Lit Fest: Alex Wheatle in conversation

Alex Wheatle is the author of six novels, all of which are informed by his experience of living in London. His work centres around his childhood, which was spent in a care home, his formative years exploring the sights, sounds and smells in Brixton in the 1970s and his adult life after the pivotal Brixton Riots.

Here, Alex talks to ELL about his influences and experiences ahead of his appearance at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday. Read on to find out why Alex is one of Britain’s most crucial literary voices…

What can we expect from your appearance at Stoke Newington Literary Festival?

It’s a reading event with my very good friend and fellow writer, Courttia Newland. We began our careers by writing about urban stories that affect the black experience of living in London. That’s what we’ll bring to the event on Sunday. We’ll be talking about how we managed to get to be published writers in the first place, and also talking about our books.

Was it imaginable for you, back when you were younger, that you would grow up to be a novelist who has published several novels?

Oh, no. My dream was, when I was very young, to be a footballer. My childhood hero was Pele. Just like most people really, young boys want to be heroes, go to the moon or play in the world cup. Then I played cricket for a while so I wanted to be like Viv Richards and smack the ball all over the field. Then, when I got into reggae, I wanted to be a reggae artist, and that was my entry into fiction, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I used to write lyrics for sound-system performances and all week I’d write and then on Friday and Saturday night I would grab the mic and perform at parties and dances. That gave me the discipline to write every day, and those lyrics turned into short stories, and after many years those short stories turned into novels.

Why did you first start getting into reggae music and deejaying?

Reggae spoke to me because most of my childhood was spent in a children’s home, and not a very good one, so the politics of reggae really meant something. My heroes were Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, guys like that when reggae was massive in the mid to late 1970s. Living in Brixton, you couldn’t fail to hear reggae. It was all over the place. Really what I’m doing now is the same thing as when I was a deejay, a sound-system performer, where I would tell little stories, little slices of south London life.

A lot of your work is informed by your own biography and your own experiences. Why do you decide to write through that?

It’s very good therapy! It gives me the opportunity to get a lot of things off my chest, and also it’s an experience that’s not really seen in fiction that much. If you walk into a Waterstones bookshop in the west end, even though over 30 per cent of people in London are from an ethnic background, that’s not represented so much. I think my books add to the flavour of London and what London is really like. When I first got into reading I wanted to read about my experiences, or my friend’s experiences, growing up in London, this fantastically diverse city. But that wasn’t to be found. The only writing I could find that represented me was poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson. Apart from that, all the black authors seemed to be American. Even now, there is an imbalance. I think there should be more writings of the ethnic experience.

Why is there, even in the 21st century, still a lack of black writing?

Publishers don’t trust it. Publishing is too white, really. When you go to the big publishing houses, you rarely see black faces. There’s a fear of taking on black writers. But, in my experience, the British people are very tolerant. I find that at my events, people come because they love reading, they love fiction, they love stories. It seems that those who have the power think: ‘Oh, Alex Wheatle’s books only appeal to the West Indian community’ and for me that’s false. We need to start believing that all kinds of stories can appeal to anybody.

It’s 30 years since the Brixton riots. How have things changed?

30 years ago, I don’t think that my book East of Acre Lane (Fourth Estate, 2001) would have got published, because I don’t think publishers of that day would have felt it would have been popular. But, 20 years later, East of Acre Lane did get published. So there is a growing feeling toward the black experience story, but it’s still not as widespread as I’d live to see it, in terms of publishing and in terms of politics. The Brixton riots were 30 years ago; shortly after the event you began to see the emergence of new black politicians, black literature in terms of newspapers and magazines, and it did launch those initiatives, so it wasn’t for nothing that the likes of me were throwing rocks at the police and trying to fight our corner, and trying to stand up to the injustice that the police meted out.

You spent time in prison after the Brixton riots. How did that come about?

I rioted for most of the Saturday and I was arrested a few weeks after that day. I spent four or five months in Wormwood Scrubs. But that was a turning point, because in prison you don’t have much to do, so I really got into reading. I started to read C L R James, the Black Jacobins, about the slave uprising in Haiti, and then I expanded my reading to Chester Himes, one of the Harlem Renaissance writers, then Charles Dickens and it leaped on from there. It was like an education, getting books for me to enjoy and learn about the world from. When you’re struggling to survive, going for job after job and not getting anything, and you live in this narrow world of Brixton, where it’s all hustlin’, your mind can’t see out of that, but reading expanded my horizons.

Can you describe how you felt before you went into prison and how you felt when you came out?

Before I went into prison, I felt that I had no chance, no hope. There was nothing for me out there. I felt shoe horned in by Margaret Thatcher’s government and the authorities, and there was no way I could rise out of that. I had no ambition but it was only after reading books that I started to think that maybe I could take my own place in society. When I saw the struggles that black people were having around the world, that gave me inspiration to say: ‘OK, maybe I can take all of this crap and come out in a good way and contribute something. Maybe I’m not as stupid as what they are saying I am.’

Was that when you started to become the Brixton Bard?

Yeah, when I came out of prison I started to write lyrics and I started to perform poetry, and so on. It grew on from there.

So reggae was very important to your life?

It gave me a sense of identity. Growing up in a children’s home in the middle of Surrey, I felt that I had no identity, because I was surrounded by white middle class people, so I didn’t know who I was. But when I first listened to reggae music, and loved it, that gave me a sense of belonging that I’d never had before. I just grabbed onto reggae music, I gravitated toward it.

