Why it’s wrong to portray today’s lost generation as simple hoods
If you’re anything like me you’ll watch Neds, Peter Mullan’s visceral depiction of teenage gang life in a tough Glaswegian estate, through your fingers.
Mullan’s last film as a director was 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters, a scathing study of life in Ireland’s dehumanising Magdalene orphanages, and it’s clear from Neds he’s lost none of his passion for exposing injustice, nor his skill for floodlighting the darkest corners of humanity.
How clever of Mullan, I thought, to make me sit for two hours nursing a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat, my eyes and ears ever-alert for that sudden phone call, doorbell ring or random act of violence which will shatter my peace. It’s exactly how the mothers of sons growing up in kitchen sink estates across the UK live every day.
The film takes us into a world some readers will already know well, in which violence and weapons are commonplace, and the fear of being labelled a coward or a grass is greater than the fear of being attacked or imprisoned.
The lead character, John McGill, is transformed in a few short years from a straight-A student to a heavyweight gang member, the kind of person who drops a paving stone on his victim’s head once he’s demobilised him with a punch.
John’s father, whom Mullan has admitted is based on his own dad, is an abusive alcoholic. Caught in the middle, scared and powerless, are John’s defeated mother and his anxiety-ridden little sister.
It’s perfect timing for Mullan’s film about how the closing down of opportunities can destroy lives. Just this week official figures confirmed that youth unemployment has hit a record high, with almost one million 16 to 24-year-olds — a group some analysts are already calling ‘the lost generation’ — now on the dole.
Last month the Northern Ireland Crime Survey revealed that young men aged 16-24 were more at risk of violent crime than any other demographic group.
The next most at risk group were people living in areas “perceived to have a high level of anti-social behaviour”.
In other words, our sons are under threat — and, if they’re being brought up in poverty in 2011, they’ve got even less chance of defying the already unspeakable odds than they had before.
I met Paul Laverty this week, the award-winning script-writer of a number of unforgettable films, including Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, another portrayal of a young boy trapped by the grown-up environment of violence and drug abuse he’s been raised in.
Laverty is terrified by what he sees as an increasing abandonment of disadvantaged children by an ideologically driven government, which so far has abolished five child or youth related grants/credits (including the Child Trust Fund and Education Maintenance Allowance) and is cutting crucial benefits while unemployment rockets.
The media, meanwhile, continues to present the young men most affected by these changes as faceless, hooded animals, presumably to undermine the power of nagging social consciences.
But, as Laverty said, talk to any of these kids and you’ll find the stereotype is always wrong, a consensus lie.
These teenagers, who often spend their childhoods with heroin-addicted mothers and prison-hopping fathers before the care system intervenes, are more complex and unpredictable (by which I don’t mean vagrant) than the Large Hadron Collider.
They’re not just struggling, they’re drowning, and society’s response seems increasingly to push them further under.
I’m just grateful to Peter Mullan for reminding us of the real hearts and minds behind the headlines.