Photos from the Litro Book Club @ The Arts Club, Mayfair

Take a look at the fantastic photos from our first ever Book Club event at the exclusive Arts Club, Mayfair. Our members enjoyed a Q&A with Russ Litten, author of our Club pick, Swear Down, plus comedy from Stephen Bailey and music from Katy Prado & the Mamboleros.

You need to be a Litro member, and signed in to the site, to view the pics – to find out more about joining Litro and being at our next Book Club event, click here.

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A Postmodern Triumph: Russ Litten’s Swear Down

Nick Triplow, author of crime novel Frank’s Wild Years, deconstructs our Book Club pick, Russ Litten’s Swear Down, in which unreliable narrators and fractured storylines make for a very postmodern take on the detective story.

In his 2010 novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, Russ Litten introduced a cast of characters from his home city of Kingston upon Hull whose paths converge over the weekend of Hull Fair. The book’s unflinching portrayal of “10 ordinary lives” is shot through with a kind of Altmanesque naturalism and bleak humour. It paved the way for his second novel, Swear Down; a very modern tale of violent death on a Hackney Council estate and the two men who confess to the brutal murder of gang leader and drug dealer, Aaron Stewart.

On the face of it, Swear Down is something of a postmodern triumph: fractured storylines – check; multiple voices – check; dislocated characters – check. If that sounds like there’s a lot going on, it is testament to Litten’s skill as a storyteller that Swear Down is an accessible, engaging and ultimately thought-provoking novel that manages, along the way, to inject new life into some tired police procedural tropes.

Holding plot and possibility together is the highly plausible Detective Sergeant Peter Ndekwe. I shared a stage in Cleethorpes with Litten last year for Brit Grit, an evening of crime fiction discussion. Russ described the process of creating Ndekwe’s character and the detailed research required to ensure a faithful representation of police methods. It takes on a crucial significance here as the story swings, initially with equal conviction, between the two conflicting confessions of Jack Shepherdson and Carlton McKenzie. As each change in perspective elicits a shift in sympathies, Ndekwe’s adherence to process becomes an indispensable touchstone. You believe one, then the other, but with Ndekwe at the heart of things, you do believe.

Uncovering plot twists and reveals through a series of claustrophobic interview room recordings is an innovative framing device. In fact, this feels very much a novel of heat and confined spaces, the Crown Heights flats, the insides of sweltering offices, Ndekwe’s car where he listens to Shepherdson and McKenzie’s recorded statements.

As Ndekwe, Detective Constable Halliwell and Detective Inspector Gorman listen to the recordings, each draws his own conclusions, prejudiced in part by his own experience. Particularly in the case of Gorman’s cynical and world-weary DI – by his own admission out of step with modern methods and with “retirement on the near horizon”.

As a result, Ndekwe finds himself under added pressure. Gorman wants him to charge Carlton McKenzie, the young black suspect, with the Aaron Stewart murder. “All Ndekwe has to do is tidy up a few loose ends and bingo, job done. And if that other barmy old bleeder wants to go down with him, well, Gorman is certain Her Majesty can always squeeze one more in.” But Ndekwe isn’t sure. Somewhere, deep in his memory, he knows he has seen McKenzie before and that there is more to the case than either of his suspects are willing to reveal.

At the outset, the lack of face-to-face meetings between Ndekwe and his suspects creates a distance between character and narrative. The initial interviews have been held in his absence and news of the murder reaches him through a discarded English newspaper –  Ndekwe and his wife, Sonia, are on holiday in the Algarve – which means the questions asked are not his own. He finds himself listening to abstract audio versions of Shepherdson and McKenzie’s rambling interviews with the knowledge that one or both of his narrators is unreliable. Effectively, we read the text transcripts. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; we filter through the bullshit and draw conclusions as Ndekwe does, sharing his doubts when, for example,  McKenzie points the finger enthusiastically at himself. “I know he gonna be sat in that other room saying he did this an that, but he just chatting shit, believe me. He feeling guilty an that, but he never stabbed no one. The old man is not to blame, trust me …”

