This piece is full of prejudices and preconceptions – mostly mine. I first saw Charly in a photo, standing next to a policeman and an 80-year-old woman on an estate in Brighton. Nothing unusual in that, except that Charly’s hair overflows with multicoloured extensions that look like paper chains for school Christmas decorations, she has an Indian symbol on her forehead, a ring tattooed on her finger and a couple of other new-agey ones on her arms, turquoise eyeliner, and a rainbow explosion of beads around her wrist.
Frankly, she looks more like a Traveller than the chair of the local community safety action team. My prejudice. But she is the chair. And crime in her area – with the help of the “fantastic” police working with residents and others in the community, such as the youth action team – has fallen by 30% in four years, car crime by 50%, and burglaries by 40%. Oh, and they’ve banned swearing in public on the estate, too.
“Every one picked up on that,” Charly says. “It’s unpoliceable, but it’s an expectation. It’s spelling it out to people who don’t know how to live as part of a community.” The funny thing is that, after it happened, kids were going up to the community police and asking: “Will we really get evicted if we swear?”
Charly was always a wild child. “My parents hated me, being the black sheep of the family. They disowned me in a manner of speaking. But they’re very proud of me now.” Her wildness was never drugs; it was just partying and, eventually, running away to Spain. She got pregnant by her first boyfriend. And then – and this bit is very Brighton – she came back and “lived with a white witch in a converted church. We did crystals and tarot for two weeks. Finally, I went and got a pregnancy test. Then I knew I was going to keep my son.”
Jamie was born. His dad left. Jamie grew up a bit and started to misbehave at school. “I believe my children should have manners and morals,” Charly says. “Don’t buy them £150 trainers. There are people hungry on the street. But his dad gave him anything he wanted. Jamie became so rude to me, to the teachers. I came down on him like a ton of bricks, but in the end he and his dad planned it and he left. It broke my heart.”
It also broke the heart of Tre, her younger son. Tre’s father was another man, whom Charly married. It was a turbulent relationship so she divorced him. He still got access, but Charly says: “I won’t fight with his dad. I don’t want my son to see two adults fighting, being rude to each other.” This, she says, is all relevant to what she does now.
When she moved to Hollingdean, her street was “a crime black spot”, she says, “although I know you’re not supposed to say that. The street was split. Up one end were the owner occupiers, and down our end the housing association. We started a street association and crime really began to fall. I think it was because we were seen to stand together. People are reporting crime more, although it’s still a long way till people will always name people they see committing a crime.”
How have they done most of this? With Neighbourhood Renewal money. She rails against the targets, as we all do – “they should be community targets not government targets”. But she admires the government for spending the money. While the “how” is about government, the “why” is about her.
At weekends, she is still at raves and clubs in London. At 35, she is still a wild child. “I know that I can motivate people. The people who knock it, I guess they’re jealous. They want to stand up, but they don’t have the guts.
“I’m a great advocate of taking the initiative. If there’s litter in the park, why should the council have to pick it up? It’s our park and they’re our kids playing there. There’s no contrast for me in being wild and having manners. Parents ought to stand together and teach their children respect.”
Despite her crazy hair and fantasy look, underneath she’s rather wonderfully conventional. Traditional values in a modern setting, you might say. But maybe that’s my prejudice.
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