'He started singing 50 Cent ... then said he was going'

Grief, anger and denial mark death of Christopher Alaneme, 18

A small group of teenagers sits by the floral tributes to Christopher Alaneme opposite Sheerness-on-Sea station. Amy Page is 16, but with her sweet freckled face and puppy fat, she looks too young to be consumed by such grief.

She was one of Christopher's closest friends in Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey off north Kent. "He was the most loveliest person ever, so kind and caring. Wouldn't hurt no one. You know he said he came here to get away from the shit of London - the roughness, the anger."

Eight days ago Christopher was killed in what is being treated by Kent police as a racist attack - on the eve of the 13th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's murder. The attack echoed that on Stephen in a number of ways. Both boys were 18, popular, apparently untroubled. As with Stephen, Christopher is thought to have been racially abused and stabbed by a group of white attackers before attempting to stumble to safety and bleeding to death while waiting for a delayed ambulance. Unlike the Lawrence case, Kent police have taken rapid action: so far four men have been arrested.

The death of Stephen Lawrence famously led to the Macpherson inquiry and the finding of "institutionalised racism" in the Metropolitan police. Now, barely a week after Christopher's death, uncomfortable questions are being asked about an island mentality that allowed this to happen on Sheppey, a traditional Labour stronghold that has latterly become one of the country's most marginal seats.

This strange little society has long prided itself on its independence from the mainland despite the fact that it is barely 25 miles east of central London. The island is best known for its three prisons (the biggest employer on the island), and little else. Now it looks as if it might become well-known for its violence and anachronistic attitudes.


Christopher's friends (all but one of them white) have many stories to tell about the way he was serially harassed in his 18 months here. There are few black people on the island, let alone black 18-year-olds 6ft 4in tall. He was hard to miss in Sheerness. "I'd be walking up the road with him and he'd get called racist things and he'd just walk away and say, 'OK yeah, yeah rude boy'." Amy laughs at the memory.

Now she says she's had it with the island. "I don't want to live here no more. I think it's a disgusting place, horrible. Not safe." She mentions another fatal stabbing that happened a few weeks ago.

The trouble is, her friend Roxanne Vanklaveren says, there's nothing to do here - only one nightclub, no cinema, an unappealing pebble beach and a cultural desert. "This place, it's like you see 13-year-olds drifting around with cans of Stella or a bottle of vodka and a spliff."

Mary Schembri is a middle-aged woman, a churchgoer with a touch of the Dot Cottons. She looks at the flowers, and shakes her head. Have there been racial problems here before? "Not that I know of. We've got more coloured people on the island now. I remember we had a sister and a brother when they were a baby and they grew up here, and one of them is still on the island. But now we're having more coloured people. I've got nothing against them. They're lovely people, they're human beings like us aren't they?" Mary starts weeping, and dabs her eyes. "Ah, I'm getting all emotional now. All emotional for the lad."

She is comforted by a couple of women from the minority policing panel for Swale. Jastinder Essan, the chair of the panel, moved to Sheppey from Greenwich in London for health reasons, but found it traumatic. "I couldn't get out of my home. I had people telling me, 'Paki go home,' and shouting abuse at me in the street. In Greenwich I was just a face, just one of the community. Here I became a prisoner in my own home."

Sheerness is tiny. Daniel Havill, a builder and friend of Christopher's, pops along to the square in his lunch hour. Like so many men here he is heavily tattooed and heavily built. He says he's in a terrible state, and apologises. "I just come out of prison 21st March - I was in for drink-driving while disqualified - and my mate got stabbed to death by his girlfriend as well, and now this - all in a month. My head's all over the place at the minute." Daniel looks white but is mixed race - his dad half Spanish, his grandfather part African. "I used to get called names when I was at school cos of my skin colour."

Last Friday he bought Christopher a drink at the local All Bar One. Christopher then left, and a while later, about 11.30pm, Daniel looked out of the window and saw him collapse on to a bench outside the pub. "I held his arms, and Twiggy the landlady from the Goat Inn said to him sing a song so he started singing 50 Cent, then he started fitting, and he said he could feel himself going. And we said, 'Stay with us,' but in my mind I knew he was going to die." He takes out a photograph of Christopher from his wallet. "I can't sleep properly. I keep getting flashbacks of holding him and him fitting. I hope he's in a better place."

It's not easy to piece together the jigsaw of Christopher Alaneme's life. Ask his friends, and they tell different stories or simply say they don't know. His family is Nigerian, and live in south London. Some say he ran away from the violence of London, some say he just fancied a change. He did part-time painting and decorating on the island, had a regular girlfriend, and moved from a hostel for the homeless to stay with Amy and her father for a few weeks before moving in with another friend. He was particularly close to a 14-year-old boy, whom he is said to have been protecting when he was attacked. He liked to rap and box, and play computer games.


The one thing everybody is agreed on is that he was well-liked. Sarah Inns, the mother of his girlfriend Cally, was amazed by his manners. "He was so polite, so unusual for a teenage boy. And he seemed very quiet. He looked frightened to meet the in-laws!" Cally had often told her that they had been harassed on the streets. "She said they were looked at a lot as a couple. Him very tall and black and she's 5ft and white so they were quite a noticeable couple, I expect.

"I went to collect them one evening outside Tesco and I witnessed first hand racial remarks made to him by a middle-aged man and a little boy about the age of six. The little lad was calling Christopher a black c-u-n-t." She spells it out. "I couldn't believe it. I've lived on the island all my life. That was the first thing I'd ever really witnessed. I'd always thought we were a very accepting bunch of people who took people for what they are, not what colour they are, you know."

Twiggy, the landlady at the Goat Inn, cradled Christopher in her arms as he died. She talks about how happily he'd settled down in Sheerness. But her customers are not convinced by the generally accepted account of the attack. They ask why his killers also stabbed a 29-year-old white man (who is in hospital) if it was a racist attack, and point out that the suspects are holidaymakers from London, not locals. They want to know whether the press would bother reporting the story if Christopher had been white, and how come Britain's only black chief police officer, Mike Fuller, makes his first appearance on the island when a black man has died. They ask if that isn't itself a form of racism.

The local people say they love living on the island, but admit it has more than its fair share of quirks - they joke about its insularity and the inbred nature of the place. Andy Hunt, a local businessman, says: "I sell T-shirts, among other things. One of them says, 'Bob's your uncle - and your dad, too.'"

A few metres away from the pub, the floral tribute is growing. There is a new framed photograph of Christopher on the grass accompanied by the following poem:

I will never forget your smile

I will never forget your face

We will always remember you

Every time we walk past this place

RIP Chris X


Simon Hattenstone in Sheerness

The GuardianTramp

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