The notion of 'The Lost Boys' is one of the most familiar tropes in our culture. Many - including myself - will connect the idea with the '80s vampire film of that name which depicted a gang of vampires as teenaged rebels, lost to ordinary society. Of course, the phrase has its modern origin in JM Barrie's Peter Pan. The Lost Boys are children, led by Peter Pan, who through residing in Never Never Land never have to grow up and take on responsibility, the rules of conventional society and all that goes with it. Our tabloid media has occasionally made use of the phrase to 'brand' teenagers (primarily from the inner cities) who have fallen outside the conventional run of society's expectations. Perhaps it has been replaced, in the light of the recent riots, by the less poetic 'feral youth', but the notion of a group of youths, primarily boys, falling outside ordinary social convention and expectation is a key modern trope.
In the late '90s, when I lived and worked in Salford, I spent a considerable amount of time in the company of so-called Lost Boys (& Girls). I helped run youth groups aimed at kids as young as seven or eight and as old as eighteen. I'll be honest with you: when I started I was absolutely shocked and stunned. Some of the kids we worked with were deeply troubled, neglected and, frankly, almost unmanageable. They had very little sense of boundaries. I feel slightly ashamed that I often thought that, for any number of the young lads I worked with, there was really nothing down for them. Some were already stealing at eight and, whether through bravado or truth, would offer you drugs for sale. It haunts me that I could already see the future of these little kids bleakly drawn out at the age of eight: petty criminality, drug dealing, prison sentences, boys becoming hardened tough guys. I sometimes hear about kids I knew back them - now in their late teens or twenties - and so many have spent time inside.
Of course not all were heading that way. And one of the things I want to emphasize is that even for those that had lost their way, there were some really special moments. Moments of immense warmth and humour in which the lads and lasses displayed real Northern/Salfordian charm. These were the moments when the masks of toughness (usually forced upon them by vile home lives) dropped and the child - still wanting to be hopeful and to dare to dream - would shine through. That was what would break my heart the most: knowing that these kids, even some of the older tougher ones, were still really kids. That if they were lost, they were still hoping against hope to be found. It was always harder to break through that carapace of toughness when the lads ganged together. But even then sometimes there were times of smiling and possibility.
It's easy both to condemn and to apologise for the behaviour of (what have been primarily) young people over recent days. I have been as angry as most and, believing we should priotize our best qualities (our compassion, our vision, our hope), I have also wanted to understand the causes of the behaviour. But most of all, I remember back to those scary, insane, often appalling but sometimes inspiring days in Salford. I remember the kids before they were utterly broken and lost. I remember the lad who - at eight - was forced out of his home everyday by a mum who needed the house to earn her living as a prostitute and how he'd roam the streets and be both charming and a little shit. I pray that he has found his way out of the cycle of violence and prison I know he fell into. I remember the lost boys and girls and how many seemed to have nothing down for them from such an early age.
There is a mystery here of course. Why do some, sharing in almost the same set of circumstances as another, escape these patterns of brutalization and others find it unable to resist? The Ancient Greeks were very honest, noting that we are all subject to the vagaries of moral luck, that even those who seek to cultivate the inner life of excellence can sometimes fall. The circumstances of our nurture really do have a massive impact upon who we become, even as some find the inner resources to carve out a different path. I know that those who have perpetrated the riots in the past few days need to come to a sense of responsibility for their actions; but I am also unsurprised that many share the common experience of exclusion, poverty, poor schooling and difficult home lives. I have had the advantages of moral luck in my background and many of those who perpetrated the violence did not. This simple fact prevents me from judging them as harshly as many feel they are entitled to.