Tuesday 24 December 2013

Homelessness - it ain't what it used to be

I spent Christmas 1979 working in a homeless shelter in Coventry.

Like Maia in Ghost Town, I’d spent the summer after a graduated volunteering at the Shelter, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to go back there for Christmas. 

Christmas Eve, I went to the midnight service at the ancient Holy Trinity Church next to the Cathedral. And Christmas morning we borrowed the kitchen at the local Methodist church to cook turkey and all the trimmings for around 30 homeless men who had nowhere else to go.

Back then, most of those we catered for probably complied with your stereotype of a homeless person. They were male. In their thirties or forties, but looking a lot older. And almost all were alcoholics.

Even back then, though, there was much to defy lazy stereotyping. We did indeed have an ex-soldier,  like Pongo, who had failed to adjust to civvy street – who kept himself spotlessly clean and had a passion for mathematical puzzles and lateral thinking. With a few exceptions, these guys were kind, often funny, and fiercely protective of the women volunteers.

Move the clock on a few years and the nature of homelessness was changing.  First came the transients, who hit the road looking for work when the recession hit in the early 80s.  Then there were those who slipped through the cracks of ‘care in the community’ – the mentally ill who failed to adjust to life outside an institution, but who hadn’t Pongo’s resources to cope on their own.   And then there were the children – the runaways and those leaving care at 16 – who in the late eighties had their right to claim benefits taken away from them.

By then I was working in an office on Kingsway in central London.  I will never forget the drift of homeless people that seemed, night by night, to move further north from the river, starting on the Strand and moving their way up Kingsway until, by dusk, every doorway would be occupied by a huddled form under a threadbare blanket or a piece of scavenged cardboard.

To walk south over Waterloo Bridge towards the National Theatre was even more heartbreaking.  Within spitting distance of the champagne-swilling excesses of the Square Mile, a cardboard city mushroomed. There hard-core, old-style homeless men slept alongside children who didn’t look old enough to be allowed out on their own – never mind to be living on the streets.

Gradually things changed.  Policies – some well-meant and some ruthless – gradually reduced the numbers of rough sleepers. And in the boom years of the noughties, the number of homeless genuinely reduced.

It's on the rise again now, though you might not know it. There are more rough sleepers to be seen in London than there have been for a decade or more - but nothing like the numbers I saw in the late eighties.  Homelessness has become a hidden scourge.

Homelessness today is kids like Alesha in Polly Courtney’s Feral Youth, living under the radar and dodging social services as they sofa-surf from one unsuitable home to another. It’s mothers with small children living in B&Bs with filthy communal kitchens and stairways booby trapped with used hypodermics. It’s hostels for young adults you wouldn’t home a dog in.

This is the legacy of three decades of failing to provide the housing stock that’s needed, runaway rent prices and – now – a government that is hell-bent on reducing the welfare bill by cutting back on housing benefit. Whatever side of the fence you sit – the three of those together makes for a toxic mix.

Back in 1966, Ken Loach made Cathy Come Home – a film about a young woman forced into homelessness.  It helped to launch the charity Shelter and brought about a change in the law that  gave a duty to local councils to house vulnerable women and children.

We need another Cathy Come Home . We need to change the narrative from ‘workless scroungers claiming thousands in housing benefit’ to something that reveals the true picture of homelessness in the 21st Century. And we need to do it before it’s too late for kids like Alesha.

Christmas seems like a good time to start.

Friday 6 December 2013

The Power of Reconciliation: RIP Nelson Mandela

When I was a very small child, my father wrote a book which contained a short chapter on Apartheid.  Both the book and my father were immediately banned in South Africa – which didn’t seem to have much effect on us, as we didn’t live in South Africa and had no immediate plans to travel there.

But it meant that my father became a minor focus for anti-Apartheid activists escaping from South Africa, and for other South Africans who came to view their country in a different light once they travelled outside its borders. As a result, I grew up hearing extraordinary stories of courage in opposition, of last minute escapes and daring subterfuge.

When I arrived at University, one of the first conversations I had was about the rights and wrongs of boycotting South African goods. And when I started work, I would walk every day through Trafalgar Square, past the South African embassy and see the handful of people holding their perpetual vigil outside its doors.

I remember almost weeping when, in April 1994, that handful of people swelled to queue that wrapped itself round the building, as ex-pat South Africans queued to vote in the first free elections in the country’s history.

Last year, I was privileged to attend the opening, on Mandela Day, of the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition at the British Museum, attended by Sonny Venkatrathnam who was a prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for twelve years

The exhibition included the’ Robben Island Bible,’ Venkatrathnam’s copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  The only other books allowed on Robben Island were religious texts, and in order to persuade the guards to let him lend it to other prisoners, Venkatrathnam pasted Divali cards over the cover and convinced them it was a ‘Hindu Bible’.  The book was passed among the prisoners and 32 of them annotated the text, marking passages that had particular meaning for them.

The book lay open at the passage from marked Julius Caesar by Nelson Mandela:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

When Nelson Mandela walked free from Robben Island in 1990, his image in the world changed.  For almost thirty years, no photographs of him had been permitted. The images of him we had all seen – on banners, on t-shirts, at every anti-Apartheid rally – were of a young man, an amateur boxer. In an instant, as he walked through those gates, that image changed.  He was older, much thinner, his hair beginning to grey.

