The attached photographs catalogue the spread of disturbances in the immediate surrounds of the Rockham police station.
Whenever the word “timely” is used to describe a book, I get a tiny bit suspicious. Without the vantage point of history, after all, it can be extremely difficult to work out whether—timely or not—something is simply of its time, by which I mean something tied so closely to a certain period and political circumstances that it becomes a set piece. How do you write a novel about current events without making your book a ripped-from-the-headlines rehash of the newspapers of the day? How do you balance authenticity with the inherent artifice of fiction?
Gillian Slovo has written many novels, but she’s also the author of two plays, and in writing those plays she dealt with this problem by, to a large extent, ignoring it. Both Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom (2006) and The Riots (2011) are compiled from interview transcripts; every word in them was said by someone in real life at some point. It’s a technique that you might recognise from the astonishing musical-turned-movie London Road. The artifice is in the arrangement, in the way that the playwright chooses some lines and not others, where she puts them and in reaction to what. The thing is that although that works brilliantly for a play, which is, when you strip it down to its skeleton, all dialogue and movement, I’m not sure it works quite as well for a novel.
Ten Days was inspired by Slovo’s experience writing The Riots, which was in turn inspired by the Tottenham riots of the summer of 2011. It’s not verbatim theatre: the borough where it’s set is carefully fictional, as are all the characters, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. If anything, that’s the problem; the politicians are venal and stupid in a particularly broad sort of way that only fictional politicians can be. Real-life ones can be just as venal and stupid, as the new budget demonstrates with depressing clarity, but they tend to be more complicated, their motives either less clear to themselves or more murky and nuanced than this novel will allow for. People are already talking about turning Ten Days into a mini-series, which I think illuminates a lot about both the characterisation (politicians BAD; policemen EMBATTLED and COMPROMISED; council estate residents GOOD) and about the pacing (snappy, time-stamped jump cuts between South London, the Met Office, Parliament, and Downing Street.) It’s the same sort of structure as John Lanchester’s Capital and we seem to like that: London in vignettes, diversity in half a dozen lives. See also Love Actually.
To be fair, Slovo does invest the human drama of Ten Days with real poignancy. The catalyst for the violence is the death of a mentally disturbed young man of colour while being restrained by police at a meeting in Rockham community centre. We see the incident through the eyes of Cathy Mason, a single mother living on the Lovelace estate with her daughter Lyndall (who is mixed-race but doesn’t know who her father is, not because Cathy doesn’t know but because Cathy won’t tell her). Cathy’s already witnessed one incident on Rockham high street between the police and the young man now dead—Ruben, who lives with his parents and seems to suffer some kind of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s stopped by the police as part of an initiative to discourage young men from wearing their hoodies up on the street, but the police don’t know the neighbourhood and don’t know Ruben, and they interpret his fear as recalcitrance, and then as aggression. Cathy only just intervenes before they move in on him—and later, in the community centre, she doesn’t get there in time and the worst does happen. Through Cathy’s gentle dealings with Ruben, and through the local pastor, Reverend Pius Batcher, who organizes a peaceful vigil in Ruben’s memory, you see the strength of community in these old city neighbourhoods. It’s this level of connection and understanding amongst neighbours that rising rents and urban renewal programs are steadily destroying. (Search for any East End postcode in Rightmove or Zoopla and you’ll have some sense of what I mean, though it’s not just a London problem.)
There is also a certain level of interest in Slovo’s portrayal of the Met. She has a new commissioner, Joshua Yares, starting on the very day the riots begin (the poor sod. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that is one hell of a coincidence.) Yares was backed by the Prime Minister, against the Home Secretary’s wishes, which means he is, in the public’s eyes, the PM’s man. His options are simple: get the riots under control, or resign. Of course, the circumstances mean that resuming control is not nearly as simple as it should be, and one of the places where the novel is successfully nuanced is in how it apportions blame for the difficulty in restoring order. The police on the streets are short-staffed, most of them haven’t received enough riot training, and there’s a distinct lack of equipment, all of which is due to budget cuts pushed through by the Government. On the other hand, many of the coppers meant to be maintaining good relations with the community are arrogant, tactless, or just staggeringly incompetent. When Ruben’s grieving parents go with Reverend Pius to ask for answers at Rockham police station, they’re left on a chair in the waiting room for hours with no communication from station staff. It’s amazingly bad politics; it also hardly qualifies as basic human decency.
Where Ten Days loses me is in its political scenes. Peter Whiteley, the Home Secretary, and his rivalry with the Prime Minister, seem strangely cardboard: not only in comparison to the burning and looting going on just across the river, but in their private lives and motivations as well. There is, of course, a grubby extra-marital affair; there is, of course, blackmail; there is, of course, a political career going down in spectacular, flaming style. The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.
Slovo’s writing isn’t bad at all, but it is very utilitarian. Which isn’t to say that it’s ruthlessly efficient or dry; it just does what it does. It sketches the characters, it conveys the dialogue, it advances the plot. All of these are things that you want your writing to be able to do. It’s just that, as a reader, I like it when writing does a little bit more. When I was searching for a quotation from Ten Days to headline this review, I couldn’t really find one; there was no sentence or paragraph that seemed extricable, that stood out in any way or seemed to contain the kernel of the novel in itself. In the end, I borrowed a sentence from one of the police reports with which Slovo punctuates each chapter. That fact alone probably says more about the kernel of the novel than any other sentence I could have selected.
Thanks very much to Jaz Lacey-Campbell at Canongate for the review copy. Ten Days was released in the UK on 3 March.