afternoon spent in the staircase of a council estate in South London…

I wasn’t flogging or buying anything, and I wasn’t involved in any illegal activity, although I was in the company of members of what has been referred to as the ‘feral underclass’. Sometimes it wasn’t in the staircase but in the living rooms of various council flats, ranging from well decorated cosy homes to run-down flats, located within a few yards of each other… Sometimes it wasn’t on a council estate at all but in a youth club in West London, or in the back room of a local pub, sipping a lemonade and listening to what the ‘underclass’ (or their mums!) had to say.

Sometimes the person I was talking to was enthusiastic and wanted to tell me about many things, seemingly happy to be listened to. At other times my questions eventually coaxed them into confiding in me and my little recorder. One night, I spent three hours talking to a group of young people demanding I explain why they should talk to me, to us.

Questions ranged from “why should we help you?” to “what do you mean by ‘involved’ in the riots?” and “if I take part, can I get a scholarship to go study at the LSE?”. They expressed frustration at being asked to take part in research projects and never getting anything in return, one of the many ways they felt excluded from a system they were not given the keys to.

It was also the first time in my life – and I suspect it might be the last – that I was asked to prove I wasn’t a police officer (I couldn’t, but I  seem to have got away with it…)

Some decided that my answers were convincing enough and came back a few days later to share their stories, others came back for more answers and others yet voiced their mistrust at the whole thing and vowed not to take part. All treated me with the utmost respect and asked important, insightful and challenging questions.

Others yet never returned phone calls or said they were too scared to talk. I saw a grown man swallow back his tears in a café as he told me he wanted to talk but just couldn’t right now. I don’t blame him for never calling back…

The last couple of months have been pretty intense, and I know it’s been the same for the many others working on the same project… But it’s been immensely rewarding too, and I’ve met many great and inspiring people along the way. It’s also helped me redefine what I want to do as an academic and researcher and has been pretty emotional at times, though as a good academic, I’m sure most of that will take weeks or even months to surface!

In the mean time, you can read all about it for yourself here, and you should. Because only then can you make up your own mind about what actually happened in those few days in August…

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  1. March 2nd, 2012

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