But when he spoke, his image changed in a much more profound way – from a Freedom Fighter to a man who was able to forgive.  A man who could feel nothing but compassion for his oppressors.  A man who could hold his nation together through the power of reconciliation.

Today, the Rainbow Nation has lost its father. May they, and all of us, continue to walk is his light.

Monday 2 December 2013

Triskele's Black Friday ... and Saturday ... and Sunday ...

Black Friday may have come and gone, but TRISKELE BOOKS have one more treat in store for book lovers. For just three days next weekend, from 6th-8th December:

WILL BE AT 0.99   

Gillian Hamer's historical crime thrillers set along the wild Welsh coast, laced with an otherworldly flavour.
Or JJ Marsh's fast-paced international crime series, with the incomparable Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. 

The first two volumes in Liza Perrat's Auberge des Anges Perdues series, set during the French Revolution and in Nazi-occupied France...   

Or JD Smith's beautiful retelling of an ancient Cornish legend...                          


and of course my own CONTEMPORARY FICTION from Canada and Coventry:

So if you have yet to sample one of the Triskele authors - or if you want to complete a collection you have already begin - now is the time to do it. Just click on the links below each cover image to find the sales point for your region.

All Triskele eBooks across all platforms at the special Christmas price of 99cents/pence. 
December 6th-8th 2013

Monday 11 November 2013

Jatinder Verma - Founder of Tara Arts

On 4th July, 1976, five years before the murder of Satnam Singh Gill in Coventry, another student by the name of Gurdeep Singh Chagger was murdered in Southall.

Just as it would in Coventry, the murder galvanised Asian youths into a response quite different from the non-confrontational approach of their parents. Starting with four days of spontaneous street possession in Southall, the reaction spread out across the country, spawning the Asian Youth Movement.

With slogans such as ‘Come what may, we are here to stay’ and ‘Here to stay, here to fight,’ the AYM was radical, secular and prepared to take the fight to the opposition. Many of those currently involved in fighting for civil rights - such as Suresh Grover from Liberty - cut their teeth with the AYM.

Chaggar’s murder also galvanised a young Jatinder Verma.  Verma had arrived in the UK from Kenya as a teenager in 1968 – the year of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.  As he told the Guardian in 2008, “I saw my mother struggling with four children in a strange land, wading through torrents of abuse, repeatedly refused rented accommodation because of the smell of her cooking, disparaged and devalued by shopkeepers and landlords, stripped of her sari and her dignity on the factory floor.

Convinced of the need to forge life out of Chaggar’s tragic death, in 1977, Verma set up Tara Arts, Britain’s first Asian Theatre Group in Britain.

Here he talks to me about humour, self-censorship, and why he still sees colour as the central issue in inter-cultural exchange.

Jatinder, could you start by telling me a bit more about why you set up Tara Arts?
Black Album
NT-Tara co-production-2009
Alex Andreaou as Riyaz;
 Photo Credit Talulah Sheppard

Until Chaggar’s murder in 1976, Asian youth had been largely invisible. Asians were perceived as a law-abiding community, and Asian youth were ‘not a problem.’  But here they were saying, “These streets belong to us too.”

There is another less well known line from Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech:
"It is by Black Power that the headlines are caught, and under the shape of the Negro that the consequences for Britain of immigration and what is miscalled 'race' are popularly depicted. Yet it is more truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes face to face with those who will dispute with him the possession of his native land.”

We needed a space in which to debate these issues and the feelings they aroused.

I strongly believe the way to break through cultural barriers and break down prejudice is through empathy. Through challenging the imagination. Arts in their various guises have always suggested the nature of society. They contest myths. (To paraphrase Shelley) artists are the unacknowledged legislators of tomorrow.

This isn’t just about new writing. It’s also about how you reinterpret the classics.  Look at Othello.  At least today he is usually played by a black actor, which is a step forward from Lawrence Olivier blacking up! But Othello is not black. He is a Moor. An Arab.  A non-Christian.  That’s been addressed academically but never yet on stage. I know that sooner or later that is something I am going to have to do.

You have said that the dialogue between ETHNICITY AND NATIONHOOD is central to Tara’s work.  Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by that that?

Britain is an island, with all the faults and riches of an island nation.  We don’t like people coming in. We still haven’t forgiven the French for the Norman Conquest.

It is only really since the Second World War that coloured immigration has impinged on the British consciousness.  So coloured immigrants have been caught up in the midst of huge challenges for Britain in determining its identity in a post colonial world – such as, do we align ourselves with a European axis or an American axis? Does the kingdom stay united, or break up into nation states?

I remember taking one of our plays to Dewsbury.  When we got there, we found ourselves surrounded by Victorian non-conformist buildings.  Yet the inhabitants of those streets were dressed as if they were still living in NW Pakistan. That is a challenge to a nation whose self-image is still white.

As Ivan says in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:One can love one’s neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters, it’s almost impossible.”

I have always suspected that both xenophobia and elitism run much deeper in the British character than racism itself.  But you clearly believe colour is the central issue.

I agree that Britain likes to imagine that it is a meritocracy.  It isn’t. One of the reasons that the British Raj felt so at home in India was that, in its caste system, they saw themselves in the mirror. 

And yes, today a lot of the ill feeling is directed against Islam as a faith, but how do you recognise a Muslim?  I have walked down the street outside this theatre and been called ‘Osama’.

