This week the Government launched a campaign to deter young people from carrying knives. Simeon Clarke tells Jo Ind why he used one and why he laid it down.

The walls of the centre in Handsworth that Simeon Clarke founded are adorned with awards for his community service.

Aged 44, he is the founder of Birmingham Ex-Offenders’ Service Team (BEST), which for the past two years has offered, among other things, mentoring to young people to help them not re-offend, job training, cookery classes and lessons in anger management.

Simeon believes that BEST works because its starting point is an understanding of the reasons why young people carry knives and use guns. He knows because, he has been there.

Simeon was born in Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham, and was brought up on the borders of Edgbaston and Smethwick.
 

His dad, was born in Jamaica and came to England where he found work as a polisher. His mother was born in St Kitts and worked in City Hospital on arriving in the UK.

His parents had five children together, of which Simeon is the second youngest. All in all, there were 10 of them living in a three bedroom house with no bathroom. There was Simeon’s immediate family of seven and his uncle, his wife and their son also living there.

“It was the norm,” says Simeon. “I had a very happy childhood. Living so close helps to keep you close and make you strong.

“To this day, if my brothers or sisters don’t hear from me for a week, they’ll be on the phone saying ‘how are you doing, are you alright?’

“When we get together we love to talk about those days. We would go go-cart riding, play proper hide and seek. If the fridge was broken and we wanted to make jelly, we’d put it outside until it was set.

“They were fun days. There was more of a sense of unity. There was more of a bond.

“We would go into each other’s houses and people would know who you were. There were local police officers and we used to know their names.

“My mum would leave a bottle of whisky out on the street for the bin men and it didn’t get nicked.”
Simeon enjoyed school as well. He went to City Road Primary School and then Ladywood Comprehensive and worked hard.
His life changed in his second year there, when he was 12 and his mother and father separated. He went to live with his mum in Northfield, which was where the council rehoused her.

“The divorce wasn’t too bad because I had access to both my parents,” says Simeon. “I’d spend the week with my mum and the weekend with my dad.

“The house was great because it had a bathroom. We were excited about that. We all had chores to do – cooking and cleaning and everything but that was a good thing because it rubbed off on us and we know how to keep a tidy house to this day.”

Simeon’s difficulties were to do with his new school – Northfield Comprehensive – where he, along with his brother, where two out of only eight black children.

Every single day, they suffered racist abuse.

They would sit together on the bus and the white pupils would throw things at them and call them names.

They would ask them why they didn’t go back to Handsworth and threaten to beat them up.

“I never told my mum,” says Simeon. “I didn’t want to worry her with anything.

“For people who came over from the Caribbean at that time, racist abuse was the norm.

“I loved school. I enjoyed it, but I could never go to the school to get help because I knew what was going on in the school.

“It was racist too. There were a few times when the teachers called me racist names.

“One teacher said to me: ‘Shut up, you black monkey.’ That was so blatant she had to apologise to me in front of the class.”

Things came to a head when Simeon was walking down the road with his brother and a group of white lads, who were always trying to trip them up, came up and started to strangle them. The last straw came when they beat up his brother in the school.

Simeon was still friends with the kids from Edgbaston so he rallied them round and eight of his mates made their way up to Northfield to find the guy who had beaten up his brother.

They could not find him, but they did find another guy who was challenging Simeon to a fight with his mates, so the Edgbaston lads set on him instead. Simeon and his brother left them to it and went home for lunch.

The next thing they knew there were police all over the place. Simeon and his brother were summoned to the headmaster’s office. They were suspended for two days.

The next day 15 of their friends went up to the school for a fight. The police came. Two were arrested. The news of the riot got into the paper and the story that went round was that 100 black kids had come to Northfield looking for trouble.

When Simeon and his brother went back to the school on the Monday, after being suspended, they had earned respect.

“Nobody said a word. One guy came and opened the door for us. Nobody troubled us again.”

The trouble he had at Northfield did not embitter Simeon or put him off white people.

“I had a lot of white friends,” he said. “But I learned that fighting works if you’re fighting for the right thing.

“There’s a certain time when you have to get physical to defend yourself. I was ‘Cock of the School’ which means I was the best fighter of people in my age group. Because of that people didn’t trouble me.”

He also started carrying a knife.

“Growing up in Northfield, I used to always walk with a knife,” he says. “ It was concealed.

“Because of the way things were with all this racist assault, I needed something in case someone came and attacked me.”

It was when Simeon was 12 that he saw his first gun. He was in the park looking out for some teenagers who were fighting fist to fist when a gun dropped out of one of their pockets.

“I picked it up for him,” says Simeon. “I thought it was cool.”

He never fired a gun, but years later when he was working on the doors of nightclubs and taking the money, he used to carry a concealed gun to protect himself.

Simeon got his O-levels and CSEs and went on to study at what became South Birmingham College to study to be an architect.

He stopped after two and a half years because he wanted to earn some money and did a variety of driving jobs, ranging from working for a car rental company to being a delivery driver.

