Tottenham in focus: ‘How I escaped the London post-code war’
PUBLISHED: 17:00 27 March 2013 | UPDATED: 10:28 17 April 2013
Robyn Travis grew up on the streets of Tottenham and Hackney, and soon became embroiled in a vicious turf war between the two areas. Now he is releasing a book, and hopes to encourage others to follow his example
London’s knife and gun crime problems have become a hot topic for the media industry over the last decade. Films such as ‘Kidulthood’, ‘Adulthood’, ‘Bullet Boy’ and, most recently, the acclaimed channel four series ‘Top Boy’ portray the capital’s streets as a sinister landscape of unremitting crime and violence. Robyn Travis disagrees with all of them.
“I’m not trying to disrespect any of them, but none of them carries a positive message like my book does,” he says. “They offer no explanation of youth before the teenage years, the years when you learn that if someone hits you, you hit them back to defend yourself.
“That lesson does not come from gang mentality, it comes from the home, and it comes from life on the street. These kids are not to go out and hit people first, but to defend themselves. But that kind of behaviour can lead to destruction.”
The book Robyn Travis refers to is ‘Prisoner to the Streets’, due for release this month. An account of the first 21 years of his life, it documents his involvement in the escalating violence between the young men of neighbouring estates in Hackney and Tottenham during the late 1990s and early 2000s, violence dubbed by the media as London’s ‘post-code war’.
It may be a sensational term, but it accurately described a series of running battles between the teenagers of Tottenham and Hackney. The rules were simple: if you were from another part of London, you were the enemy. If you strayed into enemy territory, you paid the price – and the punishment was dished out with a knife or a gun. It was a vicious, relentless turf war which to this day has claimed hundreds of young lives.
Robyn grew up on the Tiverton Estate in Tottenham, before he moved with his mother and older brother to the Holly Street estate in Hackney, and went to school at neighbouring London Fields Primary. It was the loyalties he felt to friends from all three parts of his life: Tottenham, Holly Street and London Fields, which led him into London’s turf war.
As a teenager, Robyn stabbed and was stabbed. He was knifed in the head, chest, leg and stomach. He had a gun held to his head, stood trail for and was cleared of attempted murder, and spent six months in a Jamaican jail for attempted drugs trafficking. Close friends died. Others went to prison. All, like Robyn, were trapped by ‘road life’.
‘Prisoner to the Streets’ does more than document these events. In his book, Robyn explores the motives behind his actions: loyalty to friends, loyalty to family, and, fundamentally, loyalty to your area: ‘reppin your endz’. Where other books and films dwell on the effects of the violence, Robyn seeks to explain the reasons behind it. But never does he excuse it.
“Post-code wars need to stop, that’s why I wrote the book, to show people that it is a way of life which doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I’ve seen it, lost friends through it. It’s not a nice place to be and I don’t want anyone else to go through the same experiences.”
He readily admits that after being stabbed in the stomach – almost fatally – he wanted to murder the boy responsible. Revenge consumed him for months afterwards. It was only a combination of factors: the death of his nan, and the murder of his close friend, Jadie, as well as time in a hellish Jamaican prison cell, which convinced him to escape the streets.
On the day I meet him, Robyn, now 28, and father to a young family, is set to return to Middlesex University, where he took a degree in criminology, to deliver a talk on gang violence. The fact he is on crutches, after an operation for a knee injury, does not stop him.
In recent years he has visited schools and worked with high-risk offenders in Islington and Hackney. Over the next 12 months, he plans to visit as many schools and youth facilities in the country as he can: all to keep other young men from repeating his mistakes.
“You cannot represent an area. You can’t hate people you do not know. It’s about the myth of not liking someone because they are not from your area. It’s about trying to teach people who think the same way that I used to think. It’s a way of thinking which is not productive. Too many young people are learning their lessons in prison.”
Joining him for the talk is Mark Prince, whose 15-year-old son Kiyan was stabbed to death outside the gates of his school in Edgware in 2006. Since then, Mr Prince has become Britain’s most high-profile voice in the fight against knife and gun crime.
“Me and Mark do a lot of gang talks together,” adds Robyn. “We know we can make a difference, but it’s hard for both of us. I’ve seen him come close to breaking down many times. For me, talking about the times I’ve been stabbed, the friends I’ve lost, you can’t pay me enough to talk about that, trust me. Having to back over those episodes was emotionally draining. Certain things I had run away from, I had to face them again.”
Nevertheless, ‘Prisoner to the Streets’ remains a message of hope: there is an escape, says Robyn. But attitudes need to change, both on the streets and in the government offices.
Territorial rivalry still claims lives in London. As recently as September 2011, a teenager holding her 11-month son was injured by fire from a shotgun in Queen’s Park. Police suggested the incident was gang-related: John Fearon Walk, where the shots were fired, is in Westminster, but Brent, Kensington and Chelsea are all nearby.
The riots of 2011 threw the issue of such violence into the spotlight spectacularly. A Home Office report, entitled ‘Ending gang and youth violence: one year on’, set out the response, and claimed good progress in a number of areas. Last year, a law was passed meaning any 16 or 17-year-old found carrying a knife will face a custodial sentence.
Robyn is unconvinced. Until the problem is tackled at its root, he says, and the police and authorities attempt to understand the frustrations of those on the streets, the problem will remain. “This country is not set on prevention, it is set on intervention. Youth workers of any background will say that this is not the way to make a change. All they do is tick boxes.
“These young people are smart. They feel a great sense of injustice. Instead of talking to people who don’t understand, they talk to people who understand where they are coming from, until they are old enough and mature enough to make sense of it and know how to defeat it. But some people never do defeat it, but I hope my book helps them to see that there is another way.”