Handcuffs and exploding hands. (Browsing history deleted.)

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Personal data’s been in the news a bit this week.  From Monday to Wednesday, I work for a charity and our office is nestled in the impressive HQ of a much larger charity.  On the ground floor there’s a big cafe showing rolling BBC news so you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone else while you’re microwaving your soup.

This week the story spelled out in hastily typed subtitles was Apple’s resistance to helping FBI officers access data on a gunman’s phone.  The corporation argues:

“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.”

Now I’ve started to get rather paranoid about my own browsing history.

I wrote ‘Orangeboy‘ on our main family desk top.  The computer’s currently being repaired having forgotten how to turn itself off and, once unplugged and replugged, sulked at being turned on again. This left my own options for fixing it rather limited.

The plot of ‘Orangeboy’ evolved gradually.  In real speak, this means I had no idea what was going on until several drafts in.  I knew that it was going to be a crime-inspired story – after all, it came to life at an Arvon crime-writing course.  As the story parts were being hammered in place, the extent of my ignorance became startlingly clear.

Some of this was eased through the ‘Seven Degrees’ approach.  As I found out, you’re never a couple of degrees away from a coroner, a lawyer, a senior police officer and someone who gets sick on fairground rides.

Other pieces of research are recycled from books that never happened.  For instance, an east London cemetery has a bit of a star spot.  I felt I owed it to my daughter after making her, aged nine, follow me round City of London Cemetery and Crematorium taking pictures.  The book it was destined for was never published.  But a few years later, a second chance beckoned.

But there was other stuff.

For a start, I have never set fire to a car.  I know people who have but they refused the opportunity to tell me the details while I took copious notes.  But this is core You Tube business.

Mangled hands?  Click.  Gosh.  (But it does have relevance, honest.)

‘Orangeboy’ is a book  that explores choices.  Some of the choices potentially have unpleasant consequences.  I needed to dig out info on getting round those consequences.  And blimey, there are some innovative folk out there, albeit with ambiguous morals.

Though, no doubt the fixer guy hired by Currys PC World has his own view on my morals by now.

So, I’ve pumped friends, and friends of friends up to the seventh degree, for those reassuring details that make a good story plausible.

I’ve also fished in the seething depths of the internet and pulled out all sorts of brow-raising detritus.

But then, there’s the opportunistic ‘ask’.

You see those handcuffs in the picture?

Last September, I was trundling round London on my bike taking in some of the Open House opportunities.  On my way to queue for a basement Roman bath, I passed the Custom House.  No queue and handy railings for my bike.

The Custom House used to be the place which collected levies on goods entering London by boat.  It is still used by HM Customs and Excise.  So rather unexpectedly, I found out about sniffer dogs (how they’re acquired and trained), the range of forbidden animal-related items that are smuggled in (from endangered sturgeon’s caviar to a ruddy great big bear skin) and then, there were the weapons.

The guy displaying the weapons was a trainer.  He helped customs officers involved in raids to stay safe.  I couldn’t help lingering, or asking questions or taking lots of photos. Lots and lots of photos.  he was very helpful.  But he also looked really pleased when someone else showed interest because he moved really quickly away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hackney hood rat tells it like it is – but do I want to hear? Book review.

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I thought I’d struck gold with Robyn Travis’s ‘Prisoner to the Streets’, and in some ways, I had.  I’ve been researching for a late draft of the young adult novel I’m finishing and I wanted to get in to the mind of the protagonist.  My book is set in Hackney – I’ve lived there since 1997 and know the terrain well.  As I was doing the slightly lazy Amazon search thing, I found this book, an ‘ex-bad bwoy’ memoir set in these very streets.  Thanks, Amazon algorithms.  Just what I needed.

The author, Robyn Travis, promises ‘NO FRONTING. Just honesty’.  And to some extent, this is true.  Travis doesn’t try and make himself look good in this.

‘Prisoner’ starts with a chase – Travis and his mate, Darker, pursued through the streets by ‘Boi-dem’, the police.  Both boys are carrying guns.  He wonders how he gets himself into this – again.  We then head back to his early childhood on the borders of Hackney and Tottenham.  These time seem relatively happy in spite of extreme poverty, his father disappearing and apparently faking his own death and harassment from racists.  His mother toughens him and his older brother up by insisting they fight with anyone that wrongs them and ‘she would ‘dish out’ beatings like it was slavery times’.  Along with shoes and a belt called ‘johnny’, a curtain wire with a hook and eye was also a handy weapon of chastisement.  As Travis says, ‘Mum didn’t ramp when it comes to licks’.

