From The Argus.
THIS cultural year in Brighton is shaping up to be quite the antidote – or mode of resistance – to the current social and ideological schisms playing out in the UK and abroad.
Kate Tempest, Brighton Festival guest director, has already emphasised the important of empathy and community in the soon-to-be-announced schedule of events. Late last year she spoke to The Argus about her belief in the arts of a means of bringing people together. “You read a novel and you activate that empathy for other people,” she said by way of example.
Off the back of the rapper and poet’s rallying call comes City Reads, the annual event in conjunction with Brighton Festival which has the aim of connecting people through literature. What’s more, community is at the heart of the chosen novel – Sharon Duggal’s The Handsworth Times.
Set in the inner-city area of Birmingham referenced in the title, the book revolves around the life of a British-Asian family during a time of considerable social turmoil; unemployment is high, factories are closing and far-right party the National Front is on the march.
The Agarwal family – loosely based on Duggal’s own clan who moved to England from Punjab in India – struggle with their own “personal tragedy” when youngest son Billy is hit by a car while riding his bike at the time of a riot. That’s not a spoiler – it happens on the first page.
Amid personal and social strife, the Agarwals’ anguish is “eased through humour, friendship and community”, as the blurb puts it. “In Handsworth, street community was just a part of life,” says Duggal, who left the Midlands to study English at the University of Brighton.
“There were lots of different cultural backgrounds in my street but what unified them was that they were working class. They all faced the same challenges.
“Now, when people talk about Brexit, say, they talk about the white working classes alone as though other ethnicities aren’t part of that class. Those kids of communities can be forgotten.”Hence Duggal’s motivation to immortalise her birthplace in a fictional account (the book is not autobiographical, she says, but informed by the stories of her ancestors).
“These are the kind of stories that don’t get heard, the everyday stories of inner-city people. I wasn’t seeing these people in the books I was reading when I was growing up.”
In another interview, Duggal spoke of the paradox of aspiration growing up in Handsworth; she was raised in a family that placed “emphasis on hard work as a way of progressing through life and becoming upwardly socially mobile”, yet was aware of the “restrictions” facing her entire community.
A lack of jobs, in part caused by the closure of factories in which various members of her family worked, meant money was tight. Opportunities for further education were also limited.
“It certainly felt as though these kind of communities weren’t invested in,” says Duggal. “Education wasn’t something that was valued. If you didn’t go to grammar school, you went to rubbish school. The 11-plus system is still in place and obviously Theresa May is pushing to bring it back.
“It makes kids feel that they aren’t important at such a young age. You want to move on and do better but on the other hand you have to work and earn money and those two things don’t always match up.”
Duggal failed her 11-plus but her strong desire to go to university – together with a much-used library card – paved her way to Brighton. She also has a creative writing MPhil from the University of Sussex and lists a diverse selection of literary influences; Thomas Hardy, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alan Sillitoe.
She was inspired by the former because of his focus on “normal, working people – albeit rural ones” and her quest to portray a number of working-class people in The Handsworth Times meant Duggal adopted a multi-perspective narrative method.
“Even within the one central family there were lots of different stories so I felt I had to use different narrative perspectives to portray that,” she says. “It was a real learning curve. There are a few chapters that go back and reflect upon the story of the ancestors and the parents.”
The University of Sussex course helped her to finesse this ambitious approach. “It was good to have deadlines in place at Sussex,” says the author. “Initially I was writing short stories but my supervisor noticed that I kept going back to this particular time and place. The novel began to form as a result of that.”
Although Duggal has positive memories of Handsworth on one hand, The National Front was a “constant backdrop” as she was growing up and racism was “ingrained” into society. “It was quite subtle. People would say things all the time – not necessarily to me, but people would use terms like ‘Paki’. I don’t think it was meant to be derogatory but it was just a part of life. It was brutal or explicit.
“It was only when I moved to Brighton that I was spat at once. Brighton was very different in the late 80s, not the lovely, tolerant place we know now. I just remember being really shocked. It affected me, because I’d come from a very multicultural city to one that was wasn’t at all. I suppose I didn’t really appreciate where I’d come from until I’d left.”
Music is a major trope in The Handsworth Times and its function is twofold; Top of the Pops and Radio One act as cultural marker points as well as a means of bringing people together. A lifelong music lover, Duggal now has a show on Brighton station Radio Reverb with her 17-year-old son Ruben.
“We’re billed as the UK’s only intergenerational show”, she says. “Music is just one of those unifying things, whether you are from different generations or different countries. The novel is set pre-mobile phones so the radio and television are good sources of community. Families would sit and watch Top of the Pops together.”
“It was much more tribal back then – you could tell what kind of music people liked, whether you were a goth or a rudeboy. There was a lot of reggae going on, too.”
Another form of media featured in the novel is hinted at by its title. While Duggal says the book’s name is intended to be fairly general – a snapshot of a place at a certain time – it is also the title of a local newspaper that makes an appearance from time to time.
“I don’t want to give too much away but there is one bit where the newspaper features heavily in how something is reported. Like the music, too, it’s a cultural marker – it reports on royal weddings and events like that.”
The City Reads announcement came as a complete surprise to the author, who hadn’t even been informed by her publisher of her nomination for the honour. Having attended various City Reads events over the last decade, she is looking forward to this year’s programme, which centres around a reading and question and answer session on May 14.
While Duggal leads a happy – and obviously creative – life with her family in Brighton, her birthplace has understandably left a strong imprint on her. “Handsworth is a place you never really leave.”