Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Summers of Riot

by Catriona Troth

Riots, thankfully, are as rare on the streets of Britain as a long hot summer. But just occasionally, the two go hand in hand. The combination heat and frustration brews trouble. Warmth brings people onto the streets, where anger and discontent can be shared. Riots rarely start in cold weather.

In the summer of 1981, a wave of riots fanned out across Britain’s cities. The flashpoint was Brixton, in South London, where a young Alex Wheatle was living. Twenty years after Wheatle was jailed for his part in those riots, he wrote East of Acre Lane, the story of Biscuit, Brixtonian youth, unemployed and out of options, making a little money selling ganja and dodging police and gangstas alike.

Thirty years later, in August 2011, a new wave of riots hit Britain. Motivated by her own anger at the ill-informed responses she heard, ex-investment banker turned writer, Polly Courtney, wrote Feral Youth: the story of Alesha, a fifteen year old from Peckham who, in the course of a few short weeks, loses the roof over her head, the friend she owes everything to, the youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and the ‘rep’ that provides her with some flimsy protection on the streets.

Both books take you under the skin of a youngster living in desperate circumstances. Both open your eyes to the pressures and frustrations that can lead to an explosion of violence and destruction.

Two very different authors, writing about events thirty years apart. The parallels are striking. The differences are shocking.

East of Acre Lane is written partly in the Jamaican patois that was current on the streets of Brixton in 1981. The language of Reggae. The language of performance poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. Feral Youth is written in a vivid South London street slang that is recognisably its descendant.

Both Biscuit and Alesha are young, black and disaffected. Both are making money from petty thieving and selling drugs, which brings them into conflict not only with the police but with those higher up the drug-dealing food chain. But Biscuit at least has a home and a family – a mother and a sister and a place to live. And Biscuit is eighteen. Thirty years on, and Alesha is only fifteen. Her poverty, and the extent to which she is living under the radar, make Biscuit’s life look sheltered by comparison.

Despite what you might think from reading the tabloids, for most of us living in Britain today, the chances of being the victim of violent crime are lower today than they were thirty years ago. But for kids like Biscuit and Alesha, in a few forgotten pockets of our cities, the level of violence they live with has escalated terrifyingly.

When Biscuit falls out with the drugs baron, Nunchaks, in the opening scene of East of Acre Lane, he is taken to the top of a high rise apartment building, threatened with a beating and left to imagine the possibility of being thrown from the roof.
The red-lit circle indicated that the lift had reached the 25th floor.  The two flunkies shunted Biscuit through a wire-meshed door that led the way to the balcony. Biscuit ran the scene through his mind in trepidation. This was the end; he could see his eighteen-year-old body crumpled on the concrete forecourt below, as lifeless as a black bag of rubbish.  He felt an asthma attack gathering force in his chest and his fear rendered him speechless.  Nunchaks was still fiddling with his lighter.

‘Wha’ yard number did you raid the uder day?’ Nunchaks demanded.

Feral Youth opens with one gang member being knifed and left to bleed to death.

Reggie Bell is dead. He was seventeen.  JJ says we saw him got shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing. It was all just a blur of hoods – a mad whoosh in the darkness.

I heard it though.  Reckon half of South London heard Reggie Bell die.  It was the kind of noise a cat would make if it was stretched and stretched ’til it snapped. Then nothing.  JJ says that’s when he died. He says the blood was leaking out of his body from the slit in his neck and when there was two pints of it all over the road, that’s when he died
Gang rivalry leaves Biscuit ‘trodding carefully,’ but for Alesha, those rivalries have sucked in whole neighbourhoods, affecting who she can talk to, which side of the street she can walk on. Carrying a knife and affiliating to a gang are just part of what she has to do to keep herself safe.

Nunchaks’ weapon of choice, as his name suggests, is the two-sticks-on-a-chain favoured by kung fu fighter, Bruce Lee. But he relies mostly on the threat of violence to maintain his power. Tremaine, the leader of the gang Alesha affiliates to, carries a gun and exercises that threat on a daily basis.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the sexual exploitation of women by gang members. In East of Acre Lane, Biscuit’s sister, Denise, is lured into prostitution through dates with the glamorous-seeming Nunchaks, mirroring the fate of the ‘skets’ Alesha despises.
They get all dolled up, hair and nails and underwear, then they drop their knickers for the first man that comes along. Most of them do it for the p’s. Some of think they’re going to hook a gangsta and get all the latest threads and ice and champagne on tap. Some of them do it to get knocked up.

But as Alesha learns, sexual violence can also be used as a form of punishment and control.

Into this world desperation and extremes comes the spark that detonates an explosion. In Brixton in 1981, it was the rumour that the police had stabbed a black youth they had tried to arrest. In Tottenham in 2011, it was the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In Courtney’s fictionalised version, it’s the courts’ ignoring audio evidence that the police beat up a black kid.

As the word of the injustice spreads, anger spills over. People gather on the streets. In Biscuit’s world, it’s word of mouth. In Alesha’s world, Blackberry Messenger speeds the flow of information. But the result is the same. What was a targeted response becomes an eruption of scattergun violence. Police lose control.
A roar goes up in the crowd and we bust our way up the street, pushing the fedz further and further back.  They’re running scared now.  There’s a steady stream of ammo:  wheelie bins,hubcaps, doorframes, bits of twisted metal from burning shops.  It’s all lying there in the street as we roll through, so we use it again and again as we go.  I pick up all sorts and hurl it, not even bothering to see where it lands.  Chuck, chuck, chuck.  I’m so hyped up now I don’t care what happens.  I don’t care if I kill someone.

When the 2011 riots happened, a common response was, “These yobs don’t have the reasons to riot they had back in 1981.” Reading these two books, comparing Biscuit’s life to Alesha’s, I see a frightening poverty of understanding in that comment. If Biscuit’s story lays bare the reasons for Brixtonian anger in 1981, Alesha’s story takes a hefty slice of those reasons and multiplies them by a factor of ten.

Alesha’s life has more in common Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist, or Jo the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, than anything I can relate to in modern life. But Alesha is not a phantom from Victorian London. Polly Courtney worked with Kids’ Company when she was writing Feral Youth, and Kids’ Company works with kids like this every day. So how the hell did we allow that to happen, when sixty years ago we built the safety nets that were supposed to prevent it ever happening again?

Books like East of Acre Lane and Feral Youth can show us better than any study full of facts and figures how riots start and what drives young people to those levels of desperation. If as many people read them as once read Dickens, we might again start to change the way we think about lives in our inner cities.

If you’re interested in a non-fiction, but still personal, account of riots, then I’d recommend Tales from Two Cities, by Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy. In September 1985, Murphy was living in Birmingham, in a bedsit across the road from the Villa Cross pub, when the Handsworth riots kicked off. The book contains a first-hand account of the days before, during and after, and serves to underline what a predictable pattern such events take.

 Catriona Troth’s forthcoming novel, Ghost Town, is set in 1981; the Brixton riots and the events leading up to it, form part of its background.

You can read Catriona's extended review of Feral Youth on her blog: http://catrionatroth.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/going-feral.html


  1. I've read East of Acre Lane (and several others of Alex Wheatle's books) but have yet to read Feral Youth, which I will certainly do now. Not so long ago I said at Greenacre Writers Lit Fest, that all politicians should read Alex's books and judging by this review, I think we should add Polly Courtney to their reading list.

  2. I would definitely add Feral Youth, Lindsay. Thank you!