'NONE of us goes to town no more. Too violent.' Mark is referring to a fight in a club in the city centre called Panama Joe's, when a man with a cut-throat razor went berserk and slashed several people, seriously injuring them. All of the people injured were from Ely and personally known to Mark and the others.
I am spending Saturday evening with Mark and the others, all young, all white and nearly all conspicuously tattooed, on the Ely estate. We are sitting in Jason's front garden sipping beer and rolling joints. The house is in a small curving cul-de-sac just off Wilson Road where just a year ago there were four nights of serious rioting. It's all quiet now and though there will be several fights, muggings and break-ins tonight, the estate, apart from the gang of teenagers smoking and gambling outside the chip shop, has a suburban peacefulness.
I am here chatting and drinking beer by virtue of having been born and brought up on the estate and, though I've lived away for almost twenty years, I am still considered one of them. I am amazed at how much has changed. Ely has always been a problem estate, but a very British working class one. It would have been inconceivable to sit in the front garden openly smoking a joint and casually calling across the road to the dealer-neighbour asking about E or dope. Not while your five year old daughter played with her friends in the same garden. It would also have been inconceivable to be early twenties, unmarried, and with kids. However, what was beyond comprehension was to be in your early twenties and still at home on a Saturday evening!
It's not just the recession that has wrought the changes, though unemployment and the resultant lack of cash takes its toll, a whole system of social relations and values has been eroded. It feels more like an American ghetto than a council estate. It's not just the easy sex, easy violence, easy drugs, and the anything you order stolen goods. They were always there, (though all are more accentuated now); it's the attitudes to all these things that have changed. They're just a part of life. But to my mind the thing that stuns me is not just that they spend their Saturday nights at home but that they don't seem to mind. 'Well I suppose Saturday used to be special when you were single and looking for some action, but I don't know it's like any other day now. I know my old man likes to have a pint on a Saturday but he's old fashioned.' Jason rolled another joint and Lee chipped in: 'A few smokes, a few cans, we do that every night. That way the missus knows you're not out screwing some bird or some shop. Anyway, who wants to go out, do your bundle, and end up getting your head kicked in?' I shrugged, there's no answer to that. 'We got it all here.' Jason smiled. And they certainly do.
I've always regarded dealers as some kind of criminal lone wolf, a predator that profited from people's troubles and weaknesses. But nowadays they're the neighbours and they give good rates to the street and they're open all hours. And they've got kids of their own to feed. 'They only make a few quid out of it. They're not the big boys and they pass a bit on to the rest of us.' It seems to be the general opinion.
The whole street seems to be populated by mostly young, unmarried couples with kids and when the weather is fine, as it is this evening, there is an air of an informal and discontinuous street party, with people on their doorsteps, sitting on the bonnet of their cars, chatting, drinking, and smoking.
'I'm just going to see Carl about something for a minute. Coming up?' I accompany Lee up the road to a friend's. We pass a young black boy of about twelve carrying a rucksack. He stops and takes it off and asks Lee, 'Want to buy some tee-shirts? Got some good ones'. Lee says he's skint and we continue up to Carl's.
Carl comes to the door dressed in baggy shorts and tee-shirt. He is very large, tattooed and with a No. …