Roger Ratcliffe pens his own knife confession

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Confession: I carried a knife at school from around the age of nine or 10 and continued to do so as a teenager. I wasn’t taken into care and my parents were not prosecuted for gross negligence.

The penknife that lived in my blazer was kept razor-sharp by regular application of the whetstone in my dad’s toolbox. In fact, there was competition in the school playground as to who had the sharpest knife. Its main purpose was to sharpen pencils, but I also used it to whittle sticks from trees and bushes to make pointed arrows for homemade bows. No one batted an eyelid because most small boys carried a knife. Even Richmal Crompton’s 11-year-old middle-class rapscallion William, played by a young Dennis Waterman in an early TV adaptation, packed a penknife.

We were not seen as juvenile delinquents because the words “knife” and “crime” had yet to meet. In my town, not once was a knife used violently and the worst crime I committed was to carve my initials into a desk on my last day at school. So it is unnerving and saddening to read about the almost daily fatal stabbings in the UK.

Knife crime statistics tell a shocking story. There were over 40,000 recorded offences last year, a two-thirds increase since 2014. Out of the 44 police forces in England and Wales, 42 have recorded a rise in knife crime since 2011. In 2017-18 there were 285 killings with knives, the highest figure since 1946.

A year ago the main story was of stabbing victims being teenage kids living in tough neighbourhoods. A perception of links with drug gangs somehow made the problem seem remote and unlikely to intrude on most people’s safe existence. But that’s changed in the past month with grotesque fatal stabbings as far apart as comfy areas of Romford and Fulham in London and a quiet street in Manchester’s affluent Hale Barns. At the time of writing there had been 39 knife deaths in the UK this year.

Predictably the issue has descended to a political football match, and last week someone even tried to inject humour into an extremely unfunny issue by saying that Tories like Theresa May and Jacob Rees-Mogg thought knife crime was just placing the fish knife on the wrong side of the butter knife.

Everyone’s playing the blame game. Knife crime is increasing because Theresa May cut the number of bobbies on the beat when she was home secretary, say Labour. Erm, actually, say the Tories, the whole tragic mess can be traced back to Tony Blair’s crackdown on the use of stop-and-search after the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

But why are knives carried in the first place? Certainly not for sharpening pencils. Everyone seems to have a theory, whether it’s the blame of rising school exclusions, cuts to youth services or postcode wars by rival gangs.

Experts will struggle to come up with one clear reason. My feeling is that, just as it was considered normal to have a penknife when I was young, in some areas it has become a fashion to carry a more fearsome knife today. I bet most of those who have one believe it will never be used. But it’s a potentially fatal miscalculation.  ν

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him onTwitter @Ratcliffe

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