Article: Book review: Cut Short
Tim Caley reviews 'Cut Short' by Ciaran Thapar, arguing that the book encourages us all to play a part in keeping the youth work flame alive.
“Cut Short – Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City” by Ciaran Thapar (Penguin Viking, 2021)
This is a compelling, powerful and beautifully written book. Its author, Ciaran Thapar, describes himself as a youth worker first and social activist second and it is the skilful writing, the interweaving of personal stories, social analysis and political polemic, that give the book its potency and strength. For a first book, it demonstrates a rare and precocious talent.
‘Cut Short’ tells the story of Thapar’s work over three years as a school mentor, Access Project worker, volunteer at Jacob Sawyer Community Centre and prison youth worker in south London. It is the story of the young people he befriends, their families and communities and the journey of growing respect and support he undertakes with them. The book is ostensibly about knife crime and black young people in London. But really, it’s a human story about empathy, relationships and adolescence and it’s an impassioned critique of social policy as it affects young people. It is certainly about violence and loss, but Thapar is right to emphasise that it is also about hope.
There’s Jhemar, a 15-year-old at school who produces a ‘Book of Wisdom’ so he can ‘…get better at dissecting words’, and whose elder brother Michael is himself a victim of stabbing. There’s Demetri, from the Willow Academy, who joins Jhemar in testifying at the House of Commons All Party Political Group on knife crime and later studies sociology at Goldsmiths. There’s Carl, whose drug-dealing threatens his future, but who accepts help from youth work agencies. And there’s Jason, on violence reduction at HMP Wandsworth, but who enjoys Thapar’s life-coaching programme and signs up other inmates. As to the adults, there’s Tony, the long-suffering youth worker at Jacob Sawyer, who becomes like an uncle to Thapar, initially warning him that ‘…the boys here are gonna think you’re feds…’. At the Willow Academy, there’s Monica, guardian angel and committed teacher ‘…basically running a youth service from her desk.’
These characters are matched by the book’s firm sense of place: its location is the streets of Brixton, Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction. The descriptions invoke an almost tangible set of sounds, smells and pictures. Thapar has an impressive mastery of the technical skills of writing. His narrative pace speeds up and slows down as required; his ear for dialogue and language is remarkable; his story switches seamlessly and effortlessly from personal depiction to political argument. He has described his own writing as a means of ‘untangling webs of injustice and bottling moments of inspiration’, alongside the ability to form strong moral arguments quickly. Take this description, for example, of the impact of a hot London summer (p.12):
For hormonal, competitive teenagers trying to make their mark, thick, sweaty heat raises tempers and the prospect of confrontation. Agendas collide, like atoms above a Bunsen burner. In the summertime, those who in wintry months are more likely to stay indoors – sheltered from the wet, leaf-pressed kerb, warmed by a radiator behind net curtains, held in detention after school, scratching graffiti into a wooden desk, protected beneath the tattered fabric of a hand-me-down puffer jacket – spill out into the public arena.
Sometimes the text delivers a much darker side, as though it was being written as a film screenplay. ‘Cut Short’ begins with just such a scene, a Nine Night celebration at the Jacob Sawyer centre, interrupted by a teenager sprinting into the hall and diving under a pool table. Then, seconds later, another boy enters the building (p.2):
He is dressed in black track-suit bottoms, a black-and-green Deliveroo jacket and a black moped helmet, its tinted visor clicked shut. From the look of his slight frame, he can’t be much older than sixteen or seventeen. He has a sawn-off shotgun. He holds the weapon awkwardly. His hands are bony, their bareness the only evidence of his dark skin.
