Urban cowboys

Yardie showed us the violence of the black underworld. The Scholar looks set to enlarge the picture. Marianne Brace visits debut novelist Courttia Newland and discovers the fear of writing and living on a west London estate
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The Independent Culture
'You're from the manor. I'm bound to buck you up again star and when I do, I'm gonna carve you up, blatant." Two teenagers fight. One throws grit in the other's eyes, grabs his opponent's blade, stabs him and then slashes him in the face for good measure.

This skirmish takes place in a debut novel called The Scholar. These are boys-in-the-'hood with a difference. The action is set not in one of America's danger zones but on a council estate in Hammersmith. And its characters aren't hardened gangstas but boys who study at college, listen to Ragga and Raregroove and enjoy a game of footie - like the author, 23-year-old Courttia Newland.

Newland's family is Jamaican and Barbadian. "My dad made my name up. In fact, I wanted to change it to something like Tony," he says with a winning smile, "but the publishers were, like, 'What?!' Newland grew up and still lives with his mother opposite the White City estate on which his fictional manor, Greenside, is partly modelled. "There's rougher estates than White City. It's rough, don't get me wrong. But there's worse places - more crack, more kids with guns."

Writing was something Newland always intended to do when he reached his thirties. But, "I got fed up, really, because I was looking around and there was no books for people of my age, my generation and my colour. I wanted to write a book about the kind of things that I would like to read about."

Chester Himes, Walter Mosley and Bebe Moore Campbell are authors Newland admires. He also claims Stephen King as a favourite and respects Irvine Welsh. ("I like his style, man.") But most British writers leave him cold. And, while he thinks Caryl Phillips is "excellent", he'd never heard of him until last year. "He's not writing what I'm really interested in. The 1950s and coming to the motherland, it has its place, we need it, but, at the same time, no one's talking about what's happening now. It's only half of our experience."

The Scholar is published by Abacus. Black, male, working-class authors are scarce in mainstream publishing and, when they are published, it's usually because they've already been spotted by small specialist publishers like X Press. "I'll tell you something," says Newland, leaning forward keenly. "If it wasn't for X Press doing Yardie, I wouldn't be in this position now, because mainstream publishers weren't picking up on these kinds of books. I mean, I used to hear things like 'Black people don't read, they're not a big enough market', all that rubbish. Now that's changing."

Change or not, getting published still isn't easy. The Scholar was rejected by 13 publishers (including X Press) to whom Newland sent his manuscript unsolicited. Once he got the classy William Morris Agency to represent him, suddenly Faber & Faber, Hodder and Abacus were all tussling for the rights.

As a thriller, The Scholar is conventional. It's the story of two cousins, Cory and Sean - one quick-tempered and impulsive, the other serious and scholarly - and how they're sucked into crime. It offers a glimpse into an urban nightmare where violence is casual, drugs are the norm and escape almost impossible. But there's a freshness in the details and in the dialogue, which has all the energy of a new language. The "brers" talk about their "garms" (clothes), smoke "the bone" (crack), know the "ku" (score), and carry their "wong" (money).

If the inevitability of the cousins' downfall seems depressing, the reality, Newland insists, is "a lot worse". "I couldn't write it, how bad it is. I had to take out some of the violence. Cory and Sean ain't even bad. If I were to write about the bad people, I don't think anyone would believe me."

The son of a teacher and a mechanic, Newland taught himself to read at three. He read anything and everything, from Roald Dahl to Asterix, and at eight was tackling Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. "Man, I can't even talk about it," Newland shakes his head with a smile. "That guy was on a different level when it comes to writing."

But it was at school Newland discovered a canon of black writers introduced to him by his English teacher. "I used to have the most arguments with her. She had a lot to put up with trying to make us see that working was a good thing and all that. She used to come in with this big box full of books, you know - none were on the syllabus - and she'd put this box down in the middle of the room and say, 'Read about yourselves'."

Leaving school at 15, Newland studied A-level English at Westminster College but dropped out after a year. "I found it boring and I couldn't write essays. I read Othello for the first time and like, boy, the characters did such stupid things. The poetry - that was very nice, but I didn't like the sureness of the story. Othello annoyed me, actually, how stupid he was."

With The Scholar, Newland tried to "turn all the stereotypes around. I wanted to tell a story about a guy who wasn't necessarily bad." It was important, too, that his characters should be 17. "I felt if I don't write about what happened to me at 17, then I would forget. It's a mad age. You come out of school and you're in the wide world, on your own. Some people sink, some swim. By the time they're in their twenties, a lot of people are lost."

What's so striking is how the estate boys seem to flounder while the girls stay steady. "In the 90s that's how it is, man. I know girls who are younger than me who have got a house, a car, a job. Girls grow up quicker than boys, take responsibility for their lives. When I was in school, girls used to mess around as much as boys but when it came to exams they were passing, man. Most of the girls I was at school with had wicked exam results."

Cory's Nemesis is a Dredd called Levi who orchestrates armed robberies and deals in crack. "There's a lot of Levis about. Just because a man's got locks they call him a Rasta. They're not Rastas; they're not studying the faith. There's a lot in the papers about Yardies from Jamaica bullying- up the black people born here. I wanted to show that half the time the guys here are just as bad as the guys coming over.

"It's got to do with your mentality. Cory's got the mentality where, if you mess with him, he's going to do you something, man. You don't have to be a Yardie or a crack-dealer to be involved in a shooting. There's loads of guns around. Yeah, it does worry me. You don't know who's got one and who hasn't. You can be having an argument with someone and they'll pull one out."

Newland knows a lot of people who "think they're Stateside. They never used to call each other 'nigga' and they're doing it now. It's just stupid. The way I look at it, I'm not American, man, and I'm not going to try and pretend I am. We've got enough of our stories to tell." The Scholar may be extreme but it's frighteningly believable. "I just want people to be able to see what it's like in London. In hip-hop they always say 'We represent, we're talking about where we come from', and that's what I'm trying to do - represent where I come from".

'The Scholar', published by Abacus, pounds 9.99