Occasionally, the narratives connect. McKenzie picks up where Shepherdson has left off. He is adamant that Jack is an unreliable witness who won’t “… let the truth get in the way of a good story”. That much is certain: during Halliwell’s initial interview extract, Shepherdson spends as much time holding forth about the city of Hull and his own colourful past as he does answering the question. Shepherdson is an old-time Hull trawlerman and merchant seaman with the gift of the gab and a voice “stained with a lifetime of nicotine, late nights and liquor”. He is also a compulsive storyteller, taking each interview session as a pretext for a conversational tour-de-force on his favourite subject – the life and times of Jack Shepherdson. That’s not to say McKenzie doesn’t spin a yarn or two himself. Truth is at a premium in Swear Down. The fragmentary narrative is thoughtfully crafted, on occasions  giving the reader greater access to information than Ndekwe. It is a fine balancing act of reveal and conceal.

Swear Down excels as a novel of dislocation. Recently arrived in Hackney from Lewisham, Ndekwe is the new boy challenging his boss’s authority. It forces him to operate as an outsider in Gorman’s world. Gorman himself feels the on-coming tide of “fast-track progression” and new generations of police thinking. Shepherdson’s land-bound merchant seaman is a character for whom displacement has been a way of life. His 30 years ashore are defined by the previous 25 at sea. Defiantly working class, he is uniquely ‘ull – he couldn’t come from anywhere else – and if that makes him an unlikely Hackney estate murderer, so much the better. Here Hull is “other”. Provincial and unknowable – literally so for the London coppers and Jamaican toughs. For them, the north starts at Tottenham and beyond that … who the fuck knows or cares? Shepherdson is rootless. His life is adrift. He is out of place, because he no longer has a place. He is out of time, because, in spite of himself, he will always be defined by his past. McKenzie’s opt out is, arguably, the toughest of the three. His rejection of estate culture, personified by Aaron Stewart and right-hand man Bam Bam, places him overwhelmingly at odds with his surroundings and the world that has shaped him.

Throughout Swear Down, Litten plays to the strengths that made Scream If You Want To Go Faster such a captivating read. Particularly with the realisation that McKenzie and Shepherdson’s connection is far more than a wrong time, wrong place coincidence. Only in the book’s third act, where the trajectory of this odd partnership takes an unexpected turn, does the essential nature of their association become apparent. Shepherdson bobs and weaves; the wit and wisdom becomes dry and empty. His scams and deceptions are second nature, but they can’t stave off the inevitable consequence of human relationships.

As a long-time creative writing tutor in prisons, Litten invests Carlton McKenzie’s Hackney argot with an honesty that could become parody in less able hands. The unconventional shifts in language and register are reminiscent of those Irvine Welsh pulled off with such intensity in Trainspotting. Authenticity of voice enables language to play a key role in the characters’ defensive armoury. That Litten moves between McKenzie’s E8 streets, Gorman’s canteen culture vernacular, and the homespun Humberside yarning of Shepherdson’s old-man Hull without jarring, is remarkable.

Swear Down shapes up as a heartfelt and thoughtful take on the traditional crime story: there’s a murder – at least one – an ambitious young policeman, unsympathetic bosses, and an investigation. It is a crime story in the same way that The Wire was a conventional cop show. Litten skilfully plays on expectations which the characters subvert, and the plot offers deeper explorations of the territories and tensions of age, culture and ethnicity. In that sense it stands as a British response to the novels of Richard Price or George Pelecanos. In Shepherdson and McKenzie, it also creates and plays around with the classic odd-couple partnership in a single sweeping journey and, in the process, establishes Litten as a vital voice in British literary crime fiction.

