‘They have guns’: a Sloane at large in gangsta land

Tired of Euro-Sloane bores in Chelsea, Venetia Thompson tours the clubs of Harlesden, the UK’s ‘gun capital’, and experiences a world where a firearm is as normal a status symbol as a Chanel handbag or a Rolex watch would be in SW3

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

Tired of Euro-Sloane bores in Chelsea, Venetia Thompson tours the clubs of Harlesden, the UK’s ‘gun capital’, and experiences a world where a firearm is as normal a status symbol as a Chanel handbag or a Rolex watch would be in SW3

I am dancing slowly with a Portuguese friend to beautiful Zouk music from Cape Verde, sung in Creole. He suddenly throws me against the wall behind him and shoves me down towards the ground. One of my pearl earrings flies across the dance floor. The music has stopped, people are scrambling towards the safety of the now deserted DJ booth or running to get out of the club. There are screams and shouts of ‘Get down!’

Fights in clubs are scarcely unusual, alcohol-fuelled more often than not. Normally, people will gather around and stare, friends will step in and attempt to pacify things, and huge bouncers will swiftly remove the trouble-makers before too much damage can be done. If the situation escalates, the music may stop, the police might be called.

However, this is not SW3. Tonight I am in Harlesden, often described as Britain’s ‘gun capital’ because of its recurrent gang warfare and record of bloodshed. People here do not stick around to watch a fight unfold: they instinctively hit the floor because experience has taught them to expect gunfire. The police are not called — not even Operation Trident’s much vaunted black and ethnic minority officers.

Earlier in the evening, I had been speaking with another guy, a Cape Verdean who grew up in Portugal. He is 24, good-looking and funny. He tells me that he is surprised to see an English girl here, and asks how I had learnt to dance Kizomba — sometimes known as the Angolan tango, danced socially in most Lusophone countries to music originating from the French Antilles.

He explains that he likes this club because there is generally less trouble than at other places, including one joint on Wandsworth Road — which I have also been known to frequent. If we had been in a West End or Chelsea nightclub we might have chatted a little more, had a few drinks, maybe even swapped numbers. Here, we dance for the length of a couple of songs, I am chivalrously escorted back to the girlfriend I came with, and he rejoins his table.

Later, while huddled in the DJ booth, amid the furore, I risk a quick glance over my shoulder to see what had been the cause of all the commotion. To my astonishment, I see the same guy, furiously shouting, surrounded by other young men, all of whom had been quietly dancing Kizomba with their girlfriends 20 minutes ago.

This is not an intrinsically aggressive, violent environment playing the hardcore rap music so feared by most of the population. There is not a ‘hoodie’ in sight. It is a restaurant with a club attached, where the owner-manager is keen to welcome people from all backgrounds and races and is a constant presence on the dancefloor and in the restaurant. On my first visit he tells me to find him immediately if I have any problems, obviously keen to encourage the lesser-spotted white girl to feel at ease at his club. On this particular night there has even been a well-supported dance competition. Groups arrive here at around 11 p.m. for dinner with friends; they eat and then dance until the early hours of the morning. People actually smile at each other. It is one of the places I come to in order to escape the Euro-Sloane bores of Chelsea’s nightclubs whose main concerns are to blag entry and then occupy the correct tables on the right nights.

There are of course desirable tables here, too. A bouncer clears people away from an area of the raised platform by the dancefloor for a group of Angolan and Portuguese guys and their entourage of women. I had seen them entering the club earlier; clearly regulars, they are greeted by handshakes and hugs.


There is no Dom Perignon brought over by blondes wielding indoor sparklers to the Rocky theme tune — a common sight in the West End. Instead they have bottles of rum with appropriate flagons of mixers and perhaps the odd bottle of that Brixton and MTV classic Alizé, which I have never even seen in Chelsea (Waitrose doesn’t stock it).

The group given preferential treatment seem to have been involved in the fight that has broken out. I ask someone what had happened. ‘I dunno. They have guns.’

The one bouncer somehow manages to get them out through the fire exit and the music swiftly starts up again. People gradually make their way back to the dancefloor. I am reunited with my girlfriend, the two of us making up the blonde English quota in the club. I expect that she wants to go home, and am ready to apologise for dragging her out of the safety of West Hampstead. Instead, she says, ‘Was that the rather attractive guy that you were talking to earlier apparently wielding a gun around? Shame. Did you get his number?’

It is the first time I have failed to exchange numbers with someone on account of a firearm.

