I’m marrying my fiancee, Laura, in May, and I have a confession to make: I’m super excited about it. We booked the venue a year ago and since then I’ve bought a stack of wedding magazines. I’ve cut out pictures of flowers, decorations, cakes, suits, even dresses for Laura. I bought myself a special wedding scrapbook and I pasted the pictures in their relevant sections. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about themes, music, readings, vows, the wording for the save the date cards and invitations. We’ve had meetings with florists, photographers, booked a band and accommodation. And we haven’t even begun to tackle the table plan or choose the menu.
When it comes to the amount of time and effort we’ve made with the planning, I’d say Laura and I were about equal. Apparently this is unusual. There’s very little groom representation in the media. And what there is often deals in dusty stereotypes – the groom isn’t supposed to care about much beyond the booze and the beauty of the bride. He isn’t interested in cake, he’s not bothered what the venue looks like. And the flowers? Don’t even go there. If he spends time worrying about what he looks like himself, he’s a peacock. If he gets too involved in the planning, he’s a groomzilla.
That’s how I’ve been labelled anyway. Friends of mine have found my level of involvement hilarious. And there are some I wouldn’t even risk telling, for fear of their comments about my manhood.
It’s true I have been getting perhaps a little too intense about it. When an old friend of mine told me he couldn’t come to the wedding because the date clashed with a work event, I blew my top. ‘But I sent you a save the date fridge magnet six months ago!’ I screamed (to myself – I was too angry to even communicate with him for weeks). ‘This is one of the biggest days of my life and you’re missing it for work!’
But it is a big day for me. One of the biggest. The commitment I’m making is as big and life-changing as Laura’s. That’s the whole idea, right? We’re a couple devoting our lives to each other. Marriage implies the biggest form of reciprocity we make in our lives.
I always knew getting married was traditionally a bigger deal for the bride than the groom. Supposedly it’s the day the bride gets to be the princess she’s always dreamed of, and the groom is in the background, doing what he can to facilitate those fairy tale fantasises. But now my own wedding is on the horizon, I realised just how much I wanted the day to be special for me too. I love a good party. Most people do. Isn’t that the main reason we have them to mark special occasions? I want my wedding day to be the best party of my life – a day of fun and joy and colour.
Even in today’s enlightened times it’s hard to admit that. As a man sometimes it’s hard to admit feeling anything – unless you’re drunk or it involves football. I once lived with a bunch of lads who frowned upon any form of sensitivity whatsoever. I couldn’t even comment on the weather. We left the house one morning and I mentioned that it was surprisingly mild outside. ‘Mild? Mild?! What the fuck’s wrong with you, you poof? Fucking mild…’ That was the response I got verbatim. Apparently real men only ever notice the weather when it’s at its most extreme: boiling, freezing or pissing down. Anything in between shouldn’t register on their radar. Maybe it’s no coincidence that men with feelings are now dismissed as snowflakes.
But I can’t help it. I like coloured pompoms and I want them at my wedding, dammit. The same goes for pretty flowers, good music, dancing, and love, don’t forget the love.
I want it to be special; a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Is that wrong? If it is, then I don’t want to be right.
First published in the Guardian on Tuesday August 12th 2012
There was a period of time in 2008/9 when stories about knife crime, gang crime, and extreme violence amongst teenagers dominated the media. But I felt like there was something missing in the way a lot of these kids were being portrayed, both in fiction and in the press. It either seemed to be voyeurism or demonisation, without much of an attempt at a deeper understanding in between. Neither did it fit with my own experiences of growing up in Hackney, where a lot of the kids I hung out with at school and on the estates were wittier, more articulate and more intelligent than they were being given credit for. The problem wasn't them so much as the world around them, the situation they were caught up in.
We all want to feel like we belong, especially when we're young, and there's no greater sense of belonging than being in a gang. We all want to live a life of meaning too - but if you're not being offered the chance of really achieving something, of following your dreams, of making your mark, then you've got to find your own meaning, create something that matters out of what you've got. So you end up with people fighting, even dying, over their own made-up rules, their post codes, their turf.
When I was at school my careers advice stretched to "If you get a job when you leave school, any job, then you're lucky." That's not an inspiring thing to hear when you've got your whole life ahead of you; when you've got a brain, a heart, some spirit in need of an outlet. There was no sense of abundance, no sense that life, the world, was there for the taking. We just had to make the most of the scraps that fell from the table.
That disparity, that unfairness, and the lack of opportunity that goes along with it, builds pressure. Disillusioned and disenfranchised youth in the innner-city have to deal with that pressure, the kids in TURF are dealing with that pressure, and what we saw in the riots last year was an explosion of that pressure.
At the time, the rioters were called "feral" and "scum" - which is understandable if you were on the receiving end during those few days, but dismissing them as a mindless criminal minority doesn't help address the issue. Why did it happen? Why was it allowed to happen? How can we accept a society that has a swath of people who have so little invested in it, that feel so disconnected from it, that they want to destroy it?
