John Vane: London Fiction – White Riot

John Vane: London Fiction – White Riot

Joe Thomas’s clever, compelling thriller received excellent reviews when published at the start of last year. They were well-deserved. At 366 pages, it’s a fat book but a fast, lean read, set in east London in 1978 and 1983, weaving politics, crime and social commentary into plots populated with audacious style by real and made-up people and events.

Older readers will know that White Riot is a 1977 song by London punk band The Clash, written as an admiring response to black youths confronting police at the Notting Hill Carnival the previous year. Thomas’s story conveys vividly how ripped and torn the capital was back then. Half a century ago, the far-right, white supremacist, often violent National Front was briefly the fourth most popular party in Britain and making inroads in London, include in Hackney and Tower Hamlets – an idea that seems extraordinary today.

In the mobilisation against it can be seen defining roots of today’s profoundly multicultural London, sneered at and loathed by some, yet robust and here to stay. Thomas’s story brought back strong memories of a period during which I gravitated towards London and then moved in. I knew or met half a dozen of the characters in its pages (though not a shrewdly-imagined Margaret Thatcher, who makes the occasional appearance). It is close to me geographically too. The opened scene is set five minutes from where I live. From page 11, we’re all marching to Victoria Park for the Rock Against Racism carnival (headliners, The Clash) in the company of up-and-coming photographer Suzi Scialfa and Patrick Noble, undercover cop.

I went on that march. So did a teenage girl I didn’t know at the time but would meet 15 years later and then marry. We discovered only last week that we both remembered filing past an NF pub, where a bunch of beery skinheads, gathered outside behind police lines, chanted “Sieg Heil” and performed Nazi salutes. Today, they’d be arrested. Not back then. Indeed, as Thomas’s narrative reveals, Old Bill was sometimes keener on handing out punishments to their opponents.

Much of the book is set in Stoke Newington and Clapton. It’s quite a strange experience to read of goings-on on streets you’ve walked down for four decades, near landmarks you pass every day, and round the back of a Chinese takeaway, only lately closed, where for years you were a customer. It takes in the police station death of Colin Roach and all the anger and suspicion that followed, the politics of the Town Hall and the Met, and the arrival in Britain of crack cocaine.

Are things better now? For everyone round here? I think they are. But how much better? And as you contemplate a nation – including, in some respects, a London – that is fraying and battered by new forms of nationalist hostility, you worry that we’re going backwards.

White Riot is a gripping, sobering and, for me, enormously evocative novel. Thomas grew up in Hackney, and it’s impressive to discover that he was born in 1977 and so was only a small child when the stories he tells and re-tells were unfolding. His book has had me looking harder at what’s been going on in my own backyard. But you don’t have to live round my way for it to do the same for you.

Buy White Riot from Pages of Hackney. Buy John Vane’s London novel Frightgeist there too and follow John, an alter ego of On London publisher and editor Dave Hill, on X/Twitter

Categories: John Vane's London Stories

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