Dead End Kids in search of role models
Here's an idea that will never get off the ground - the notion that black youngsters, instead of looking to rap stars and hoodlums as their role models, should turn instead to black lawyers, doctors, teachers and 'even politicians' to inspire them.
Not only will it never get off the ground, it was born flat on its back and already out for the count. Even politicians? Who was the last young person, black or white, who could even name a politician, let alone put one on a pedestal? William Hague could, when he was 16 and used to read Hansard instead of the Beano, but that's a long time ago now. The suggestion came, not surprisingly, from a Government committee of 20 'leading experts' in education and youth justice, of the well-meaning kind who when asked to invent the horse would come up with a camel.
Young people do not respond kindly to offers of role models on a plate with mint behind their ears. They prefer to pick their own. Does anyone here remember an old black and white Warner Bros movie called Angels With Dirty Faces starring Pat O'Brien as the priest, James Cagney as the gangster and the Dead End Kids as the Dead End Kids? Swaggering from heist to heist, Cagney is heroworshipped by the Dead End Kids, until the inevitable day when he faces the electric chair. The priest O'Brien, an old school friend, persuades the criminal Cagney not to go to his doom a hero as the Dead End Kids expect, but to pretend he is departing this realm a snivelling coward.
Role model, see? He puts on such a brilliant performance, screaming, "I don't want to die!" as he is dragged to the death chamber, that the scales instantly fall from his young admirers' eyes. But they don't convert to Pat O'Brien's church. They don't reform. They continue to be the Dead End Kids in a whole series of B-feature movies. I do not say that the great and the good are necessarily a turn- off for the young and impressionable. We have just seen tens of thousands of Scouts and Guides gathering in a massive jamboree to celebrate the centenary of their movement and to commemorate its founder, Robert Baden-Powell.
Now there was, and still is, a role model. My own role model was the writing phenomenon Edgar Wallace, whose gripping biography by Margaret Lane I read at the age of ten and which I have read once a year ever since. Born in the slums, he sold newspapers in Ludgate Circus at the foot of Fleet Street (where there is a plaque to him to this day). He became a soldier-poet, a reporter, an editor, a successful dramatist, a novelist and a writer on every conceivable topic (he once wrote a history of the world in a weekend, faster than it took the original Creator to make it). I set out to emulate him in every way I could.
I suppose if I were a black youth today I should look up to P. Diddy and with any luck become a rap artiste myself. (Why, incidentally, do I have to be black to qualify for attention from this Government-funded report? The young white underclass is just as disenchanted. Is it because young blacks are more trigger-happy?) More likely than becoming a rap star is becoming a lieutenant of a neighbourhood gang, waiting for the top banana to be shot dead before stepping into his trainers. That's the reality of role models today.
There are, as the politicians like to say, no easy answers. No hard ones either, as far as I know. I suppose the way out is via Tony's tired old mantra, education, education, education. But we'll have to think more about what these Dead End Kids of our era need to learn and want to know, and less about meeting bogus targets.