Throughout the book, Travis talks about ‘the switch’, the blind anger that surrounds his violence, but rather frustrating for me, this feels like the only insight he has into his behaviour.  He and his brother are both eventually permanently excluded from school; his brother becomes a ‘dream chaser’ – a drug dealer – while Travis refuses that route.  At various times he tries different manual jobs to earn money, but always with the fierce allegiance to his friends.  He carries a knife and is stabbed and hospitalised.  He starts carrying a gun.  His mum is evicted and the vulnerable fifteen-year-old is rehoused in adult homeless hostels amongst drug addicts and those with serious mental health difficulties.  He sleeps with a gun under his pillow and people he knows are killed.  His mother marries a crack smoker.  His beloved grandmother dies from a heart attack shortly after Travis is involved in a knife fight by her house…

Yes.  It is a difficult read. Much of the tale supports the findings of some of the more sensitive and thoughtful gang journalists and commentators – these are not the organised gangs beloved of the sensational press.  These are loose and constantly changing allegiances of young men whose lives are shaped by ‘beefs’, ‘ride or die’, revenge and reputation.  Surprisingly quickly, life becomes cheap.

One touch I enjoyed was the occasional voices from other people.   Travis’s mother has a section, likewise a couple of primary school teachers.  The most emotional contribution is from the mother of a young man that Travis stabs.

I wanted more of this.  I am pretty liberal, but I spent so much time yelling at this book ‘ Take responsibility!’  (Best not do that in a crowded bus.)  ‘How can you complain that the police harass you when you behave that way?’  ‘Do you know what it’s like sitting in a bus with your young child, adrenalin revving because you think something’s going to kick off with the boys who’ve just got on?’  ‘Do you know how many London mothers are terrified that their sons are getting drawn into that crap or they’re going to get shot?’   There are no descriptions of the times he spent in a police cell.  What was the first time like – was a line crossed?  Or much acknowledgement of the people who tried to intervene – the school coach, the solicitor and maybe others who would have been constantly let down.

And what about other people trying to live their lives without all that random violence and aggression going on?  The people in Holly Street and London Fields, terrified of getting caught in the crossfire.  Last year, I was walking through London Fields early on a winter’s evening.  The woman walking in front of me stopped dead so quickly I almost slapped in to her back.  A group of young black guys on bikes were riding towards her.  They rode straight past – but just the possibility of them being local gang boys made her freeze solid.  In 2007, Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba was stabbed to death outside his home in Holly Street after asking ‘gang’ members to quieten down.  Is that what it’s all about?

Travis is a father, son, brother, neighbour.  He has turned his life round and is trying to stop others following path.  But after reading 254 pages, I still didn’t understand Travis’s choices, or why it was so easy to go back to your room, change into your tracksuit, pick up your weapon and get ready to kill a man.

Prisoner to the Streets is published by The X Press http://www.prisonerofthestreets.com

Who’s that boy?

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Four blokes stand in the ruins of a 1930s building.  They are be-suited and flat-capped.  It is 1936 and they are part of the demolition team taking apart the Alhambra Theatre in London’s Leicester Square.

The Alhambra underwent a few transformations in its 82 years of life, including a rebuild after a fire.  In 1936, it was finally demolished and the site is now occupied by one of the eye-wateringly expensive cinemas that host the occasional red carpet do in central London.

I found this photo on the fab Arthur Lloyd website that tells the story of Victorian music hall and theatre and tracks the buildings left behind.

But…  but…

In the middle of this picture, bold as brass, is this little boy of African or Caribbean heritage.  Sure, I know that there were many black people in London before our official history apparently starts in 1948.  But doesn’t this just make you want to tell a story?  Was one of those men his father?  Had he meandered in for the photo?  Has someone’s grandad pointed to that pic and told them about the day the Alhambra came down?

I seriously wish I knew.

Patrice

PS. Three months gap!  Ouch, sorry.

        My grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line

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This is my grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line as I know it.  There were generations of Lawrences before, but I know so little about them.  I was born in Brighton, England, brought up in Sussex by my mother.  Her parents, seven sisters and three brothers lived in Trinidad and for many years, the family stories and intrigues rarely made it to my ears.  As I look at this picture now, what so i see?  A bit of me.  Alot of my mum.  And – grief – are those my daughter’s eyes?

