The Penwith Peninsula in Cornwall is where the land ends. In The Swordfish and the Star Gavin Knight takes us into this huddle of grey roofs at the edge of the sea at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
He catches the stories of a whole community, but especially those still working this last frontier: the Cornish fishermen. These are the dreamers and fighters who every day prepare for battle with the vast grey Atlantic. Cornwall and its seas are brought to life, mixing drinking and drugs and sea spray, moonlit beaches and shattering storms, myth and urban myth. The result is an arresting tapestry of a place we thought we knew; the precarious reality of life in Cornwall today emerges from behind our idyllic holiday snaps and picture postcards. Even the quaint fishermen’s pubs on the quay at Newlyn, including the Swordfish and its neighbour the Star, turn out to be places where squalls can blow up, and down again, in an instant.
Based on immersive research and rich with the voices of a cast of remarkable characters, this is an eye-opening, dramatic, poignant account of life on Britain’s most dangerous stretch of coast.
The Browser’s Five Books has long been one of my favourite sites on the web; so it was a real thrill to be interviewed on “inner-city crime” I chose David Simon’s The Corner, Richard Price’s Lush Life, Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Elijah Anderson’s The Code of The Street and Nick Davies Dark Heart. Here’s the interview.
Hood Rat was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Non-fiction Dagger Award 2012. It was announced at Crimefest in Bristol, in the company of writers like Lee Child and Peter James. Judges said:
‘This is a fine piece of investigative journalism, covering three aspects of gang warfare: personal interviews with those involved in the drug trade in Manchester; with the gangs of Glasgow, which has the highest murder rate in Europe; and among the Indian population of Southall, London. The author is to be commended on his ability to get close to the criminals.’
The winner will be announced on 5th July in the Library at Birdcage Walk in Westminster, London.
Film4 and Cowboy Films have bought an option on the film and television rights of Hood Rat, for the second year running with the aim of making it into a feature film. Film4 develop and co-finance a slate of smart and distinctive feature films like the Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire, Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady and Steve McQueen’s Shame. Cowboy Films produced Kevin McDonald’s documentary MARLEY, the definitive film about Bob Marley, and Academy Award winning feature THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Cowboy also produced TOP BOY, a 4-part drama that premiered on Channel 4 in Autumn 2011. Described as “a beautiful, honest and gripping rendition on inner-city drug and gang culture” the series received huge critical acclaim. Following the huge success of Top Boy, Channel 4 has commissioned Cowboy Films to produce series 2, set for TX in early 2013.
In April Hood Rat was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2012, the most prestigious award for political writing in the UK. Telegraph assistant books editor Sameer Rahim described it as “a tremendous book, written with unobtrusive intelligence, vividness and clarity. It was the best writing we came across to illuminate some of the issues thrown up by the riots of summer 2011.” The prize’s director Jean Seaton said: “What do [the shortlisted books] share – except for a dark content? Precision, wit, elegance: important books about important things. Orwell would have devoured all of them.” She called Hood Rat “Gavin Knight’s extraordinary portrait of the under-belly of urban, unseen Britain.” The prize will be awarded on 23 May.
On December 1st I spoke at Central St. Martins’ new building in Kings Cross about the August riots; the other speakers were Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, visiting lecturer, Ken Hollings. Journalist David Matthews was in the chair. Here is a review of the event by design student Lior Smith. I told human stories about inner city kids. Ken reminded us about the 2007 IKEA opening in Tottenham where people broke down the doors to get in after the local area whipped up about IKEA’s ‘knock down pricing’. Suzanne Moore said that the failure to explain the 5 days in August when the riots happened was a wilful political act. There was a vibrant, heated floor debate which was fascinating. One excellent contribution came from Gracia McGrath OBE, the head of charity, Chance UK, who provide mentoring for primary school children with behavourial difficulties to prevent them drifting into anti-social and criminal acts. Chance UK rolls out a franchise model across the UK, persuading other organisations to bid to help run its services. They have won awards for this innovation.
Over 100 hours of digital tape went into the interviews I carried out for Hood Rat. The transcribing alone was time-consuming. The accounts of events and reported speech were written up in a fictional style, using the present tense. This technique is nothing new. It has its roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s. In 1973 Tom Wolfe edited an anthology of New Journalism (published by Picador) which included Norman Mailer’s article “Armies of the Night”, a first person account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Mailer used transcripts of tapes for the dialogue and wrote in a novelistic style. An excerpt from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is included as an example of the writer’s determination to reproduce the techniques of the novel in non-fiction. Wolfe notes that Capote probably had enough information to use point of view in a sophisticated way but was not ready to let himself go in nonfiction the way he did in his novels. It’s a compelling true-crime classic. Wolfe first encountered the technique of New Journalism in a 1962 feature in Esquire magazine:
“My instinctive, defensive reaction was that the man had piped it, as the saying went … winged it, made up the dialogue … Christ, maybe he made up whole scenes, the unscruplous geek … The funny thing was, that was precisely the reaction that countless journalists and literary intellectuals would have over the next nine years as the New Journalism picked up momentum. The bastards are making it up !”
It is inevitable that a critic, who is unfamiliar with this technique, might have a similar response to Hood Rat. I am extremely grateful therefore to the Irish novelist Michael Collins who wrote in the Literary Review:
“In its approach and style, Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat follows the New Journalism that revolutionised the form in the 60s. Suddenly reporters were bringing the techniques of fiction to broadsheet writing, and in the process experiencing the lives of the subjects they wrote about.”
Here is a film clip of one of the main subjects of the London section, talking about his life on the streets.
The upper room the White Hart pub was full, with standing at the back for the event at Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Joe Duggan, the brilliant Irish poet, kicked off with poems from West Belfast, describing how it felt to live in a community gripped by fear. Then I had an hour long Q&A session with with ex-con Shaun Attwood. Shaun, dressed all in black like his hero Johnny Cash, was imprisoned in Arizona for 6 years for dealing ecstasy and graphically demonstrated the horrific acts of gang violence he witnessed inside. His book is called HARD TIME. The London section of HOOD RAT was set not far from Stokey, in Hackney, which was in the headlines recently when a 15 year old hitman shot dead a mother for £200. This mirrors the HOOD RAT character Troll who I met – a 14 year old Somali enforcer who is constantly pressured by older boys to carry out violent acts of revenge.