Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne, offers the varied voices of second generation, working class immigrants during a few days of enhanced racial tension in our capital city. An angry young ‘black boy’, calling himself ‘the hand of Allah’, has murdered a soldier on a street in daylight and then publicly desecrated the body. Far right troublemakers intent on blaming all people of colour for the country’s ills react by inciting further hate filled violence. This then spills into the streets of an enclave of north west London.

Around the tower blocks of a Neasdon housing estate a group of teenage friends, raised under a mix of creeds, are seeking ways to carve a future for themselves. Life in the mixed community is hard with options further limited by family circumstances. The boys come together to play football, chat about girls and listen to music. They rarely talk about the detail of what is going on inside their homes and heads.

Selvon lives with his mother and ailing father off the estate. He is accepted as he regularly hangs out there with his friends. Focused on his training – regular runs and visits to the gym – he is biding his time before escaping to university. His father, Nelson, came to London from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. Nelson taught his son to be disciplined, to focus on self-direction and not get swayed by the wrong crowd.

Ardan lives with his mother, Caroline, who was sent to London by her family in Belfast when she was seventeen. Ardan focuses on his music, Grime, recording creations but keeping them to himself. Caroline fights her own demons, drowning them in drink.

Yusof also lives with his mother but their family is more recently troubled. His father was Imam at the local mosque before he died in a car accident. His brother, Irfan, has since brought shame down on the family. The new Imam has radical ideas and was granted power over the boys by their grieving mother. This Imam and his ardent followers, including former schoolboy bullies, are determined to rein Yusof and Irfan in.

The story is written over just a few days and focuses on the male population. I found the supporting roles granted the women unsatisfactory – where was their strength of character and influence? Given the power of the narrative this remains a minor irritation.

The young residents of the multicultural area are portrayed going about their lives. These are shadowed by circumstances not of their making – they deal as best they can with the world they have been given. When hate filled actions encroach there is fear and anger, a powerlessness in the face of demands from a fracturing community often at odds with personal desires.

The writing adopts a local vernacular that took some time to engage with. It is not difficult to read but I am still unsure what some phrases mean – how does one ‘Kiss my teeth’? Selvon has a sexual encounter with a girl he meets on the estate which was unpleasant to read. What comes across though are lives that are beyond my experience. The portrayal appears searingly authentic.

Having recently read The Study Circle I could empathise to a degree with the Muslim strand of the story. Caroline’s background was familiar. In offering three young friends, raised in the same place but by parents from differing backgrounds, the challenges of lazy attitudes to skin colour and poverty can be explored and contrasted. We need more voices like this in our literature if we are to to better understand the weight of limitations imposed on those raised in such communities. There may be a few who get away but what of those who remain?

This is a dark tale posing questions not easily answered but which, for the good of all, need to be more widely considered. A well structured and captivating read.

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Book Review: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, by Adelle Stripe, tells the story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar who is perhaps best known for the 1987 film adaptation of her second play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too. The book is “a work of fiction and is an alternative version of historic events”. The author has sourced her story from letters, scripts, newspaper cuttings and memories of those who knew Andrea before her death, aged twenty-nine, following her collapse in a local pub she frequented.

Andrea grew up on a run down council estate in the north of Thatcher’s Britain, where factory closures exacerbated the social problems caused by unemployment and limited options for residents. Her skill as a writer was recognised at school but not picked up until a chance meeting with a support worker, Claire, at a women’s refuge where Andrea was sheltering after her boyfriend, the father of her child, started beating her. Andrea was no stranger to domestic violence as her alcoholic father had regularly meted out vicious punishments.

Claire had a contact in London’s theatre land to whom she sent samples of Andrea’s first play, written for her English CSE. The potential of the work was recognised but required that Andrea travel to the capital city. Although excited by the opportunity, this dropped Andrea into a rarefied world that highlighted the stark divide between the lives of those in the north and south of England.

