Kloud 9 Reacher, UK rapper and performing artist, just performed a freestyle rap in tribute to my latest novel, Feral Youth, on Spit It Out TV:
This is incredible for two reasons: (1) because I am really, really not ‘street’ enough to be having rap songs written in my honour and (2) because it is a truly excellent song, worthy of Plan B or better. Kloud 9 Reacher has read the book, taken the themes, used one of the characters (a rapper called Ash) and given him a voice – a voice exactly as I imagined when I wrote the book.
This comes in a week when I’ve had confirmation that the Feral Youth audiobook will be out any minute, there’s interest in ‘Feral Youth the movie‘ and the Feral Youth app is in development, bringing the book to life with interactive audio and visuals.
It feels as though Feral Youth is growing into something much more than a book. I am very, very excited…
Merry nearly-Christmas! I hope everyone is enjoying the silly season.
I’ve decided to donate all my December Feral Youth paperback royalties to BelEve UK, a south London charity of which I’m a patron, which does amazing work helping teenage girls from all backgrounds to achieve their potential.
So… if you happen to be stuck for a Christmas present, then choosing Feral Youth could help to provide support for some real-life “Alesha”s out there. (Oh and the ebook is a bargainous 99p until Sunday, if you’re a Kindle type.)
I’m also working on the film adaptation of Feral Youth… nope, I’ve never written a script before, but how hard can it be? (I mean, I’ve produced a whole 90-second trailer, right?)
A year ago, when I was planning the launch do for Feral Youth, I thought I was publishing a book – you know, one of those cardboard things with pages stuffed in the middle? There was an ebook too, but that was the extent of my multimedia foray.
It turns out, that cardboard thing with the pages inside spawned a whole load of other things in other formats, like… online stuff. Video. Music. Spoken word. Cool stuff like that.
The book trailer was the start. It was just a promo idea, really, based on my hunch that the ‘youngsters’ who might like to read Feral Youth weren’t browsing the book review section of the Guardian; they were hanging out on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter.
Then, having discovered my ‘Alesha’ on stage at the Lyric Theatre, in the form of the brilliant actor and poet, Deanna Rodger, it seemed like a waste not to put her talents to more use. So I put her in a tiny, overheated studio for a week and made her read the whole book out loud into the mic. The resulting audiobook is truly phenomenal. Go and buy it now. That girl can act.
A month later, out of the blue, I was excitedly informed that a rapper known as K9Reacher had got so ‘into’ one of the characters in the book (Ashley, who is a rapper), that he’d written and recorded a tribute rap based on Ashley’s situation, collaborating with an awesome young production company, Of The Red Productions.
This very same Of The Red Productions kindly offered to have me read a passage from my book on their channel, #SpitItOut TV, which, believe it or not, they aired. To the public. I know. As I said, they are awesome – and brave.
OK, stop laughing at my south London accent.
I said, stop it.
So… In the new year, the very same actor who had played multiple parts in the book trailer for Feral Youth called me to announce that he wanted to dramatise some ‘unseen scenes’ from the book with a bunch of other actors, releasing them to a whole new audience online. Yes, that actually happened.
And now… taking it down a few pegs in terms of acting panache… [drumroll please] … but fortunately compensated for by the incredible production company Of The Red Productions*… the awesome and brave production company who saw potential where my drama teacher did not… Please check out the wonders they have worked with my second on-screen performance, a taster of the book dramatised in a rather special way. (And please stop looking at my forehead. It’s rude to stare.)
More to come, I very much hope. And for all those who thought a book was a cardboard thing with pages inside… well, turns out there are multiple ways you can #GetIntoABook. I’ll keep you posted!
* Of The Red Productions is offering deals for new authors seeking new and brilliant ways to bring their books to life. Check ’em out here!
Middle-class Britain has been shocked by the ‘hidden reality’ of welfare ghettos apparently revealed by TV programmes such as Benefits Street, Iain Duncan Smith explained as he spoke at the Centre for Social Justice today about how his welfare-to-work reforms are apparently beginning to work.