SWEAR DOWN is published by Tindal Street and is the current Litro Book Club pick. Join the discussion and let us know what you think in the comments below, or on our forum.
Nick Triplow’s novel FRANK’S WILD YEARS is published by Caffeine Nights. Visit his website for further information.



Little Boys With Guns: An Interview with an Ex-Gang Member

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Litro investigates the world of gangs, in conjunction with our current Book Club pick, Russ Litten’s Swear Down, a crime novel in which a young gang leader is found stabbed on a Hackney estate. Bella Reid interviews Jason Figaro, an ex-gang member and mentor, about his criminal past and the future for young people on the street.

In gangster films, the character of the reformed criminal, wiser for having turned his back on a life of crime, is a compelling one. Of course in films they often fall back into crime, go back just for one last job, and the whole film revolves around that tension – contradictory feelings pulling at the spectator. There wouldn’t be a story, otherwise. We want the heroes to stay clean, but it’s so gripping to watch them descend quicker and quicker into inexorable perdition as the ‘easy last heist’ spirals out of control. In real life, it’s the opposite. We’d like to believe in the reformed villain, to see some proof that breaking the law doesn’t always condemn you to a life on the margins of society. Jason Figaro is such a person. Now forty-one, he was in prison, on and off, for 13 years, for violence, assault and robberies. He was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, can’t think of a drug he hasn’t taken. He now mentors young gang members in East London. I talked to him about transgressing the law, and about his insights into the current generation of gangs.

Rebellion

Jason’s early path into transgression began in a feeling of rebellion, he says. With no structure at home, he revolted against the next authority figure, the education system, then against the police’s strong-handed methods.

“I was very anti-authority. I didn’t want people to tell me what to do. Because I had a very bad upbringing from my parents, you see, and if my parents couldn’t tell me what to do, nobody was gonna tell me what to do. So I just made it with my law. I didn’t care about nothing, really. I didn’t know the value of life. I wasn’t taught it. I was kicked out of school when I was 14, No other school would accept me. I was a really bad person. They gave me homing tuition and I flung that out the window. They put me into a special school, I refused to go. They put me in a school for bad behaved boys, I went there for a few weeks, I thought wow, this is a load of rubbish and I walked out. You know sometimes, at the age I am now I wish I could turn back the hand of time and just do things again. Obviously you can’t but what I can do now is make my future better.”

I ask him how much the money he made through crime played a part in his choice to transgress. There is a school of thought, expressed by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, that young offenders show “an entrepreneurial zeal” that is being channelled into the wrong things. But money doesn’t seem to have been Jason’s primary motivation. He struggles to remember what his biggest job was – a 12 grand robbery in a post office, maybe.

Rather than the cash, it’s the feelings of rebellion Jason remembers. Everything around him reinforced those feelings.

“I found the police very racist, back in the day. If you was black, you know what I mean, you were the criminal. That’s how it was. I was getting pulled up on the street three or four times a day. In the end, I was making complaints. OK, I told you I wasn’t sweet and innocent, but how can you pull somebody up, right, they’ve got radio so they know who’s been pulled up every time cos they have to do check up in the office, so they would say, oh, Mr Figaro was pulled up an hour ago. They would tell them but they still carried on.”

Jason is aware that the police may have thought they had reasons to stop and search him but feels the multiple daily stops and searches were harassment. The police also framed him for a crime he had not committed.

“I think it was in 1989, 1990, I was framed. I got two years in jail for something I didn’t even do. Because of my rap sheet, it looked like it fit the profile, so that I done it. My criminal history fitted with what happened that night.”

His treatment by the police pushed Jason further into a criminal mindset.

“It’s them kind of things that will get people to start rebelling even worse. You know, you come out, you come out with revenge. You think, if that’s how they gonna treat you, you just gonna go on a rampage.”

He tells me of his difficult years in London and Hertfordshire prisons.