Andrea harboured a great deal of anger at the way she was regarded by the Guardian reading artistic Londoners she had to work with, especially when they edited her words. Having had three children by three different fathers she knew that she appeared to personify the ‘feckless working class’ of political rhetoric. Her gritty plays were written from dialogue she overheard, the life she experienced. Her peers from the estates did not always appreciate the way they were being portrayed.

The author presents Andrea’s story as a mix of diary entries, documentary style dialogue and updates. It is a humane and empathetic representation of a life the protagonist wished to improve but not escape. Living within the crumbling council estates was harsh but there was a sense of community. Andrea was supported by family and friends who were proud of the achievements she struggled to deal with. She fitted in here more than she ever could in London, a city whose influential residents have always, seemingly, failed to comprehend the realities of life beyond their accepted scripts and lived experience.

This story is amongst the best depictions of the north south divide in England that I have read. There is no attempt to glorify the hardship or to tap emotional responses, rather it is a story of a young woman whose messy life brought a degree of fame but rarely happiness. It highlights the reasons for the resentments, the chasm that appears to bewilder those based around London when others beyond the city disagree with their points of view. This is as relevant now as when Andrea lived.

My copy of this book was borrowed from the library.

Adelle Stripe will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Mick Kitson on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.

Book Review: Nutcase

Nutcase, by Tony Williams, is a retelling of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong. The protagonist is Aidan Wilson, a hard lad born and raised in one of Sheffield’s roughest housing estates. Surrounded by violence and addiction he goes from young trouble maker to convicted criminal to vigilante. His size, strength and willingness to defend family and friends leads him down a road chequered by brutality.

Those living on the estates Aiden roams have low expectations. They deal drugs to make money, steal whatever else they need to use or sell, and get off their faces on alcohol and other drugs at every opportunity. Many of them take on jobs labouring, transporting goods (many stolen), or in the shops and pubs they frequent. Few stick to anything long term. Sex is recreational with babies a byproduct, accepted but with little responsibility.

Aiden is one of five siblings. As they grow up and leave the family home to set up with partners or friends they look out for one another whenever they are able. At times Aiden has his own place to live but there are regular periods when he stays with others for work or to escape trouble. This is accepted practice in his community. There are fallings out and regular fights. Aiden acquires a reputation that is both a threat and a means of survival.

There are girlfriends along the way but they bring their own dramas. When one young girl calls on Aiden to help an abused child he ends up in a situation that will haunt him. As will happen again, the grapevine carries different versions of his involvement. He will struggle to shake off the rumours some delight in spreading.

Aiden moves around the Sheffield and Leeds areas, spends time in prison, moves to Swansea, and gravitates home. He makes enemies, there are deaths, and he is blamed for his apparently uncaring behaviour. Relations of those he thwarts threaten retaliation. Damage to property is a distraction, bodily harm a regular and accepted risk. The violence of the lifestyle is gut-wrenching, the depiction all too believable.

The denouement comes as no surprise with the portrayal offering insight into the attention span and attitudes of the internet age. Few it appears place value on a life that lacks what the middle classes would describe as prospects, especially when that life has been spent recklessly.

The narrative style is almost blasé yet remains jaw droppingly intense. There are occasional asides about the lives minor characters will go on to lead which provide lighter relief. Nevertheless, the majority of what is being depicted remains horrific, especially that it has been normalised throughout the estates. I cannot say if it is realistic but that is certainly how it reads.

I haven’t been as perturbed by a storyline since I read the incredible We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire yet even it has characters who desire a better way of living. Aiden Wilson and his family never seem to consider this a possibility. Given their repeated actions I am guessing this could be a depressingly pragmatic point of view. I am left pondering what it would take to instigate change, if the Aiden Wilsons of our world would even welcome such intervention.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Know Your Place

Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.

The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.

“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”

The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.

In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.

Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.

Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.

There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.

“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.

The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”

In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.

Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.

“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”

The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.

To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.