Features Books Published 18 July 2012

Other People’s Stories

Playwrights, politicians and novelists discuss Britain today at London Literature Festival.
Carmel Doohan

Where the contemporary novelist can be crippled and silenced by the ethical dilemma of trying to ‘write the Other,’ many politicians have no such qualms. Deemed as chosen by the people and with a job description that entitles them to speak for us, lack of first hand experience rarely hinders. This telling of other peoples stories is the subject for two events at this years London Literature Festival–  London: One year on and Granta: Britain in the world .

On the Anniversary of last summer’s London riots, Gillian Slovo- writer of The Tricycle’s verbatim tribunal-play The Riots– and Harriet Sergeant, author of Among the Hoods: My years with a teenage gang, were joined by Tottenham MP David Larry and writer/ campaigner Melissa Benn. At Granta Magazine’s discussion a few days later, eschewing the maxim ‘write what you know,’ contributors to the latest anthology- Ross Raisin, Rachel Seiffert and Andrea Stuart- delved bravely into worlds completely alien to them. Raisin’s looked at the closed world of football clubs and their supporters, Seiffert transported us into the world of protestant Orangemen in Northern Ireland and Scotland and Stuart investigated seventeenth century sugar plantations and slavery.

One of the rules of verbatim theatre is that that only the actual words of those interviewed can be used, but as Slovo admits, this doesn’t necessary mean the whole story gets told. When researching her play in the aftermath of the riots, it was very difficult to speak to people actually involved in the rioting- most were in prison or in hiding. Also turning 55 hours of tape into 2 hours of performance requires editing and the inevitable loss and bias that accompanies this. Sergeant’s My years with a teenage gang could have been a memoir of a gang member- if it wasn’t for the fact that the majority of boys featured and interviewed within the book are almost illiterate. Using verbatim techniques and interviews Sergeant charts the time she spent with the group of South London boys, but it is only when framed and interpreted by an outsider- a middle class, Daily Mail columnist- that their story can be told.

In telling these stories the writers and commentators are representing groups and people who have little visibility and voice. Seiffert is aware of this and insists that using an outsiders viewpoint to allow the rituals and customs of a group to be explained is “taking an easy way out”. Getting inside another person is hard, but for her “writing from the inside out” is what a novelist does. Ross, similarly writes to understand; he wants to know what it is like to grow up somewhere where things condemned by the rest of society make up the unquestionable category of ‘all you know.’

This idea of trying to represent and understand a society within society- a group perceived to have different values and rules- takes us back to the riots. What is clear is that the kind of research these novelists do in order to feel  able to voice their characters with any authenticity- delving deep into the psychological motivations and varied influences- has in no way been attempted in the response to last summers unrest. Perhaps a reason for this is what all four One Year On panellists refer to as a homogenisation of political voices; the convergence of the right and left has left us in a situation where the only voice heard in parliament is that of the privately educated, Oxford PPE alumni. A lack of representation from the less privileged areas of British life that means, as David Larry puts “there are no journalists or policy makers who grew up on a council estates. None of them have any understanding of that.”

While we do not hear the voices of the rioters themselves, at the Royal Festival Hall where the festival takes place, the audience is full of teachers and community workers who work with young people in deprived areas. They describe cramped housing, hopeless boredom and the effect of a violent, rampantly consumerist culture in places where there is neither the time nor resources to provide an antidote. In the passionate and informed Q and A, what is striking is that the issues raised and the voices that raise them are so rarely heard in our political discussions or media.

Also, it is telling that these important stories and questions are being aired not in parliament but at a literary festival. Many present said that Slovo’s play (shown at Bernie Grants Arts Centre in Tottenham as well as in Kilburn) gave them more insight into the riots that the official reports. Yet, while the sustained and deep research undertaken in creative work is clearly very important, the opportunity to undertake such projects also re-emphasises unequal divisions of time and education.

“A woven finger cannot undo its thread.” Seiffert quotes a Louis MacNeice poem that encapsulates the issue at the heart of her book. The line began as a statement, but as she redrafted and researched, it turned into a question. These ideas of whether a self is chosen or imposed, decided upon or inherited are crucial in her writing and are, of course, political as well as narrative. If it is now left to our storytellers to broach such issues, we must find a way to ensure that British literature becomes more than a series of well-intentioned acts of ventriloquism.

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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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