15 December. Two boys get on a 98 bus, from northwest London heading to the centre. They swagger upstairs, lounge on the front seats, turn their phones into inadequate speakers and drawl along. ‘Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr Magic, Marley Marl, I let my tape rock ‘til my tape popped’. Like they know what tape is.

You want to see how much London hates its young – some of them: ‘Let’s be honest,’ says the writer Owen Jones, ‘they’re not talking about Etonians’ -  watch them play music on public transport. Everyday silliness, adolescent thoughtlessness are treated like social collapse. Of which there’s a fair bit going around, true, but does it really inhere in this?

’On the one hand you have this patronising attitude towards young people, coddling them and everything,’ says Saleha Ali, 25, volunteer coordinator at WORLDwrite, an education charity in Hackney. ‘And on the other hand you have heavy-handed regulation, so there’s a hysteria about young people getting really drunk, going out, and all these kinds of things, it’s just like panic, oh my God, what are we creating, a generation of monsters?’

Quotidian teen truculence is as suspect as violence. Which does happen too, of course.


The night Hackney rioted, there were images local resident, journalist and photographer transplanted from Paris, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, had to record. She was out, like hundreds of others, among her neighbours. And it was all fine until a young man reached like an older brother around her neck, took her camera by the strap, punched the slight young woman repeatedly and hard in the face when she tried to stop him. 

‘Immediately, on that day, you see lots of people on Facebook saying horrible things about the rioters. Mostly saying “scum”.’ Certainly, being so savagely attacked, she remembers, ‘gave me an insight into how uncool violence is, how scary it is.’ She laughs, self-deprecating about her assault-satori. ‘But it would never occur to me to, because of that, to call a group of people scum. To me that’s crossing a line. Something I don’t do. People are people.’ Her disgust is audible. ‘Even if they do something, you know, not nice to you, they are people.’

Tinny music on a bus raises disproportionate ire. Travellers shift and glare as 14-year-olds give themselves soundtracks, like they’re boxers. Not all, but a fair few of the older passengers look wrathful.

Who cares? You’re getting off in five minutes, he’s 14 and trying it on a bit and boisterous to fill the city with music.

In 1998, Tony Blair ushered into being ASBOs, Antisocial Behaviour Orders. Sharp laws, the better for society, like Cronus, like a traumatised hamster, to eat its children. These startling civil orders criminalise legalbehaviour, individually, tailor-making offences. A 17-year-old is banned from swearing. Another told he could go to jail if he drops his trousers. A 19-year-old barred by law from playing football in the street.

’I do think there is something very particular about here.’ Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, one of the best-known figures in British child welfare. She leans her head on her hand, arranges her trademark, flowing, vivid clothes. ‘I have a hunch. Which is that the British are very ashamed of vulnerability. So what happens is whereas another culture might look back on their childhood and say “God, I was so cute, I thought clouds were cotton wool”, the British will look back and say “God, I was so stupid, I though clouds were cotton wool”.’

Catastrophe generates the beasts it needs. In London, in the UK, the term ’feral youth’ is absolutely routine. Media and politicians deploy it without much controversy. As if such a spiteful, shocking, bestialising phrase does not disgrace every mouth from which it spills. Its utterance is not a diagnosis, but a symptom.

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china mieville

A shorter version of this essay was published in the New York Times Magazine, on 4 March 2012.