In 1999, we used to live in Camberwell, South London in a top floor flat that overlooked the Camberwell Road and all of its ‘activities’. Besides watching Concorde fly over in the late afternoon with my newborn son, there would often be exchanges of different points of view on the street below. Then into the night, the club across the road would see the usual overspill of happy/violent drunks. However, maybe it was because I had already lived in London for seven years, or had known violence from living in Coventry, but I never felt threatened or in danger. Up the road in Loughborough Junction, there was a number of gang related murders, but otherwise it felt relatively peaceful.
Today, it seems a lot different. A friend was recently violently assaulted in Camberwell; punched in the shoulders and in the face to initially stun him, they then put a knife to his throat and stole his phone, cash, and bank card. Finally leaving with more punches to his face to make sure he didn’t follow. I was recently on a bus going towards London Bridge and four lads got on and openly talked, and laughed, about frightening some young man with a knife.
Many will know that murders in London have grabbed the headlines, and are at a ten-year high. The media and politicians are running around trying to make sense of it all. Gangs from different ‘ends’ are often blamed, and though there is some mileage in what is claimed, suggestions that drill and grime videos should be banned, to me puts the cart before the horse. There is even a map of London gangs, as though there might be a tourist opportunity to all this violence. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that there is a problem with poverty and masculinity in relation to the gangs.
Casey Bailey’s poignant and heartbreaking poem, ‘We Drink for Them’, is an elegy to a lost friend. His friends mark their grief with a tribute on a street corner. ‘Tip it for the boy raised in the grim cul-de-sac./ Tip it for the boy in the middle of a ghetto, crumbling./ Tip it for the boy who lost his dad to crime/ and lost his life to criminals.’ Young men gather together in many different ways (as a football or basketball team, in a band, as workmates, in the pub), but often such opportunities are not available for young men who got nothing from school, and have little opportunity when they leave. When you have such a situation, mixed with the need to protect what little you have, even if it is just your face, then you are literally fighting over scraps. As Casey says in the poem, ‘There are only so many ways you can say dead end/ before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ It doesn’t take a mathematic magician to equate this rise in violence with cuts in police numbers and requisite community strategies. Until they are addressed, the killings will continue.
Casey Bailey is a poet, spoken word performer, author, facilitator, rapper and secondary school senior leader, born and raised in Nechells, Birmingham. His work has seen him on stages up and down the country, and recently on the screen with BBC Three. Casey’s debut poetry pamphlet ‘Waiting at Bloomsbury Park’ is published by Big White Shed (2017). Casey’s hip hop (with one grime track) EP can be downloaded from Mixtape Madness and Soundcloud.
We Drink for Them
We stand heads bowed on the street corner
that he used to stand on, his head up, shoulders back.
A passer-by might think that we’re praying.
We don’t pray.
I grab the back of your neck and clutch it like you were him,
you hold me like you recognize that I’m not.
My dry palms, heavy on your sweat-wet skin,
my eye contact, exposes me to an agony
in your eyes that I’m petrified to share.
We’re passing a bottle of Steamers around, no cups,
chests getting warmer as our hearts grow colder.
Alcohol has always been medicine here, never a cure.
Two empty bottles on the floor, as we dive again
the bottle is faster, we swim deeper.
You pour a little to the ground dead homies gotta drink.
We manage a mmmmm, keep tipping.
Tip it for the boy raised in the grim cul-de-sac.
Tip it for the boy in the middle of a ghetto, crumbling.
Tip it for the boy who lost his dad to crime
and lost his life to criminals.
There are only so many ways you can say dead end
before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now we listen as you share your philosophy,
everybody has to die, nobody likes it
but either way we all have to live with it
till we don’t.
You simplify complex pain,
bridging deep wounds with shallow words.
We accept it, he was you brother.
As the bottle speeds up
each new drinker calls a name
putting life back into our dead friends.
We drink for them
It’s all we’ve got.