In all the literature around race, there is no real investigation of the visceral impact of colour.  There has been a failure to engage with questions that we find difficult to examine.  Our framework for discussion, such as it is, has been borrowed from the US.

A couple of years ago, you adapted Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album for the stage.  [The Black Album is about a search for identity amidst the clash between fundamentalism and liberalism. Written in the wake of the Rushdie affair, Verma staged the play twenty years later, in the shadow of 9/11.] You said then that one of the things that you wanted to achieve was to make a comedy out of racism. How successful do you think you were?

What Kureishi is able to do so brilliantly is see fascism for what it is, irrespective of race or faith.

But in terms of comedy?  No, not all that successful, if I am honest.  I still have in mind to do a cabaret on race – to make use of all those 19th Century writers whose work is infused with racism.

We are just beginning to see comedy that is self-referential, prepared to lampoon oneself.  But there is still a nervousness about making fun from without.

I know you’ve said that, in the wake of the Rushdie affair, we began self- censoring over words like Muslim’, ‘Islam’, and ‘’Race’.  Can expand on that?
Domestic Crusaders, 2013
(Taqi Nawaz as Sal and Kieran Vyas as Ghafur
Photo credit George Torode)

I have come to realise that there can be times when a small amount of self-censorship can be the right thing to do. Take the play we currently have on: Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali.  Three generations of a Muslim family come together in the wake of 9/11to celebrate the 21st birthday of the youngest son.

The oldest son is pursuing the American Dream.  He comes home to find his younger brother wearing a beard and looking as if he is on the road to radicalisation. The play had a line where he says to his brother (referring to the beard), “And what’s this filth on your face?”

Now the beard represents the beard of the Prophet.  To call it filth would be extremely challenging. In the end we decided to have the actor simply swallow the word.  (“And what’s this ... on your face?”) And we did that for two reasons.  First, if anyone did decide to take offence, it was the actor, not me or the writer, who would be in the line of fire, who might get beaten up. And secondly, it would get in the way of the story.  The story is about young Asians seeking to carve a space for themselves in the American landscape while remaining connected to their own cultures.

But censoring ourselves over what issues we are prepared to discuss?  That can never be right.

There are very few British Asian playwrights. And none of our major playwrights have tackled these issues. Our major theatres are all looking for ‘the Muslim play.’ At the same time, they won’t touch Muslim plays. But not to do so is a failure to reflect the country as it is.

I know there are playwrights who won't write about the Asian experience because they 'don't know the culture'. What do you mean, you don't know the culture? What about Shakespeare, your literary 'god'? 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?'

What matters is that someone has been seized by an idea and has sweated for it.

Thank you, Jatinder.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Concrete Jungle

Sukhbender Singh is the author of Concrete Jungle, a radio play performed on the BBC Asian Network which shares its backdrop with Bob Eaton’s Three Minute Heroes and my novel, Ghost Town.

"As the storm of racial tension in Coventry rises, two young Asians, Harri and Rudy, each have to make a choice about what's most important to them - music, girls, or standing up to be counted."

Here he talks to me about growing up in Coventry in the 1980s, and the trials and tribulations of getting
Concrete Jungle produced.

Sukhbender, what are your memories of Coventry from the early 80s? Did you take part in the protest marches that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill? 
I was born in India and came to Coventry when I was two. In 1981, I was fourteen - too young to be directly involved. My mum would never have let us!  What I do remember is that going into Coventry City Centre could be a bit of a tortuous trail. We used make sure we went shopping early because the skinheads didn’t come out until later.

Most of those involved in the protests were around five years older. Nineteen, twenty. It was one of the first times that young Asians took a stand against racism.  For the older generation, it was all about keeping your head down, not being noticed. But now there was a new generation who felt British. I know some of the older ones got involved in vigilante patrols, protecting their communities.

How did you come to write Concrete Jungle?
Concrete Jungle was one of the first things I wrote. A classic example of ‘write what you know’. It started off as film script. I first tried peddling it around in 1993, and then again around 2000.  The first time they all wanted it to be more like My Beautiful Launderette.  The second time round it was, “can’t you make it more like Bend It Like Beckham?” The only thing Concrete Jungle has in common with either of those is that it’s about Asians! After a while, I decided there was no point. I had to move on.

I started working on Silver Street, which was a radio soap opera for the BBC Asian Network.  When that was canned, the BBC decided to put some one-off dramas on the Asian Network, so I pitched Concrete Jungle to them. I cut the film script down to 50 minutes, hoping that they might do a longer piece, or maybe a two-parter.  But in the end I had to squeeze it all down to 25 minutes, which didn’t give much scope.

2011 was an interesting time for Concrete Jungle to come out.  Not only was it the 30th anniversary, but we were in a recession again, there was another Royal Wedding ... I was working with the producer, James Pereis, who was brilliant and fully understood the script and the times. But the BBC controllers didn’t know the history. They were concerned about the riot scene and they didn’t like my using the word Paki.  How can you tell the story of that time without using that word?  They wanted to sanitise it.

The play used comedy to highlight the tensions of growing up Asian, which wasn’t all about racism. It was about not having a job, unrequited love, all that stuff. It wasn’t overtly political, but there were political undertones.

