The Rude Boys of South London, by Richard Knight
As a young man in the 1970s I always enjoyed observing the characteristic behaviours of the various races I saw around me in the English cities where I lived. For example, I was intrigued by the way older Black men played dominoes in the doorways of empty shops on the Golborne Road in west London, round the corner from my bedsit. When gaining an advantage, they would slam their tiles down with a shout, sometimes getting out of their seats to do it. It would have been hard to imagine them quietly playing bridge in a social club.
But it was only when I moved to South London twenty years later that I came to see just how different from White people Black people are. I especially noticed the behaviour of “rude boys”, this being a traditional Jamaican term for anti-social young Black men.
Every day as I rode my motorcycle to or from work in another part of South London, I was inconvenienced three or four times by anti-social driving. When I looked at the offending driver, I usually saw a Black face. “That’s funny”, I thought. “Why are so many anti-social drivers Black?” Noticing that they were rarely old or female, I started looking to see how much of south London’s anti-social driving came from young Black men. It was three weeks before I was inconvenienced by someone of any other description.
In a typical scenario I would be riding along a main road such as the Albert Embankment when I would see a car approaching down a side road, which instead of stopping and waiting for me to pass would join my lane so that I had to brake to avoid going into the back of it. I sensed that these drivers wanted to show that they had got the better of me. They had forced me to give way to them when I had the right of way.
If I didn’t have the braking distance, they would continue as though they hadn’t seen me and then just as I was preparing for a collision would slam on their brakes and stop right at the line. I gathered that this was supposed to be some kind of joke. They had made me expect a crash before in effect saying: “Ha ha, not really!”
One day I was riding along a residential street when an oncoming car moved onto my side of the road and stopped right in front of me, staging a nose-to-nose confrontation. After nonchalantly dialling a number on his mobile phone, the driver, a young Black man, reversed and went off, having at no point looked at me. This time the message seemed to be that he was in control. I would proceed at his pleasure, nor was it incumbent on him to acknowledge my existence.
This kind of thing happened so often that I began to wonder whether young Black men didn’t have a conception of themselves as slave-masters with White people as their slaves. One day I was walking down the road when I heard a shout from a young Black man standing by a parked van. He wanted to borrow a pen, so I gave him one, which he took without speaking or making eye contact. After spending some time writing something on a piece of paper, he extended his arm, again without looking at me or saying anything, holding the pen. He had finished with it. I could have it back.
Another time, I was walking down the left-hand side of a thoroughfare with a side road ahead of me to my left, which a car behind me was about to turn into. I slowed down to let it make the turn, after which I would be able to pick up speed and cross the side road. But as soon as the car turned, it stopped dead, right in front of me, so that under my momentum it was all I could do to avoid walking into it. Had I done so I imagined that I would have been roundly attacked by the young Black man at the wheel for taking insufficient care.
I came to recognise this kind of trick as typical of rude boys, who would set up situations where a White person’s normal behaviour could be held against them with an implicit accusation of being anti-Black. Similar behaviour was documented in a travel guide to Jamaica, which spoke of the psychologically disturbing games played on visitors by obstreperous and confrontational young Black men, who would suddenly say out of nowhere: “What matter? You got sometin’ against me?” Here was the essence of anti-racism as an expression of racial politics: the false accusation.
Yes, I had become so interested in rude-boy behaviour that I was reading up on Black people even to the extent of buying travel guides to Jamaica without having any intention of going there. It was only later, however, that I saw the resemblance between the anti-social young Black man on the street and the one in a suit, the activist, who used the same technique of false accusation. It was a while before I started investigating the politics of race rather than just the anthropology.
But it wasn’t only White people who were targeted by the rude boys of the street. They might target anyone. One day I was walking down the same thoroughfare to post a letter when I saw the following five things. A young Black man parked his car so that it stuck out enough to take out a lane for other drivers. Another nosed his way in from a side street so that other drivers had to steer round him or give way. A third, going down the middle of the road, saw a car coming towards him and instead of moving to one side to let it pass, stayed in the middle. Young Black men were constantly creating deadlocks of this kind, which became showdowns between their manhoods. Fourthly, a young Black man reversed into the road from a side street, forcing others to stop for him. Finally a young Black man stopped his car in the middle of the road and stayed there conversing with his passenger, who at length got out. There was nothing unusual about seeing this much anti-social driving during a ten-minute walk. For the rude boys of South London the road was a stage on which to demonstrate their prowess, which was measured by the amount of inconvenience they could cause for others.
Rude boys produced similar behaviour as pedestrians. Once, I was walking down the road when I saw ahead of me two Black couples talking. If they had drawn in a bit I would have been able to pass them on the pavement, but as I approached, a man enlarged the group by stepping towards the kerb so that I could only pass them in the gutter. I wondered whether he had done it consciously or had acted out of a purely instinctive urge to obstruct.
One got involved in the pedestrian version of the Ha-ha-not-really game as follows. A young Black man approaching on a collision course would continue until the last moment, when he would nimbly step aside as though to say: “You didn’t think I was going to knock you over, did you?” This game was mentioned in a childhood memoir of London in the 1980s. Referring to a Black classmate, John-Paul Flintoff wrote: “Samuel Thomas scares women in the daytime, and old men. He walks towards them on the pavement and, just when they’re passing, he swings his hand out so they think he’s going to thump them — but all he does is, he looks at his watch!”
As with the rude boy’s car or physical person, so with his bicycle. In my part of South London, young Black men habitually laid their bicycles across the doorways of corner shops behind them as they went in so that no one could enter or leave until they had finished their business. Everyone seemed to accept this as entirely normal. I never once saw anyone question a rude boy’s right to assert himself as top dog in this way. I must admit that I deferred to rude boys myself in these situations. Who wants to get a black eye or a broken jaw? But I did start to get a little tired of rude boys after living among Black people for a few years.
I wondered how a race could have evolved to be like this. Surely any society depends on a degree of co-operation among its members, I thought, and couldn’t see how natural selection could have favoured a race whose young men were devoted to the opposite of co-operation. Only later did I see that such people could form the basis of the sort of society that appeared to exist in sub-Saharan Africa and had apparently existed there for centuries. The crudest and most cunning would rise to the top, which could continue generation after generation. There was no particular reason why civilisation should appear.
I also wondered whether the fact that I had noticed the anti-social character of many young Black men meant that I was a racist. I was fairly sure that most people would say that it did. How could it be acceptable to notice an unwanted fact about another race, especially Black people? But I couldn’t see how it could be wrong to make an observation and eventually decided that our problem was that we were not allowed to make observations. The problem was not racism but the the concept of it, which forced us to close our eyes or at least say nothing. This only made social reality worse, for if the behaviour of rude boys could not be taken in, let alone commented on, they would be induced to behave even worse than they were already doing.
The term “rude boy” appears in Desmond Dekker’s 1967 song “007 (Shanty Town)”, which begins with the words: “0-0-7, 0-0-7 / At ocean eleven / And now rude boys a go wail / ‘Cause them out of jail / Rude boys cannot fail / ‘Cause them must get bail”. A “rude boy” was also the subject of the 1979 song “A Message to You Rudy” by the Specials. Although by the 1990s the term had been replaced by “ragamuffin”, I use “rude boy” here because it is more descriptive.
Christopher Baker, 1996, Jamaica: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet, p.62.
John-Paul Flintoff, 1999 (first published 1998), Comp: A Survivor’s Tale, London: Indigo Orion, p.180.