It’s just a few metres from Bartholomew Court, EC1, where a young man was one of four stabbed to death over the New Year, to trendy Hoxton, famous for its cereal bars and hirsute hipsters. It would be easy to say these two worlds – those of the trendy media types lampooned by ‘Nathan Barley’ and ‘Its Grim up North London’ and the large nearby estates – are separated by an unbridgeable gulf, but it would also be inaccurate. Areas like Hoxton became popular in part because of this edginess, this picturesque urban decay, where drugs can be bought cheaply from local youths and consumed in the safety of the adjacent wine bars and gated communities.
When I first moved to this area in 1985, much of Hoxton was like Bartholomew Court; even now there are some areas even drug-craving hipsters avoid. Over the past 30 years the area has changed almost beyond recognition, with new apartment and offices blocks, trendy eateries and poodle parlours on every corner; yet many of the old council estates remain, their long-term residents confronted daily by the inequalities and injustices of modern Britain.
It came as no surprise to discover from the latest Office for National Statistics crime survey that Islington, which includes Bartholomew Court, has the second-highest robbery rate in the capital, or that Hackney – including much of Hoxton – is at number eight. Camden, which borders Islington, has the dubious distinction of being the capital’s mugging hot spot; hardly news, surely, to anyone who spends any time on its increasingly dismal high street, day or night.
I have written about this little patch of London – which, along with Haringey (7th) and Westminster (3rd) I call the ‘Bemused Triangle’ – for decades, highlighting the crime, violence and above all inequalities to be found in the area. Yet frustratingly, whenever Islington in particular is mentioned in the media, it is usually associated with sun-dried tomatoes, frappuccinos, and Remainers. Jeremy Corbyn is routinely castigated for being ‘out of touch’, as if Finsbury Park was some leafy, sleepy village rather than a crime hot spot with some of the worst poverty in the country – and where Iuliana Tudos was murdered over Christmas.
Even my neighbourhood, Tufnell Park, synonymous with organic butchers and chintzy boutiques, feels distinctly unsafe these days, with moped gangs terrorising the high street and entering cafes to snatch laptops. Whenever the rain stops (thankfully not that often) gangs of youths hang around smoking drugs, doing wheelies on bikes, intimidating passersby; police on foot patrol, of course, are nowhere to be seen. I worry increasingly about the walk to school taken by my 13-year-old daughter. In September, my son will also attend a local high school, and already my wife and I are nervous about him having to walk past kids from other schools, through other postcodes, in his new uniform.
A few years ago, after an eight-year-old showed our son his knife, we briefly left for the green fields of Suffolk before realising we loved London, for all its faults, and beat a hasty return. Yet now, once again, we are worried: about pollution, about house prices, and about crime. We worry we are being selfish by continuing to expose our children to its dangers.
London, of course, is not unique; other cities, even within the UK, have violent crime, and in many of them young people have far fewer prospects. Yet London must be the most divided of all British cities; and Islington, with the possible exception of Kensington and Chelsea, the most divided borough. When former resident Tony Blair took office in 1997 (an event I celebrated by walking to Downing Street with a placard), I wrote about these divisions for Time Out. Blair lived in one of Islington’s leafiest streets, which is just yards away from the notorious estates of the Caledonian Road, or ‘Cally’. I wrote how, even in 1997, many of Islington’s Georgian terraces had ‘Vote Labour’ posters, yet on many of the estates – the Packington, the Marquess, Andover – the party had less support. During the EU Referendum in 2016, I noticed something similar: many of the Remain voters seemed to live in ‘whole’ houses with one doorbell; Leavers were mostly in house conversions and estates. I generalise, but the division in society between haves and have-nots is for me far more dangerous than the division between Leave and Remain.
North London and the Labour Party are, of course, intimate: I regularly see Corbyn on his bike; Ed Miliband manned the tombola at a recent street festival; Keir Starmer loiters at my son’s school-gate. Yet in thirteen years of power, Labour did little to address these inequalities; the Coalition seemed more interested in bombing Libya and in-fighting; and now Theresa May only wants to keep her head above water rather than fix what’s broken.
Central to this chasm between rich and poor is crime and safety. Overwhelmingly it’s the poor who are the victims of crime. Mayor Sadiq Khan has presided over the highest knife murder rate since 2008 and the police have given up attending what they see as ‘minor’ crimes, including burglary and assault – crimes which don’t seem so minor when you are the victim. It’s time the government, mayor, and Met stopped fighting among themselves – and started working to ensure ordinary Londoners feel safe again.