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Surreal London

from the magazine

Surreal London

There are 1,200 stabbings and $1 million houses. Autumn 2006
Cities
Public safety

I recently went to visit a friend in North London. My wife drove from our central London apartment, and it took her an hour and a half to go eight miles. I took public transportation to get there in less than half the time. Still, one can see why Londoners want to insulate themselves from fellow residents. You can lock the doors of your car against them.

Newspaper headlines that evening screamed about a bloodbath outside a London McDonald’s, with two youths getting shot. Every day, one confronts news of that sort: as I write, for example, comes the story of a Congolese immigrant, a churchgoing university student of mathematics, killed after asking 12 youths making noise outside his apartment building at night to go away, since he needed sleep. Outraged and intoxicated, some returned later and stabbed him to death. Among those arrested: a 15- and a 17-year-old.

For once, the police spokesman did not tell
us that it was a robbery that went wrong, or a case of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said that the victim did what any normal citizen should do. “It just so happens,” he added, “that one or more of the youths were such that they decided to go back and attack him.”

It just so happens? A reported 1,200 stabbings occurred in London last year, and evidence in the British Medical Journal suggests that such attacks are becoming not only more numerous, but more serious. Woundings that endangered life nearly doubled in Britain between 1997 and 2005.

I lost my way a couple of times on my way to see my friend. I asked directions from people in the street, and they visibly flinched, though neither my appearance nor my manner (to say nothing of my age) suggests aggression. They probably thought that, at best, I was a mental patient undergoing treatment in “the community,” as people call it today. Two fled, claiming ignorance of the road I needed to find, which, as it turned out, was only a few yards away.

I looked in the windows of a real-estate agent. A house in the area, by no means large, would cost about $1.1 million.

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