Young lives not cast in concrete

Ever since Tony Blair paid a surprise post-election visit to south London's Aylesbury estate, the place has become a convenient symbol of poverty. Squatting just round the corner from Labour's headquarters on the Walworth road, it is a massive concrete illustration of social exclusion.

From a distance, the estate lives down to its image. Built in 1970 in the brutalist style, it consists of thousands of flats arranged in looming grey cliffs, separated by busy fume-laden roads and infilled with grey concrete maisonettes.

Move in a little closer and the softening influences of nature and human ingenuity become evident - weeping willows have grown up between many of the blocks, and those residents who are lucky enough to have gardens have packed them with flowers.

Seen hanging around the streets, the teenage boys who drift in and out of the Aylesbury youth club might also appear to fit the stereotype of disaffected youth - until they start talking.

They were not familiar with the term "underclass", but it was obvious that they did not see themselves as social outcasts, and were as energetic and ambitious as young people anywhere, if a little more cynical and irreverent.

However, they were vocal in their contempt for the disreputable inhabitants of neighbouring estates, provoking the conclusion that "underclass" is one of those terms always reserved for other people.

As youth worker Paulina Ibarra pointed out, "those young people most heavily involved in drugs and crime would not attend the youth club in the first place"; but otherwise, she said, the group was fairly representative of the estate.

Ranging in age from 15 to 19, most were attending further education colleges, doing courses in electronics, youth work and motor mechanics.

The eldest, 19-year-old Taz, was working for A-levels in psychology, social science and politics, aiming for a degree in social science and a career as a probation officer. Richie, the youngest at 15, was in the throes of GCSEs and hopeful of a career in graphic design. Finding work at 16 simply wasn't an option: "There's no work, not even at McDonald's or Tesco."

All of them planned to move off the estate once they were earning. They named Islington, Maida Vale and Kensington as the places where they would most like to live.

Only Richie had actually seen Mr Blair visit the estate, and he found it less interesting than Princess Anne's earlier visit when "I tried to pick her pockets but her bodyguard saw me".

All of them remembered hearing about it and were irritated by the way the Aylesbury is always singled out, given that other estates were "far worse than this".

Paul, 16, thought it must be "something to do with the housing problem", while Marlon saw it as an attempt to "make it more a middle-class area". Taz, the politics student, was suspicious of the Government's motives: "It's all to make the Labour party look good."

Asked what practical steps could be taken to improve their lives, the boys began to sound like elderly members of the residents' association.

The estate needs cleaning up, the lighting is inadequate ("at night you don't know whether you're going to see a ghost or a person with a gun"), the lifts don't work, the security guards are "fat, lazy and just sit around smoking" and public transport is unreliable.

Several boys complained that life on the Aylesbury was boring, but were slapped down by Marlon, who insisted that "it's only boring if you're a boring person. I have very little spare time". (He plays for West Ham juniors. ) The boys enjoyed competing with each other to tell themost lurid anecdote involving crime, violence, drugs, the police and sex.

However, when pressed, the incident always turned out to have happened to someone else.

Josephine Gardiner

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