On Wednesday afternoon, at around 3.30pm, my wife, Caroline, was driving along Conningham Road in Shepherd's Bush when she was forced to perform an emergency stop. A group of black teenagers had sauntered out into the middle of the street, effectively stopping the traffic. Several of them were accompanied by Pitbulls.
Caroline was angry, not least because she had our daughter in the back who was now crying, having been jerked forward. One of the youths looked at her aggressively, daring her to beep her horn. Luckily, she kept her cool.
At first, I wasn't remotely worried when she told me this story. Incidents like this happen all the time in the Bush. It wasn't until I discovered that a 16-year-old youth had been stabbed to death a few hundred yards away -- that same afternoon -- that I started to become alarmed. The perpetrators were a mob of black teenagers, some of whom had dogs.
Was this the same group that held up my wife? And if Caroline had been foolish enough to beep her horn would they have turned on her and our three-year-old daughter?
The temptation, when you hear about incidents like this, is to throw up your hands in despair and start calling estate agents in Tunbridge Wells. It's one thing when teenage boys are killed in drive-by shootings in Brixton, but when it happens on your own doorstep -- in broad daylight! -- it is time to get out of Dodge. If this happened on Hammersmith Grove, where houses sell for upwards of £1.5 million, what hope do I have in my modest Victorian terrace?
Exactly how worried should I be, though? Is this a rational response -- or am I over-reacting?
If you look at the British Crime Survey statistics for 2005/06, London is ranked eighth when it comes to the rate of violent crime per 10,000 adults, making it the fourth safest region in England and Wales. As it turns out, you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham -- or, indeed, any big English city North of Watford -- than you are in London.
One of the little discussed facts about crime statistics is that you are even less likely to be a victim if you happen to be white.
Let's be blunt about this: One of the reasons white, middle class Londoners like me are so alarmed by incidents like this is because it feeds into our fear of young black men. The murder of a 16-year-old boy probably would not have been headline news if it had happened in a black neighbourhood. It is only because he was stabbed to death a few yards from Ralph Fiennes's house that it is such a big story. The message is clear: No one is safe from these marauding gangs of knife-wielding black thugs.
But the statistics don't bear this out. According to the British Crime Survey's findings for the years 2002-5, black people were 5.5 times more likely to be the victims of homicide than whites.
Indeed, of all the white homicide victims in 2002-5, 88% were attacked by whites. This contrasts with black homicide victims, only 74% of whom were killed by blacks. It follows that contrary to popular prejudice a black person was significantly more likely to be murdered by a white person in the years 2002-05 than vice versa. It is the black residents of Shepherd's Bush who should be moving out to get away from me, not the other way round.
I'm not arguing that the white residents of Shepherd's Bush have nothing to worry about because most violent crime in London is black-on-black. On the contrary, most violent crime in London -- as in the rest of the country -- is white on white. The plain truth of the matter is that the vast majority of violent crimes are perpetrated within ethnic groups rather than between them. The fact that Shepherd's Bush is a racially mixed area makes it no more dangerous for a white, middle class person like me than a rural town. I might feel safer if I moved to Tunbridge Wells, but I wouldn't actually be safer.
This is borne out by my own experience. I've been a Bush resident for 16 years and the only time I've been the victim of a black-on-white crime was when my car was broken into. I don't know for certain that the perpetrator was black, but I suspect he was because he didn't bother to steal a single one of my CDs. Clearly, he had better taste in music than me.
Far from being a cauldron of inter-racial resentment, Shepherd's Bush is a model of multi-cultural integration. When I amble down the high street, past the Syrian supermarket on one side and the Serbian cafe on the other, I marvel at the ability of all these different people, from such diverse backgrounds, to get along.
Last Saturday, for instance, I happened to be walking past the mosque on the Uxbridge Road when the worshippers started streaming out. They were met by the sight of a rowdy mob of white students sitting on a roof terrace opposite, drinking heavily, and cheering wildly as England defeated France at rugby. The two groups seemed blissfully unaware of each other. It was a prime example of the laid back, live-and-let-live atmosphere that makes Shepherd's Bush such a pleasant place to live 99& of the time.
I don't wish to sound complaisant about what was, by any standards, an appalling crime. The constant state of fear that black teenagers live in, particularly in London, is a national disgrace. But it is not evidence that our multi-cultural society is breaking down and, most emphatically, it is not a reason why white, middle class Londoners should move to the country.
If we over-react to incidents like this, the danger is that Britain will become much more like America where nearly every major city is racially segregated, with the blacks and Hispanics herded into lawless ghettos and the whites cowering in gated communities. Living in close proximity to violent crime is the price Londoners pay for racial integration. I lived in New York for five years and it's not an exaggeration to say that there's a greater range of restaurants on the Uxbridge Road -- Croatian, Indian, Ethiopian, Caribbean, Thai -- than there is in the whole of the Upper East Side.
On balance, my life has been immeasurably enriched by living in one of the world's must culturally diverse cities and I have no intention of ever moving anywhere else.