‘NONE OF US IS SAFE FROM TEENAGE KNIFE CRIME’
Six years ago, Yvvette Edwards’s 19-year- old stepson was the victim of an unprovoked knife attack. He survived, but the incident opened her eyes to an issue she could no longer ignore
A writer tells how a random attack on her stepson opened her eyes to the need ofr everyone ot take action
My interest in youth violence and knife crime began the day my stepson Nat became the victim of a random attack. Nat is one of the most wonderful young men that I know. He is the last person you would ever imagine being caught up in knife crime, yet he was. One evening six years ago, when Nat was only 19, his mum phoned my husband and told him their son had been rushed to hospital after being stabbed.
We were in bed on the evening we received the call. My eldest daughter was away at university and my two youngest daughters were sleeping in the bedroom next to ours. I had been reading and my husband Colin was working on his laptop alongside me when his phone rang. I only looked up when I heard the shock in Colin’s voice as he asked, ‘He’s been what?’
At that point the details were sketchy. Nat had been out with his friends when it happened. He had been rushed to hospital and needed emergency surgery. My husband, usually the calmest person in every scenario, was already out of bed, pulling on his clothes in a state of panic. The questions I wanted to ask were, ‘How bad is it?’ and, ‘Will he live?’ But because I could see the fear in Colin’s face, I didn’t put those questions out there. Instead I asked him to make sure he drove safely, and he promised he would call to update me as soon as he got the chance.
That phone call was the worst fear of any parent. Teenage violence and knife crime have become such an epidemic that they’re now being reported in the media virtually every day. Waiting to hear from Colin, I felt devastated and powerless. Then I felt guilty: as Nat is his mother’s only child and my husband’s only son, they were the most important people in all of this. It was almost as though my feelings were a self-indulgence when I was only connected to Nat through my husband, yet I couldn’t have felt worse had he been my own flesh and blood.
I sat in my daughters’ bedroom, watching them sleep. It felt as if just by being with them I was somehow making them safer, which is, after all, the bulk of your job as a parent – keeping your children safe. I had only recently returned to work full time, and Nat had finished college and was working for his dad’s managed storage business. Twice a week he finished early and on those days, he’d pick up his younger sisters from school. I thought about a conversation I’d had one morning a few months earlier with one of the mums when I was doing the school run. She had asked me who the lovely young man picking up the girls was. I had answered, ‘He’s their elder brother.’
She told me that one afternoon the previous
week, it had been pouring with rain and Nat had brought a Tweenies umbrella with him, which he was holding while he waited in the playground. When the girls came out of their classes, he put it up and held it over them both. She said she’d noticed him because he looked like a typical cool teenager, but the way he held that umbrella over his sisters’ heads, with not an ounce of awkwardness, had made all the mums smile. Why would anyone want to stab a person like that?
When Colin rang me he was at the hospital and Nat was in surgery. He had internal bleeding and the doctors suspected the blade had punctured his spleen. They had to stop the bleeding and the risk was that if the operation didn’t go well, Nat could end up with a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. Colin also had more details about the incident that had led to it.
Nat had gone to the cinema with a couple of friends and after the film finished they went to Nando’s for dinner. They were heading to the bus stop on their way home when a group of boys ran towards them and knocked Nat away from the edge of his group. One of the boys had a knife. The others were telling him to stab Nat. And he did. Colin’s voice was shell-shocked. Nat’s mum was distraught.
I phoned family and close friends to tell them what had happened, but it felt like I was explaining something I didn’t understand myself. It would have made more sense if there had been an argument or disagreement, if Nat or his friends had been bolshie. I needed to make sense of it because that was the first step in the process of protecting myself and my loved ones from anything similar ever happening again. But the randomness made it so much worse. How can anyone protect themselves from arbitrary, inexplicable acts?
The next time Colin phoned, he sounded exhausted. He said the operation had gone to plan; the bleed had been located and stopped. Nat was uncomfortable but he was conscious and talking. They were keeping him in hospital overnight. The relief in Colin’s voice said, ‘My son’s alive. He’s going to be OK.’
Up until then, I’d kept going on sheer adrenalin, but once I no longer had to focus on holding it together and being strong, it was as if my overactive imagination gave my worst fears permission to run riot. I knew it was possible for a person to die from a puncture to almost any part of the body (which is what happened to ten-year-old Damilola Taylor, who had died in a South London stairwell after being stabbed in the leg). I couldn’t stop the what-ifs: what if Nat’s wound had been a little higher or lower or deeper, or there had been a delay getting him to hospital, or the operation hadn’t gone well? Nat could have died or his life could have been permanently changed, and there would have been no reason for it.
That was the beginning of a period during which I became obsessed with teenage knife crime. I wanted to understand the thinking of boys like the one who had stabbed Nat: their value system, the thought process that enables a young person to harm or take another human life. I’d spent years watching these crimes play out in the media without really paying attention to them. But now that I was paying attention, I was struck by the fact that most teenage stabbings were not sophisticated crimes. They were often acted out on impulse, with no forward planning to consider forensic evidence, sometimes in front of crowds of people, witnesses, captured on CCTV in broad daylight. When caught, the perpetrators would be sent to prison to serve long sentences during what should have been some of the best years of their lives. Those boys didn’t simply have a lack of regard for their victims, they didn’t care about their own lives either. I wanted to understand where that came from.
Every time I heard about another stabbing, I found myself thinking about the victim’s family, constantly surprised at the lack of airtime afforded to them unless, for whatever reason, the crime was a high-profile one. While I watched those incidents play out, I was acutely aware that behind every teenage stabbing there were people – parents, friends, sisters, brothers, even witnesses and paramedics – affected; people whose lives would never be the same. I realised that while we were focusing on the perpetrators – what kind of upbringing they’d had, the trouble they’d been in previously – we were forgetting about the people worst affected, and I wanted to change that.