I wrote TURF before the riots took place, but there were a number of parallels between them and the events in the book. A lot of the book deals with the importance of personal choice - and of course we're all fundamentally responsible for own actions, but equally, if we want people to make the right choice then we need to provide them with the opportunity to do so.
I left university in 2007 with three ideas that I wanted to turn into novels. One was a dystopian epic that I didn’t feel at that stage my writing skills could do justice; another was the story that is slowly turning into my second novel; and the third was what eventually became TURF. The deciding factor for choosing TURF was that it was set in Hackney and was the easiest to research. I just needed to explore the local area. At the time, the gang element was only a minor theme in the book – instead it was mainly concerned with Hackney and its residents – so I spent a lot of time walking around the borough, soaking in the atmosphere, picking up on its idiosyncrasies, and really trying to nail down what it was that made the place tick. Hackney has got a distinct character. I don’t think there are many London boroughs you can say that about. Not many people would say they lived in Brent, or Southwark or Lambeth – but they might say they lived in Harlesden or Peckham or Brixton. With Hackney it’s Hackney. You know where you are. You might live in Homerton, or Clapton, or Hoxton, but it’s still Hackney that overarches it all, that defines it.
I always felt I lived somewhere special. In Hackney the whole world was on my doorstep – people from the Caribbean, West Africa, India, Turkey, Vietnam ... the list went on and on. Hackney was a true slice of the globe, and because of that, because of the way it all got mixed together, thrown together, it created something more, something different. That’s why I’ve never understood nationalism, or people banging on about what it means to be British. I always felt I was a member of the human race first and foremost; we were all in it together. Literally. And when I was growing up we struggled on together. We were Hackney people, and that meant something more vibrant, more fluid than obscure patriotism and fixed national boundaries. There was a fundamental bright humanity that shone through it all.
I loved that diversity, I loved that mishmash of characters and cultures, but it wasn’t an easy place to grow up. I hung out with friends on the local council estates, played football on scruffy patches of green, dodging the rubbish and dog shit, the used needles and condoms.
And there was often an air of unease, an undercurrent of menace. I was a weedy kid from a quirky, arty family, but I still needed to be streetwise, alert, and even as a young kid, when you’re supposed to be innocent and carefree, it stressed me out, made me nervous and twitchy. We had to put up with break-ins and muggings, groups of kids flexing their muscles, protecting their turf, their reputation, their own sense of worth.
It came as a genuine surprise when I got older and met people who didn’t grow up in the inner-city and had none of those issues. But I wouldn’t change it. Life is about experiences and it gave me an awful lot of those.
Of course, things change. In a place like Hackney they’re always changing. It’s rapidly becoming more and more gentrified, more and more trendified. I walk through Dalston on a Friday night, I wonder where all these cool kids sitting in the gutters and swinging from lampposts have come from, and whether they even know where they are, other than trying to find some supposedly cutting edge bar or club – sometimes so cutting edge it’s only them and a few bemused locals.
I was on Broadway Market the other day, watching people so painfully trendy it was as if their trendiness had reached critical levels, they looked sick with it, too much exposure; they’d become so trendy the trendiness had begun to collapse in on itself, creating some form of anti-trendy black hole they couldn’t now escape from.
I grew up near Victoria Park and also lived for years in Stoke Newington, both areas now dominated by upmarket cafes and restaurants, organic food shops, boutiques and gastropubs. I certainly feel safer on the streets these days, but I worry about a bigger wedge being driven in between the haves and the have-nots, communities becoming more polarised and divided, and Hackney losing that character, that inclusiveness and diversity that made it so special in the first place.
This fear was summed up to me when a new block of upmarket apartments was being built by Dalston Junction station. All along the hoardings the proximity of different London landmarks and attractions were being advertised – Canary Wharf, Shoreditch, the West End ... but no mention was made of the local area, as if the local area was being taken entirely out of the equation, as if it didn’t matter. It was ironic to me that this was directly across the road from the giant Hackney Peace Mural that went up in the 1980’s, showing a carnival scene of people of all races, getting together and celebrating the vitality and togetherness of their community. Now we were seeing glossy photos of people with chiselled features and shiny teeth advertising an anodyne London dreamt up by estate agents and moneymen.
A lot of the people I grew up with have moved away now, either to find somewhere calmer, safer, and more predictable, or because they’re being forced out by exorbitant rents and house prices. I’m moving too – but only to Islington. I can almost see Hackney from my window, and I’m only a five minute walk away. I can get back easily enough and check up on it, make sure it’s still there, still the place I love for some slightly ridiculous, slightly masochistic reason. It’s a place that’s in my blood, that’s had a large bearing on who I am and how I see the world. And for that I’m grateful.