PASSIONATE: Alex Wheatle
UPRISINGS HAVE occurred all over the world in the past year. Some have led to significant political change, others have led only to destruction.
Author Alex Wheatle’s own personal revolution started with the 1981 Brixton riots and led to his education and a better life.
Now, through his autobiographical one-man play, Uprising, Wheatle marks 30 years since the rebellion in south London.
And the Brixton Rock novelist believes that if the government does not learn from past actions, this year’s riots in London will only be the tip of the iceberg.
“This political class gave up caring long ago,” he says. “They have become very elite. The cabinet is full of millionaires and it seems we are being ruled by people who come from the same stock. They don’t care too much about the woes of the working class; they just care about protecting themselves.”
Highlighting significant parallels between 1981 and today’s society, Wheatle, who recently published his new novel Brenton Brown, believes it is tougher for youngsters nowadays than it has been in past generations.
“There’s a simmering anger that came out in August [during the riots]. We have many young people going through hard times. The financial collapse has meant that young people now have to pay three times more to go to university.
“Before the riots in Brixton, we also had very deep cuts to financial services. We had a financial crash and a rise in youth unemployment.”
Caught up in the frenzied unrest almost three decades ago the 48-year-old writer, then a teenager, says being sent to prison for his participation in the looting, was the major turning point in his life.
“It was the making of me. In my short spell in prison, I was given a book by a Rasta I shared the cell with. He spoke to me about aspects of black history and told me to be proud of what black people have achieved. He told me to read and educate myself, to find out what I’m good at. I found out I was good at writing; I had something to work on."
“I kept on reading and when I came out I joined a library and carried on my education. My cell mate made me believe I had a talent, where as institutions, like my school thought I was worthless.”
In Uprising, Wheatle also documents his early childhood, including the 11 years he spent in a children’s home in Surrey.
“My parents were from Brixton but because of family difficulties, I ended up in care and was abandoned. In those days, they had children’s home villages, little communities, surrounded by fencing. It even had its own primary school. I didn’t really mix with other children until I went to secondary school. The normal families outside the children’s home looked on us like we were the lowest of the low, so I had esteem problems.”
“It was always likely that once I left care I would return to Brixton. I moved into a hostel and I even felt inferior to my peers, because at the time, I was nothing like them. I spoke different, walked different; at the time I wore different clothes. I wasn’t like them at all and I didn’t have the cultural references. I certainly didn’t belong in Surrey, and at first I didn’t belong in Brixton. But gradually through reggae music and stuff, I managed to regain my culture.”
Now, fully immersed in his culture, the award-winning writer, who received an MBE from the Queen in 2008, is using his life story as an example for children around the UK and hopes to inspire them to pick up a book.
“The show came about after I visited many schools and was asked to encourage the students to read. I felt the best way to do that was to tell the students my journey and now I have developed it into a one man show for everybody.”
After the show, Wheatle plans to write a series of fantasy books, and challenge the perception that only white children save the world.
“As a black writer going into schools, my material is not necessarily appropriate for under 13s, so it’s up to the likes of me to think of something that all children can read. There are so many children’s stories out there and I want to provide a story where you have children of colour also being heroes, and why not?”
Uprising starts at The Albany, Douglas Way, London SE8 from October 11-14. For more information visit www.thealbany.org.uk