Polly Courtney interview: The voice of the recession generation

The protagonists in her new novel are poor, abandoned and fighting back. Katy Guest met their champion

As I wait to meet Polly Courtney in Peckham, south London, where her new novel is set, a young homeless man is settling down to beg outside the station while I read a report in The Independent about the still-toxic world of banking. Both are arenas that Courtney recognises. As a bright young engineering graduate in the early 2000s she worked for a year as a "high-flying" analyst at Merrill Lynch, before she quit in disgust to write a novel based on the experience. Six books later, she is about to publish Feral Youth, which focuses on the 2011 London riots. There could be no one better placed to understand how the two things are connected.

"I live in Ealing", she explains, "and [in the summer of 2011] I was lying in bed thinking, 'Oh my god I can smell cars burning'. This was happening in our quiet, leafy Ealing, in our city, and like a lot of people I was thinking, 'Why ... ?' I assumed that over the next few weeks and months we'd start hearing more about the causes – the long-term stuff – and it felt like no one was doing that. Politicians were very quick to say, 'It's gangs, it's bad parenting', and I just thought, 'You know, that is not an answer!'"

Courtney read the early reports about the riots, went to events, and also started mentoring a child. Now, she has spent two years talking and listening to young people growing up in the crucible in which the riots were ignited, and the resulting novel is an unsentimental and shocking account of Generation Recession.

This is a very different novel for Courtney, whose previous books include well-written commercial fiction such as the "City" novel, Golden Handcuffs, and It's A Man's World, set at a struggling lads' mag. Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer. In fact, one agent wondered if it was "too literary". ("That's not a problem for me!" she laughs. "What does it mean? It's too good?")

The book begins as its unlikely heroine, 15-year-old Alesha, is expelled from school for attacking an affiliate of a rival gang. She's just learnt that her 17-year-old friend has been "shanked" (stabbed) when her teacher asks her a question about Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. "Truth is, I don't see how this book is gonna help me live my life … Reggie Bell's lying dead on a slab right now, bled dry through a slit in his neck. Knowing why George shot Lennie ain't top of my priority list."

Courtney, a well-spoken Cambridge graduate, had help with the slang from friends, youth workers, and schoolchildren. There is a glossary for the uninitiated at the front of the book. But in finding out how Alesha would speak, she learnt more than she bargained for from young south Londoners. "I went into a couple of schools," she recalls. "I got them to write, and explained that we were going to write in a fairly phonetic way. They'd never done that, and they were surprised that they were allowed to. Actually, they wrote way more interesting and involved things than I expected. They wrote about things like stop-and-search and being accused by security guards. The anger came out."

The riots, and Alesha's part in them, take up only a few pages in the middle of the book, and by the time they come they seem inevitable. "Why not? I think to myself. This is our riot. We deserve this. We spend all our lives looking through shop windows at shiny things we can't afford ... All you see is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This is it. Just for one day, the poor is getting richer." Alesha is no 21st-century Oliver Twist – she swears more, for starters – but she's compelling, even loveable. In the choices she has to make, she raises some uncomfortable questions about this abandoned generation of poor, semi-literate, "feral" youth.

The book is self-published using the services of a publishing house called Troubadour, which is an unusual route for a successful author. After Poles Apart, Courtney secured a contract with HarperCollins, who published her novels The Day I Died (2009), The Fame Factor (2010) and It's A Man's World (2011). But at the launch party for the last of these, she parted company with the publisher, citing the "condescending and fluffy" covers in which they wrapped her books.

"With hindsight," she says now, "alarm bells definitely should have started ringing earlier. [When we discussed my next book] I was saying, 'What about homelessness, what about inequality?' They would throw back at me, 'Hmm, something mystical and magical?' And I was like, 'Whoah, we're quite far apart here!' The Amazon reviews for all those three books, there's quite a few people saying, 'Beware, this wasn't what I expected'. Especially It's A Man's World. People are saying, 'This is a feminist rant!' And I'm thinking 'Well I hope it's not a rant, but yeah, I can see that it's not pure beach-read chick-lit, so I'm sorry that you thought it was!'" She compares sexism in the City ("very clever and very ingrained") with sexism in publishing ("where it's almost as though it's accepted") and reluctantly accepts that "there is a parallel".

Walking out on a major publishing deal seems brave – though maybe not for someone who walked out on a big-money graduate job. I ask her about the "toxic" world of banking now, and she says: "Oh, I'd agree with that! It's a grotesque culture. It does reward greed. And it hasn't changed: I think it's just got cleverer, it's masked better, it's a more sophisticated greed and sexism."

For the second time in our conversation, she adds: "I don't know what the answer is." All she's saying in her books, she says, is "here are the problems, and it's a very tangled web of problems". It's rare to find an author who gives them such a compelling voice.

Feral Youth, By Polly Courtney

Matador £8.99

"The truth is, it ain't just a race thing. They talk like it is, but really and truly it's black against white, young against old, authorities against the rest. It's countless of things. There's bare reasons for feeling vexed right now."

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us