Trodding out of Babylon: Alex Wheatle, South London novelist


The fine Jamaican verb 'trodding' comes up repeatedly in the work of Black British novelist Alex Wheatle, whose third novel The Seven Sisters has recently been published in London. To trudge, its nearest English equivalent, means to walk wearily but to 'trod' implies a characteristic Jamaican approach to life. It means to get by from day to day with difficulty but with purpose, defiance and the belief that nothing will ever grind you down.

Alex Wheatle's early eighties Brixton teenagers certainly have to trod. A certain strand in contemporary Black British fiction uncritically reflects back the theatrical masculinity that British society imposes upon and expects from its black youth. However, most striking about Wheatle's young black men is their hurt and vulnerability. Endearing and chaotic rather than bad, streetwise rather than criminal, they must stay strong when all around conspires to make them weak. They must learn the difference between being strong and being destructive when no one is there to show them how.

Furthermore, Wheatle explores the nuances and divisions of the black community in a way that will be instantly recognisable to itself and a necessary education to those on the outside. The mutual distrust of the Rastafarians and the straitlaced Christians, the optimistic, self confident girls and their confused, directionless male counterparts.

Brenton Brown, protagonist of Wheatle's first novel Brixton Rock is a 16 year old mixed race Brixtonian who has never met his mother. His life is a daily struggle against the indignities of his situation, his lack of money and any future, all the drab unforgiving detail of Brixton in 1980. During the course of the novel, he tracks his mother down, has an affair with her daughter Juliet, his half sister, finds a father figure in venerable one eyed rastaman Jah Nelson and, in a scene of climactic violence, concludes an ongoing feud with local hard man Terry Flynn in the depths of Brixton tube station.

In Wheatle's second novel East Of Acre Lane, set one year later, Biscuit lives with his mother and younger siblings on a run down Brixton estate, funding the family's grocery bills and his own adolescent life style by selling ganja on the Front Line, Brixton's Railton Road. His sister runs away from home and falls into the hands of a ruthless pimp. Biscuit falls for an aspirational young beauty who will consider him only if he abandons his hustler lifestyle for a career. Brutalised by the Special Patrol Group, his best friend buys a gun with the intention of shooting a policeman.

Characters from the first novel appear in the second, sometimes more prominently, sometimes in the briefest one line glimpse. Lives overlap, different perspectives succeed each other, building a fictional world as satisfying as Graham Greene's Brighton, to which the title Brixton Rock nods affectionately. The title East Of Acre Lane is another homage, this time to reggae legend Augustus Pablo's haunting melodica led masterpiece East Of The River Nile, to which Alex Wheatle listened incessantly while writing the novel.

Reggae classics of the time such as Six Babylon and One Drop are often used as chapter headings, to point up a particular situation and to further thicken the pleasures of a fully realised time and place. However, while reggae music is the ever present sound track to both novels, Wheatle's prose and narrative rhythms do not seek to mimic it. Rather, his novels artfully reflect the lives of the young and the marginalised, long period of inactivity punctuated by explosive violence or pleasure. Every chapter is precisely dated by day, month and year. While stamping the narrative indelibly with its time and place, this also suggests a countdown to some cathartic explosion of violence, powerfully evoking the forces stoking up below the slow pace of his characters' lives.

Indeed one memorable chapter, entitled The Brixtoniad, describes in ferocious detail the Brixton riots of 1981, the worst seen in twentieth century England. In one of Wheatle's great set pieces, a blues party off Brixton Hill that same night becomes a full scale victory celebration, fuelled by the Crucial Rockers sound system, DJ Yardman Irie and an inexhaustible supply of looted beer. For Alex Wheatle, who ran his own sound system at the time and toasted at the mike with the best of them, this was a golden age for lovers of reggae music. 'Anywhere you went in Brixton on a Saturday night there was a blues. All you had to do was walk towards the sound of the bass.' In Wheatle's early eighties Brixton, reggae music is the unifying heartbeat of a community, the sound of how it knows itself, no matter how fractured its individual lives.

But, as Wheatle himself acknowledges, this is a vanished world. A more fractured black youth culture has now grown up. Reggae is just one musical style among many. The carefully cultivated Jamaican patois of Black British youth in the seventies and early eighties has long given way to a distinctive and indigenous Black British speech whose practitioners no longer look to Jamaica. If they look anywhere else at all, it is to the US, the ghetto parlance of its MCs as globally available through cable TV as MacDonalds and Coke. The blues party, held in council estates and terraced houses when black people were not welcome in the West End and few clubs would play their music, is no longer needed. Furthermore, Brixton has been in the throes of gentrification for over a decade. To live in the terraced streets that Wheatle describes will now cost a quarter of a million pounds. On the other hand, the advent of guns and crack cocaine has made Brixton's criminal subculture more overt, brutal and deadly than ever it was in 1981.

Like other writers who offer a fully realised fictional world, much of the pleasure of Wheatle's Brixton lies in its lovingly rendered detail, its chaotic street denizens milling around outside the undeground station, the piled yam and dasheen in the market, the exact route of the 109 bus. Much detail evokes a world that in two short decades has become remote. For the teenagers with whom Wheatle works in schools and young offenders institutions, the afros, the lovers rock, the boys' Farah sweaters and the girls' calf length pleated skirts must read like a historical novel.

But Alex Wheatle has no intention of settling down to become a mere chronicler of Brixton life, as testified by the location of his new novel The Seven Sisters, set where rural Surrey meets suburban Croydon. Himself brought up in care, Wheatle's first novel was based loosely upon his own circumstances and his third explores this hurt more fully yet. In the hot summer of 1976, four boys escape a children's home where unchecked physical, emotional and sexual abuse is a daily reality.

As previously, events are given crackle and urgency through chapters headed with time and date, but the narrative is expanded by the device of a prologue and epilogue set in 1970 and 1985. We get the sense that as a writer Wheatle is settling in for the long haul, taking the time to discover and explore his own preoccupations. In interview, it was not necessary to ask why he admires the writer Graham Greene. Greeneland was always an emotional rather than a physical landscape and the same is true for the fiction of Alex Wheatle.


Brixton has come under intense scrutiny of late. But Alex Wheatle has no desire to settle down into a lucrative career as purveyor of heritage Brixton to the tourists. On legalisation, when 'Brixton' becomes the corporate trademark for a major brand of cannabis cigarettes, Alex Wheatle will be elsewhere.

This is a writer trodding to his destination, eyes fixed on the way ahead.

East Of Acre Lane goes into production with the BBC later this year.
Brixton Rock won the London Writers Award and is published by Blackamber Books.
East Of Acre Lane is published by Fourth Estate.
The Seven Sisters was published in August by Fourth Estate

Copyright, G. Parker, September 2002