‘A bastard is a bastard no matter what,’ says the man who gives me directions to Peckham Library. It is about three o’clock in the afternoon, on a steel-grey day two weeks after the death of Damilola Taylor. The centre of Peckham is thronged with police officers, all wearing high-visibility luminous yellow vests, and with equipment strapped around their waists on webbing belts, inflating the clothing around their upper bodies.
I ask again for directions – this time to the scene of Damilola Taylor’s death – at a police van which is parked on the Library forecourt, its windows plastered with appeals for information. Inside, three or four young policemen are sitting looking bored, fiddling with their handcuffs and CS gas canisters. The one sitting opposite the door points me on my way and suggests that if I need further help I should ask one of the coppers lining the route between the Library and the now infamous stairwell where Damilola Taylor bled to death.
The centre of Peckham is filling fast with children coming home from school, shouting and screaming and most of all laughing. They are predominantly black but there are also a fair number of South Asians, Chinese and whites.
I walk out of the centre along Peckham High Street, a road entirely composed of garish fast-food shops and cheap chainstores set beneath a decaying mix of architectural styles from Victorian through 1930s and 1950s. Every few yards, large yellow placards call for information on Damilola Taylor’s murder. Police walk in pairs along the street.
Further on there are no longer any schoolchildren waiting at bus stops, and the shops grow shabbier. Here on the corner of Peckham Road and Southampton Way is Oliver Goldsmith School, which Damilola Taylor attended. Another group of policemen stands outside it. Behind the railings which line one side of the building are laid out the inevitable floral tributes to the boy – a line of cellophane bouquets stretching for twenty feet. There are perhaps thirty bunches of flowers, an indication that for all the media coverage, the murder has not found its way wholly into the big sentimental heart of the British Public. It is clear that Damilola Taylor is no Princess Diana or Sarah Payne.
I stop to read some of the messages with the flowers. Nearly all seem to be from people who live in and around Peckham: church groups and individuals keen to stress their ties with the place (‘I’ve lived here for thirty years,’ one of them reads, ‘but this is one of the saddest days of my life’). Several of the messages convey mild embarrassment and puzzlement at what has happened and, in the context of the media hyperbole, are the more poignant for that.
I keep going up Southampton Way and call in at a chip-shop to ask for further directions. There are no policemen around now and the yellow signs by which I have been plotting my course have also disappeared. The chip-shop owner, a white man in his thirties, is unshaven, with yellow eyeballs and he smells of drink. Before I have a chance to speak he asks me which one I’m from – ITN or BBC? I explain who I am and he begins to talk to me, prefacing each remark with: ‘I’m not racist but . . .’ He says he’d like to put his point of view. Several newsmen have wanted him to say that what is needed is more police on the streets, but he doesn’t think this will stop bullying; and when I ask him about that, he says it’s the Jamaican boys wanting to copy the New York gangs. They pick on the Africans – and the Africans, well they’re not violent but they’re all benefit fraudsters. I ask him about his own family. ‘Oh them,’ he says. ‘My boys live in Kent. Wouldn’t last five minutes here.’ He races back behind the counter to serve a customer. I thank him and as I leave he calls: ‘I’ve been mugged four times and stabbed once – but that’s in 19 years here.’ When I turn down Diamond Street, the landscape changes. The old smog-blackened buildings are gone and so are the laughing children and the shoppers. This is the beginning of the North Peckham Estate. From its foothills of modern maisonettes and bungalows, the estate rises to a series of peaks in the centre consisting of 1960s concrete blocks five storeys high.
On my way to Peckham, I’d gone past an estate near Elephant and Castle. I watched as the seemingly endless side of one huge block of flats unravelled, an enormous grey slab of concrete with interminable walkways and darkened recesses – Middle England’s nightmare of social housing.