A rapper has rapped about my book. How many authors can say that?

A rather incredible thing just happened.

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:

Production: OfTheRedProductions

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…

How you can help a girl like Alesha this Christmas (without leaving your desk)‏

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.)

FERAL YOUTH on Amazon

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?)

Have a very happy Christmas and a merry new year.

BelEveUK team in action with girls in Lewisham

BelEveUK team in action with girls in Lewisham

Feral Youth goes multimedia (Warning: May contain scenes of an offensive nature, i.e. me trying to act)

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.

Thank you.

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!

Does Iain Duncan Smith Do His Research by Watching TV?

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.

Only it isn’t, and it hasn’t.

The vast majority of people claiming unemployment benefits in the UK do so as a last resort. The people I spoke to in my research for Feral Youth considered signing on as a shameful option – something they would do anything to avoid. This is the reality. Benefit fraud only accounts for a small fraction of our expenditure (roughly £1.2bn compared to an estimated £65bn in profiteering by buy-to-let landlords, subsidies to banks, tax-dodging by the super-rich etc.)

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.

young people

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.

Rising from the ashes of the riots: a play worth seeing

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.

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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.

Advice

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.

Alix. Aka Candice

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“Raises uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, “feral” youth.” – Press for Feral Youth

A breakthrough book… Alesha is compelling, even loveable. In the choices she has to make, she raises some uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, “feral” youth.”  – Independent on Sunday

“Are they really “feral”, or is that just an excuse that keeps us from thinking about the problems?” – The Guardian

Listen now

“Feral Youth is both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page.” – Words With Wings

“A story from the streets: An extract from Polly Courtney’s novel Feral Youth about 15-year-old Alesha, who gets caught up in the London riots.”  – We Love This Book

“Courtney’s latest book gives an insight into the young lives of generation recession, revealing the riots as inevitable and a long-time-coming.” – The Student Journals

“In her speech, Polly thanked everyone who helped her with the publication of Feral Youth (both Jennifer and Sarah were summoned on stage!), and reminisced of her decision to leave HarperCollins – which she did so fairly publicly, in 2011, at the launch party for It’s A Man’s World – and return to self-publishing. “ – Troubador Publishing

“What I’m trying to do is get into the head of Alesha and show people what it’s really like to be like her and how it’s very different to a lot of the stereotypes of young people today…I think she’s a person people need to know about.”  – Ones To Watch

“The more I heard from young people, the more opinionated Alesha and some of the other characters became.”  – The Londonist

“A book (and message) that should resonate with many young people.” – CultureFly

“It is Alesha’s resourcefulness and positivity, alongside her underlying goodness, that makes us root for her, even when her actions seem deplorable, and it is this that pushes the narrative on as we race towards the unexpected ending and a potential new start for Alesha.”  – The National Student

“The backdrop for the novel is the build-up to the 2011 summer riots and it’s written from Alesha’s perspective. The ambition is to get readers thinking about the reality of life for many young people like Alesha, who are either ignored or stigmatised in the mainstream press – labelled ‘feral’ and assumed to be beyond hope.” – The Omnivore

“Then I read it, and I was hooked. Polly Courtney gets it. She understands why things are the way they are. Courtney tells the truth and she does so through the eyes of a character that you are rooting for from page one.”  – Shout Out UK

“On 26 June we went to Soho for the launch of Polly Courtney’s latest book ‘Feral Youth’. The place was packed with young people, journalists, youth orgs, publishers, film makers and other cool cats…” – Youth Media Agency

“I opted to return to self-publishing precisely because I longed for collaboration. For Feral Youth, I wanted to liaise directly with my cover designer. I wanted to seek feedback not just from one lone individual with a subjective view from her ivory tower, but from a stable of trusted, crowd-sourced advisers as well as from my professional editor.” – Huffington Post

“What I love about self-publishing is the ability to carefully choose those third parties and to work directly with them, instead of being at the end of a long chain of faceless entities in a publishing house.” – Teleread

“While this week has proven to be filled with interesting discourse on the current state of self-publishing, some counterarguments just write themselves.” – Good eReader

“It’s due to the fact that Courtney knows the importance of collaboration that she succeeds in self-publishing.” – Kirkus Reviews

“How can a first-time, self-published author gain the attention of the BBC and the Times? And after such a coup, what can go wrong when you join a big publishing house?” – NY Book Editors

“The sense of freedom, creativity and entrepreneurship was instilled in me from a very young age.” – Words With Jam

“Walking away from a publishing deal with HarperCollins was a massive step, but one that has given me the freedom to write what I believe is an important story: the story of Alesha, a vulnerable, disenfranchised young person from a generation of disaffected youth.” – Chptrs: Publishing’s Next Chapter

“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.” – The Library Cat

“In the summer of 2011, I was lying in bed, smelling burning police cars and scrolling through Twitter…” – High Heels & Book Deals

“Her new, self-published book, Feral Youth — involving the 2011 London riots — is scheduled for an August 1 availability in the States.” – Jane Friedman

“Immersive book launch for Polly Courtney’s latest novel”  – Book Brunch

“Feral Youth is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Emotionally charged throughout I instantly felt a connection to the disenfranchised protagonist.” – Creative Bloc

“A great, compelling story told from the perspective of a 15 year old girl growing up in Peckham, South London.” – Completely Novel

“Feral Youth is as life-affirming as Trainspotting and will connect with teenagers and adults alike.” – Lambert Nagle

“There was a lack of cohesion between what they believed about themselves and their books and the “profit mindset” demonstrated by their publishers.” – Stand Out Books

“I don’t like to see inequality or prejudice going unnoticed.” – Nolan Parker

“After the riots, I was left thinking why did that happen?” – Me, My Books & I

“In short, it’s been a really liberating experience for me. I’ve been able to write about a subject I care about, retaining control of the way it’s published.” – Movellas

“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

“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.

Feral Youth

Feral Youth

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

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.”

And did no one think, even for a moment…

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW ON AUTHOR CATRIONA TROTH’S WEBSITE