The playlist for Concrete Jungle includes tracks from Two Tone Bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. Yet Horace Panter has said that not that many young Asians would go to The Specials’ concerts.  How do you think Coventry’s Asian youth viewed Two Tone and Ska? Did it speak to them, or did they feel excluded? Were you a fan yourself?
A few Asian kids were into things like The Jam and The Clash. But most of them were listening to Bhangra or Filmi (Bollywood music). My brother loved Two Tone, though and so I got into it. No one else captured the zeitgeist quite like they did.

When The Specials announced their Concert for Racial Harmony, we were very excited.  But we couldn’t afford the tickets. And we were all scared things would kick off again.  Everybody thought the National Front would use it as an excuse to make more trouble, though in the event, that didn’t happen. 

This is potentially a huge question – but how do you think things have changed for young British Asians in the past thirty years? Is Coventry in particular a better place to be growing up than it was thirty years ago – or a worse?
It’s hard for me to say.  As an adult, your cognitive map of the city changes.  But the vibe is not the same as it was during the 80s recession.  There aren’t the same tensions. 

It feels like a calmer place.  I understand it’s now one of the safest cities in England. There was a small demonstration by the English Defence League a while back, but hardly anyone turned up.

Thank you, Sukhbender.  

Coming soon:  Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts, the first Asian Theatre Group in Britain (founded in 1977).

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Three Minute Heroes

Bob Eaton was Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from 1996 to 2003.  During that time, he wrote and produced Three Minute Heroes, a “jukebox musical” about a young Ska band in Coventry, set against a background of the same events that inspired Ghost Town.

Here he talks to me about why it was so important to him to put on a play about the Two Tone era, how he approached writing it and what Coventry is like today.

First can you tell us a bit about your background.  Are you Coventry born and bred?
No. In fact, I was Manchester and Liverpool during the Two-Tone era. So, really, my experience of Two Tone was much the same as the rest of the country - seeing the Specials and The Selecter on Top Of The Pops.

So how did you come to write Three Minute Heroes ?
I started work under Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke on Trent.  He pioneered the idea of developing work for the stage that was based on real local events, which made me think a lot about how theatre relates to the community - the ‘soil in which it grows,’ as it were. 

There was also a bit of me that was a bit of a wannabe rock ’n roller who had been persuaded to do my exams and go to university instead... I guess that was why, in the late sixties and early seventies, I started developing the idea of what these days you’d call ‘jukebox musicals,’ using actors who were also musicians, which was a new idea back then.  When I went to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981, I put on a show called Lennon, which is still being produced now.  That was a local story, and timely, as he’d been killed the year before.

So when I came to the Belgrade Theatre, I knew from the start that I wanted to do something about Two Tone, even if it took me a few years to get round to it.  It was a local story, it was exciting, and it had a political dimension to it.  I spent a long time talking to people like Pauline Black, Neol Davies and James Mackie from the Selecter, and Horace Panter and Roddy Byers from The Specials, finding out how Two Tone had come about for them.

It was a strange period musically. Punks and latter-day mods were coming together with musicians with a soul/funk/Caribbean background. And then you had people like Pauline, who was mixed race but had grown up in a white (adoptive) family, and (as she herself says) the nearest she had come to Caribbean music was Joan Armatrading.

At the same time, this wave of fascism and racism was building, and musicians were reacting to that.

Three Minute Heroes wasn’t a documentary.  We decided to tell it as the story of a group of young musicians coming up in the wake of bands like The Specials. We had five young actors, some of whom could play a bit.  And then we had a live band, directed by Akintayo Akinbode.

As well as the joys of the Two Tone era, Three Minute Heroes also addresses the rising tensions between skinhead and Asian youths, and the protests that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill. How did you go about portraying those events on stage?
We dealt with it indirectly, I guess.  One of the members of the band – a Rasta – is set upon in the Precinct late at night and badly beaten up.  Their roadie – the unmusical one who feels a bit left out -  becomes a skinhead.  But then, appalled by the violence he sees around him, joins CovWAR* and goes on vigilante patrols.
[*Coventry Workers Against Racism – which in my novel became CovARA – the Coventry Anti-Racist Alliance]

And though the band breaks up, they come together again one last time to play at The Specials’ Concert for Racial Harmony.

Your play had two seasons at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, in 2000 and 2001. How was it received by a Coventry audience?
The audience was always very mixed – but on the nights that were the most packed, there were a lot of men of a certain age and waist size – ex rude-boys, jumping on stage and dancing at the first opportunity.

On one amazing night, after the end of the show, the band on stage was joined by Neol Davies, then Pauline Black, then Horace Panter ...

I’d love to put it on again.  I’ve been talking to the current Artistic Director at the Belgrade.

There was a screening a couple of years ago, at Coventry’s Two Tone Central, wasn’t there?
Screening is a bit grand. It was a video I’d shot on a hand held camera, with the stage half-blocked out by someone’s bald head. I think about seven people came.

Earlier this year, you were involved with Shaun Prendergast’s Re-Creation Quartet, shown as part of Coventry’s Mysteries Festival.  Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Re-Creation Quartet was a cycle of four short plays focused on different periods in Coventry’s history, each one to be staged in a different square in Coventry. The last of the four plays was a Two Tone story.  Shaun didn’t really know the history, so I more or less re-wrote that one.

