Joe Thomas’ White Riot Review – Racial Tensions in Thatcher’s Britain | Imaginary

wWith its Indian restaurants, market stalls, bakeries and the charm of London’s loach brick path It had many attractions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but was marred every Sunday by the menacing presence of National Front supporters selling their hateful newspaper. As a son of West Indians, I despised and feared the National Front, but suspected that their acerbic anti-immigration stance was quietly harboring many Britons, including politicians and police officers.

This ugly period of modern British history, which is the focus of Joe Thomas’s novel White Riot, is marked by opposing sentiments: the increasing tendency of Indigenous people to side with free-market Thatcherism, against race and allies of the working class. Address taken from engagementThe first single, described by Joe Strummer as a call to arms for white youth to resist state-imposed poverty and over-policing, in the same way as their black compatriots.

Thomas’ fiction draws on archival material, testimonies and newspaper reports from 1978 to 1983, in particular the events surrounding the unsolved murders of two colored men in East London. Through the stories of Altab Ali, who was stabbed to death in Whitechapel, and Colin Roach, who allegedly shot himself at Stoke Newington Police Station, White Riot unfolds as a propulsive crime novel. Thomas ably captures community anger, interracial tensions and especially the ominous atmosphere around anti-fascist rallies that lead to violent clashes with National Front skinheads and Special Patrol Group police. In the ruckus, there is “the bang of a bat against the slabs of flesh, the crunch of a dead limb, nose and cheek, and broken glass”.

The novel includes many sketches of real-life characters in fictional settings. There is an impressive portrayal of Paul Weller, representing the socially conscious musicians coming together in the Rock Against Racism movement. More attention is paid to Margaret Thatcher, plotting the best way to exploit the racial anxieties of the white population, and in a comically bizarre dialogue with her husband Dennis, she wonders if she will accept the change engineered by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi who advises losing weight by following an all-white diet. Denis prefers his wife to be “plump and windless”.

Overall, the narrative is framed by the parallel and intersecting narratives of a conscientious undercover investigator, Patrick, and Susie, an activist photojournalist, bent on exposing the cover-up of Roach’s death. Like almost all character exchanges, their conversations only allow for moments of reflection. Sometimes the street slang, knock-offs, and cops and robbers have flagged words for real people, which is more in keeping with a serious social history book than a crime novel.

Accounts of town hall debates about, for example, defunding the police, landed hard on the page. Illustration of the biased mentality of police officers is limited to historical quotes such as those by Les Curtis, the head of the police union, who sees no harm in police officers using racially charged epithets.

Ultimately, White Riot cries out under the challenge of merging fact and fiction. Perhaps too much is asking for form, but for a crime novel that is also portrayed as a critique of silencing the lived experiences of those living through the blunt end of police brutality and racist violence, characters of South Asian and Caribbean descent are thinly drawn.

I want it to be otherwise. This ambitious work on a large canvas is a remarkable attempt to depict a fraught and fragmented nation. But it is painted with broad brushstrokes, and is a bit patchy; Could do with another coat.

White Riot is published by Arcadia (£16.99). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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