“The truth is, it ain’t just a race thing. They talk like it is, but really and truly it’s black against white, young against old, authorities against the rest... There’s bare reasons for feeling vexed right now.”
I have just finished reading Polly Courtney’s remarkable new book, Feral Youth.
Feral Youth is story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London. At the start of the book, Alesha is living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. But she has a roof over her head, a friend she owes everything to, a youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and a ‘rep’ that provides some flimsy protection on the streets.
In the course of a few short weeks over the summer of 2011, even those are taken away. No wonder Alesha’s angry. Angry enough that when messages start crowding onto her phone, telling her riots are kicking off all over south London, she is ready to take revenge on the whole self-satisfied world she sees around her.
Only, it’s beginning to look as if the one person she can really trust isn’t from the streets at all. She’s Alesha’s eccentric former music teacher, Miss Merfield – and she’s trying to tell Alesha there’s another way out.
Courtney has broken some taboos in writing this book. First of all – as many people already know – she is the self-published writer who gained a coveted traditional publishing deal, only to ditch it when she realised she was being shoe-horned into writing books she didn’t really want to write.
To cap that, she has written the book her agent told her not to, the one that was too ‘niche’. (“How niche are young people?” Courtney demands at the launch.)
Finally, she is a young, white, middle-class woman, writing in the voice of a homeless, mixed-race teenager from South London. “You can’t possibly be authentic,” she was told, when she mooted the idea.
|Polly Courtney at the launch of Feral Youth|
Courtney refused to be put off. Motivated by her own anger at the ill-informed responses to the 2011 riots in British cities, she spent time with girls from Westwood College in Croydon, learning from their point of view what it was like to be a teenage in South London today, how they saw the riots and the reasons behind them – and most of all, listening to their voices and learning how they spoke to one another.
When the riots kicked off in August 2011, I was away on an oh-so-middle-class family holiday in Cornwall. I looked on from a distance, seeing events unfold on television, reading about then in the newspapers. What I struck me in those first few days was the way commentators were contrasting the supposed ‘mindlessness’ and ‘criminality’ of the 2011 rioters with what they now chose to cast as the ‘legitimate beefs’ of 1981 Brixton rioters.
What? Did no one remember the initial response to the Brixton riots – before the Scarman Report shed a chink of light on the causes? Did no one remember Thatcher saying: “No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events … They were criminal, criminal.”
And did no one think, even for a moment, that this generation might also have legitimate reasons to be angry?
Reasons like a dysfunctional drugs policy that criminalises small time users while leaving those that sell the drugs to exert their own warped rule over the streets? Like youths given exemplary sentences for petty crimes while those they are told stole millions sit pretty? Like the very, very little the poorest in society have being taken from them, budget cut by budget cut, while the richest must be ‘incentivised’ to go on working here?
We think so much has changed, but in truth Alesha’s Peckham has more in common with Dickens’ Seven Dials than it has with the modern day leafy suburbs just a few streets away. And just as in Dickens’ day, I suspect that it may be class prejudice, not race, that is most deeply entrenched in British society. Combine the two, and you get a toxic mix that poisons the lives of kids like Alesha. But it’s the demonization of the ‘underclass,’ the wilful failure to imagine life beyond the ordered security of a well-paid existence, that does the most damage and will be the hardest to root out.
Reading Feral Youth brought back all the anger I felt in those weeks following the 2011 riots. At the end of it, I was crying. Aching for the Aleshas of this world. There is no doubt that Alesha is at times her own worst enemy. There were points where I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake her for not saying aloud what was going through her head. But Alesha can’t tell anyone about what’s happening to her. Everything in life has taught her to say nothing, to trust no one.
Feral Youth is an astonishing achievement. I have nothing but admiration, both for Courtney’s courage in taking on a story like Alesha’s, and for her integrity in recognising that if it was going to be done it had to be done properly, and that meant working with people on the streets – the kids themselves, and the small groups and charities that work every day on a shoestring budget to try and give them a hand up.
I can’t judge how authentic the end result is – but others can. South London poet Deanna Rodger was so impressed enough by what Courtney had achieved, she leapt at the chance of playing Alesha in the book trailer, and to read the opening of the book in Alesha’s voice at the launch party. Sonya Thomas, one of the researchers of Reading the Riots, wrote: “If you want to understand why so many young people took to the streets two summers ago, read this book.” Gary Trowsdale, of the Damilola Taylor Trust, wrote: “Seeing the world through the eyes of youth, as Polly has achieved in this novel, is something that politicians and leaders of industry need to do.”
Such is the lack of imagination, the lack of empathy, I’ve seen from politicians to date, I fear the response would be, “See, they are feral, and we blame the parents.” But Alesha deserves better. Like Celie from The Color Purple, hers is the voice of a barely literate teenager, reaching out to us from a world we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist. But as long as we go on turning a blind eye – it will go on existing.
Perhaps one of the best things that could come from the writing of this book would be for one of the kids from the streets to be inspired to write their own story. If only there were more Miss Merfields around to teach the Aleshas of this world to trust their own voices. And more people willing to sit up and listen when they do speak out.