We worked with kids from Ego Performance, and we had a band, including Harrington Bembridge, the drummer from The Selecter. They performed it in Broadgate, which is now all pedestrianised. We had kids of all races dressed up in 2-Tone gear. Skinheads with shaven heads. Maggie Thatcher and Arthur Scargill on stilts. Dancing riot police.  The audience were all skanking.

Those kids were all far too young to remember the events from first time round.  But they were all so into the whole 2-Tone thing, it makes me think maybe its time has come again.

[Click here and scroll down to see some fabulous pictures of the performance from John Coles ]

You still live in Coventry now.  How would you describe the city today?
I think it’s much more chilled. A nicer place to live. It had a bad reputation at one time for late night violence, but that’s all abated. For my kids, growing up in Coventry, racism isn’t even a question. There are poorer areas of the city of course – Foleshill Road and Stoney Stanton Road. But unlike some cities, it isn’t ghettoised. People from different backgrounds mix.

Thank you, Bob!
Coming soon to this blog: Sukhbender Singh, author of Concrete Jungle, and Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts, the first Asian Theatre Group in the UK.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Cover Design and the Power of the Author Collective

In five week's time, almost to the minute as I type, I shall be sharing a platform at the Chorleywood Literary Festival with my fellow writers from the Triskele Books author collective.

This week was especially exciting.  Not only did the brochures for the Lit Fest come out (hey, we have a whole page to ourselves!) but the cover designs were revealed for the three books we are launching at the festival.  And it's because of those cover designs that the power of the author collective has been particularly on my mind the last couple of days.

My cover, as you can see, borrows shamelessly from the same source from which I took my title - the Two Tone album covers of bands like The Specials and The Selecter. So far the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. But it could so easily have gone very differently.

I had been thinking about the Ghost Town cover for months. I'm not a terribly visual person, so I may have been a bit sketchy on the details, but I had a very strong concept of what I wanted it to be like. I wanted that look of a Two Tone album cover.  I wanted black and white. I wanted silhouetted figures.  I wanted the sense of protest and threat.

Most of the elements were no problem. Working with the brilliant Jane Dixon-Smith, we quite quickly came up with a style for the title and author name, and brought in that dominant image of a boot print. But once I'd spent a few evenings ploughing through options on sites like Shutterstock, it was obvious that unless I could magic up a cover artist who could actually create bespoke images for me, adding the silhouettes was going to involve a certain amount of compromise.

And that's where things started to go wrong.  I got hung up on finding images that looked like my characters - and in the process I lost the energy that the cover needed. The cover design I was on the verge of approving failed to encapsulate the book's themes.

Then one of my fellow Triskelites stepped in.

Like an old-fashioned publisher's editor, JJ Marsh first encountered Ghost Town as a complete manuscript, but when it was still in need of some significant re-writing.  And like that old-fashioned editor, she has been both the book's greatest champion and its harshest critic.  Whenever I veered off the rails, or failed to live up to the standard she set for us, she would have no hesitation in giving me a good hard slap (metaphorically speaking).  And she wasn't about to stop just because the book was now written.

"I'm not happy," she told me. "That cover is not going to attract the right audience for Ghost Town. You'll be letting yourself down."

Starting over was a pain - for me and for my long-suffering designer. But it was the right thing to do.  I couldn't have seen it for myself.  I knew I was compromising, but what I couldn't see was that I was compromising in the wrong direction. But someone else, equally committed to the book but more dispassionate, could.

And that is the power of the author collective.  The indie author retains responsibility for choosing the book's title, its cover, the way the interior is laid out, the way it is marketed.  But they don't have to do it all alone. An author collective provides a trusted set of eyes and ears who will tell them when they have got things wrong and who will help them find the right path without compromising their vision.

So JJ Marsh:  this is for you, girl!  Thank you.

PS And here are the other two fabulous covers that Jane Dixon Smith has designed for us.  Aren't they wonderful?

Overlord by JD Smith
Wolfsangel by Liza Perrat

Triskele Books will be at the Chorleywood Literary Festival on Saturday 16th November.  From 11:00-12:30 we will be running a Human Reference Library on self-publishing.  And from 12:30-13:30 we will be holding a Q&A on the Rise of the Author Collective - discussing our new novels, why we chose to publish with a collective, and why 'self-publishing' doesn't mean doing it all yourself.

Both events are free, but tickets must be reserved via Chorleywood Bookshop. Please call 01923 283566.

Coming Soon:  an interview with Bob Eaton, former Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and author of Three Minute Heroes, a play based on the same events that inspired Ghost Town.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Sir Horace Gentleman Interview

It's no secret that my novel, Ghost Town takes its name from the single by the Specials that, for many, was the soundtrack of 1981. So for the second of my series of interviews with people involved in the real-life events behind the novel, it's a particular honour introduce a member of the band that was for a time synonymous with Coventry: bassist, HORACE PANTER, otherwise known as Sir Horace Gentleman.

Like me, you first came to Coventry as a student in the 1970s. Can you describe what the city was like back then?

"Sir Horace Gentleman"
I was a student from 1972-75 and came from a small market town.  From the off, we were worried that Coventry was a violent place; it had that reputation. I lived in a house in Bramble Street and from the back bedroom window we could see the hordes of away fans being frog-marched by the police from the train station to the Coventry City football ground on Highfield Road. 

During the punk era you could see a band almost every night of the week - I got swept up in that.

