A wild blip in the country’s consciousness': writing the 2011 riots
Sarah Butler's second novel, Before the Fire, follows a young man who found himself involved in the England riots of 2011.
“I did not set out to explain why the riots happened, or judge anyone for the choices they made in the midst of them,” she says, “I was more interested in thinking about how one particular person might have ended up in that situation.”
My second novel, Before The Fire, is published this month by Picador. It is set over the summer of 2011, culminating in the riots that took place in Manchester on 9 August. The riots of that summer – which started in Tottenham and spread across England – already seem like a lifetime ago. I’ve seen a handful of creative responses – Gillian Slovo’s verbatim play, The Riots; Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s radio play Burning Up; Polly Courtney’s novel Feral Youth – and a series of analytical reports, but the events of that summer seem to have largely faded from view, a kind of wild blip in the country’s consciousness.
My decision to write a novel taking the riots as a backdrop came from my own lingering anger at the way young people were represented in media reports, politicians’ speeches and general conversation in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. I have done a lot of work over the years with young people who have frequently been disaffected, excluded, troublesome, and at the same time brilliant, creative, interesting, and also often vulnerable, frightened, angry. I felt that the blanket descriptions of ‘feral’, ‘amoral’ youth were unhelpful and unfair, and that they obscured a more interesting and complex debate about how these riots came about and what they might have meant.
“I did not set out to explain why the riots happened, or judge anyone for the choices they made in the midst of them”
My own instinct is that the riots meant a whole range of different things, possibly something different for everyone who chose to get involved. We live in our own specific contexts and we make our own decisions. We each have our own particular story and it is never straight forward; it is never morally black and white.
I wanted to write a novel which explored the story of a young man who ends up involved in the riots of 2011. I did not set out to explain why the riots happened, or judge anyone for the choices they made in the midst of them. I was more interested in thinking about how one particular person might have ended up in that situation. The joy of novels, for me, is their capacity to explore the complexities of individual stories; their ability to hold contradictions, refuse stereotypes, and question our desire for simple explanations and judgements.
As a result, Before The Fire is less about ‘the riots’ and more about the life and context of the main character, Stick, who turns 18 in July 2011. I wanted to think about what it meant to be at the cusp of adulthood that summer, to be angry with the world, to be trying to work out who you were and what in your life had value and meaning in amongst austerity, consumerism, family relationships and everyday life.
If I have any ambition for the novel – other than it being a pacy, enjoyable read – it is that it might invite people to reconsider the stereotypes and judgements that seem to come so easily in our age of soundbites and online judgements of others’ actions and lives.
Main photograph of Major St. Car Park, Manchester © Benny457 / flickr.com