“When I started going to prison, it wasn’t how they got prisons nowadays, because nowadays they got TVs in their cell, they got toilets in their cell. When I started going to prison we had to wee in a bucket and do our toilet in a bucket, make your own entertainment. We had to play cards or something like that in the cell! 20 years ago, it was really hard in jail. Really hard.”

These negative experiences of the law and its representatives meant Jason’s feelings of rebellion grew exponentially. In the end, the decision to stop drugs and criminality was a personal one, helped along by his Christian religion.

Today’s Gangs

Jason feels that the one positive aspect of his past is that he can now teach young gang members that there is no future in being in a gang. Jason sees the benefit of his situation.

“I’m not proud of what I’ve done in my past, but I’m not ashamed of what I done because it makes me the man I am now. I can stand now and talk with a history of what I’ve done and show them, look, it does not pay off. It doesn’t pay off. The only way I could have gone was death.”

Another benefit born from his experience is that he can find ways to relate to these young people. When mentoring for Gangsline in Barking, he uses a direct, no nonsense approach:

“You know, when I talk to them, I don’t talk to them with kid gloves. I’m not gonna talk to them and say, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. I’m gonna tell them straight, tell them exactly how it messed up my life.”

His ‘”riches to rags” story, as he calls it, has proved effective. In a year, he’s taken three boys out of gangs:

“And they literally are not in the gangs any more. They want to do things properly. They’ve flung their guns away and everything. They’re still young, one’s only just turned 16, he’s a good boy. He’s still got a temper and that and he’s got issues with authority but I’m working with him”

He sees a clear difference with the gangs of his youth. He explains that the prime factor in young gang member is status.

“Nowadays it’s all about stature, right. They like to be recognised. They need to be noticed. They need to have power over other people. It’s not about who’s making more money, it’s about. ‘You come near me, I’m gonna hurt you’. Who’s badder than who.”

It is well documented that modern gangs are focused on tiny areas, and that a young person living in an adjacent street may be a mortal enemy. Jason agrees.

“You know Stratford? You’ve got so many different parts of Stratford. You got Maryland, you’ve got Stratford, Westfield, you’ve got West Ham Lane, now each part has its own gangs. Even though it’s one area, each part has its own gang. They can’t move in to that part of that area.”

Another new development since Jason’s youth is the proliferation of knives and guns. He describes the situation:

“Now back in my day, we would have a good fist fight. Now, it’s nothing to do with fists. They don’t know nothing about fists. They will pull out a knife, stab you. They will shoot you. I don’t know where they’re getting their guns from. These little boys, it’s unbelievable what kind of weapons they’ve got now.”

I ask how involved adults are in this new type of gang.

“Of course they’ve got connections,” Jason tells me. “They must have connections. And they’re gonna have elders which actually send them out to do things. And this makes them feel wow, I’m rolling with the big boys. But they don’t know; they step one foot out of line – let’s say one of the boys is selling drugs for one of the big men, yeah, if he’s short changed him 10 pound, he’s a dead boy. And his body won’t even get found for maybe, two three months. That’s how it is.”

How do the boys get involved in the first place, I ask?

“Sometimes you’re drawn into it. Sometimes you don’t even know that you’re in a gang. When I first got into a gang, I didn’t even know I was going…I thought I was with a bunch of lads, having a laugh.”

Here too, the police exacerbate the problem. “You get stereotyped. Some of the boys are not gangs, they’re just boys hanging out, but nowadays, four or more people in a group, that is what they call a gang. Even if they don’t do nothing. These boys, they walk down the street with their hood up, yeah, if you’ve got three of them, police will think that they’re gang members because they’ve got their hoods up. It’s a fashion. See, that fashion statement came from the gangsters in New York and all that. Because a lot of these boys in London they try to follow American gangsters. They watch too much of them gangster films and they think yeah, I’m gonna be Al Capone, I’m gonna be Scarface. You know what I mean? Nobody can trouble me. But they really haven’t got a clue.”

