‘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

The Mail on Sunday - You - - In This Issue - Chris O’Dono­van PHO­TO­GRAPHS

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

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