What was your first introduction to Ska? How did that come about? What kind of music were you listening to before that?

I started by listening to the pirate radio stations in the 60s then John Peel at the BBC. The first single I bought was by The Byrds; the first album was ‘Freak Out’ by The Mothers of Invention. I was very impressionable on those days.  

By the time I got to Coventry, I was into Free, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac - blues/rock. I got into soul music - Tamla Motown and Booker T and the MGs. I didn’t play reggae before I joined The Specials and we didn’t start playing ska until Christmas 1978. Ska was like blues, but the guitar played the off-beat, so for me, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. Reggae was harder to play.

What do you think it was that made Ska take root in Coventry in particular?

Ska, along with soul, was the music of the mods and by the time The Specials rose to prominence there was something of a mod revival going on. Coventry, I have now realised, was a multicultural city before multiculturalism existed.  This worked for musicians as well. You got the gig because you were a good guitar player, not because you were the ‘right’ colour.

The Two-Tone label stood squarely for anti-racism. Yet there was sometimes a disturbingly ambiguous relationship with a certain section of the fans - with gigs sometimes attracting skinheads who weren’t exactly ‘on message’. How hard was that to deal with?
Horace Panter today

Racially-motivated violence at Specials' concerts was very rare. I can think of three concerts in our entire career where this happened and it was during our 1980 ‘More Specials’ tour.  The main problem at our shows was young, over-exuberant males suffering from the effects of alcohol and football partisanship. Also, you had to know your skinhead: original and into ska/soul music; gay, or ultra-right!

Black and white kids alike saw Two Tone as ‘their’ sound. But what about young British Asian kids in Coventry? Sukhbender Singh’s play ‘Concrete Jungle’ suggests they, too, identified with the music.  Did you used to see them at Two Tone gigs?

Our concerts were predominantly attended by whites. We bemoaned the fact that there were not more black/Asian fans. There were some, but a very small minority. At that time though, ska was seen by most young people in the black community as being music for old men so it wasn’t groovy.

In Coventry young Asians hadn’t quite found their feet as their culture conflicted with local culture; also, they had reason to be nervous of the skinhead uniform. They did seem to like the music though as it later influenced the emergence of Bangra music which also started in Coventry.

My novel covers the period in the spring and summer of 1981, when the student Satnam Singh Gill was murdered in broad daylight in the city centre. The resulting protests sparked violent battles between skinheads and Asian kids. The Specials’ response to the violence was to organise a Concert for Racial Harmony in the Butts Stadium. My memory of that time is that something in the city changed afterwards. There was a release of tension. Certainly it’s true that, almost alone among English cities, Coventry did not experience riots that summer. How did the concert come about? And do you have a sense of what pulled the city back from the brink?

I remember Coventry as a ‘grimmer than usual’ place in 1981, but I viewed my world through ‘rock star’ tinted glasses back then. We were aware of racial tensions in the city, not helped by the growing presence of the National Front and the murder of Satnam Singh Gill. It was obvious we had to do something about the racial tensions in the city and this was the best way to do it. 

The weather wasn’t great but it didn’t rain. Attendance wasn’t that good; I think people were wary about the whole place becoming a focal point for rival factions to congregate and cause trouble, but they didn’t. The National Front had threatened to show up but, again, they didn’t. It was definitely worth it. As you have noted, there was no repeat of the civil disobedience that infected other British cities in the summer of 1981. It would be nice to think we had a part in that. 

[Follow this link to see photographs from The Specials' Concert for Racial Harmony, held in the Butts Stadium, Coventry on 20th June, 1981: http://thisthen.co.uk/bands/specials/festival-against-racism/?nggpage=2 ]

How has Coventry changed since those days?

The factories have closed.
The pubs have closed.
The independent stores have closed.
The precinct has been rebuilt (badly).
Horizon Studios got knocked down and they build the Central Six shopping mall.
The Polytechnic became a University and has expanded dramatically.
I daren’t even mention the football team!

I jokingly say ‘Coventry: European city of low self-esteem - 35th glorious year’ but it’s a joke! If you’re from Cov, you’ll get it.*

That would have something to do with Coventry City winning the  FA Cup in 1987? Ah, the glory days! Thank you, Horace.

Read more about Horace Panter on http://www.horacepanterart.com/

Monday 23 September 2013

The Brixton Bard Interview: Part I

How DJ Yardman Irie Became Author Alex Wheatle

My novel, Ghost Town, is set in 1981. It begins on the day of the New Cross Fire and ends on the day of the Royal Wedding, spanning the time of the Brixton riots. The main part of story is located in Coventry, where violent clashes were taking place between skinhead and Asian youths. But Brixton and the events unfolding there play a small but crucial role.

I am therefore thrilled to introduce Alex Wheatle, author of East of Acre Lane and one of my inspirations when I was working on that part of the story.

Alex, you were living in Brixton at the time of the 1981 riots. Can you tell me a bit about who Alex Wheatle was back then, and what his experience of the riots was?

I spent most of my childhood in a children’s home in Surrey so when I moved to a social services unit in Brixton in 1977, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. I fell in love with reggae at that point and I reclaimed my identity but I couldn't believe the violence and threatening behaviour of the police! I was very much like any other young black teenager at that time - trying to find my way in the world, wanting to go to the best parties, trying to imitate the best reggae singers of the day.