It’s a self-fulfilling, sinister spiral. The boys dress like gangsters, they get classified by the police as gang members, then balk at being suspected for no reason. Jason refers to them throughout as little boys, children, something society forgets when it recoils in fear of “hoodies”. Jason recounts one tragic case.

“The youngest person I actually spoke to was ten. And he was carrying guns. And you know what, four weeks later he was dead. This is how it is. Because these boys, they don’t value life.”

Throughout history, policing and controlling young men has always been tricky. Gangs such as the Mods & Rockers fought viciously and alarmed 1960s England. Societies constantly strive to find ways to control their youth. Anthropologists give detailed accounts of the transition rituals, first observed by ethnologist van Gennep in small-scale societies, marking the changes of status of its young people. Puberty, passage into adulthood, warriorhood, were occasions for rituals which helped the young men to bond and accept their new place in society. Large-scale societies have similar rituals, either religious like confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs or linked with education – moving to high school, gap years.

Today, the majority of young people who drift into gangs come from families whose financial circumstances make it difficult for parents to be present. Perhaps by befriending similar children and starting to break the law, they are seeking order and a sense of belonging. The extreme division of areas of London into tiny sub-sections shows a need for control.

The contradiction of the desire to enter adulthood and the childishness of the bravdo of “who’s badder than who” are reminiscent in their irrationality of the vivid, violent world created by the children in Lord of the Flies. At the end of the novel, the arrival of an adult returns them to being children. Perhaps that’s why mentors like Jason Figaro are successful – they are über-adults, able to bring the child to the fore and channel him into a more poised adulthood.

Join in the discussion on this article in our Book Club forum.

 

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Russ Litten Introduces Swear Down, Our Current Book Club Title

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In this special Q&A, Russ Litten, the author of our first Book Club pick Swear Down, introduces himself and his book.

Russ has written for television, radio and film, and his first novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster was published by William Heinemann in January 2011. He lives with his family in Kingston Upon Hull and runs creative writing workshops for prisoners. He can be found on Twitter @RussLitten.

Swear Down will be published by Tindal Street Press in April 2013, but our Book Club members will be given exclusive access to the novel in the weeks leading up to its official release.

To find out more about the Book Club and our Membership Platform, click here now.


Swear DownTell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a writer, why do you write the things you do and what is your life like when you’re not writing?

I’ve been writing since the age of seven when I had my first short story published in the local newspaper. It was a Christmas story about an angel who lost his halo. After leaving school I joined a band as a bass player and lyric writer and travelled the UK in a van. After that I went to live in Prague, where I taught English. At the turn of the century I came home and became a freelance writer. Since then I have written stuff for magazines, newspapers, radio, film and TV. I have written commercials and short stories, plays, comedy sketches and feature length films, all to varying degrees of success. My first novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster was published in 2011. Swear Down is my second book.

I’m not entirely sure why I write the things I do. I am endlessly fascinated by the human condition, the joy and wonder at the heart of its existence and also all the trouble it seems to cause. Writing seems like the best way to try and make sense of this. It also helps to calm me down.

When I’m not working I like to play the bass guitar. I occasionally go running around my local park in a vain attempt to stave off death.

What is Swear Down about?

Swear Down is about two people who find themselves backed into a corner. It’s about friendship and loyalty and also the responsibility of having kids. I didn’t realise this until I was halfway through writing the book.

Why did you decide you wanted to write the novel, and where did the inspiration for Swear Down come from?

I had a small scene sketched out that involved a teenager and an old man who worked in a bar together having an argument. One of my favourite films is Midnight Cowboy and I was interested in that kind of dynamic, two people from different worlds thrown together through adversity. These characters gradually turned into Carlton and Jack. I then applied the idea of an unsolved crime that put both the characters in the frame and all of a sudden I had a situation to explore. I was originally going to have the book as just the two transcripts of the confessions, but then I decided I needed someone to try and make sense of it all. That’s when my detective Sergeant Ndekwe appeared.

