London’s Scowling Youth

‘I write toward what animates me, disturbs me’. This statement is not surprising coming from Guy Gunaratne. His debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City depicts a London painfully riven with sectarian tensions and violent crime. Its story is powerfully immediate: not only in that it traces a fictionalised version of the aftermath of soldier Lee Rigby’s murder on the streets of Woolwich in 2013, but also in light of the recent string of fatal stabbings taking place across the capital, with 37 people having been killed since January. These shocking, senseless acts of violence are not, for Guy, inspiration: inspiration is not the right word. But they do animate him. He recalls how, soon after the killing of Lee Rigby, a recording emerged in which one of the killers, Michael Adebolajo, still clutching a bloodied cleaver, spoke to passersby about his motivations:

What disturbed me most about the video was not the violence but his language and an almost perverse identification I had upon first viewing. There was something in how he carried himself, from the clothes he wore to the road dialect in which he spoke that reminded me of the young men I grew up with… I realised I was identifying with a monster and knew that was something I wanted to explore… what it is about our proximity to violence in a culture so saturated with extremism that it has us increasingly susceptible to our own extremes, our own ‘small furies’ as it’s termed in the book. I wanted to confront our culpability too, when living within extremes.

Gunaratne’s acclaimed debut fits into the canon of London literature (recent examples include Zadie Smith’s NW, or Kate Tempest’s The Bricks That Built The Houses) in its desire to explore the capital’s effects on the anxieties and aspirations of its inhabitants. Set in and around the fictionalised suburban Stones Estate, north London, In Our Mad and Furious City offers an unsparing depiction of the difficulties of city life, in which young people teeter on the brink of society and the violence at its seams. It is a place where the downtrodden, the forgotten and the socially neglected, are subject to inescapable and often malign forces, where ‘fury is like a fever in the air’ – driving one, perhaps, to identify with the hate-filled murderers.

I suggest to Gunaratne that his characters are often buffeted by political or ideological forces outside of their control – some later fall victim to them. Caroline, an elderly Irish immigrant, describes how she refused to participate in IRA-related violence in Belfast in the 1980s, for instance. Nelson, descending from Montserrat and part of the Windrush Generation, forgoes his agitating role in the ‘Coloured People’s Association’ amidst the 1950s West London race riots; Irfan and Yusuf, two young Muslim brothers living on the Stones Estate, become disenchanted with the faith represented by their Imam father. Does he think this is a fair statement? ‘It’s true that they are buffeted. But the degrees to which they participate, as well as how they choose to confront these forces, differ. They are pressured, much as we are all pressured, living under a climate where these forces – extremist rhetoric, projected fears and competing ideologies – present compelling narratives despite our better natures.’ Caroline and Nelson are both first-generation immigrants, so they have had to navigate additional pressures. They retrace the different journeys they made to get to London, their reasons for doing so, and what they left behind: romantic and familial relationships, a sense of belonging, a home. While the passage of time has helped them to establish themselves in the city, their lives are still shaded by an underlying sense of rootlessness, of the compromises involved in exchanging one culture for another.

The struggles of these first generation immigrants are rehearsals for the lives of their teenage children: Caroline’s son, Ardan, and Nelson’s son, Selvon, who, along with Yusuf, constitute the novel’s trio of street-wise protagonists, its mandem, who play footie and chat breeze in the shadows of the Estate, and its history.  I ask Guy what he is seeking to explore in his use of a multi-generational narrative. The novel seems especially concerned with the obligation of one generation to the next. Nelson fears, for instance, that ‘London would be less of a burden for Selvon if I had helped fight for it’. Does history repeat itself, then? Guy doesn’t think so: ‘It may be dangerous to think it does. It’s trickier and perhaps more insidious. There is a line in the novel that describes history not as a circle but a “spiral of violent rhymes”. I’d rather see the present as a sort of spiralled rhyme: sharing the rhythm of the past yet arriving in an altogether different form. To expect history to repeat itself leaves us susceptible to the same forms that arrive disguised.’ The Teddy Boys and Mosley marches of Nelson’s day, Guy explains, may not exactly resemble the extremism Ardan witnesses during the riots that flare up in the novel, after a white ‘soldier-boy is slain in the street’ by a ‘homegrown bredda’ at the beginning of the novel. Yet Guy suggests that ‘the violent extremism Caroline is attracted to in Belfast during the 1980s is refracted in the kind Irfan and Yusuf confront’. In his eyes, ‘all of these threads rhyme in this way, and so I wanted to evoke that rippling of history through each voice.’  

One of the great strengths of the novel is Gunaratne’s engaging characterisation of the boys, ‘London’s scowling youth’: Ardan, Yusuf and Selvon. The boys are intimate, ‘close without touch’, each with their own aspirations and anxieties. After the death of the local imam, Yusuf’s father, a more radically conservative imam, is able to assume authority over Yusuf, ordering him to fall into line: to wear a ‘tight skull cap’, a Kameez, and restrict his freedoms. More in step with contemporary adolescence, Selvon’s primary concerns appear to be going to the gym and going for the girls – Missy in particular, whose ‘hair is like a halo’ – though he also cares deeply about others, Yusuf and Ardan, and his family. Ardan’s ruling passion is for Grime, for the jagged rhythms of Skepta and Wiley, and he spits bars from the backseats of the bus, from street-corners, from the rooftop of the estate, fetching inspiration from all he can see: ‘The Ends, Stones Estate, Neasden’.