“Whilst the middle-class majority were aware of the problems in poor communities, they remained largely unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates,” he stated, perhaps giving more indication of his own lack of awareness than that of others.
True nature? Is this actually how the work and pensions secretary does his research? Does he sit in his office, with his back to the £10,000 taxpayer-funded portrait of himself, feet up on the mahogany desk, watching Benefits Street and learning about how poor people live? Or perhaps he watches from home, in one of the wings of the 16th-century Tudor mansion that he inherited in 2001. (Culture of entitlement, anyone?)
This is exactly why programmes like Benefits Street are dangerous: they appear credible. As anyone who has worked in TV will tell you, documentaries never simply ‘reveal the truth’; they tell a story. That’s what makes them interesting. The story in this case is: Benefits culture is out of control and it has become a way of life for all claimants.
The documentary is carefully crafted to show only the extreme components of life for the inhabitants of James Turner Street: the neglect, the abuse, the lack of pride and of course, the sense of entitlement. In fact, recent research on this exact same street by Vector Research, painted a somewhat different picture. “None of us would have suggested that it was a cosy neighbourhood we would seek to live in,” said Paul Baker, who led the research, “but it was far from the hell hole portrayed on Benefits Street.”
What Iain Duncan Smith is doing, quite unashamedly, is using propaganda to justify his hideous reforms that serve to push deprived communities further into poverty, rather than lift them out.
The loudest message that came out of my research, which involved spending time with young people in charities, schools and on the streets in the wake of the London Riots, was this:
They talk about getting us off benefits and into jobs, but what jobs? I been trying for two years and I can’t get no work.
Job prospects, especially for young people with little social capital, are dire. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith, most people can’t get away with fake qualifications on their CV and the longer they remain out of work, the harder it becomes to continue the search.
In fairness, IDS did reference his ‘visit after visit’ to deprived areas, which gave him a sense of how urgently ‘life change’ was needed.
“In neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness… where gangs were prevalent, debt and drugs the norm… families broken down… those living there had one thing in common; they were for the most part dependent on the state for their daily needs.”
I can’t help wondering how deeply Mr Smith conversed with the people who made up these deprived communities, as he was toured through in his expensive suit with his entourage of staff. Did he hang out on street corners and ask how young people spent their time now the local youth centre had closed down? Did he ask the teenagers in the shadows of the tower block whether they were still thinking of going to university, now that tuition fees would leave them £36,000 in debt? Did he get invited into homes on the estate to talk to desperate mums about how they were coping with paying the spare room subsidy, given that there weren’t any smaller properties in the area?
During a school visit in south London, I asked a bunch of teenagers what they would say if they had the opportunity to speak to David Cameron. They replied:
Try living our lives for a day. Just try it.
And that, I believe, is what Iain Duncan Smith needs to do if he really wants to end the ‘twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create.’
Or, I suppose, he could just stay in his inherited £2m mansion and watch it on TV.
Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth– the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a disenfranchised teenage girl.
It’s been two years now since riots swept the nation, destroying people’s homes, storefronts and livelihoods. Some shops still look like burnt-out shells. Many businesses are only just receiving compensation and others still are locked in battle with their insurers: a battle that only the lawyers can win. Two years is a long time to wait to start rebuilding your life.
Two years is also, it would seem, the approximate length of time it takes for something creative and meaningful to emerge from the rubble.
While the mainstream press has busied itself seeking out tales of woe about the ‘youth of today’, focusing on their criminal behaviour, their apathy, their sinking grades, their inflated grades… a number of young people have been quietly, diligently working on some rather remarkable creations inspired by the events of August 2011. Last week I was fortunate enough to sample one of them.
Advice for the Young at Heart is a play for young people, about young people, performed by young people – and it’s brilliant. Written by award-winning playwright Roy Williams OBE and produced by charitable professional theatre company, Theatre Centre, it is honestly one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long while.
The backdrop of the play is a scene of looting and ‘madness’ in the London riots of 2011, but it’s also set in the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, exploring the parallels and differences through the eyes of two generations of young people.