Is there a music that represents black youth today in the same way that reggae did?

Today, my children favour hip hop or r ‘n b over reggae. Reggae is not as popular as it once was, no way. I remember going to dances at Brixton town hall with 3000 people there, and that was just to listen to sound-systems. We don’t have that anymore. If a sound-system plays out now, you might see someone of my generation there, but the young don’t love it as much as we did. We saw it as part of our identity, like: ‘OK, this country doesn’t seem to want us but we have reggae music to speak for us.’ Many of us, even though we were born here, we didn’t feel British, because of the way we were treated by the police and so on. Reggae music was a comfort, a teacher, where someone like me could find an identity.

You must have very fond memories of those times, though.

Oh, yeah! We had no money, so we walked everywhere. I lived in Brixton hill, but if there was a blues party in Elephant and Castle, then we’d walk! We’d go to the council estates on a Friday night and listen for a bass line! If we needed money, we’d go to one of those iconic red telephone boxes and get all the two pence pieces out with a crowbar or hammer and then we’d go to a blues dance and pay our entrance fee! That’s the kind of thing we used to do because we love it so much. Brixton was, in many ways, an edgy place. You could get arrested at any time. But it was fantastic if you were young, with all the music and dances and parties. All those memories are in my first two books.

So it was a double edged sword. Tense but fun.

Yeah, don’t forget the fun. There was a lot of fun and dancing and laughter. It was incredible at the time. In my teens was when reggae music was at its peak. You can’t downplay the influence of reggae music on us at the time. I used to remember albums with covers of fists clutching barbed wire and so on. The black man’s struggle all over the world. That’s a very powerful thing to see when you’re young. We were politisised very early, with all the images and the lyrics and the music.

You were aware of a certain kind of repression?

Definitely. All this informed my writing later on.

Even if the sound of reggae music isn’t so prominent now, it’s influence is still being felt. Smiley Culture died in police custody a little while ago and all those questions were raised up again.

It stokes up the old fears, doesn’t it? ‘Oh the police are up to no good again, the police haven’t changed much, have they?’ Those are all the usual asides. People like me will always question those events because we lived through a time of police brutality. They lied back then, what’s going to stop them from lying today?

You do workshops in young offender’s institutions and prisons. How did that come about?

It came about just after my first book was published in 1999 and I was asked would I think about coming into Wormwood Scrubs, funnily enough the place where I was kept in 1981, and would I like to read from my novel? We did a little event and that turned into doing creative writing workshops, helping prisoners put together narrative or bits of poetry or short stories. I think that  as a society we have to think: ‘OK, if people are going to go into prison, does it make sense that we try and educate them while they’re there and make them believe that they can contribute to society once they have finished their term?’ I’m one of those who believe that. That’s why I’ve been to over 30 prisons over the years.

Why is writing good for prisoners?

When I first wrote, it got so much stuff off my chest that I was bitter about. It was like therapy, to finally get that burden off me. It got a monkey off my back. Everyone needs an outlet. We need some kind of method to get this angst out. And prisoners are no different.

Do you find that the prisoners are receptive?

Yes I do. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been received warmly. They’ve been keen to follow my instructions in creative writing. I haven’t had a problem yet.

What kind of stuff do you teach them?

I teach them how to create characters, how to create narratives, how to edit work and how to keep at it, improving every word and sentence. I try to get them to enjoy the art of creating a work.

Where do you find the inspiration for your own characters?

The people I meet, my self, my own life. Brixton was so colourful when it came to characters. You had your hustlers, your church people, your singers and deejays, you had the white guys trying to get a touch of black cool, you had the first generation who came over here in the 1950s and 60s, and there was a big difference between the first and second generation. I tapped into all that, all those tensions, and for me it was like I was doing some kind of study. It was all new to me because my background was a children’s home, so I was a silent observer, seeing how all these dynamics played out. I used to go to friend’s houses and see the families interact, hearing the colourful language. That was an education for me. I really took it in.

How was your experience of the children’s home?

Hellish, really. There was all sorts of abuse going on, physical and sexual. They didn’t know how to treat the colour of my skin or my afro. My esteem in those days was so low. I came out not knowing myself, my history or my culture. It was all stripped away from me. It was like that for everybody, even the white kids.

Arriving in Brixton was a good thing then?

Yes, it was an incredible culture shock. First, I had to learn how to understand the language, which was an incredible hybrid of Patois and Cockney. Then the way I saw how everyone walked and talked. It was an experience and something that I loved.

Why did you find yourself on the streets during the riot?

Everyone wanted to get involved. When you heard on the Friday night that there were bricks and bottles being thrown, it went round Brixton like wild fire. There were rumous going round that someone had been stabbed to death. Everyone wanted to be in Brixton on that Saturday morning, and I joined my friends, we were waiting for something to rebel against. The police provided that by arresting a mini cab driver, for no reason, really.

Will you ever exhaust your experiences?

Maybe. But I’ve already addressed that because I know want to write about other things. I’ve written a children’s story. I want to write for children because many of my books aren’t appropriate for children aged 14 or under. I’ve been to so many schools and I want to provide something for children to read. Hopefully that will be out next year. I want to expand to other fields. I’m trying to jot down some ideas for a cricket or football novel, there’s all kinds of things I want to do before I hang up my pen!

Alex Wheatle and Courttia Newland appear at Abney Public Hall on Sunday at 2pm as part of Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Tickets cost £4 and are available here.

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