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C.C. Hogan

Dealing with Politics in Young Literature

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What happens in our streets affects everyone. We should not hide it or twist it because our readers our young.

When I wrote The Stink, which is set in North London in the seventies, I really couldn't tell a tale about people living then without confronting the political climate of the time. I am not talking about who was Prime Minister or what policies the main parties had, but the politics of the street and the culture; how we dealt with one another. 

Although the story is not autobiographical (I was not as cool as the main character Smell) it is set where I grew up and it is full of my impressions of my town. I was a white kid in a mostly white area. My parents weren't rich, but neither were we on a council estate.  I was not religious, but my extended family had a Christian background. However, my life was not insulated from other people.

London has been multicultural and international for two thousand years, despite modern political prats saying "multiculturalism" is a modern invention. Even in painfully white suburbia there was a good mix of people. Many of our neighbours were Jewish, for instance, and I went to several Bar Mitzvahs when a kid and my girlfriend was Jewish. I had Indian friends at school (had a crush on one of them), as well as a few Jamaicans, and even knew of a couple of kids who were gay, though the boy had the shit kicked out of him and the girl eventually ran away from home for good.

However, London suburbia could be an intolerant place. All my Jewish friends (not some, all) suffered anti-Semitism at one level or another. All the black kids had racist abuse thrown at them, as did many of the Indian Asians, and homosexual acts had been illegal just seven years before. You can imagine how nice society was to that group.

Although the main thrust of the story is about a young band and a double murder, and is a comedy, I decided to set my characters up; I would make sure some of the band would be painfully aware of the problems. So, Leonard (AKA Fart) is black, but born in London, and Harold (AKA Stench), is Jewish, even if he is probably an atheist. Just to make sure I covered several bases, Alannah (AKA Aroma) is the drummer, a girl, and southern Irish, and Smell's brother comes out as gay.

Is this all a bit artificial? Possibly, but both Stench and Fart are based on friends from that time, so not completely. Anyway, it is a story, for goodness sake!

But, let me put the story aside. What is more important is why I decided to do this.

Actually, there are two reasons.

The Seventies and what we learned

Everyone's experience of their own era is different and we all learn different lessons, but the seventies, especially in London, did mark a turning point in the culture. As I have said elsewhere, I believe this is the time of the first proper teens. By that, I mean a generation of young people who were vocal, opinionated and really did not like what they saw on TV or in their local area; even in their own families.

This was different to the sixties. That time produced a bunch of well-meaning idealists, particularly in the US, but their solution was utopian love and was impractical at best. The teens of my generation were not part of a movement, didn't go on dope-powered marches, and didn't wear flowers in their hair. They were ordinary and their idea of change was much smaller.  Just stop hating and recognise that we teens are people too. Also, importantly, advertisers saw them as a distinct group with potential spending power, and they gave us a proper identity which we loved.

We were the generation that would reject the racist stand-up comedians of the clubs and would embrace TV progs like "The Young Ones" and "Not the Nine O'Clock News" in the 80s. That was the change we wanted. We wanted to be different from our parents. 

It is impossible to hide it away

The second reason is, I believe, more important. Young people, even young kids, should know this stuff. And they should know it in the terms and language they understand and relate to, not sanitized by patronising adults.

They should know that racism is not just "not very nice", but is ugly and evil. They should understand that the phrase "shirt-lifter" is not something to giggle at, but is a term originally spat out in hate by some bigot who was too thick to understand human beings.

And even when some groups try to reclaim words to neutralize them, like some young black cultures calling each other "nigger", it doesn't take away from the fact that more people use it as a hate term still. The reclamation is not successful and they need to know that too.

(By the way, if anyone calls a girl in my family "his bitch" then tells me it is a term of endearment, expect to move planets as fast as possible.)

