Rebellion on a South London street
You’ve seen Alesha – or your children have: she’s the one standing in the shadows, watching, hood drawn up, at the bus stop, eyeing up the trainers and the mobile phones. And then one day, a newcomer to the area turns up whose parents are too naïve to know that sending your kid off to school with the latest trainers is asking for it… And that kid is followed by a gang of yoots and he’s mugged – all because of Alesha’s expert appraisal of how much his shoes
might be worth.
By choosing to tell Alesha’s story in the first person, Courtney takes us deep inside the world of an abandoned 15-year-old, for whom home means living with her boyfriend at his nan’s place – with a staffie called GBH completing their little family or fam – in Alesha speak. And then Social Services steps in and decides Nan can’t live on her own and puts her in a home. The authorities don’t even know Alesha and JJ exist so once again they’re back on the streets.
You may have written-off the Aleshas of this world – the feral youth of the title – but no matter how hard you try to dismiss Alesha’s twisted world-view, Polly Courtney reminds us that, once you strip away the prickly exterior, that Alesha is really no different from any other complex, contradictory and bloody-minded teenager. Because one thing’s for sure, there’s no point in arguing with teenagers. Not only do they have all the answers, but their opinions are the only ones that count. And either it’s right or it’s wrong. All or nothing. Oh, the arrogance of youth! From Alesha’s perspective, what use is it for her to get an education and then a job? Here is Alesha on schoolwork: ‘Truth is, I don’t see how this book is gonna help me live my life. Is it gonna get me a flat?… What’s the point in talking about made-up killings in a made-up book when there’s real ones going on down the road?’
And if you’re stuck in a run-down estate controlled by gangs, you’ve got to choose to side with one or the other. Otherwise you’ll have no protection when you need it. Just as the pro-gun lobby in the US maintains that to fight violent crime, you fight back with ever more violent weaponry, Alesha applies the same warped reasoning, justifying why she carries a knife.
But then Alesha’s world starts to unravel. She is sold out and set up by gang members she assumed were her brethren, not just once but twice and both resulting in brutal attacks. But, you can beat her up and violate her but you can’t put Alesha down. Because she picks herself up again, telling herself she still has all the answers.
And then one day her old music teacher comes looking for her and gives Alesha a glimpse of an alternative world and even manages to get her to an interview for a job that pays minimum wage. But the ever resourceful Alesha has other ideas: ‘What’s the point of working for minimum wage when I can make two ton a day just by standing still.’ Because if there’s one tribe that Alesha knows all too well, it’s crackheads as her mother is one and so too is JJ’s.
The closure of a youth centre because of government cutbacks and the cover-up by the police over the arrest of a gang suspect inflames simmering tensions on the estate. And one summer’s evening in 2011, courtesy of instant messaging, kids are told to be in a particular place and one picks up a brick and then another follows…..As the word spreads, suddenly gang affiliations don’t matter – nor does race as everyone who is around that evening makes a choice – will they or won’t they join the rioters?
Feral Youth is as life-affirming as Trainspotting and will connect with teenagers and adults alike – even if the world you inhabit is, as Alesha describes anywhere outside of London as: ‘ a tiny dead place made of stone, where there’s less to do than there is round here’. Because one thing I do know is that the next time there’s an act of youthful rebellion, and the tabloid press and government tries to absolve themselves of all societal responsibility, I don’t want to be one of those, nodding in agreement, blaming it all on feral youth.
Feral Youth doesn’t pretend that there’s a simple answer to youth violence and disengagement; it goes one better than that, challenging us to stop coming up with sound-bite solutions to complex problems.
Alison Ripley Cubitt co-writes with Sean Cubitt under the pen name Lambert Nagle. Their latest book, Revolution Earth, is available now.