It is this quality that strengthens the effectiveness of Thapar’s trenchant analysis of the current failings of government and social policy. Each chapter tackles a key issue: policing, schools and education, social media and drill music, gentrification, ‘knife crime’, British politics, criminal justice, youth services and mental health. As just one example of Thapar’s strong moral arguments, listen to this extract on academy schools (p.109):
Academization has allowed slick phoenixes to rise from the ashes of burnt inner-city comprehensives which are able to send their most able and competent students to the top universities. All the while, it has turned schools into robotic market stalls which behave like they are competing businesses. Academies strive to achieve the best exam results, university placements and PR opportunities at all costs. Students at the top of the score list thrive… but pupils who don’t do well can be both left behind and actively demeaned. Their score is too low. They become valueless, too expensive. To me, that looks an awful lot like giving up on these children.
All his judgments are firmly anchored within the real-life experiences of the young people he works with. His messages are clear: austerity, racism, demonisation, privatisation, cost-cutting and cuts have squeezed out empathy, compassion and safe spaces and time for young people. ‘Cut Short’ argues that the social, economic and cultural factors that encourage street violence should be treated as a public health crisis, not a criminal justice problem.
Thapar acknowledges that he has only a ‘makeshift pedagogy’ as a youth worker, learnt via his mentoring experiences. But he quotes Tony extensively on the faltering trends of contemporary youth services, with charities and third sector organizations now competing for shrinking pots of money to survive. Most require quick fixes, performative box-ticking and measurable outcomes. He also laments the loss of that critical sense of voluntary participation and personal support provided by local youth clubs, along with the expertise of their youth workers, as cuts in provision have widened and deepened. His own youth work strategies reflect an innate understanding of positive methodologies: taking the young people to a Chelsea restaurant for lunch after their testimony in Parliament; instructing the photographer to ‘make them look like kings’ at a Jack Petchey Award presentation; persisting at the cell door to inspire Jason to participate in the prison coaching programme.
There are some minor issues. Firstly, it is a very ‘London-centric’ book and for the non-London reader, some of the customs and assumptions of the narrative are less easy to recognize and share. It would have been helpful if Thapar’s lens could have zoomed out of Brixton occasionally, to focus on how these same issues were playing in Barnsley or Bolton or Brighton. Similarly, he sometimes gave the impression that he and Tony were the ‘only youth workers in town’. There are dozens of youth workers and charities across the London boroughs and beyond, working with gangs, knife crime, drugs and project work, both centre-based and in detached work settings.
Secondly, girls and young women are invisible in ‘Cut Short,’ a blind spot which Thapar acknowledges late on in the book, referring to the work of the Milk and Honey project in Lambeth. But it would have enriched his story if there had been some female counterparts to Jhemar and Demetri.
Thirdly, there are the difficult sets of boundaries between the roles of youth worker, journalist, reporter and author that Thapar’s range of work involves. He is fully alive to these, of course. In the text, he describes transgressing that line when he agreed to be interviewed by ITV News about an incident at the Jacob Sawyer centre and was roundly rebuked by Tony (p.277):
… some of the mandem are pissed off. It looked to them like you were using what happened to get your face out there. You know what I mean?’
Thapar recognizes his error, albeit with the good intention of trying to use his journalism to advocate for the benefit of keeping the centre open. These kind of professional boundaries are implicit in all those arenas where adults are trying to advocate for young people, often in a political landscape which demonstrates little sympathy for them.
But these strictures are small quibbles. ‘Cut Short’ is an important book and a valuable contribution to the youth work literature – not least in its highly accessible and readable style. It carries weight and credibility, it is thoughtful and provocative in equal measure, it argues for collective action and a compassionate welfare state, it pulls no punches on the inequality and moral failures of current government policies, but it retains a sense of hope on behalf of young people. It encourages us all to play a part in keeping the youth work flame alive.
Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.
Last Updated: 21 March 2022
Tim Caley started youth work in Sheffield in the 1970s, went on to be a youth officer in Reading and Portsmouth, Head of Youth Services in Hampshire and West Sussex, an Ofsted youth inspector and youth work consultant. He is the author of “Keeping Them off the Streets – a youth work story” (Troubadour 2019).