From Sussex Life.
Brighton-based Sharon Duggal’s debut novel The Handsworth Times tells of the disaffection, violence and unemployment behind the 1981 riots. It is this year’s City Read, and has been called “a book for our times”. Jenny Mark-Bell finds out why.
This year’s City Read is a debut novel from a Brighton-based author. In some ways, its 1981 setting depicts another country: one where the National Front marches unabashed, unemployment is high and riots cleave inner-city communities.
But there are certain parallels with our own society. In 2011, as in 1981, news coverage juxtaposed urban rioting with the pageantry of a royal wedding. In choosing it the City Reads committee called The Handsworth Times “a book for our times… [that] should be read by everyone who believes in society”.
In writing the book, Sharon Duggal drew on her own experiences of growing up in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, the daughter of immigrants from the Indian Punjab. It wasn’t a story she initially intended to tell, but while studying for an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex her supervisor told her “You keep going back to that same place and that same time: why don’t you just focus on that?”
So she did. She’d been aware of the notorious 1981 riots in Handsworth as a young teenager: “It was one of the first really big things I was aware of as a young person. And it was right in the middle of where I lived. So although I wasn’t there on the streets we could hear it, literally.”
The book begins with the riots. It’s a fine opening, as the hum of violence in the jangling, pressure cooker atmosphere builds into the roar of disaffected youth. A resulting tragedy becomes the catalyst for later events and relationships as the various members of the Agarwal family come to terms with their grief.
Sharon explains the political background to the unrest in the inner cities. “Smaller towns, poorer places were becoming decimated and ignored and driven into poverty. It did feel like a lot of that was directly because of some of the policies in [Thatcher’s] government. We became a more individualistic society and a less community-based society.” For the characters in the novel, community is the route to redemption – one of the Agarwal daughters finds her voice in political protest while mother Usha’s lifeline is friendship.
Community is not just the people around us, though. Music looms large in the book as part of wider youth culture. On page five Sharon mentions Ghost Town, The Specials’ seminal hit about urban decay, youth unemployment, disaffection and violence. The song was released in the summer of the 1981 riots and became an anthem for troubled times as its lyrics bemoaned: “Government leaving the youth on the shelf… No job to be found in this country.”
The Specials were a political band. Sharon says: “They really encapsulated who we were as teenagers at that time. There was this real multicultural thing about them but really quite upfront about it: this is who the young people of today are – we’re black, we’re white, we’re Asian and we’re all in this together, we’re all facing the same things.” But music in general acted as a great unifier, she says: “Our parents’ generation didn’t really have that much in common except their economic situations, but the young people were all listening to the same thing, wearing the same clothes, all of that. Also we didn’t have mobile phones, so it was all about magazines and the radio, and things that you could do cheaply and for free.”
It’s clear in the book that race relations in Birmingham had been indelibly bruised by two events. Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, in which he decried immigration and anti-discrimination laws, took place in the city. It was “very much in the consciousness of Birmingham”, says Sharon. Then, in 1976, Eric Clapton made a racist speech while performing at Birmingham Odeon. “As I was growing up people would say ‘Go back to where you come from’ or ‘You all need to go home’,” says Sharon.
Asked whether she thinks things have improved or merely become more insidious, she hesitates: “If you’d asked me that a year and a half ago I think it would have been a different answer, which is really depressing. It was much more brutal in those days and much more physical. Now I think it’s no less nasty, but a lot of it is online.
“I’m fairly certain it’s in the minority but what is disturbing is how much air time it’s given, and how much permission is given to say certain things. Certain language becomes acceptable because of some aspects of the media and the odd politician. So it seems more prevalent than it is but on a day-to-day basis I don’t really experience racism and my kids don’t. Generally most people are lovely wherever you are.
“Racism is quite a complex thing because [in the book] even members of the family, who aren’t white, are racist. We all have to check ourselves, don’t we?”
Sharon had an unusual route to publication – after sending out sample chapters and a synopsis to lots of different publishers and receiving a tranche of rejections she ran aground and didn’t touch her manuscript for a year. “Then I saw a call-out for a report into the lack of diversity in mainstream publishing and it was something I felt quite strongly about – I’d written about it as part of my dissertation.” Sharon was selected as one of the new writers to be showcased in the report. Her now-publisher saw her work and asked to see the chapters she’d written so far. He liked them, and asked to see the book when it was finished. Six hectic months later, Sharon delivered.
She didn’t even know the book had been submitted for City Reads, so being chosen was “absolutely amazing, it feels like a real privilege”. And for a book about communities, there’s something rather wonderful about the whole city reading a book by one of its adopted daughters. She is already feeling the love: “My son was in Waterstones in Brighton and he said there was a slightly older couple going through this list of books they had to buy for Christmas. He heard them say ‘Oh, we’ve got to buy The Handsworth Times but I don’t know who the author is,’ so he went up to them and said ‘That’s my mum!’”