Polly Courtney interview: The voice of the recession generation
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…