'Terrible thing, all this violence. Someone ought to do something about it.' Martin Kochanski joined a group of young people who are doing just that London's unofficial crime-busters, the Guardian Angels
IT IS SUNDAY AFTERNOON in a dance studio somewhere near King's Cross. Twenty young people wearing identical T-shirts spend three hours learning unarmed combat and First Aid and rehearsing scenes of street violence. Is this some new menace to society?
The London Guardian Angels are a small volunteer group dedicated to making life safer for Londoners. Originally trained by the New York Guardian Angels (a larger and longer established organisation), they have spent the past five years patrolling the Underground and other trouble-spots, in defiance of official disapproval, to protect people from violence; they have also found the time to train the founders of similar groups in Stockholm, Malmo, and Manchester.
It is easy to see why official spokesmen are nervous: the idea of hyped-up teenagers roaming the Tube looking for baddies and throwing them through windows is too awful to contemplate. But such nightmares disappear when faced with the reality of a Guardian Angels' training session.
They are such very ordinary people. Most of them are in their early 20s (the oldest is 35), and they come in all shapes and sizes. The Last leader of the group was a 5'2' Asian woman; the present leader is a mildmannered man in spectacles who works in a shoe-shop; and his deputy may be built like a tank but is also the best First Aid teacher I have ever seen. There are no shaven heads, no chains, and only One bandanna.
The Guardian Angels are interested in just one thing: violence against the person. If they see it, they will not hesitate to get physically involved to stop it; more often, they deter it by their Very presence: one Underground station manager invited them in (against official instructions) and then had the embarrassing task of explaining to his superiors why violent incidents at his station had fallen by 90 per
The training is gruelling: and Angels must have at least ten weeks of it before they can lead a patrol. How to calm aggressive people; how to defend yourself if talking fails; how to throw your adversary to the ground without harming him (pull up as you throw, make sure his head lands on your foot); how to break up fights.
How to look after the victim; if he wants the police, how to make sure the assailant doesn't leave, preferably by persuasion but in any case without doing harm (here's a head-lock that won't break their necks if it goes wrong); how to keep crowds away from the injured; how to be a good witness. Don't look threatening. Be calm, polite, helpful, reassuring. Chat to other passengers. Relax. But if anything happens react fast.
The climax of the evening is the role-playing. Because of their reputation, most of the Angels' patrols are peaceful; but to keep that reputation, they have to be able to deal with all kinds of violent incidents. So volunteers take it in turns to leave the room and to be a patrol, while the rest of the group invent a situation for them to deal with.
In the Angels, everybody volunteers, and so, in due course, I find myself outside the room, in a borrowed red beret, quaking inwardly but reassured by the calm authority of my patrol leader. The six of us go back into the room: a fight is going on.
Separate the combatants and keep them apart: three of us with each, to calm or restrain, to care for injuries, keep back crowds, and run messages. Does anyone want the police? Yes one does, so keep the other one there, get
a friend to talk to him, quieten him. Suddenly, they both make a break for the door, and only I can stop them. Before I can think, I find myself politely stepping Out of their way.
All this isn't particularly menacing. So why the official hostility? Politicians, of course, are easily accounted for: the Left want the State to be the sole authority, providing security as and when it deems fit; and the Right don't want the lower orders getting above themselves. No politician ever feels happy with something he isn't controlling.
The police have a better excuse: if they officially said they approved, and something went wrong, they'd be blamed.
Unofficially, there's some co-operation. For instance: last year, in Southall: a man was murdered and the police, having no clues, called it suicide. The Angels went in, made house-tohouse enquiries, and presented the police with a dossier including the name of the murderer.
The official spokesman said it was all a waste of time: amateurs shouldn't try to do the police's work for them. Unofficially, the police said that they couldn't have done it themselves: for a start, they didn't speak eight Asian languages. They reopened the case, and the murderer was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, all on the basis of that "useless" dossier.
Why do people join the Guardian Angels? One or two of them have been victims of violence, but mostly, they just find the whole idea natural and obvious: they have been Guardian Angels, without knowing it, all their lives. Either way, the philosophy is the same: if I saw someone
attacking my mother, or brother, or sister, I'd try to stop them; everyone is my mother, or brother, or sister; therefore, whenever I see anyone attacking anyone, I will try to stop them. Drunks, drug dealers, prostitutes, graffiti artists they are all safe from us, as long as they don't start hitting people.
A night-club near Leicester Square has a monthly drag night. The transvestites lower the tone of the neighbourhood, so the crack dealers beat them up or used to. Now the Angels keep the peace. If they tried to interfere with business, they'd be shot; but they don't: they just keep the streets safe for men in dresses.
Are the Guardian Angels a threat to society? Only if you think that society should be made up of sheep looked after by officials. But if you think that we all need to work together to hold our society together, then they are no more of a threat to law and order than First Alders are to the medical profession.
There is a shameful side to the Guardian Angels' story, and it is this: London, with a population of 13 million, has 30 Guardian Angels; Stockholm, ten times smaller, has 200. Are the English the suet puddings of Europe?
I blame the parents. If you're under 18, you need their permission to join and they don't give in. Even over 18, one of the commonest reasons for dropping out of training is "My parents found out".
Apparently it is socially acceptable for one offspring to get beaten up outside night-clubs, but not to join a safe and sober organisation dedicated to protecting others. "Terrible thing, all this violence," people say. "someone really ought to do something about it".
At the end of the training session, they asked me if I'd like to join. I'd love to, I said, but I haven't got the time.
Terrible thing, all this violence, though. Someone really ought to do something about it.