Lucy Williamson reviews Hood Rat by Gavin Knight
Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is a book with an identity crisis. At first, it appears to be a purely factual account of Britain’s inner-city gangs, a prescient subject given the recent riots. It makes sense that Knight, a successful journalist, would use the research he conducted in order to write this book, which involved embedding himself with various police units and talking to ‘dozens of violent criminals’, to write a shocking expose of Britain’s violent underworld.
However, readers are bound become a little confused when they read Knight’s preface, which states that ‘Hood Rat is a work of non-fiction. Various names, nicknames, times, dates and identifying personal characteristics have been changed, and some characters created from composites of several people’. Surely, these two statements are incompatible. Factual writers cannot use fictional techniques, such as combining the traits of several real-life people to form one character; if they did this then wouldn’t they be writing, well… fiction? Welcome to the world of ‘faction’, the genre where the line between fact and fiction can be crossed at will.
As Anthony Beevor of The Guardian points out, the appeal of faction seems to have ‘recently increased in a dramatic way’. Indeed, some books based largely on historical fact have been widely acclaimed, including Rebecca Hunt’s novel Mr Chartwell, which tells the story of Winston Churchill from the perspective of a talking dog. Nevertheless, whilst employing a fictional device to provide a fresh take on history is perfectly legitimate, those authors like Knight, who claim their books accurately represent the recent past, ought to be aware that any semblance of fiction will cause their readers to question the degree of truth in their writing.
This is not to say that Knight’s use of fictional devices has an entirely negative effect. Knight tells each of the book’s three chapters from a different character’s perspective, making the book more compelling than it might otherwise be. Instead of experiencing events from an emotionally detached perspective, the reader sees everything through the eyes of those involved: two police force employees, Anders Svensson in Manchester and Karyn McCluskey in Glasgow, and Pilgrim, a gang member from London. Knight’s portrayal of McCluskey, head of Strathclyde’s police intelligence division, is particularly striking. We root for McCluskey as she tries to convince her colleagues they need to use unorthodox methods, such as face-to-face meetings between gang members and their communities, in order to combat Glasgow’s seventy-one-a-year murder rate. Aside from Knight’s depiction of a strong female character, what also makes the Glasgow section of the book so interesting is its detailed description of the techniques Strathclyde went on to adopt, techniques that were largely modelled on an American programme, which significantly reduced violence on the streets of Boston in the 1990s. Coincidentally, in a recent speech to Parliament about the riots, David Cameron urged English police forces to look to Strathclyde and Boston as an example of how to deal with gang violence in their local areas.
Although the Glasgow section manages to achieve the correct mix between fictional and non-fictional writing styles, the other two chapters of Hood Rat, entitled ‘Manchester’ and ‘London’, do not do this quite so successfully. In his writing about Manchester, Knight tries to blend descriptive writing about characters, such as Flow and Merlin, two high status members of a drugs gang, with facts about the gangs and the police operations set up to monitor them. The result is a rather jumpy prose style. Passages like ‘Svensson regularly talks to gang members who have murdered people, and he can see the strain etched on their faces’, are quickly followed by factual statements like ‘he [Merlin] earns £700,000 a year. This is £668,000 more than Svensson’. Knight’s obsession with statistics often gets in the way of his storytelling.
The London chapter of the book is definitely the weakest. Whilst Knight manages to avoid getting too bogged down with the facts and attempts to outline the difficult upbringing that has contributed to Pilgrim’s violent temperament, at times he almost seems to be glamorising the gangster lifestyle. Talk of the respect that Pilgrim garners and the number of celebrities he knows might well have some basis in reality but it jars with the other two chapters, which focus on the consequences of gang related crime. Knight is clearly trying to portray things from Pilgrim’s perspective, this sometimes means he makes the opposite mistake to that of the Manchester chapter; he is unable to give us enough of the context surrounding Pilgrim’s actions.
Hood Rat is a brave attempt to create an accessible guide to British gang culture. However, one cannot help thinking that Knight’s experimental style of writing is fatally flawed. Had Hood Rat appeared either as a piece of journalism, or a novel, based on but not dominated by research, it would almost certainly have made a more satisfying read than it does in its current state.