Summer in London’s always rich with sights, sounds, and memories, but the hot streets of July for many still evoke the chaos of riots in 2011. They became the touchpaper for frustrated teenagers in Polly Courtney’s new novel Feral Youth. It’s the latest book from an author who, a few months after the riots, fired her publisher in a very public spat for packaging her novel as chicklit. But Courtney was always one to take risks — she left a career as an investment banker to become a writer.
We spoke to her about her experiences mentoring a teenager in south London, which helped her tell what she thinks is the real story behind the riots — and how she learned to cuss properly in Jamaican patois.
What was your own experience of the riots?
I live in Ealing now, which is usually pretty quiet, so when the riots took hold I was shocked to see them spread to my neighbourhood. As I lay in bed, I could smell the burning tyres of a police car on fire. I was glued to the TV and Twitter but nobody seemed to know what was going on. I was too late to see the riots in action but I saw the damage: the smashed-in shop windows, twisted metal and burnt-out stores.
I felt compelled to know what had caused it but all I could glean from the media was that the perpetrators were being given harsh sentences to prevent it from happening again. It seemed as though we were treating the symptoms, not the causes.
How have Londoners shaped the book?
Young south Londoners were instrumental – not just in terms of dialect and tone, but in terms of attitude and things that were important to them. I was surprised by the ferocity of opinion around certain political issues. For example, they talked a lot about ‘pop-up youth schemes’ that were here today, gone tomorrow, and several times I heard the analogy that the looting during the riots was no different from the MPs’ expenses scandal. The more I heard from young people (and those who worked with young people), the more opinionated Alesha and some of the other characters [in my book] became.
One of the most interesting events I attended was a Guardian/LSE-sponsored Reading The Riots event, which was held in a youth centre in south London, which got invaded by a set of mums who were picking up their kids. They gave the most brilliantly articulate, angry explanation of what caused the frustrations that led to the August riots – immediately silencing all the posturing going on in the roomful of white, middle-class Guardian readers.
What was the biggest challenge for you when writing Feral Youth?
The book is written from Alesha’s perspective, using South London ‘street’ dialect. I was determined to make it authentic, but finding young people who were willing to read early drafts and correct my mistakes was hard.
I met lots of young people during my research, but those who were closest to Alesha’s world and knew best what I was trying to achieve were also the least likely to have the time, ability or inclination to read. In the end I used a combination of young readers and older people who worked in youth organisations and who were familiar with the language but who also read books. I’m glad I did, because there were definitely some schoolgirl errors in the first few drafts — mainly just problems of context — like, I thought ‘butterz’ could sometimes be used as a kind of ‘cool’ word but actually means ‘ugly’.
You’ve written before about your career in the City, and about the struggles of Polish migrant workers in London. How much does London influence your work?
I realise that London is not the epicentre of the world and that there is life outside the capital, but it feels as though this is where a lot of important discussions start — if I’m going to play a part in those discussions then I should stay close to the action.
Feral Youth is by far my best novel and I could never have even conceived it had I not been mentoring at Kids Company, a London-based charity. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to keep it authentic without the help of young people in south London and to be honest, I imagine a lot of the readers are here in London too.
How has living in London influenced your career?
London makes me feel as though anything is possible. I turned my back on a well-paid career in investment banking to become a writer and a few years later, I walked out on HarperCollins to take back control of my writing career. Would I have done those things if I hadn’t been immersed in the buzz of London life? Who knows…Probably not.
Favourite London library?: My local, Askew Road Library, Shepherds Bush
Favourite bookshop?: My local, again — Ealing Books
Favourite place to have a cup of tea and do a spot of reading?: Munson's Coffee, Ealing
Favourite London author/novel?: Nick Hornby. Quiet, understated, underrated
Favourite London literary event?: London Lit Festival at the Southbank Centre. I loved the performance by Point Blank Poets at the 2013 event
Feral Youth by Polly Courtney is out now, published by Matador.