This play is about more than just riots. Its main character, Candice, played by the mesmerising Alix Ross, is a feisty, mouthy teenager of today whom I recognised immediately from the cast of characters I used in Feral Youth. She’s raw and real and torn between two paths in life and – much like Alesha – in denial about the possibility of ‘coming clean’ and doing something that breaks the unwritten code of the street.
Flipping between 2011 and 1958 through conversations with her dead grandfather, Candice begins to realise that history is in danger of repeating itself and for the first time in her life, she begins to understand what her grandparents went through for the family and for future generations. Masterfully exploring themes of peer pressure, gang violence, racism and social division, Advice for the Young at Heart is filled with poignancy – as well as some funny moments. I wish I’d had plays of this calibre touring my school when I was 15.
Advice for the Young at Heart is touring the UK now. For more information or to book tickets, follow the link. Theatre Centre is on Twitter at @TCLive with the #AdvicePlay hashtag. Go and see it! Now!
A little addendum to this: I was thrilled to hear that Alix Ross, the actress who plays Candice, had read Feral Youth. She had this to say about it:
“I could barely put it down. (It took me just 3 days to read it.) I was left in tears at 6am on Sunday morning (when I finished the book).
The first thing that sprang to mind when I started reading it was how great the dialect was – including the Jamaican. For a story about young people to be written in language they understand makes me feel like it is written not only for them but to educate those of us who don’t understand or appreciate how these young people feel and communicate.
What kept occurring for me when I read it is how it did not patronise but left a subtle message that anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself. Though the road is not easy you can do it.
Though my personal background is by no means close to Alesha’s, I still see and have spoken to “Aleshas” all over south who are dealing with the pull between better and what they know. The bottom line is that young people are angry, they’re not dumb but angry and need more support than they are getting: not just “pop-up youth centres”. Here is a perfect novel explaining why. One of my favourite parts is regarding why some young people want to have babies early – not for housing but to have a person love them back. There is so much more that I love about the novel but it would make this email an essay if I attempted to put everything down.
I can definitely see why you saw connections between Candice and Alesha. I hope that you are thinking of doing more with this wonderful story.
“The truth is, it ain’t just a race thing. They talk like it is, but really and truly it’s black against white, young against old, authorities against the rest… There’s bare reasons for feeling vexed right now.”
I have just finished reading Polly Courtney’s remarkable new book, Feral Youth.
Feral Youth is story of Alesha – a fifteen year old from Peckham in South London. At the start of the book, Alesha is living under the radar, dodging social services, gang violence and her alcoholic mother. But she has a roof over her head, a friend she owes everything to, a youth centre that provides an occasional refuge, and a ‘rep’ that provides some flimsy protection on the streets.
In the course of a few short weeks over the summer of 2011, even those are taken away. No wonder Alesha’s angry. Angry enough that when messages start crowding onto her phone, telling her riots are kicking off all over south London, she is ready to take revenge on the whole self-satisfied world she sees around her.
Only, it’s beginning to look as if the one person she can really trust isn’t from the streets at all. She’s Alesha’s eccentric former music teacher, Miss Merfield – and she’s trying to tell Alesha there’s another way out.
Courtney has broken some taboos in writing this book. First of all – as many people already know – she is the self-published writer who gained a coveted traditional publishing deal, only to ditch it when she realised she was being shoe-horned into writing books she didn’t really want to write.
To cap that, she has written the book her agent told her not to, the one that was too ‘niche’. (“How niche are young people?” Courtney demands at the launch.)
Finally, she is a young, white, middle-class woman, writing in the voice of a homeless, mixed-race teenager from South London. “You can’t possibly be authentic,” she was told, when she mooted the idea.
Polly Courtney at the launch of Feral Youth
Courtney refused to be put off. Motivated by her own anger at the ill-informed responses to the 2011 riots in British cities, she spent time with girls from Westwood College in Croydon, learning from their point of view what it was like to be a teenage in South London today, how they saw the riots and the reasons behind them – and most of all, listening to their voices and learning how they spoke to one another.
