She still doesn’t understand, and, as I unraveled the ‘rules’ to her, I realised the apparent frivolity of an issue that has claimed so many young lives in inner city areas. Going to secondary school in a built up area of North East London meant the wars were pretty commonplace to me, and I used to watch on, bemused.
“By why can’t people travel anywhere they want to?” my mum asked. It was a difficult question to answer and, at best, I could only describe the phenomenon as an acute form of nationalism. First off, it’s about popularity, or becoming ‘known’. As far as I can remember, every postcode had a group of teenagers, usually boys, whose reputations preceded them. Sometimes there would be rival groups in one area, but when it came to fighting against the enemy- in this case, another postcode- the groups would band together to form a strong opposition. Relations between postcode gangs were usually so bad that if a boy from N17 ventured into N22 to buy a new pair of school shoes, he’d find himself chased out of the high street by a group of boys with knives. I could never really understand as I wasn’t really involved in it all, but, aside from the unavoidable inter gang disagreements and upsets, it seemed to stem from a fierce pride in your area, and a consequential hate of anyone who wasn’t from there.
Nobody was known by their real names, only by their tag names, which, in an attempt to clearly mark out territory, were often graffiti-ed around the built up hotspots of said postcode. The pressure to ‘rep your endz’- in other words, being proud of your claustrophobic grey patch of London- was high. It was just as nonsensical as the fierce, unrelenting pride nationalists hold in their hearts for their home country, affirming their own sense of self worth by concluding that everything the ‘other’ is, they are not.
An undercurrent of violence, threats and gang culture stemmed from poverty and deprivation, and permeated into the average London teenagers’ everyday life. Weapons weren’t as rife as the media portrayed at the time, but some kids carried them, or used dangerous dogs as a cruel status symbol. In my own sixth form (incidentally, a Catholic all girls high school) a disgruntled pupil brought a Rottweiler into the building to threaten and chase a media studies teacher.
Popularity played a big factor in the issue too- if you were ‘known’ or ‘knew people’ it automatically made you cool, and that very same popularity came in handy when you found yourself in need of twenty or so ‘heads’ to assist you in a fight. As well postcode wars, there were the (perhaps more traditional) interschool wars, and witnessing huge gang like brawls outside McDonalds every day after school wasn’t so unusual. In secondary school, everyone was desperate to become accepted, but the lengths people would go to often differed. Some of us fixed our fringes to our foreheads with handfuls of hair gel or carried tiny Nike rucksacks that we couldn’t fit our school books into- but ultimately, it was all about the path you chose and the crowd you fell into. The lifestyle was easy to avoid, but if you were fame hungry enough, the glory and the reputation were yours for the taking- that is, if you were willing to sacrifice your parents respect in exchange for the respect of your peers.
All the pride over essentially nothing certainly wasn’t worth numerous preventable deaths. Just as nationalists have no control over what country they’re born into, the misguided young men who were so eager to join up with the postcode gangs definitely didn’t choose the area the council moved their parents into.