Quite what the word is up Walthamstow way on Jeremy Cameron's first novel, 10 years in the making, can only be conjectured. "Some people have said it's complete nonsense, others have said it's spot on," confesses the probation service's newfound literary hope. "It would be nice if it sold, but at the moment I'm just thankful it's finally been published." His publishers are being less circumspect, hailing him as the Roddy Doyle of Walthamstow.
At first glance, Walthamstow is too far removed from Paddy Clarke country to invite successful comparison. Vinnie has already got blown away before the novel opens, lying, feet sawn off "like a squashed tomato" after being pushed (by pushers) from the 14th floor of a tower block. The narrator is Vinnie's partner in petty crime, 19-year-old Nicky Burkett, who finds the body, vows revenge and enlists the support of a motley selection of local spivs, wideboys and aspiring gangsters. Cameron's job has rooted his writing in the lives of real characters, and the tone achieves a relaxed feel, confidently and comically anecdotal; if not an accomplished Doyle dialect, at least a faithfully observed grammatical neglect.
The decision to write came to him 10 years ago, when he was working in a north London probation hostel. "It occurred to me that there were people there who could be written about because they were amusing, attractive and articulate, although some of the things they had done were neither attractive nor amusing." Many of the characters are broad caricatures, amalgams of those he has since met or heard about: Ronnie Good, Roy Flowerdew, Mercedes Fisherman, Elvis Littlejohn, Darren Boardman (dubbed "the accumulator" for his ability to stash away countless unfloggable TV sets in one bedroom). Most of the stories sound far-fetched (the con who spends his whole time smashing car wing mirrors; Nicky taking a mate off a hospital drip and wheeling him down to a West Ham match; sex in the youth court lavs), but Cameron insists they're all from the horse's mouth. Even the description, "a squashed tomato", came from someone who found his mate at the bottom of a tower block. "He hadn't been pushed but I've heard of other cases where that has happened." The estates through which Nicky flits exist in real life: the towerblock in question is visible from Cameron's office window. Nicky's horizons are local, his instincts territorial - "many of the people I see have never been to central London," he says quietly. "They would probably find it too threatening even going a couple of miles down the road to Tottenham."
The probation service, thankfully, doesn't figure hugely, but there is a curiously self-mocking episode in which Nicky is visited by a probation officer in prison and told that his life story would make good copy.
Is Cameron worried that he is betraying the trust of his charges by presenting it all as an entertainment? Not in the least, he says. By presenting Nicky's world as an exuberant, unreflective joyride through small-time crime, picking up the odd "bird" en route, he feels able to make a point about criminal behaviour and, by extension, a political one about the purpose of probation.
"Nicky has a temperament that is fairly typical of the mostly young, mostly male law-breakers I come across. A resilience to difficult circumstances such as unemployment, bad housing or homelessness and drugs. Obviously if your mates are stealing cars then you're quite likely to, but most of the people offending don't think it's okay to commit crimes. They will often have quite strong codes of conduct: most won't do domestic burglaries or beat up old ladies, for example. Cars and shop goods, however, are just objects to them." By getting criminals to assess their circumstances, probation helps reform them, he says. Nicky's final stance, however, about as remorseful as Reggie Kray's, shows that probation doesn't make for sexy endings.
The book may make him "some paper", but Cameron says he enjoys the probation work too much to quit, although he has already started on a second novel . He has no plans to stop living in Walthamstow. "There are a few flails out there, but it's not that rough really," he admits. "Most people aren't aware of what's happening on the streets, anyway. Actually, it's pretty quiet. You even get attached to the place after a while." He pauses. "Honest."
`Vinnie Got Blown Away', £9.99 (Touchstone) published 3 AprReuse content