From when I arrived in Brixton in 1977, the tension between the police and young blacks was mounting. I heard stories of police brutality all the time. The police brought in 'Operation Swamp' a new initiative on Stop and Search, in the early months of 1981.  Me and many friends of mine were sometimes stopped three or four times a day. I think it was the Friday (10th April) 1981 when I was shooting pool in a pub just off Brixton Hill. A young black guy came running in and he was alleging that another young black man had been stabbed to death by the police on the Front Line (Railton Road) 

The rumour that a police officer stabbed a young black man to death swept the whole of Brixton that Friday night. There was a call for action or for some kind of response. Everyone I knew went down to central Brixton knowing something or other would kick off. Many wanted confrontation. Central Brixton was packed with police and many young blacks on the Saturday morning (11th April) The tension slowly mounted throughout the morning.

Then, the police attempted to arrest a cab driver whose nickname was Wadada.  He was an innocent man but the police manhandled him. People started protesting and then, a man called Johnny Brixton, launched the first blow of the Uprising, by punching a police officer.  The battle started at that point with young black men like myself wanting to 'protect' the Front Line area of Brixton from the police.  I saw the first molotiv cocktails in mid afternoon...

How did that Alex Wheatle turn into Alex Wheatle the writer?

Following the 1981 Brixton Uprising, I served a prison term for resisting arrest, assaulting police officers, etc and during my sentence I was encouraged to read. I devoured authors like CLR JAMES, CHESTER HIMES, RALPH ELLISON, RICHARD WRIGHT.

When I finished my term, I became a DJ for a reggae sound system I had built with friends of mine. We called it Crucial Rocker and I was the MC/lyricist. My performances were terrible when I first began but when I found the discipline to write or work on my lyrics every day, I steadily improved. My DJ name was Yardman Irie and for the first time in my life people were commenting that I was actually good at something.

I continued my reading and it actually helped to widen my vocabulary which was useful to me when I sat down and wrote lyrics. I was also searching for books that reflected the lives of my friends and myself. I only came across the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson that spoke for me. At this time, I never had the dream of becoming a writer - instead I wanted to be a reggae star!

After many years, I decided that if I cannot find a book that I can relate to in terms of my own experience then I'd better write it myself. Brixton Rock was born in about 1995 when I first put biro to A4 lined paper. It was finally published in 1999 by BlackAmber Books following many rejections from other publishers and agencies. Wanting to tell the story of Brixton 1981 through a West Indian family and employing my own memories and experiences, I started work on EAST OF ACRE LANE in the fall of 1999.

You wrote East of Acre Lane twenty years on.  Why then? Was it hard, as a black writer dealing with a controversial subject, to find a publisher? Or was the time just right for that book?

In fact it was a good time to be a black author in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Not so good now because the industry seem to want Zadie clones who have just stepped out of Oxbridge. I believe there's room for every type of black writer in the UK, if only the industry allowed it.

The X-Press in the mid 1990s demonstrated that there was an audience for books written from black perspectives. Courttia Newland's The SCHOLAR had gained critical acclaim in 1997. Mainstream publishing was now looking at black writing to include in their lists, so when I delivered EAST OF ACRE LANE to my agent, there were 3 or 4 publishers who wanted to publish it. 

Where in Brixton Rock I reined in my 'Brixton dialogue' a touch, as I wasn't sure how it would be received, in EAST OF ACRE LANE I really went for it and I think because of that it gave it a raw authenticity that the critics loved.

It was a good time to publish a book in 2000/2001 about the Brixton of 1981 - about 20 years had passed since the Uprising and I believe there was an interest to hear the black perspective from that time rather that the perspective of the media, politicians, etc.

Music plays a massive part in East of Acre Lane. In fact, I believe you wrote some of the Yardman Irie lyrics at the time of the riots and revived them for the book. Tell me about the relationship between the book and its ‘soundtrack.’

I came from a sound system background. I built a sound with friends of mine and I was the MC. When I wrote lyrics back then, I always worked with music playing in the background - usually reggae. I always had a Brixton suitcase booming out classic reggae.

When I started writing novels I didn't change this approach. For example, the title EAST OF ACRE LANE came from me listening to Augustus Pablo's seminal album EAST OF THE RIVER NILE. I also wanted to give a nod to the people I hustled with, walked street with, partied with, played music with and so on - that's why I introduced the musical references. And in the back of the mind was the hope that if somebody was out there who wanted to adapt EAST OF ACRE LANE into a film script, the soundtrack was already there!!!

Thank you, Alex.  Fascinating to know where the names comes from, by the way. I can remember when I first came across the book, over ten years ago, I imagined the name was an echo of Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Part 2 of the Brixton Bard interview – in which Alex Wheatle reflects on how things have changed since 1981, is coming soon.

Friday 6 September 2013

Up Close and Distant:

On writing about times and cultures not one’s own

A few years ago, I read Peter Ho Davies’wonderful novel, The Welsh Girl, set in North Wales during the Second World War. In the midst of a critical scene, the eponymous Welsh girl, under great duress and trying to stop someone doing something, says in Welsh, ‘nargois.’

Now, like Peter Ho Davies, I grew up with one Welsh-speaking parent, hearing Welsh around me but never learning to speak it properly. When I read the word ‘nargois,’ I could immediately hear the sound of the word in my mother’s voice. Phonetically, it was perfect. But something about it bothered me. I did some ferreting about and discovered three things.

