Thursday, 23 April 2009

Alex Wheatley - The Dirty South (Serpents Tail 2009)

‘The Dirty South’ is South London’s Alex Wheatley’s latest dissection of Brixton and its grimy danger and local celebrity, revenge and violence and passion and spark. Having lived in Brixton for 3 years, I can safely say I never saw any of the types of events depicted in ‘The Dirty South’, having instead felt nostalgic for the places mentioned instead of fearful. This book, more pitched at teenagers over adults, constitutes the prison confessional of Dennis Huggins as he recounts the events leading up to how he got his ‘bird.’ He writes angrily, drenched in slang, uncompromising and honestly about his experiences, his life as a shotta (that’s slang for drug dealer) and the webs of deception and danger that were spun around him and because of him. Underneath the bravado lurks an intelligent and sensitive boy, mollycoddled by his mother and loved by his father and even hero-worshipped by his nerdy sister. He’s in love with Akeisha Parris, an enigmatic single mother who he watches run at the Tooting track everyday. However, on road, that don’t count for nothing. His friend Noel, poverty-stricken and desperate to stop dressing like a ‘ghetto child’ needs to make P’s, and everyone thinks Dennis is a spoilt pussy. They descend into the life of shotting, selling weed (never crack never anything harder) and slowly the webs tighten in around them as events spiral out of control, and little acts of selfishness and bravado, of ‘badmind’ and complete recklessness come back to haunt them in a violent electric finale, chillingly recounted with honesty through Dennis’ eyes.

Wheatley has masterfully written the bible for teenagers flirting with this life. He captures the fear and paranoia, the need for material validation, the highs of the life. But he is able to balance this out with an existential accountability for every action, each with their life-altering reaction. This book should be read by teenagers. The naive inner-monologue of Dennis, his reliance on materialism and bravado, his use of slang and his complete relatability to young people not just in Brixton but in any inner-city environment makes him such a real character. You feel like Wheatley has been surrounded by this, lived in this and around it and even makes a welcome appearance himself in the action as his 80s spoken word poet alter-ego, Yardman Irie. It’s a shame there’s so much swearing and sex as this would be a wonderful resource in schools. Obviously, we shouldn’t be shy about opening this debate with teenagers about these real life concerns of theirs, but in this case, the words are so real, the language is so close to what happens and Dennis is a great teenage everyman that this could all be happening on your street right now. This is highly recommended not only to teenagers, but also middle-class frightniks scared of hoodies and youths who really don’t know what’s going on in their heads. Brixton is painted as a pocket of friction and change, where middle-class toffs mix with the grimiest, where territorial gang-life and drug-dealing mix with the influx of different religions and art, which is the heart of Brixton’s community, through spoken word and music, the bashment bounce of the bass, the heartfelt singing and the couplets, whether rapped or poeticised... poignant, real and permanent.

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