Two weeks later I hear that a 26-year-old father of one has been left critically injured after being shot in the head outside the same club in Harlesden, when a fight broke out on 2 March in the early hours of Sunday morning. His 22-year-old friend was also bludgeoned over the head. A 17-year-old has since been charged with attempted murder. I only found out because of a text from a friend that I often see at the club. It barely even made the news.

Despite reported crime rates as a whole decreasing last year by 9 per cent, gun crime increased by 4 per cent in the capital, according to Home Office figures published in January this year. Harlesden, in the London Borough of Brent, has been one of Operation Trident’s target areas ever since seven people were shot in one six-month period in 2000, and it topped the league for having the highest murder rate in Britain. Since then there has been a steady flow of gun-related incidents and deaths, and despite concerted efforts made by the community, Harlesden is far from being reformed and becoming the next Clapham.

Gun crime in areas such as Harlesden and Brixton was once neatly categorised as being largely ‘black on black’ — a ridiculous expression said to have been coined by South African police — and usually attributed to drug-related conflict among Jamaican Yardie gangs of the Eighties and Nineties. But that stereotype is out of date: the gangs now are largely composed of British-born black men, and sometimes women, increasingly young, and not necessarily involved in drug trafficking. This is not a tight-knit criminal sub-group whose members can be systematically rounded up and arrested using Trident’s intelligence resources.

Instead, they are young people who have inherited ‘beef’, or scores to settle, from their fathers, brothers or friends. Their main occupation is the pursuit of never-ending feuds often sparked by something as simple as a dispute over a girl. Trivialities assume great and sometimes lethal importance.

They live in areas that have been systematically demonised by people most of whom have never even visited them. Sometimes the social nomenclature is self-fulfilling: regrettably, it is not surprising that in areas described by the press as ‘gun capitals’ or ‘the triangle of death’ people feel they have to carry guns.

And for those who believe themselves utterly powerless, they are also marks of status. While women carry designer bags along Sloane Street as their weapons of choice, and men display ostentatious watches to prospective girlfriends, the youths of Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden carry firearms: the status symbol of those who believe they have no real choices in life. In a stratified society, everyone wields something to command respect: the latest Chanel handbag or Rolex watch in one postcode, the semi-automatic a few miles north.

From time to time, the grim reality seeps into our national co
nsciousness. The fate of young female victims such as Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, or an even younger white boy like Rhys Jones last year, shatters the assumption that this is just about black men. But most of the time we live with a segregation of images that matches the segregation of social tribes and status symbols. The nameless mugshots of the young black dead appear on different pages to the latest pictures of Prince William stumbling out of Boujis the night before — or, for that matter, of some blonde who has been fired from the City.

The reason that the majority of shootings in Harlesden are ‘black on black’ is because there are hardly any white people to be shot at. They are mostly safely tucked up in the increasingly middle-class Kensal Green next door. The nights that I have been at the Jet Set club in High Street, Harlesden, I have been one of a handful of white people. The later it gets, the more that number shrinks.

If that night I had been shot while crawling to retrieve my pearl earring, it would have made the national news. I would have probably been the only resident of SW3 to have managed to get herself shot in Harlesden. My friends, most of whom have no idea about these nocturnal habits, would first wonder where Harlesden is, and then wonder what on earth someone like me was doing there at five in the morning. Would Trident be called in, or is there a separate operation for ‘black-on-posh-white’ violence?

On Trident’s website, www.stoptheguns.org, I click on the ‘Way Out’ section hoping it may tell me how to kick my addiction to places which play fantastic music, but where people, regrettably, carry guns. It tells me that I should ‘stop talking like a gangster, acting like a gangster, and hanging out with gangsters’. I should ‘find other things to do, other people to hang out with’.

Here’s an experiment, albeit an idealistic one. Replace the word ‘gangster’ with ‘Sloane’ and try it for size.

Revolutionary, I know: to suggest that people who went to school and university don’t necessarily have to find themselves aged 30, living next door to each other in Battersea.

In fact, you could mix it up even further with a bit of ‘bussing’. Take the gangster out of gangland and you have yourself a lean, mean Sloane-scaring machine to take out on the town in Chelsea. He’d be particularly useful in dispersing the public school cocaine dealers that are somehow accepted in favourite hangouts of the young royals.

Last week at a bar on the King’s Road a drunken acquaintance decided to tell me — after much sniggering with his equally moronic friend — how relieved he was that his sister had finally seen sense and broken up with her black golf-pro boyfriend. My refusal to react was interpreted as a failure to understand, and his friend quickly translated: ‘It’s because he comes from a very old English family.’

It is moments like these that make me long to be back in Harlesden.

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Show comments
  • Sonny D. Jalfrezi

    Most refreshing and engaging to read a personal, honest take from a young’un on some issues that get statisicated to death by the press and the government.

