I finished reading Capital this week. And I just came home from watching iLL Manors (at time of writing). I know which piece of art says more about my capital.
iLL Manors has a strong moral centre. It doesn’t ever seek to patronise or polemicise about the issues facing young people. It is a British gangster thriller set over two chaotic days in East London. It features cartoonish versions of gangsters, crack whores, chancers, geezers, young bucks and rappers. It moves with the thrill and pace of Goodfellas. People will try to compare it to the London Riots and try to crowbar into it a political point about council estates. But the problem is, it doesn’t need to have a political point. It’s just real. It’s a viewpoint with a pin-sharp telescope into a vilified community. It deals with its characters with humility and earnestness and truth and accountability. Each character has to choose between personal responsibility and getting what they want, and how the film plays out hinges on the decisions they make.
Because the film is so authentic and real, it feels like a capital I am familiar with. With not a hipster, Boris bike or commuting gentrifier in sight, it manages to capture the essence of London.
Capital on the other hand (by John Lanchester) lectures us about the problems we all have. A United Colours of Bennetton cast list of the rich one, the poor one, the cool one, the old one, the ethnic one, the other ethnic one all come together in a convenient collage of slices of life that all come together at the end. Both iLL Manors and Capital occupy a similar structure, tying together the lives of people in a close-knit community and throwing in a ‘madness ting’ to see how they deal with it. Why, even though I’ve probably lived in a Pepys Road more than I have in Circle Estate, do I not believe a word of Capital. It’s because it seeks to lecture without offering solution. It hides behind a veneer of the London trope, the archetype of the capital, and because they have all been created by someone who isn’t writing with a desire to be authentic, they come across as lazy versions of who we are.
Where is the literary iLL Manors? Who is writing about people on estates. We’ve had non-fiction books like Owen Jones’ Chavs. We’ve had young adult fiction by Bali Rai and others that deal with knife and gun crime. We’ve had Hood Rat by Gavin Knight. Literary fiction? Contemporary fiction? They ask us to trust in the big state of the nation novels (this year we’ve had two already, one by Martin Amis and one by John Lanchester) and these state of the nation novels deal with no one and nothing I recognise, and certainly nothing that feels like the city I grew up in.
Zadie Smith has a new book out in a few months called NW. I hope it’s the iLL Manors that literature so desperately needs.