Criminal Leanings #9: Bleak Alley

Tomorrow the first installment of Stories From the Margins, my new series of True Crime books for Audible is released. It’s called Bleak Alley, and it details time I spent with a disparate group of people, all of whom were involved, in one way or another, with gang crime.

There’s a lot I want to say about the message I’d like to get across, but I’d first like to talk a little about how a book like this gets written.

Bleak Alley is the result of more than 20 years of research – it reminds me, in a lot of ways, of the first book in my previous non-fiction series, Wednesday’s Child, in that this was a book I just had to write.

I did my Masters Thesis, which was entitled Portrait of an Irish Street Gang, in the late 1990s. As someone involved in social care I had been seeing the impact of poverty and the abandonment of entire communities by successive Irish governments for years, and I wanted to study the effects of this on young people.

When I presented a research paper at a Sociology conference in 1997 it got picked up by the newspapers and caused a (very minor) furore. People back then just weren’t ready to believe gangs were developing into the kind of problem they were.

I received virtually no support from colleagues in youth and social care who had previously given me anecdotal information and contributed to the study (basically, people ran scared) and I actually abandoned the project for a few years – I was young, naive and didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to stand my ground.

I was finally persuaded by a friend who was an academic to complete the work, but even still, when it was finished I put it on a shelf and more or less forgot about it.

It was only when I began to get involved in journalism after Wednesday’s Child came out that I began to write about gangs again. All the facts I had outlined in my thesis had, by 2007/2008 proven to be completely accurate, and I found a whole new generation of young people who had been left without hope of ever achieving the goals our society told them they should be aspiring towards through the ‘acceptable’ channels of education or the employment ladder, kids who had no option but to embrace the world of the gang.

Bleak Alley tells stories taken from right across that time period. For sake of ease and to make a more compelling story I have compressed the timeline to run over a period of a few months, and the various stories I tell are presented concurrently, although in reality they didn’t happen like that.

And of course names, physical descriptions etc are all
altered to protect anonymity, and while the events I detail happened in different locations, I place them in an unnamed town in Ireland. The character of Griffin, the gang leader in the story, is based on someone I encountered, but I have added traits and stories I have been told about other gang leaders, as I felt they revealed truths about the life and culture I wanted to explore.

That said, the stories I present did all happen. As in my previous non-fiction series, I have simply altered the window dressing.

I have been doing interviews for Bleak Allley this past week, and one of the things I have been asked a lot is what message I would like people to take away from the book.

It took me a while to really come up with a good answer, as there are so many things I wanted to communicate, but I suppose the most significant lesson I learned is that each and every person I met, even the ones who treated me less than kindly, were people who had been dealt a bad hand and who were doing their best to play the cards they had in front of them. Most were inherently good people struggling to cope against crushing odds.

I met kids who were smart and talented, and who, given even half the opportunities youngsters from other areas are presented with, could have given so much back. I encountered and heard stories about gang leaders who exhibited managerial skills and emotional and social intelligence that, had they been able to channel it in other directions, could easily have succeeded as captains of industry or as leaders in almost any field.

We so often speak about people involved in gangs as thugs and scumbags and, at times, that is justified. However, we should never forget that these are people who started out just the same as you or me, but whose circumstances led them to a place where the options were so limited, there just wasn’t anything else for them to do but turn to crime. There are places in Ireland where joining a gang is simply part and parcel of growing up.

And there are places where the average person doesn’t see the gang as being a force for negativity at all. In Bleak Alley, I write about well-documented instances where gangs have stepped up and acted as community supports when politicians, social services and other agencies failed to act.

And, in the end, gangs are created by social forces.
Decisions on housing, social policy and economics created our class system and grinding endemic poverty. Drugs, which are the main source of revenue for the gangs of Ireland, are consumed by rich and poor alike. Accountants, lawyers, teachers and bankers are the customers of the kids I write about in Bleak Alley. The person they buy their bags of cocaine from at the weekend might not be one of the kids I have encountered, but those kids are never far down the line from the presentable, amiable individual who provides recreational powders to the partying professionals.

The truth is hidden behind a thin veil.

I’d like to finish this blog post with a comment on the violence in Bleak Alley – people regularly tell me they can’t read (or listen) to my books because they are too gruesome and dark.

There actually isn’t all that much violence in this book!
During my work with these kids I was always aware that it was part and parcel of their lives, but the most I encountered was being grabbed, pushed around a bit, and having a gang leader let me know he carried a knife, and sometimes a gun.
When you’re dealing with people in extremis, such behaviour is understandable.

And in every interview I have done this week I have stressed that anyone engaged in youth work, social care or any other kind of outreach faces the threat of violence on a daily basis, every time they walk out their front door to go to their jobs.

Stories From the Margins: Bleak Alley is releases by Audible tomorrow. I narrate the book and perform music specially composed to accompany the story.

I’m looking forward to your feedback.

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