The community these boys belong to is close-knit and claustrophobic. From the outset, we know where we are; Selvon’s run, as the novel opens, takes in the limits of the estate around which so much of the novel’s plot revolves: ‘the four blocks rising behind the shop roofs, red shells and pointed arches pitched at the sky’. Chapter headings including ‘Estate’ and ‘Ends’ create a strong sense of physical space, and the place of these boys within it. ‘The Square’ is at the heart of the Estate, a place for footie and bonding between the ‘Serbian kids from down Cricklewood’, the ‘Somali boys’ and ‘Polish youngers’. This is a world Guy knows almost as well as anyone could. ‘It was the multi-culture I grew up with,’ he tells me. He didn’t grow up on an estate but attended a state school in Hendon (which he terms ‘relatively rough’). He vibrates on the same frequency as the “nowhere places” of the novel.  Gunaratne tells me that ‘place’, which occupies a defining position in his vision, can be ‘either prism or prison… assert[ing] a kind of claim upon you.’ Reading his novel, one has the uneasy feeling that these three young men are trapped, hemmed in by the architectural frontiers that define their lives visually and emotionally. Post-Grenfell, any such setting also acquires fresh and urgent charge.

This claustrophobia plays out through abstract spaces too. The use of interior monologue for all sections of the tale bar one – the third-person narrative of Irfan, Yusuf’s brother, who sets fire to the local mosque – allows the reader to witness the same event from multiple perspectives. This gives us a picture of the whole, while characters are deprived of knowledge about each other and the events that take place, making Irfan’s section, since it is voiced differently, arguably one of the most important moments in the novel. ‘Irfan was always going to third-person,’ Guy explains. ‘His short chapter acts as a fulcrum, an inflection point in the novel. It also lends to the association of distance between ourselves and the extremist. With third-person I could recreate that distance and question it – is he a monster, how different is he from all the other voices, how different is he from us? – especially when it is set next to the other voices in first-person. The novel is an exercise in uncomfortable empathy for the reader.’ The importance of self-narration also allows these characters to tell their own story in their own language. Gunaratne also retains the vivid and slashed idiom of its characters: ‘ennet’, ‘yuno’, ’nuttan’ and ‘dussed out’. When I asked Guy why this language was important to  preserve in the novel, Guy replies: ‘London to me is language.’ He grew up surrounded by a mix of vernaculars. Road dialect itself, he explains, is an amalgam of dialects from Caribbean, Irish, South Asian and English roots.

The most interesting thing for me was how to approach rendering each voice on the page. I’ve always been drawn to uncompromising interpretations of vernacular… Samuel Selvon and Junot Diaz are other examples who reference the multitudinous in immigrant narratives. It was important for me to write toward the experiences of each voice with honesty – not so much accuracy, which I think is a trap – and evoke the rhythm and energy of each. I think it’s far more important to be honest to the artifice of it than to second-guess some sensibility that may or may not balk at the usage. I didn’t feel the need to accommodate anyone.

It is almost as if he has created a dialogue of his own by refracting those he was surrounded by growing up, just like Grime music. The importance of Grime to the novel’s characters – we see characters come alive when performing it – reflects Gunaratne’s view of it as ‘music that is beautiful, bashy and urgent’. It is, as he observes, an example of ‘great things emerging from struggle’. Despite the disadvantages holding them back, Ardan, Selvon and Yusuf create something organic, something they claim as their own, proving that there is a sense of optimism and purpose to be found in what is to Gunaratne a ‘city of extremes’.   

For the most part, the London of Mad and Furious is bleak and ‘bone-cold’ – a place that ‘taints its young’. I ask Guy whether he thinks there are any positive aspects of the city to be found at the end of the novel:

There is line in the novel that describes London as a city that you can love but may not love you back. I think that’s true but, almost as a consequence, art that can survive an environment like this reflects the conflicted nature of the place … For me that sense of great things emerging from struggle is reflected in all the voices in the book – fragile lives lived vividly. It’s a city that is rich, fractious and fluid. It’s a beautiful thing to grow up in a city that thrives under its own sense of transience. However difficult that may be, to be a Londoner is a gift.

Still, though, the novel ends without redemption for its protagonists. All we find is a somehow sad declaration that ‘[t]he only ones that can save us in the end are the heroes’. I ask Guy if these heroes are Selvon and Ardan, striking out against impressive adversity, whether through Ardan ‘letting his pen be brave for him’, his passion for Grime; or Selvon, who runs wearing ‘the navy blue and red colours of his nation’. His reply does justice to the novel’s multifariousness; to his view of London which madly and furiously refuses to take only one person’s account into view or rest on one safe or balanced conclusion: ‘I’ll leave that up to the reader.’