First of all, the word we were both thinking about is not spelt ‘nargois’ but ‘nag oes.’ Secondly, it probably wasn’t the right word for the situation anyway. Welsh is a strange language, with no simple way of saying ‘no.’ You always have to say, “no, he hasn’t,” or “no, I don’t,” or whatever is appropriate in the context. In this case, what the Welsh Girl should have said was “Paid!” meaning ‘don’t!’ What she actually said was “No, I haven’t.”

The third thing I discovered was that Peter Ho Davies had written an article in the University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature Alumni Newletter 2010, in which he talks about his response to a reader who wrote pointing out the error. It wasn’t the only minor error in the text to have come to light after publication, he says, but it was, “the one that really nags, the one that nibbles away at the book’s particular authority over Welshness.”

It was with Davies’ experience in mind that I set out to find someone with a Punjabi-speaking South Asian background to comment on the manuscript for my novel, Ghost Town. The book is set, in part, among the British Asian community in Coventry – something I have no obvious ‘authority’ to write about. I have even used fragments of Punjabi – a language I don’t speak at all.

As an indie author, I have no publisher to help me with editorial support. The integrity of my manuscript is entirely down to the decisions I make during its preparation for publication. It's up to me to find the right people to work with to ensure that the book is not spoilt by any embarrassing (or worse, offensive) errors or cultural misunderstandings.

I was fortunate that, earlier this year, I’d met Kristine Landon-Smith, through her work with Freedom from Torture. Landon-Smith was, until recently, co-director of Tamasha Theatre, a group  set up in 1989 to showcase Asian-influenced theatre. It was Tamasha that first brought Ayub Khan Din’s brilliant East is East to the stage. Landon-Smith put me in touch with artistic director and co-founder of Tamasha Theatre, Sudha Bhuchar, who agreed to read the manuscript.

So was it worth going that extra mile to get things right?  Absolutely! I am pleased to say, I’d made far fewer serious errors than I expected. The silliest, probably, was knowing that ‘beta’ and ‘beti’ were endearments for male and female respectively, but not realising that they meant, literally, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ and were therefore entirely inappropriate between a husband and wife! Not catastrophic, maybe, but enough to spoil the scene’s authenticity.

Bhuchar also helped me add one or two vivid phrases – my favourite being, “Chak de Phate”, which means “raise the floorboards” – a rousing call used to get people dancing the Bhangra.

But most of all, she gave me confidence that I wasn’t being stupidly presumptuous to try and write about a culture not my own.

 An Author's Responsiblity

Just what is an author’s responsibility when it comes to writing about characters ‘distant’ from herself? I put the question to both Sudha Bhuchar and Peter Ho Davies.

“Authenticity implies a kind of straight jacket,” Bhuchar says. “It is more about making people uniquely themselves. I would say when a writer is from a background which is different to that or their characters, then it is their responsibility to get under the skin of those people, but also to check the nuances of speech, language, dialect and so on.”

Davies brought up a different point, in terms of authenticity of portraying historical events. For him, there are three strands to this – how ‘ethically charged’ a particular issue is, how historically distant, and how ‘fictionally distant’ – i.e. how many times it has been portrayed in the past.

“Getting something wrong, even accidentally, about the Holocaust, say, is an ethically charged issue,” says Davies. “On the other hand, at the other end of the scale, when I've written about historical figures like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I've felt much freer, in part because they've already been so fictionalized as to pass from the territory of history into that of legend.

“All of which is to say that the factual burden on a piece of fiction has a lot to do with what it purports to represent. If, say, it's the first representation of some ‘real’ event the burden is different than if it's the tenth or hundredth (in which case it’s in dialogue not only with the original ‘reality’ but also with intervening versions of that reality).

“I've been using the movie Zero Dark Thirty as a short-hand example of this. Some of the criticism (and perhaps praise) it received, I'd argue, came its way because, as the first depiction of those events, it seems (temporarily) definitive. In ten years, when those events have been depicted several times over, our relation to the first movie might be different, I suspect.”

The question of historical and fictional distance was of particularly relevance to me. The events in Ghost Town happened over thirty years ago and  fall into two strands. The smaller element of the book takes place in Brixton. The Brixton riots have been written about many times – in both fiction and in non-fiction – from the Scarman Report to Alex Wheatle’s novel East of Acre Lane. The media revisits the riots and their causes on every major anniversary.

On the other hand, the main part of the book takes place in Coventry, against the background of violent clashes between skinhead and Asian youths. Little known outside Coventry, these events have been portrayed twice, to my knowledge: in Bob Eaton’s play, Three Minute Heroes, at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 2000, and in the radio play by Sukhbender Singh, Concrete Jungle, broadcast on the BBC Asian Network in 2011. For most of the people who read Ghost Town, this may well be the first version they encounter.

I only lived tangentially through those events. Much of what I know was gleaned from comparatively thin newspaper accounts – the rest I filled in from my imagination. Inevitably, not every detail will be historically accurate – nor would it necessarily be right to try and do so in a piece of fiction.

So what is the writer’s responsibility?

Do your research, yes. Check your facts, yes. But ultimately, find that core of truth within the facts and portray that truth as honestly and sensitively as you know how.