  • Lucy

    Venetia, are you the girl Jarvis Cocker wrote about when he wrote the song ‘Common People’?

  • Tom

    Sparkling, definitely worthy of a cover! The ending – one of the best pieces I’ve read in ages.

  • p johns

    The difference is of course that you could take your “lean, mean Sloane-scaring machine” to any of the clubs & restaurants in Chelsea. There wouldn’t be the slightest problem. However as a white male Londoner, I wouldn’t get past the door in your wonderful Harlsden nightclub. I know. I tried.
    In fact there’s all sorts of venues in my native city that I wouldn’t be admitted to. Simply because of the colour of my skin.

  • London Calling

    Well then, remind Sebastian when he next snorts his cocaine in the Gentleman’s toilet in his Good old Chelsea night club, that the money he spends on his divine decadence pays for those guns+bullets.The grass is not greener on the other side you know, it depends on its origin and the crop. ‘one of the best pieces I’ve read in ages’ Per…lease, you guys need to wake up and smell the free trade coffee. :0

  • Nigel

    I’m sorry, but I thought this article was the most vapid and uninteresting that I have read in The Spectator for years. Perhaps it’s natural place was in a popular music magazine or one of those free rags you get on the Tube.

  • Richard

    A huge amount of attention has been paid to all things ethnic in the last twenty five years. We do not need a Sloane to gives us a tour ‘darkest’ Harslsden which is in London not LA.

    Black criminals are not ‘demonised’. The fact is that a very small percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of gun use/killings in this country and have been for decades. There have been thousands of shootings in London alone. Films, TV dramas, novels, special reports and swathes of journalism have been devoted to chronicling all this. Ms Thompsom is one of a long list of parasitic voyeurs

  • DougS

    What a load of tosh, Matt and guys . . . . Good grief! Sloane Ranger goes slumming, so what else is new. And she really finds those guys attractive? Maybe for a one night stand (which is disgusting and stupid in itself, esp. with this type of guy) but for longer? I’m sure they’re all great conversationalists and otherwise wonderful men, Venetia. Romanticizing these thugs is precisely what the left had done as part of their program of cultural Marxism that is destroying the West — in ways large and small. This is small — very small — and old, and boring and passes my comprehension as worthy of a Spectator article, let alone the cover. These are disgraceful people; this entertainment is lower than low; and middle class folks like Venetia who PROFESS to enjoy it more than her boring Sloane Ranger buddies and kidding themselves or lying. Decadent nonsense.

  • Tom

    “My friends, most of whom have no idea about these nocturnal habits,” – you write self-aggrandising tripe like this and then try to initimate it’s all a bit of a secret. Have you no shame? Venetia, look at you. You’re vaunting your little trip about like a girl in Sex and the City showing off her new Manolo Blahniks. It’s poverty tourism of a kind we’ve all read before and don’t really want to read about again. And the lingo makes you sound like Mrs Ali G: “one joint on Wandsworth Road — which I have also been known to frequent”. The self-absorption in the last phrase is the giveaway with you, Venetia. It’s not the subject you’re interested in – it’s you.

  • D Short

    Load of old tosh that doesn’t belong in serious literary and political magazine. And it’s not the first time that daffy women have taken up space here. I don’t blame the editor, apart from his ‘only taking orders’. It’s Andrew Neil’s post-andropausal state that’s to blame!

  • Madasafish

    People have guns and people get shot!

    A scientist called Darwin wrote about it: it’s called survival of the fittest.

  • James

    Seems Venetia Thompson has become a superstar journalist overnight, with her photo making the front page of The Daily Telegraph the other day (illustrating a story about her sacking, which was surely not front page-worthy news), and now her image is on the front cover of The Spectator (alongside images of black people that are – to say the least – highly questionable, and surely not to be endorsed for any reason by the woman who recently claimed in The Spectator that all white support of Obama was intrinsically racist, or some such tosh). How has she seemingly risen so high, so speedily, in the world of journalism, particularly when all she appears to have penned is a couple of uninteresting pieces filled with self-regarding drivel?

  • Ricky Bobby

    Once again, Ms. Thompson manages to wind up the stodgy, uptight part of the cyber readership. Well done! Reading some of the comments (…can people be any more patronising or rude?!) is like witnessing a half-decent gag pass over the heads of a naive audience. Who then boo, hiss and chuck tomaotoes becuase they think they might have been insulted.

