When you consider how often rioting has occurred throughout history, it’s surprising to discover how few authors have tackled the subject. Sure, there are plenty of academic tomes, but fiction is pretty thin on the ground. Now one British author, Sarah Butler, has dealt with the subject head on in her latest novel, Before the Fire.
On 4th August 2011, police shot a man called Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London. On 6th August, a peaceful demonstration asking the police for answers ended up turning into a street riot, and violent disturbances quickly spread across London and then further across England. The riots ‘reached’ Manchester on 9th August. This is the setting for Sarah’s novel. We spoke to her about the riots, her book, and why she thinks it’s important to refuse stereotypes.
What was it about the media treatment of the young people involved that particularly outraged you?
To quote one headline from the Daily Mail: “Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters.” That’s what outraged me! That article was particularly inflammatory, suggesting that the young people involved in the riots were “essentially wild beasts” and suggesting they should have been shot for their actions.
There were many more measured responses, but there was a lot of talk about ‘them’, a lot of fear and stereotyping. And there was a clear assumption that young people were to blame for what happened, when a lot of subsequent analysis showed that there was a broad range of ages involved. I’m not condoning the violence and looting that went on that summer, but it did not warrant the kind of blanket, unthinking criticism of young people that took place.
I have done a lot of arts-related work over the years with young people. They have frequently been disaffected, excluded, troublesome, and at the same time brilliant, creative, interesting, and also often vulnerable, frightened, angry. Each of them had their own context, their own story, their own rich and complicated inner life, just like everyone else. And so it angers and saddens me to see young people written off because of their age, their race, the way they dress, where they live, their economic circumstances.
“The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalising and thieving. It is criminality, pure and simple—and there is absolutely no excuse for it.” David Cameron, Parliament, 11th August 2011
Could you describe the protagonist in a little more detail? How does he contradict the stereotype portrayal of the rioters?
Before The Fire is about Stick, a 17 year old boy who ends up involved in the riots. Turning 18 in the summer of 2011, he’s young and hedonistic, but also kind and thoughtful and a bit lost. The novel pivots on the loss of his best friend, and is haunted by the loss of his young sister ten years before the novel takes place. It’s really about someone who is struggling to find his place in the world, struggling to deal with grief, and anger, and frustration at his circumstances and his own failure to change things. He contradicts the stereotyped portrayal of the rioters in that he is a complicated, conflicted individual, rather than an unthinking ‘beast’.
As a writer, what do you find most challenging and interesting about combining a real life setting with fictional characters?
I tend to write contemporary novels set in identifiable places. There is, of course, the worry that you’ll get some detail wrong, or upset someone who might feel that their area or experience has been misrepresented. And yet, my understanding of place, and indeed of any event, is that it is made up from layers of understanding, experience, memory, attitude, and so any place or event is subtly different for each person who experiences it. I am not trying to represent ‘Manchester’ or ‘The Riots’ or ‘Teenage Life’, I am writing a story about a fictional young man living in a specific context at a specific time. The riots were a very specific set of events, which seem to have largely faded from view, a kind of wild blip in the country’s consciousness. I wanted to bring them back into focus.
“While bankers have publicly looted the country’s wealth and got away with it, it’s not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone.” Seumas Milne, Guardian Newspaper, 10th August 2011
What message do you want to convey with the novel?
Before The Fire doesn’t offer any ‘answers’ about why the riots happened or what they meant, or judge anyone for the choices they made in the midst of them. It is simply a story about one young man. Perhaps that sums up what, if anything, I want to say about the riots: that they meant something different to each and every person who chose to get involved. There – for me – is where the interesting and revealing debate about contemporary society lies: not with sweeping generalisations, but in the detail of individual stories. I’m talking about a lot of other things in the book too: how we deal with loss; how we try and work out what has value in our lives; what friendship means and how we maintain it; how we strive to work out who we are in the face of others’ expectations.
The joy of novels, for me, is their capacity to explore the complexities of individual stories; their ability to hold contradictions, refuse stereotypes, and question our desire for simple explanations and judgements.
Sarah Butler’s debut novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is published by Picador and in 15 other countries around the world. Her new novel, Before The Fire, is published in March 2015. She runs UrbanWords, exploring the relationship between writing and place through projects and writing-residencies.