A notorious scene in the cult crime serial from the late 60s, ‘Big Breadwinner Hog’, jammed ITV switchboards at the time of its original broadcast; in it, a gangster throws acid in the face of a rival. The scene is unusually violent for 1969 and still seems pretty horrific today; indeed, the relative rarity of such a vile crime gives it added shock value. Unfortunately, the stringent gun laws in this country and the heavy sentences for knife crime have now forced real-life villains into utilising what was an unusual weapon in a make-believe drama fifty years ago, making it a grim and gruesome reality.

It doesn’t really do much for one’s diminishing faith in human nature when human beings are so inventive at devising new and unpleasant means of inflicting pain upon their fellow man. The news that two teenagers (aged just 15 and 16 respectively) have been arrested in the unlovely London borough of Hackney following five separate and unimaginably awful acid-throwing sprees from a moped last night is the latest in an increasing series of robberies and attacks involving corrosive substances in the capital; while some are believed to be gang-related, others appear callously random, done without either knowledge of or, (more likely) an absolute disregard of, the serious disfiguring damage acid can cause.

Throwing acid is not a specific crime in itself; most arrested for it have been charged with GBH, whereas knife attacks are regarded as attempted murder. The easy availability of corrosive substances and the fact sentencing isn’t in line with knife crime combine with relative ignorance of the long-term effects acid can have on victims of it. In a week in which some brain-dead chavvy dimwit hit the headlines by subjecting her baby to utterly unnecessary and unbelievably cruel cosmetic surgery in the shape of ear-piercing, it’s worth realising surgery of a different nature is the usual aftermath of an acid attack; the most serious injuries can require upwards of 20 painful plastic surgery operations, and even then the legacy of the damage done is usually evident somewhere on the body.

There is also understandable psychological damage caused by acid attacks, something partially dealt with by a charity called Acid Survivors Trust International. Although there have been a small handful of well-publicised acid attacks in recent years, many have been on pretty girls whose jilted lovers or spurned stalkers have sought to ruin the looks of. The current rise of such attacks in London has largely been reserved for men, and the increase now means, according to the Acid Survivors Trust International, the UK is the shameful world leader in them.

In this country, there are no age restrictions on purchasing household cleaning products that contain acid; some of the few restrictions are related to bulk-buying of such goods for businesses, something that falls under ‘explosives, precursors and poisons’ rules; another restriction is on the sale of sulphuric acid, though mainly due to its status as a potential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. Otherwise, anyone can buy a bottle that can easily become a dangerous weapon, though why would anyone be carrying a bottle in their jacket pocket unless intending a premeditated attack? Only last month, two men were seriously maimed when acid was thrown at them through their car window; and there was an equally appalling attack at a Hackney nightclub in April that left 20 people with severe burns and two blinded in one eye.

Police figures released earlier this year showed acid attacks had risen from 261 in 2015 to 458 in 2016; a third of them took place in the east London borough of Newham, with few making it to trial. 74% of cases from 2014 onwards were abandoned due to the reluctance of many victims to press charges, which would certainly support the theory that corrosive substances have become key weapons in gang-related violence. Still, since 2010, there have been 1,800 reported cases, which make for pretty depressing reading.

Gang culture itself is a side-effect of poverty and urban depravation, when those who feel they have nothing will grab at anything that provides them with the status and importance that cleaning tables wearing a paper hat probably doesn’t. Not much gang-related crime in Chipping Norton, one imagines. And, of course, gang culture as a product of poverty is nothing new; some of the worst poverty-stricken areas of the UK have had gang violence as part of their makeup for centuries; one could go back to the infamous Gorbals tenements of Glasgow in the 1930s or even to Fagin’s den of thieves in ‘Oliver Twist’ for evidence of that. The weapons of choice have depended on how far gangs have progressed to professional organised crime ala the Krays or the Richardsons, from razors to knives to guns and now to corrosive liquids.

Even if one takes gang culture into account where the current upsurge in acid attacks is concerned, however, the likelihood of someone who has no connection with gangs being targeted just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time seems extremely high. When gang members are busy killing each other or their rivals, it’s easy to step back and leave them to it; when members of the public are added to the hit-list, as appeared to be the case in the barbaric series of assaults in Hackney last night, then it becomes particularly scary for everyone. And that’s when action is usually taken. We can only hope that this time it is.

© The Editor