  • Austin Barry

    This is the silliest article I’ve read in a long time. The sub-text of “How brave and happening chick am I” is only slightly less repellant than its conclusion which seems to be expressing an absurd preference for tooled-up gangstas over English upper-class twits. The drawing accompanying the feature though is priceless: it exactly reflects the article: bug-eyed narcissism oblivious to reality.

  • George

    Yes, James, I’ve found it very odd that someone so dull is suddenly appearing everywhere. I’m sure it’s nothing to do with horizontal networking – that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in journalism, does it?

  • D Short

    Hey Ricky Bobby, if you want to read this sort of guff, buy FHM or Loaded. You can get your rocks off there on most pages, if that’s your thing.

  • m burgess

    I was impressed that you heard about a murder on the 2 March ‘two weeks later’, that is, this coming Sunday (16). While your powers at their zenith, could you please tell me which horse will win the Gold Cup this afternoon? Please hurry; as you will have foreseen, the race starts in two hours.

  • Tonys

    I tried to apply for a job at the Spectator but I unfortunately failed due to the rigid Kizomba dancers only selection criteria. Fair enough I suppose

  • John Savage

    Young woman from a middle class background finds “bad boys” exciting. There, that about sums it up.

  • Max Kaye

    Why does The Spectator publish this young woman’s vapid pieces? C’mon Matthew, explain: how did she get the gig? Do you really, honestly, believe that her output is worthy of this august publication?

  • Upminster Boy

    Interesting! I’m an Essex boy, white, born before the onset of WW2, survived the Blitz. As teenagers, back in the ’50s, we never went into Romford (much less Dagenham) on a Saturday night without a set of brass knucks, a flick-knife, a cosh and, for the better equipped, a shooter of some sort. But, to the best of my knowledge, nobody ever got damaged. Now weapons of all sorts are illegal, and folk are getting shot on a regular basis. There’s a moral there somewhere I’m sure.

  • Andy Bradshaw

    What a smug, self-righteous young woman Ms. Thompson is. She would have made a fine Victorian of a type.

    Anyone who has spent any time with the “folk” understand that fashion (as in clothing and accessories) is just as big a deal as anywhere else. It’s different and she might not recognize it, but it’s there. Young men who use a handgun as a status symbol do not do so in place of a wristwatch. Ms. Thompson obviously doesn’t understand men. And there are places where these evidences of machismo do not tend to go off so much, or so casually.

    Her boys were out of control, plain and simple, no excuses necessary.

    And she stupidly paints these restaurant goers, partiers and drinkers (drugs too perhaps?) as somehow poverty stricken. All that good life takes money (so do the guns). Maybe it’s made in a way she’s not quick to recognize — but the amounts might surprise her.

    So all her talk of powerlessness is nonsense. It’s an alternative culture that operates along its own lines, with its own system of status and reward. It doesn’t seek to break into the mainstream. If it considers the mainstream at all, it wouldn’t want to mimic so much as destroy for the delight of it.

  • Asmodeus

    Call me a boring old so-and-so if ypu like, but why would any intelligent honest citizen (white, black or any other colour) want to spend time or money in such places, whether in Chelsea or Harlesden?
    As for the shootings, if these fellows wish to kill each other I don’t see this as a reason for spending large amounts of hard-earned taxpayers’ money and putting policemen in danger to prevent them from doing so.

  • Rupert Fotherington-Smythe

    Don’t worry daahling, you’ll grow out of it – you’re just waiting for the right Sebastian to come along. Meantime: ooh, it sounds such fun!

  • Dom R

    This girl has some serious balls. Love her writing. Keep it coming Venetia. As someone that was about to stop buying the Spec, I am glad it seems to now have a new lease of life and is discovering new writers.

  • Kiffa

    No more Venetia Thompson articles please Spectator please don’t tell me she is on a year’s contract????

  • Bulldog

    Poor Venetia, she has taken a right good literary kicking. Shame she did not take English lit instead of Russian at the "one of Englands top universitys" that she attended. Still she could always go back to working in the city, as it was the sensational piece she wrote that got her the sack, not her woefull performance on the tradeing floor.

  • Michael Beaumont

    The last line of the article is the lynchpin – ‘It is moments like these that make me long to be back in Harlesden.’ Now there’s actually nothing (other than the usual excuses) to stop dear old Venetia moving there permanently. What do you think the chances of that happening are?

  • Pete

    When I renewed my subscription to the Spectator I wasn’t expecting anything as lightweight as this. Come on editor – don’t waste my money on nonsense like this.

  • Lisa

    Simon Heffer’s dog (the one that sat A-levels) could write better than this. And it wouldn’t have the ego that this woman has either. Everybody in the office could pat it and throw it biscuits in tea break.

    Just a thought.

