“The protaganists in her new novel are poor, abandoned and fighting back. Katy Guest met their champion” – Independent on Sunday

Polly Courtney interview: The voice of the recession generation

Excerpt from Independent on Sunday, 16th June 2013
Independent on Sunday

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…

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL INTERVIEW

“Moving and shocking, Feral Youth opens our eyes to a world that’s very different from the stereotypes.” – Words With Wings

Feral Youth: stripping away the stereotypes

Originally posted on June 19, 2013 by Clodagh Phelan – click here to read the original review

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.01

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?

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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”

-Metro

“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.”

– Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday

“If you want to understand why young people took to the streets two summers ago, read this book.” – Sonya Thomas, Reading the Riots

Praise for Feral Youth

Feral Youth

“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

“This is not just a story – this is many children’s reality” – Gracia McGrath OBE, Chief Executive Chance UK

Feral Youth takes us into the (under)world of Alesha & JJ through a great story that is beautifully written and makes compulsive reading.

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Obviously those of us who work and volunteer with children & young people in inner cities know that for many young people, this is not just a story; this way of life, or one very like it, is their reality. And that also makes this a very important book because everyone needs to know that many children live unsupported, frightening & dangerous lives that often go unseen by adults even if those children live on their doorstep.

I hope people read this book and find out how they can become Miss Merfield to a vulnerable young person.

– Gracia McGrath OBE, Chief Executive Chance UK

Chance UK work with 5 – 11 year olds with behavioural difficulties, those children most likely to go on to criminal, offending behaviour later in life. The children are matched with adult volunteer mentors who help them find ways of improving their behaviour, raise their aspirations & develop new skills that improve their life chances.

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

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.

Feral Youth

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.

“Feral Youth is a unique story that brings the lives and challenges of urban youth to the fore in a provocative way.” – Patrick Regan OBE

Praise for Feral Youth

Feral Youth“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 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

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

 

“Intelligently written, with a hard-hitting meaning at the centre of the book, this ticks all the boxes.” – Cocosa

Praise for It’s A Man’s World

It's a Man's World“Dealing subtle hammer-blows to the belief in the harmlessness of lads’ mags content, in the end, it is Courtney’s unflinching and brutal honesty that ruptures any comforting rationalisation for their existence.” – The Truth About Books

“An addictive page turner with a hard-hitting meaning.” – Feminist Book Club

“Alexa quickly became the woman I could cheer for and hope to succeed.” – A Novel Review

“Intelligently written, with a hard-hitting meaning at the centre of the book, this ticks all the boxes.” – Cocosa

“A book that makes you stop and think: are we over-sexualising our society and perpetuating a culture of misogyny? A pacy, unconventional novel that calls into question whether we really do have equality in today’s world.”

“More like this please! This is not your average chick-flick romp. It is not a romp at all. Page-turner, yes, but it makes you stop and think. Are lads’ mags a force for evil?” – Vine Review