He carried on getting into fights.

“It was always to defend people,” he said. “I would never start a fight for no reason and I wouldn’t defend my father or my brother or another member of my family if they were in the wrong.”

He did, however, nearly kill someone with a knife.

It was when he was in his late 20s, that he used his knife in self-defence.

He was at a night club in Wolverhampton when he saw some guys carrying another man out of the club.

“The way they were carrying him didn’t seem right to me. I think he must have been on drugs or something,” said Simeon. “So I said: ‘why don’t you let him sit down and get some fresh air?’”

One of the guys said: “F... off.”

Simeon said: “Who are you telling to f...off?”

The guy punched Simeon and in the ensuing fight, he threatened to use a shooter or acid on his mate.

He pulled out a canister, which they assumed was acid, so Simeon took out his knife and stabbed him repeatedly in the kidneys.

Simeon was arrested and bailed for attempted murder, but the case was dropped because the guy, who was a drug dealer and did not want to go to court, did not press charges.

Simeon did end up in jail for beating somebody up in a fit of road rage.

He was on a job driving in Newtown. Rather than wait in a jam at the traffic lights, he drove down the wrong side of the road and tried to nip into the queue as the lights turned.

The guy ahead of him, gestured at him, wound down the window and called him a wanker and a black bastard. Then he tried to wind Simeon up, braking suddenly three times.

It ended up with Simeon saying: “Who are you calling a black bastard?” beating him up through the car window and getting a three month jail sentence. “Prison was OK for me because I knew a lot of the people in there,” he says. “People knew that I was not a trouble maker so I was OK.”

It was not jail that changed Simeon’s way of life, but becoming a Christian.

From his teenage years to his early 30s, he had been a Rasta, believing that Haile Selassie, the King of Ethiopia was God and expecting to be repatriated in Africa.

“I expected to go back to the mother land,” he says. “I wouldn’t buy a house, because I was going to live in Africa.”

Being a Rasta, he read the Bible and started to notice that some of the Rastas’ way of life did not fit in with what he was reading.

One day he was at his sister’s house and he suddenly said he was going to go to church.

Sure enough, the next day, he got up, put on his Sunday best and rang his sister.

His sister had forgotten about the plan, but Simeon figured he was dressed now, so he would find a church to go to anyway.

He had no history of church-going in his family. He did not know where to go or what the form was, but he got in his car and drove until he came across the New Testament Church of God in Handsworth.

“As I was sitting there with the singing and everything I thought: ‘I can’t wait for next week,’” he says.

“And then the preacher came on. As he was preaching I felt as though I was the only person in the church and he was speaking directly at me. I thought,  ‘how does he know so much about me?’ I believed it was God talking to me and a few weeks after that I decided to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and to work in the world for his will. Eight months after that I was Baptised.”

His lifestyle took time to change though. He still womanised to some extent, he still worked in a nightclub and he still suffered from occasional bouts of road-rage.

What brought about a more complete change in his lifestyle was getting a different kind of job.

One day he was playing badminton with some black guys, one of whom was a magistrate and the other a solicitor.

“I hadn’t really thought that black guys would get jobs like that, but when I saw them I thought that I could do it,” he says. With much prayer, he decided to do give up his job and go back to college to do a counselling course.

Six months after that, he saw a job going as a community warden, where the brief was to be in charge of a team working on the streets to help reduce crime.

It was a big deal for Simeon as he had never done community work or been in charge of a team before, but he prayed. He excelled at the interview and he got the job.

“One person in the team was an ex-social worker. They were so educated and they knew a lot about street wardens but I was in charge of them,” he says.

“It changed my life. Doing work as a community warden I was able to see the issues. I could see the concerns and dangerous things that had been around me all the time but I’d never been able to do anything about them.

“This gave me an overview. I could see that some people had problems because they could not speak English, perhaps, or others because they were being bullied at school.

“I could do something about it. Before I had just been behind the wheel of a car.”

Simeon would go to schools and do talks. He would make a safe place for people to talk so they did not have to go to the police. He would help people with access, he would set up community meetings so people in the area could have their say in what needed to be done.

His job was funded for three years. When it came to an end, three years ago, he set up BEST, though its future is now in question because it has run out of funding.

He also works with the chaplaincy team in HMP Birmingham where his message to the inmates is: “I was once a prisoner, but now I’m a key-holder.”

He tells them it is not a good thing to carry a knife or a gun.

“If you carry a knife or a gun, then the time will come when you will use it. How would you feel if someone died as a result of that? Take time out and think about the consequences of carrying one.

“That’s where anger management is very useful. There are techniques you can learn to deal with anger, like counting and breathing. We teach that here. It should be taught in all schools.

“Ask yourself how you would feel if you used a knife and that person died? Just last week I was talking to a guy in prison who had killed someone.

“He’s got to live with that for the rest of his life. He has that remorse every single day.

“You could take someone’s life and it will be over a very small thing.

“A friend of mine was killed because he trod on somebody’s shoes.

“Shoes are replaceable – but life is not.”