The first punch snapped my head back with such force I thought my skull had become dislodged from my spine. And then more skinheads, sweaty after their exertions on the dance floor, streamed out of the pub, encircling me so that their odor mingled with their snarling rage. A couple more punches gave way to a fusillade of blows that knocked me to the filthy, gum encrusted sidewalk. And then the real brutality began.
Precision punches gave way to kicks as highly polished steel-toe-capped Dr Marten boots sought out my face and the back of my head. Suddenly, as my front teeth audibly snapped, I tasted blood mingled with Guinness, my half empty glass still on the bar before trouble started.
I still can’t be sure what started the melee, but I think it was when a young skinhead bounced into me off the dance floor and I reflexively put my arm up to protect my beer from being spilled, an act that was seen as an act of aggression against a pack of skinheads who had taken over the pub and the dance floor at the Laurel Tree in Camden Town, north London, a familiar after hours spot.
I’d run outside to avoid “a glassing”—a common act in London pubs of the late ’90s whereby a pint glass is smashed in half and the base and its jagged edges are ground into the unfortunate victim’s face. I avoided that fate, but I was kicked into unconsciousness before the skinheads withdrew.
A few minutes later, a buddy, also attacked but not as badly, dragged my limp form to its feet, my face a mask of blood, as I struggled to regain consciousness. A routine police van driving past slowed to a crawl as one of the cops, with the sliding door wide open, shouted out cheerily, “Is your mate all right?” My buddy struggling to hold me up replied, “Yup, he’ll be fine!” And with that the cops gave a friendly salute and drove off. I made it to the hospital at around 3 a.m.
This was my London in 1995. So the April 1 news from London—that for the first time the city has a higher murder rate than New York, with a rash of gang-related stabbings and drive-by shootings over crack-cocaine and petty sleights on social media largely occurring in my old neighborhood of Hackney—was no surprise to me. Violence has always bubbled under London’s seemingly genteel surface.
In the ’90s, pub and street violence were a daily part of our lives if you were a male between 16 and 29, with half of the country’s assaults taking place in and around pubs on men in that age group. The perpetrators were proud of the violence, a fact I discovered after some brain scans and reconstructive dental work when I found a small piece of paper that had been stuffed into the top pocket of my leather jacket: “You just met the West Ham Inter City Firm.” The skinheads were aligned with the east London football club West Ham.
Often the violence was centered around football teams and could erupt in any part of London, rich or poor. I got used to leaving my flat in Finsbury Park on Sunday morning to get the newspapers to find the landlord of the pub next door hosing broken glass and blood into the gutter after Arsenal fans had a “tear up” with Chelsea.
In 2002 I moved to a walk-up apartment in the East Village, New York City some three thousand miles from my flat in North London, despite the protestations of some family members who had been raised on American cop shows and movies like The Warriors who thought I was going to live in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Instead, I found Manhattan startling in its peacefulness and civility. New Yorkers sipping vodka martinis were astonished when I told them of my daily experiences in London pubs, where we formed a scrum at the bar, fighting for the bartenders’ attention and violence could explode at any second. New Yorkers in contrast said please and thank you and excuse me when they bumped into you on the street, which caused me to do a double-take. And I never felt threatened walking the streets of Manhattan at 3 a.m., unlike London where I was once robbed at knifepoint doing exactly that.
In fact, the only trace of hostility I experienced in New York was when my girlfriend dragged me to an improv poetry performance in a warehouse in Chelsea which comprised a woman dressed all in black reading a few stanzas of poorly written slam-poetry before ululating and screeching into a microphone for ten minutes at a time, before returning to two more badly-written lines of verse. When an urbane hipster asked me excitedly what I thought, pushing his oversize plastic-rimmed glasses up his nose, I demurred, saying I failed to see the artistic merit. “Oh-mi-god,” he snorted, crossing his legs fussily. “You Brits are so goddamn literal.”
I felt like a barbarian from a strange land, but I fell in love with New York City and its refinement, decorum, and elegance.
For years I set out on journalistic assignments like illegal gold-mining encampments in Africa, or weeks with a bounty hunter in south Central Los Angeles, and returned from the fray and the craziness of the outside world, to the sophistication and pacific calm of Manhattan where I felt safe.
But I was living in a bubble. When I embarked on my book, Sex Money Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood and Betrayal, about one of the Bronx’s most dangerous gangs and the deadly hold they had in the housing projects in the ’80s and ’90s, I was totally shocked to discover a racially segregated world and a level of poverty that rivaled much of what I had seen in the favelas of Brazil or the garrisons of Kingston, Jamaica but right in the city I loved. The island of Manhattan where I had been living was quite unlike the world I experienced across the Harlem River in the Bronx. Crack cocaine and a growing army of young men flocking to the Bloods was a stark contrast to the wealthy elite I had mingled with on the upper east side.
Of course, it could be that I moved from one of London’s poorest boroughs to one of New York’s most gentrified on the edges of Alphabet City. But as London faces significant challenges in the months ahead, there is no doubt that the brutal history of the crack-cocaine epidemic in New York will also be visited on London. Just like the Big Apple, London has densely populated government-funded public housing complexes that have become incubators for violent crime, the same as the ones in the Bronx that were so badly affected in the ’90s and continue to struggle to this day.
Now when I return to London, I see a city that has been hollowed out, with the affluent central areas around Paddington or Chelsea and Kensington taken over by wealthy Russian oligarchs who have bought all the expensive real estate, sending rents through the roof, while the local pubs and restaurants close due to a lack of customers.
London increasingly resembles New York, as disaffected youngsters form street gangs on the tough housing estates of Tottenham, north London, and begin the familiar retributive cycle of murder that denotes gang life in New York. Globalization and the growing rift between the rich and the poor, and the acute alienation and disenfranchisement of our inner-city youth, now fashions London, New York, and the world’s big cities into an eerie simulacrum of one another.