    It’s a bit cruel to make your staff handle copy like this. Have you run out of budget and had to buy a cheap writer until the new tax year starts? I know how tight money gets at this time of year.


    I seem to remember a book specifically about all this in 2005 “Guns and Gangs: Inside Black Crime” by Graeme McLagan.

  • Ricky Bobby

    Hey D Short… thanks v much for the recommendation. I find FHM and Loaded a bit high-brow for my tastes, but the comments on this board are more than enough to sate my apetite for ever-so-grown-up debate. Keep up the good work.

  • Nick R

    I believe that after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, two of the victims were ordinary law-abiding people. They were what is known as “Charabanc Trade” they happened to like the frisson of excitement hanging around with the heavy mob in the underworld. That sounds like you Venetia, trotting off to the NW10. One of my friends who once worked there on a well-known publication had a colleague whose arm was nearly hacked off with a machete- it’s really that cool. As for guns, I had one (a Lanchester sub machine gun), when I was 15- it was stolen- one of three by a friend from a compound in Gosport where they were being flame cut as scrap. It cost 15 shillings and was missing a few parts (not the important bits), and I sold it for a £1 so I was very pleased. It was subsequently destroyed. There is nothing pleasant about a world where guns are plentiful. Nice to see that The Spectator is getting good and “trendy”.

  • JimmyJazz

    Of course they feel the need to carry guns, the poor dears after the nasty press so wrongly describes the area as the “gun capital”. So they have no moral agency of their own? Sounds like patronising, racist claptrap to me and undergraduate to boot. The only reasons I can see it appearing in the Spectator are either the aforementioned “horizontal networking” or that fact that she’s realted to somebody important.

  • Helena

    I’ll bet the law-abiding families of Harlesden are delighted at yet another spoilt brat swanning through the area to write a piece glamorising the terror they have to live in.

  • Siobhan McKenna

    Beggars belief: when did a rich, white kid hanging out with poor black kids become news – particularly in multicultural England….
    Next we will be seeing her swanning around the youth gang-capital of the UK – Lambeth – she won’t be alone with the rest of white middle class London who come looking for drugs and kicks on a Saturday night…

    Delighted to see this fluff in the Spectator – it will ensure its slide to bottom-feeder position of the magazine world- where it belongs.

  • Gemma Cliff

    Surely this is a fine example of self-parody and shouldn’t be taken so seriously?! Since when did readers of the Spectator become so lacking in humour?

  • prinkipo

    can the spectator please stop printing the vapid outpourings of this ditz? reporting is about the facts – which are, she didnt see a gun, didnt speak to anyone who owned one, nor to anyone who had been threatened by one. there are no real people in this story except the author, who feels she is an authority on london’s underworld simply because she has been to a few edgy clubs. please, enough of this fatuous rubbish.

  • Regina Filangi

    I’m wondering how many of these vitriolic commenters have actually read the article, or just saw the pic and headline and immediately jumped to conclusions?? The last thing it is is right-on fluff. Look closer and you actually see self-effacement, a different take on the marginalised communities and some refreshing intelligent writing. More please.

  • Hereford

    What a load of snobbish sanctimonious rubbish. I am sick and tired of hearing that young black men have no choice other than to take up arms. Many of us, of all colours, grow up in deprived circumstances with little hope of an uplift from society. How we respond to that is entirely a choice. Do wake up and get real. Stop romanticising violent thugs.

  • James D

    I’m sorry but Harlesden just isn’t the ghetto you make it out to be. It’s about as ‘edgy’ as cricket pitch. I’m a public-school-educated, Royal borough-reared, white man with two children (who I send to the local private school “ yes, there is one in Harlesden!). On my street are people I went to school and university with as well as the odd celebrity (Louis Theroux and KT Tunstall). There is a great depth of ethnic mix and few dodgy characters but that’s London (outside of Chelsea).

  • Greg

    What a load of rubbish. I grew up in Harlesden, was a teenager in the 90s & a twenty something in the 00s. I lost more people to violence, criminal lifestyle & drugs then I care to remember. Even if this article is self parody, it still shows a lack of respect to those who have had their lives taken from them by gang violence. Not everyone who has been killed deserved to die because of a lifestyle choice. I was one of those gangsters you hear about. Someone of reasonable repute, I’m white btw. I’m one of the lucky ones, I moved out in 2002 & haven’t been back since. I changed my life, before the choice was taken away from me, either by the police or by a bullet.
    I can admit, being stuck in the middle of things like this is an adrenalin rush, but we shouldn’t be making light of it. Real people, with real lives have had their lives taken away from them. As I said before, not all of them were guilty.