In keeping with the Brixton vibe, I’ve just read Brixton Rock by Alex Wheatle. Set in the late seventies to early eighties, Wheatle’s debut novel tells the story of Brenton Brown, a sixteen year-old mixed race teenager, living in a hostel for young people recently released from the care system. Angry at the fact that he has grown up in a children’s home, with no knowledge of any family, Brenton is a very angry young man with a very short temper. His volatile nature leads him into a violent skirmish with Terry Flynn, a known killer, who vows to make Brenton his next victim.
Faced with a future which could lead to prison or his death, Brenton decides that it’s time to trace his mother, with the intention of discovering why she gave him up. With help from his social worker, he is soon reunited with Cynthia, his mother and his beautiful half-sister Juilet. But even, this is not without its problems. Whilst unable to forgive his mother for giving him up, Brenton finds himself drawing very close to his sister Juilet, whose love and encouragement, soothe the pain of his past and give him hope for his future. But their relationship takes a very taboo path as both siblings become physically attracted to each other. For Brenton it is the novelty of having someone love and care for him for the first time in his life, and so he has no deep qualms about acting on his feelings. However, Juliet is fully aware of the repercussions, but is unable to resist temptation, and before long the two are involved in an illicit affair.
But this is not just a novel about incest, it is a coming of age story about a young man’s yearning for love and acceptance, and his search for his identity and place in an England, which at the time was no place for young black men and in many respects still isn’t. I say this because, Brixton Rock is set just before the infamous Brixton riots where the tensions between young black people and the establishment, were at boiling point. Reading this novel a few weeks after London’s recent unrest, you can easily see the similarities between Brixton then and Brixton now, and London as a whole. The same stories ring true, disaffected youth, violence, broken families, unemployment, out of touch politicians and racist police. With all this going on in the background, it is no wonder that Brenton feels that life has dealt him a particularly harsh hand as at every turn he sees himself as being at the bottom of the ladder, with no chance of reaching any higher. It is Juliet that helps him to see that life is what he makes it, and if he puts his mind to it he can acheive anything. Things start to work out in the form of an apprenticeship but his relationship with Juliet, his mother and the ever looming shadow of Terry Flynn lead to an explosive and uncompromising climax.
Like The Street, this book is noted for its use of language even the two use it in very different ways. The Street with its long words and amusing metaphors contrasts with the street language of London youth, certain phrases and words had me laughing down memory lane. The other thing is the music, if the street slang doesn’t get you the music will. Sound systems, reggae and soul artists are name checked on almost every page. It is true to say that every generation of young people have their musical idols to guide them through their lives and it is true in this novel. The music serves as the connector between Brenton and his roots and his desire to belong somewhere and to someone, in much the same way as his use of street language and Jamaican patois, despite never have set on Caribbean soil and having grown up in suburban Croydon, rather than inner city London.
One of the reasons I like this book is that it is very much a contemporary state of the nation novel, providing an excellent commentary on the black community. Being a child of the eighties some of what Wheatle writes about or references to is vaguely familiar as snippets of overheard conversations from the adults and half understoon news items. Being a social history junkie, it’s great to be able to fill in the blanks, albeit in a fictional setting. And, given recent events in London this summer, Brixton Rock is reminder of how the past can repeatedly haunt our present.