I was pretty political when I was young, though many of my friends were not, and so is Smell in the story. That was also intentional. When his friends suffer intolerance he not only hurts with them, but asks why it happens in the first place. He has no solution, he is only sixteen, other than to say he will not do it himself.  And he doesn't even live up to his own ideals all the time (sorry, won't spoil the story by saying where he falls down.)

Children are older than we make them

I get very fed up when people complain "young people grow up too fast."

No, they don't. They grow up too slow!

For all kinds of reasons, many of them based in some strange morality, we have slowed our upbringing over the centuries. We have taken it so far that we now have a bunch of hormonal fourteen-year-olds who are frustrated with their lives, want to act older, but are told they are kids and don't know what they are talking about. Yeah, like you handle that well when you are an adolescent. 

I am not talking about sex here or anything like that, I am talking about getting out there, living, and taking hold of life. We tell kids to be responsible but have removed all the situations they need to be responsible about. Either that or we create them artificially on a part-time basis and then complain when it all goes tits up.

I know I can't do anything about that for a whole host of reasons, but I can recognise people younger than me are capable of understanding and analysing issues given half a chance; I was, after all. The politics of their environment is one of those. The idea of choice is another.

In the book, my five protagonists are not church goers. A couple are obviously atheists, and I am less clear about some others.  This was my reflection on my own childhood when I was taught by my church junior school that only people who followed a god could be good. My own later experience taught me the error of that one; being religious or following a religion does not make a person good, and neither has any religion saved us or the world.

People have. Some with a faith, some without.

I wanted my young people to be good hearts because that was who they naturally are, not because of anything imposed on them.

I am a great believer in people. I believe that we are tribal creatures who are nice to each other instinctively; if we hadn't been, we would have gone extinct 200,000 years ago or so.  Bad people, those who would destroy us, are, thankfully, the minority. Making sure my heroes were not inclined to be religious, freed the characters up to question and to open their minds to what is around them. They judge it all from their own moral standpoint, not one inherited or taught by someone with a narrow agenda.

They have a choice and they exercise it.

The Writer's Obligation

So, that was what sits behind some of the narrative in The Stink. It is not an overtly political book by any means, but where it happens, I treat it genuinely and my characters are rightly disturbed by it.

When anyone writes for young people, whether the writer is young or old, they should not ignore the environment the reader lives in and not gloss over issues just because the reader is "a child".

That does not mean you MUST put politics into a story, that would be terrible, but where it comes up, I don't think the writer should try and skirt around it. And that includes works for very young people.

When a child starts school at four or five, their minds are already open and receptive. They will meet people from different backgrounds with different ideas, often different from their own parents' ideas, and this is good. My first experience of anti-Semitism was when I was about seven or so when a parent dragged their kid away from a friend of mine who was visibly Jewish; he was wearing a kippah. When he was upset about it, his mother told us only "some people are silly." That was the end of the conversation. It was years till I worked out what really happened. I would have loved to have known back then and had someone explain it to me.

No one has to be exposed to the horrors of the world, but neither should we pretend they do not exist just because we cannot accept that a young person might be able to understand it or we are worried they might be frightened by it.

A writer is in the position to tell it how it is, to recognise the ability and needs of their readers. We should not be hesitant in telling the young that all these political issues are real, are out there and will affect them.  

We shouldn't go mad about it because otherwise, like the religious instruction I got in school, it quickly becomes nothing more than propaganda, and that is even worse! But we shouldn't hide it either.

Let it come out naturally. Don't exorcise it from a story simply because it is unpalatable. And then, perhaps, when we do get around to allowing young people to grow up, they will make their choices based on the reality of their OWN lives and not just inherit the intolerances of their ancestors. 

Remember, The Stink, despite the issues, is a comedy. It is, I hope, a fun read. And yet my characters do get angry, have opinions, and even cry; boys and girls. That is because they are human. The fact they are sixteen years old has nothing to do with it.

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North London, 1976. The longest, hottest summer on record. The water is running out and the kids hate their parents. Which bunch of idiots would think it is a good idea to start a band?

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