I’m trying to catch up on my Sky Box at the moment… I have about three months worth of Holby City and Casualty, and I think even a flight to Australia wouldn’t give me enough time to watch all the episodes of Neighbours I have backed up.
But this week, of all the things I could have chosen, I put on Miriam’s Big American Adventure, in which, as the name suggests Miriam Margolyes travels around American trying to understand what it means to be an American in Trump’s USA.
The first episode saw her visit Chicago, specifically the South Side, one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Indeed, while she was there, there were three injuries in a shooting, and nobody in the area seemed overly surprised.
She spoke to young men who said it was kill or be killed. She talked about Michelle Obama who had lived on O block but had gotten out. That was the American Dream they said, to get out, to make their lives better.
In the same week, I’ve been reading Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It’s about one weekend on an estate in London, where, following the murder of a British soldier riots are beginning to sweep through the area, and tensions are high
We experience the action through the eyes of Yusuf, Selvon and Ardan. They’re all native Londoners, it’s their home, but the white skinheads of Britain First want them to go home.
At first, I felt a bit of an outsider myself, reading this book. I’m a white man in my very late twenties (the decade has not only rung last orders, but they’ve turned out the lights, turned off the music and threatened to call the police if I don’t leave immediately) and I do not live in London.
I visit London regularly, but only certain areas of it for work, or to see shows. I’ve not been to the estates that Gunaratne talks about. That’s not my London. My London is very safe and comfortable and full of gin and tonics.
But the more I read, the more I started to realise this isn’t a story about London. Nor is it a story about a muslim boy, or a black boy, or an Irish boy. It’s a story about the state of the world.
We don’t just see things through the eyes of the boys, we also have Nelson, Selvon’s father and Caroline Ardan’s mother. Neither of them are native to London – Caroline grew up in Ireland and move to London to escape the clutches of the IRA; Nelson came from Montserrat in search of a better life and found his own race riots.
Gunanatre subtly reveals all of this across forty-eight hours, building up to a Britain First march that ends at the foot of Ardan and Yusuf’s tower block. I struggled at first because there was nobody like me in the book, they were in a part of London I didn’t recognise, I didn’t think it was for me.
But then I started to notice the similarities and I started to understand the differences, not just in race and culture but in age as well. That’s the point of books. To explore new worlds, to broaden our horizons. To help break down barriers.
Caroline and Nelson came to London looking for a better life. They found what they were looking for, but it was tougher than they hoped. Selvon and Ardan and Yusuf are all trying to find their better lives – they’re trying to build on what their parents gave them.
It’s what we all do, or at least try to do. My parents weren’t rich, we didn’t go on regular jaunts abroad and we didn’t have all the new toys or get taken on days out every weekend, but we didn’t exactly struggle, we lived within our means.
I’ve always wanted a better life. Wanted to not have to worry about money in the same way my mum might have.
The kids in this book, they want a better life, to not have to worry about the things their parents worried about. It’s the same thing I wanted. It’s the same thing those young men on O-block in Chicago want.
I’m luckier than most, the life I want to better was not a bad one at all, but we all have the same driving force. The mad and furious city isn’t London. It’s the whole world and it’s time we started to recognise not just our differences, but our similarities as well.
Books are written for many different reasons, and mostly we hope people enjoy the story, but every now and then there are books described as ‘important’. I sometimes think that’s a bit pompous, and a way of saying, “you won’t enjoy this, but it’s about controversial subject X, so you can’t say you don’t like it”.
Here’s the thing. I DID enjoy this. Yes, it had a message, but it delivered it in a way that took me on a journey with the characters. It didn’t change them, there’s not much you can change about characters across a weekend, but it changed my perceptions of them, it changed my understanding about them.
In Our Mad and Furious City is published by Tinder Press on 3rd May 2018.