Socialist Worker

Dirty South: 'Young people in Brixton are not stereotypes'

Novelist Alex Wheatle talks about his new book

Issue No. 2089

Police confront young people last year in Stockwell, south London (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Police confront young people last year in Stockwell, south London (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

My new book, The Dirty South, which is out in April, deals with issues around young people today. It’s set in Brixton and deals with gun crime, alienation, peer pressure, and demonisation.

Sometimes you read the media headlines about “black on black” crime and that’s all the public ever get to know about the situation.

We never get to hear any context to what happened. So in The Dirty South, I am trying to provide a wider view of what is going on – not just around gun crime, but also the roots of violence.

Rastas are not seen as a threat to society anymore so now sometimes youngsters want to be in a “Muslim” gang just because they think it is more threatening.

These young boys drift off to the gangs because they feel they have no real value otherwise.

The issues facing young people today are very complex. I work on projects with young people so I’ve seen many youngsters at close hand over the past few years.

We have to remember that the young people causing concern or involved in crime are a tiny minority. Lots of our young people are going to college, working hard and doing well.

But politicians today are creating an atmosphere where every young person is to be feared.

That’s when people start to believe we need more laws, more stop and search, more rules – when we don’t.

Most young people are not the stereotypes painted by the politicians. There are a minority of young people who get in trouble.

They are getting younger and younger in my experience.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, they decide at ten, 11 or 12 years old that they don’t want to take a place in society.

They feel that they can’t achieve and that the only way they can find a place for themselves is to act bad or to act macho.


I see that first hand – they just exclude themselves or get excluded from the normal process of education. That is very disturbing.

We have to look at ourselves as parents and ask if we are providing the right atmosphere for our children to grow up in.

If children are growing up with no boundaries and surrounded by violence, it is not a big step for them to get involved in violence too.

Tory politicians are quick to blame absent fathers. But you can be just as good a father if you take it upon yourself to have a hand in raising your child whether or not you are living in the same house.

I am very concerned about the demonisation of young people today. I remember what it feels like because I went through that myself.

I don’t like the way politicians handle it – politicians of all parties. It just seems to be posturing and smacks of opportunism.

The Tories are very good at this, and Labour seem to be following their lead. I never thought I’d see a Labour government doing this.

I’ve been Labour through and through for many years but I’m saddened by what I’m hearing – especially the comments on stop and search.

Labour, of all parties, should understand what happened back then under Margaret Thatcher.

I’ve visited numerous prisons up and down the country to give talk or read from my books.

From what I see, most of those in prison are there because of drugs. Being addicted to drugs should be treated as an illness.

We should be trying to help and rehabilitate these people. The only way we can really do all that is by legalising drugs.

That way some drugs could become a prescribed medicine. We could help the addicts and cut out the bad guys from making money preying on people. It would cut violence and a lot of gun crime.

After all how long have politicians been losing the battle against drugs?

If they were to admit that and legalise drugs I am sure we would start to see a drop in numbers going to prison for drug related crimes.

But I don’t think any government would ever be brave enough to do that, because of their fear that “Middle England” would not stand for it.

Race, class and family

Many of Alex Wheatle’s novels look at the experience of young people growing up in Brixton, south London.

They deal with the complexities of racism, class, family tensions and the often traumatic decisions that people make to survive.

Brixton Rock and East of Acre Lane are both set in the 1980s in a Brixton of rising tensions with the police and a daily struggle just to get by.

Alex’s forthcoming novel The Dirty South is a fast paced and absorbing modern day sequel to East of Acre Lane.

He has also won acclaim for The Seven Sisters, which is about four boys who escape from a children’s home where they have faced a daily regime of abuse.

Island Songs is different again – a prequel to East of Acre Lane and largely set in rural Jamaica. Alex says the book is a “work of love for Jamaica”.

To order any of these books, phone Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 or go to »

Cover of The Dirty South

Cover of The Dirty South

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