As an author, I have always written to make sense of the things that bother me most, and I knew that my second book was going to be about teenage knife crime. My novel The Mother is the story of a 16-year-old boy stabbed and killed by another boy. It covers the period of the trial of the teenager accused of the murder, and the story is narrated by Marcia, the victim’s mum. I wanted to tell the tale from the perspective of a character close to me in age who had lost a child to youth violence and had the same questions as me about why it’s happening and whether there is anything we can do to stop it. But close proximity with the issue wasn’t enough to write that book. I needed to do some research.
I met Yvonne Lawson, the mother of Godwin Lawson, a talented young footballer who, at the age of 16, was offered a two-year scholarship at the Oxford United Football Academy. Yvonne was a teacher at the time and lived in North London with her family. Until then, she had worried
Those boys didn’t simply have a lack of regard for their victims, they didn’t care about their own lives either
constantly about her son being caught up in youth violence. ‘When Godwin was offered that scholarship in Oxford,’ she said, ‘he could do what he loved most. And being in Oxford, I felt he was away from the crime and violence in London. I could concentrate on my younger children, because Godwin was safe.’
Then, one weekend, Godwin returned to London and went out with two of his friends, who were brothers. While they were out, the brothers were attacked by a group, and Godwin tried to stop the boys from killing his friends. Between them, the brothers were stabbed six times, and lived. Godwin was stabbed once, in the heart, and tragically, at the age of only 17, he died.
Listening to Yvonne was incredibly emotive. I understood her grief, pain and anger. She wanted justice, for the boys who had killed Godwin to be held to account. Yet in the courtroom, during the trial, she listened to the boys’ stories, to the information about their families and upbringing, and she felt compassion towards them.
While she was speaking, I recalled a previous visit to Feltham Prison, a young offenders’ institution, when an officer had told me that for many boys arriving at Feltham, it was the first time in their lives they’d had a room of their own and three meals guaranteed every day. Yvonne said that after the boys were convicted, instead of a sense of victory, she felt the need to do something to make a difference, so she set up the Godwin Lawson Foundation to do precisely that.
The Godwin Lawson Foundation uses sport to tackle youth crime and violence. It engages young people in football tournaments to break down the territorial fights between gangs living in different postcodes by bringing them together in a safe and supervised way so they can interact – maybe even become friends – reducing the chances of violence between them. Yvonne also visits schools, holding assemblies alongside a paramedic (who shows footage filmed at a stabbing murder scene), a police officer (who talks about the law around carrying knives and joint enterprise) and a former gang member who has served time for murder (who discusses his prison experience and the lifelong impact and consequences of his actions).
The foundation works with small groups of boys already involved in or at risk of becoming involved in crime, who are on the verge of being permanently excluded from school, and – crucially – works with their families to teach leadership skills, conflict resolution and emotional development. In one such group of ten boys, all of them ended up remaining in school and taking their GCSEs and one has recently been in touch with Yvonne to ask if it was OK to put her down as a referee on his Ucas application for university.
But perhaps the saddest aspect of what Yvonne does is the referral work with newly bereaved parents who have lost their child to violence, ‘reassuring them that they can get through this, giving them hope; little things such as encouraging them to keep going, to talk about their pain. When I tell them I understand what they are going through, it’s true.’ Now retired from teaching, Yvonne works for the charity full time. ‘The foundation was a way of bringing something positive from Godwin’s death,’ she said.
After our meeting, I looked online and realised that Yvonne was not the only parent who has set up a charity working with young people to effect change after losing a child to violence. Charities such as the Damilola Taylor Trust, The Ben Kinsella Trust, JAGS Foundation and The Kiyan Prince Foundation are working to raise awareness, support families and reduce youth crime and violence. It was humbling to recognise that the people worst affected were the same people spearheading the movement for change. Late last year, I did a reading at a fundraising event hosted by the JAGS Foundation, where its founder Tracey Ford – whose son Andre was killed at the age of 17 – said, ‘It is only through the help of our supporters that we are able to carry on climbing the steep hill of change.’
Nat has fully recovered. He still works with his dad and has become a thoughtful and considerate adult; he now lives with his partner. When I asked him recently, he said he never thinks about the incident and he doesn’t believe it has changed him. He was a teenager at the time, and he did what young people are often much better at doing than those of us tasked with loving and taking care of them – he bounced back.
The boys who committed that horrible act were never caught. The police suggest it may have been a gang-initiation ritual. The chances are that the reasons behind it will never be known. Before Nat was stabbed, I believed there were things you could do to help prevent your children from becoming victims of knife crime, such as making sure they were doing the right thing and that they weren’t hanging round in the wrong places or with the ‘wrong sort’. But during the period I was writing The Mother, everyone I spoke to either knew a victim or knew of someone who had been affected by knife crime – including every young person I discussed it with. More than anything else, it proved to me that teenage knife crime is an issue that none of us is safe or separate from. It is an everyday feature of the society we live in and because it is an issue that affects us all, we should all be concerned and be looking for ways to make our individual contribution towards helping wipe it out.
The Mother is published in paperback by Pan Books, price £7.99. To order a copy for £5.59 (a 30 per cent discount) until 26 February, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640*. Follow Yvvette on Twitter @YvvetteEdwards
Nat did what young people are often better at doing than those of us tasked with loving them – he bounced back
Yvvette today with her stepson Nat
‘Nat is one of the most wonderful young men I know. Why would anyone want to stab someone like him?’ says Yvvette