When the riots kicked off in August 2011, I was away on an oh-so-middle-class family holiday in Cornwall. I looked on from a distance, seeing events unfold on television, reading about then in the newspapers. What I struck me in those first few days was the way commentators were contrasting the supposed ‘mindlessness’ and ‘criminality’ of the 2011 rioters with what they now chose to cast as the ‘legitimate beefs’ of 1981 Brixton rioters.
What? Did no one remember the initial response to the Brixton riots – before the Scarman Report shed a chink of light on the causes? Did no one remember Thatcher saying: “No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events … They were criminal, criminal.”
Polly Courtney interview: The voice of the recession generation
Excerpt from Independent on Sunday, 16th June 2013
As I wait to meet Polly Courtney in Peckham, south London, where her new novel is set, a young homeless man is settling down to beg outside the station while I read a report in The Independent about the still-toxic world of banking. Both are arenas that Courtney recognises. As a bright young engineering graduate in the early 2000s she worked for a year as a “high-flying” analyst at Merrill Lynch, before she quit in disgust to write a novel based on the experience. Six books later, she is about to publish Feral Youth, which focuses on the 2011 London riots. There could be no one better placed to understand how the two things are connected.
“I live in Ealing”, she explains, “and [in the summer of 2011] I was lying in bed thinking, ‘Oh my god I can smell cars burning’. This was happening in our quiet, leafy Ealing, in our city, and like a lot of people I was thinking, ‘Why … ?’ I assumed that over the next few weeks and months we’d start hearing more about the causes – the long-term stuff – and it felt like no one was doing that. Politicians were very quick to say, ‘It’s gangs, it’s bad parenting’, and I just thought, ‘You know, that is not an answer!'”
Courtney read the early reports about the riots, went to events, and also started mentoring a child. Now, she has spent two years talking and listening to young people growing up in the crucible in which the riots were ignited, and the resulting novel is an unsentimental and shocking account of Generation Recession.
This is a very different novel for Courtney, whose previous books include well-written commercial fiction such as the “City” novel, Golden Handcuffs, and It’s A Man’s World, set at a struggling lads’ mag. Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer. In fact, one agent wondered if it was “too literary”. (“That’s not a problem for me!” she laughs. “What does it mean? It’s too good?”)
The book begins as its unlikely heroine, 15-year-old Alesha, is expelled from school for attacking an affiliate of a rival gang. She’s just learnt that her 17-year-old friend has been “shanked” (stabbed) when her teacher asks her a question about Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “Truth is, I don’t see how this book is gonna help me live my life … Reggie Bell’s lying dead on a slab right now, bled dry through a slit in his neck. Knowing why George shot Lennie ain’t top of my priority list.”
Courtney, a well-spoken Cambridge graduate, had help with the slang from friends, youth workers, and schoolchildren. There is a glossary for the uninitiated at the front of the book. But in finding out how Alesha would speak, she learnt more than she bargained for from young south Londoners. “I went into a couple of schools,” she recalls. “I got them to write, and explained that we were going to write in a fairly phonetic way. They’d never done that, and they were surprised that they were allowed to. Actually, they wrote way more interesting and involved things than I expected. They wrote about things like stop-and-search and being accused by security guards. The anger came out.”
The riots, and Alesha’s part in them, take up only a few pages in the middle of the book, and by the time they come…
Her novels cover misogyny in the City, sexism, racism, fame culture and now, in Feral Youth, the summer riots of 2011. So it continues to amaze me that Harper Collins chose to market Polly Courtney’s books as chick-lit. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised for we live in a world where, more often than not, it’s the marketing department that makes crucial decision such as the title and the design of a book’s cover; a world where a literary agent once told me that my mistake was writing books for readers, when I should be aiming them at publishers. Thankfully this last attitude is still pretty rare.
Nevertheless, the traditional publishing world is heavily stacked against authors, especially first time authors. But even established writers are feeling the pinch. In this climate, and given the struggle many writers have to find a publisher, Polly’s decision to sack the mighty HarperCollins took courage, spirit and self-belief. She has never looked back.