Who are your favourite authors, and which writers have most inspired you?

The first book that lit a fire beneath me was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, and from there I fell in love with American literature. I read all the Beats, and people like Bukowski and Salinger and Raymond Carver. Closer to home I liked Alan Silitoe, Barry Hines, Bill Naughton and Stan Barstow. More recently I have been knocked out by writers such as Niall Griffiths, Jenn Ashworth, Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Richard Milward, Daniel Woodrell and Keith Ridgeway. But I’ll read virtually anything. I’ll read the back of a matchbox.

What themes were you interested in addressing in the novel?

One of the lads I worked with in prison had LOYALTY ABOVE ALL LAWS tattooed down the inside of his arm and I became interested in the consequences of living by such a code. I was interested in the concept of personal responsibility and how people living in the middle of the capital could live their lives with virtually no reference to the established laws of the land. I don’t mean crime, specifically, but the idea of people having their own self-imposed codes of conduct based on a morality born of a perceived necessity. I was also interested in the themes of race and personal identity and the desire to transcend your immediate surroundings.

What topics are you most looking forward to exploring with Litro readers?

Crime, punishment, morality, race, identity, the state of modern Britain. Writing and books in general.




Introducing the Litro Book Club

We are proud to announce our newest project: the Litro Book Club.

This quarterly book club is at the heart of our brand-new membership platform, and grants our members exclusive access to the most exciting new titles. Four times a year, you will receive an advance copy of the featured book in your mailbox as part of your membership, and then we will proceed to read it together. We’re setting trends, and we want you to be a part of it.

Our members are central to what the Book Club is about. We want to hear what you think of our featured novel — your reviews, your responses to the themes, your unique understanding of an aspect of its background — and we want to share your thoughts with the rest of the world.

Once you sign up, you will have the chance not only to discuss the novel with other members — on our website, on Twitter and our Facebook page — but also to respond to it by contributing your own specially featured posts, the best of which we will publish on our website.

We are also going to give you opportunities to discuss the novel directly with its author, both virtually and face to face. There will be a live Q&A session with the author at a London venue so that Book Club members can get to know each other as well as the writer. What’s more, one lucky member will even be given the chance to film an interview with the author for our new Litro TV feature.

Aside from all that, we will also bring you giveaways and exclusive offers in conjunction with the book — thanks to our partnership with various publishers.

Sign Up Now

So, how do you become a part of the Club? There are two membership options to chose from.

  • All-access membership of Litro, which includes a subscription to Litro‘s print magazine (ten issues a year), special access to the digitised archive of content from previous print issues since Litro #80 (which are now restricted from non-members), membership of the Book Club and a host of other special offers. We have student deals and overseas rates, too — visit the sign-up page to find out more.
  • You can also chose to join the Book Club only for £20 a year – click here to find out more.

Our first 2013 pick: Russ Litten’s Swear Down

We’re very pleased to announce, in partnership with Tindal Street Press, that we will be kicking things off in April with Swear Down, the brilliant new novel from Russ Litten.

Swear Down‘s plot is deceptively simple. A young gang leader is found stabbed on a Hackney estate. But two very different men confess to the crime, an ex-merchant seaman in his sixties and a teenager from the estate who work at the same bar. Which of them is lying – and why?

Swear Down grabbed us from the moment we picked it up. It has already been described as “one of those rare novels that has it all”. A tense, gritty thriller, it thrusts the reader into the lives of the people who live in London’s poorest estates, and its writer Russ Litten is a gripping new voice in British crime fiction.

Russ has written for film and TV, and currently runs creative writing workshops for prisoners. He is perfectly placed to bring the world of his novel to life, and we are very excited to be able to discuss Swear Down and the issues it raises with him directly.

Russ will be introducing himself in a post at the beginning of next month, but if you want to get to know him better now you can find him on Twitter @RussLitten. We look forward to working with Russ and discussing his novel with you all.