My grandfather died when I was six.  The first time my mother returned to Trinidad after coming to England in the mid-60s was to go to his funeral, taking me with her.  It was a time when banks were reluctant to lend money to women, so a black, single mother, underpaid nurse was hardly going to tick their boxes.  My mum borrowed money somehow; I borrowed summer clothes from my best friend – and we were off.

Forty years or so, I still hold strong memories.  There’s the scary stuff – the enormous flying cockroaches and their plump, shuffling larvae.  There was the long drop latrines – which I’ve heard are making a comeback at festivals. (Seriously?) I refused to use one until my mother described a colostomy in graphic, buttock-clenching detail; that was apparently my fate unless I let it all go.  (Why let that nursing training waste, huh?)

I also remember the plane door opening after an eternally long flight and the hot, scented air.  And the moment I threw open my grandma’s door on to the rush of morning green.  Massive mango trees, banana trees, sugar cane, palms, avocado, a forest of fruit I’d never seen before.  Add in one mangy cockerel and chicks that bobbed away on spindly legs when I chased them – oh, yes.

The strongest memory, though, is meeting my grandfather.  He was in his coffin, in my grandma’s front room. Apparently, I wasn’t phased.  My mum says I thought he looked like a nice man.

That was a recurring theme – he was a nice man.  I know only fragments of his life, but my mum and her siblings talk of him with great affection.  I believe he was one of nine children and his father disappeared.  There is a story that my great-grandfather and his brother may have rowed a boat down a south American river.  There is also a story that drugs were involved with great-grandfather Lawrence’s disappearance.  Of course, I wish those stories are true.  I’m a writer.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been shown the land we used to own but got lost in family feuds.  In the Palm House at Kew Gardens, my 80-year-old Aunty over for her visit to the UK pointed out the ‘red fig’ tree.  My grandfather used it to pound flour when rations were tight during the Second World War.  I think now how he lived through two world wars, Trinidad independence, the migration of many people from the Caribbean to the UK and US.  I wonder if his life became easier or harder.  Unlike many in the Caribbean, other than my mother, his family wasn’t scattered between lands.  Three of my aunties still live on the land where his house was.  No relatives of mine were on the SS Windrush and only one followed afterwards.

My Aunty sent this photograph for me and I am grateful.  As a second generation black British woman, I have sometimes felt caught between two cultures.  I am not a Trini, no matter how many Kitch lyrics I can quote.  Growing up in the UK, there are many times I have not felt I’m the right kind of British.  But I am lucky.  I know my heritage.  And it is many of those stories passed down to me  that now inspire me to write.

100-year-old photos of the Caribbean

100-year-old photos of the Caribbean

I have a bad visual memory; I am rubbish at describing activities and places from my imagination.  I’ve probably passed through thousands of train stations in my life, but I’ll have to get to bus up to London Bridge if I want to write about a station in a story.  I need the detail, the specifics.

I have an idea for a series of books set in Trinidad in the 1940s, but even walking around modern day Port of Spain would have its limitations.  That’s why the National Archives’ project to digitise their old images of the Caribbean is so – well – wonderful.  Free to explore, they’ve made accessible to writers, historians and the plain curious, hundreds of images of the colonial Caribbean – from Grenada to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago to Turks and Caicos – they are inviting us to have a look and have a ‘say’.  An excellent resource!

60s soulboy, 70s disco or 80s Britfunk?

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Time to get the music books out.  My 16-year-old protagonist has inherited his dad’s beloved record collection.  He’s lying on spit-smeared mattress in a police cell, his heart thumping double speed, his brain like mush.  He’s trying to build a playlist in his head, old tracks from his dad’s vinyl.  What’s he listening to inside his head?  I need to know.

In another part of my life, I’ve been editing a Tumblr blog, http://mastersoftheairwaves.tumblr.com/ , promoting a book on the history of UK pirate radio in the voices of the people who were there.  It has been a steep learning curve for me, but a useful tool for my research.  Having had help from a coroner, Met police officers, people working with gangs and those willing to disclose the secret lives of teenage boys… You Tubing soul, Britfunk and sparkling 70s disco has been a serious relief.