Not only is Polly even more successful than she was before, she has become a pathfinder. By daring to take on a mighty publishing house she has shown the rest of us that it can be done. That we can publish and market our own books. That we don’t have to accept what the traditional publishers tell us is best for us. And, if you are not sure of the process, I urge you to read her piece in the Huffington Post, in response to an article by John Green. It contains one of the most succinct descriptions I have seen of how the two worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing actually work.
Feral Youth is her sixth novel and her first since leaving Harper Collins. Its genesis was indeed the London Riots of 2011, though in fact these take up only a part of the book. What it does do is explore the causes of the disaffection. In the months following the riots Polly was surprised that no one seemed to be looking at the underlying causes, instead they were, as usual, laying the blame on ‘gangs and bad parenting’. That, she felt, was not the answer, so she decided to find out for herself.
Already a mentor at Kids Company, Polly spent the next two years going into schools and youth groups, getting to know these marginalised children as individuals and not simply as the ‘feral youths’ characterized by the tabloids and politicians. She wanted to discover what it would be like to be them. What, if anything, did they care about? What motivated them?
It wasn’t all straightforward. She had to contend with suspicion as to her own motives and how she was going to portray the youngsters in the book. It took time but gradually she was accepted. And once she was she found herself among a group of spirited, energetic, smart and positive young people. Youngsters who were light years away from the way they were portrayed in the media. But yes they were angry, for good reason. They were also, unexpectedly, political.
Feral Youth opens our eyes to a world that’s very different from the stereotypes we are so often presented with. It’s both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page, not simply because it’s a compelling read but because we are touched by the characters and in particular by 15-year old Alesha – ignored, confused, torn between two worlds. As we follow her story we are drawn in. Which one will she choose? Has she the strength to break with her past? Such is the power of the novel that we really mind.
Feral Youth is available in all good book shops from 26 June 2013, both paperback and e-book. It is priced at £8.99 / £1.99.
The launch party will be held in central London on 26 June 2013. For tickets and enquiries, please get in touch via the contact page.
What the reviewers say:
“Courtney has an ability to breed empathy for an ethnic minority often subjected to negative stereotypes”
“Feral Youth is as compelling as it is horrifying. It lifts the lid on the lives of marginalised young people that the media demonises and the rest of us prefer to ignore.”
– Fiona Bawdon
“Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer.”
“A breakthrough book that raises uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, ‘feral’ youth.” – Independent on Sunday
“Feral Youth is as compelling as it is horrifying. It lifts the lid on the lives of marginalised young people that the media demonises and the rest of us prefer to ignore.” – Fiona Bawdon
“The voice of the recession generation” – Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday
“The riots were widely misunderstood. The perception of feral youth causing havoc, driven by nothing more than criminalisation, was mooted from the start and stuck. It meant that the underlying causes such as poverty, broken homes and deprivation were largely unexamined. This book changes that. If you want to understand why so many young people took to the streets two summers ago, read this book.” – Sonya Thomas, Reading the Riots
“Feral Youth is a unique story that brings the lives and challenges of urban youth to the fore in a provocative way, giving an insight into life on London’s streets beyond the negative stereotypes and provoking us to address the underlying causes of the riots.” – Patrick Regan OBE, Founder & CEO, XLP
“Seeing the World through the eyes of youth, as Polly has achieved with Feral Youth, is something politicians and leaders of industry need to strive to achieve. It gives a unique insight to the very real problems encountered in some of our most deprived areas. Alesha wants to feel self-respect and love from those around her and acceptance from society, but taking the right path and making the right choices is a struggle . The stark reality of life on the streets today is that the wrong choices are often the easiest ones.” – Gary Trowsdale, Damilola Taylor Trust
“Feral Youth is an important book.” – After Nyne
“Feral Youth is as life-affirming as Trainspotting and will connect with teenagers and adults alike.” – Lambert Nagle
“Alesha’s is the voice of a barely literate teenager, reaching out to us from a world we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.” – Catriona Troth