by MacKenzie Warren
This is part two of a two-part essay on the literature of the London riots of 2011. The first part examines Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Tyranny of Lost Things.
On the face of it, there are some similarities between The Tyranny of Lost Things and Patrick Langley’s Arkady. Arkady, too, is a début novel, and its narrative is recognisably set in post-recession, austerity-era London. It also reconstructs events from the 2011 riots (or, shall we say, it reconstructs a version of them) and it, too, displays an interest in the politics of life in a commune. But that’s where the similarities end. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s novel is hyper-realistic: nary a page is denied a passing reference to some tangible aspect of life in London circa 2011. Langley’s novel instead defamiliarises the locale. London, unnamed, becomes a city of hot light “slant[ing] from a restless sky, sheathing glass buildings in glare, reflecting off the tea-brown river”. It’s a convulsing metropolis where zombified commuters wander amongst half-built “glass spires”: “Bundles of steel beams swing, glinting weightlessly mid-air. Glass panes flash in the rising light. … Fissures branch like lightning through the slabs.” By giving such a familiar place an atmosphere of dreamy elusiveness, and channelling its sensory impressions through a childlike protagonist, Langley transforms the London of the riots into a city from a dark fable. The overall effect is much more invigorating than in The Tyranny of Lost Things, particularly when the fabulist narrative clashes with a visceral account of the riots, and it casts the actions of the rioters in a very different light.
Langley’s protagonists are two young men named Frank and Jackson, brothers consigned to a life of deprivation on the edgelands of the city. As children, Frank and Jackson inexplicably lost their parents while on holiday abroad. Upon returning to Britain, they were inexplicably left in the care of a man debilitated by a degenerative condition. Now a typical dinner consists of “fried tomatoes draped in ribbons of blackened onion”, devoured while their caregiver, Leonard, struggles to breathe, “his leathery neck expanding and contracting with each inhale”. Leonard is a harsh disciplinarian, embittered by poverty and dependency on state services. He is also a pseudo-anarchist, enraged by a battle with a council that wants to relocate him, and when the failure of the financial system hits the news, he gloats even though he knows that the economic instability means he is “fucked”. When Jackson realises that he can’t stomach an interminable future in Leonard’s company, he takes Frank under his wing and the two of them flee. They find refuge on a reclaimed boat, idly plying the waterways of East London, which they christen “Arkady”: it is an ark, and a floating Arcadia, and a space of anarchy in the most positive sense of the term.
How do the two brothers end up embroiled in the riots? In the causal sense, it’s entirely by chance. In the political sense, chance has nothing to do with it. Two of the fixtures of their daily lives are “asters” and “blackvests” — helicopters and riot police — and the brothers are all too aware that there’s more than a responsive relationship between public disorder and the authorities. “An aster hangs high on a backdrop of clouds”, Frank observes in one of their earliest appearances. “The air throbs with the stuttering drone of its whirring blades. … Asters are meant to respond to riots, but Frank thinks they’re what start them.” And when the riots actually break out, Frank and Jackson become aware of them through the surveillance of the asters. “The footage is shot from above”, Langley writes,
revealing an isometric view of the city, a thin crowd gathered at a cordon. Black smoke billows through the dusk, a vertical column slanted by wind. Flames roar from blackened windows and creep up supports. … On the screen, the camera cuts to a close up of masked figures leaping over fences as blackvests give chase.
Entranced by the footage, the two brothers take to the rooftops of the city and track the progress of the riots from on high. When a crowd gathers outside “a blackvest station”, the brothers draw near. The imagery of the ensuing scene is reminiscent of Cosslett’s imagery — flaming weapons are lobbed through the air; glass is shattered and sirens wail — but Langley’s language gives the scene an immediacy that Cosslett’s lacks:
The crowd stirs outside the station. Kettledrums pulse at the heart of the march. A lit flare arcs overhead and the street burns crimson. It snaps off a double-decker and cartwheels over the street. Red smoke swells from a sputtering flame and drifts across an agitated crowd. … A smoke grenade hisses nearby, thickening the air with eruptions of lilac. Lamps darken and distance dissolves. … A rangy guy in a boiler suit drifts into the brothers’ path. Smoke clings to the cricket bat in his hand, elastic strands like molten marshmallow. He wears a scarf over his mouth, his high forehead shiny with sweat. A young woman follows close behind, her face obscured by a gas mask that makes her look insectile, alien. Frank catches a flash of dark eyes in the circular lenses before she melts into smoke.
This is just the beginning. Frank loses Jackson in the melee. As he searches for his brother, he comes face-to-face with other incredible sights, other nuances of the riots. What’s fascinating about this sequence of events, in light of Cosslett’s novel, is that Langley conveys everything using exactly the same technique as Cosslett — attention to detail at a high pitch, fiercely so; a relentless noting of specifics — but whereas Cosslett is particular about the socio-cultural trends and faddish brands of her milieu, Langley’s eye alights upon the particulars of one-off incidents, irrecoverable idiosyncrasies. Look again at the passage above: “[k]ettledrums pulse”, a lit flare “arcs overhead” and “snaps” off a bus and “cartwheels” over the ground, the smoke from a grenade is “lilac”, and then there is the “rangy guy” in the “boiler suit” with that unforgettable cricket bat.
None of these details are reproduced elsewhere in Arkady, nor are they reproducible without weakening the effect of their first usage; they draw their power from their singular appearance in the prose. Cosslett’s equivalent details are a privileged protester with “a copy of Das Kapital poking out of the back of his skinny jeans”, a therapy appointment that amounts to “a weekly one-to-one session with a counsellor funded by the NHS”, a housemate who “circle[s] some secretaries in an All Bar One while doing the white man’s overbite”. The Tyranny of Lost Things is peppered with fine, evocative details, but they always have the ring of quips you’ve overheard before, somewhere else, as if they belong to the culture at large and Cosslett has pilfered them from a broader discourse. In contrast, the details of Arkady feel unique, even unprecedented, conveying the stark lawlessness of the riots in ways that earlier accounts have struggled with. Tellingly, Cosslett’s narrator describes London as a “war zone” and says that chaos has “begun to sweep the city”. This is the received language of the riots, the language of Sky News discussions in the aftermath, and yet it is used to offer a first-person account of events in Brixton. Langley doesn’t stoop to that. In Arkady, he searches for a lexicon all his own — a precise and startling diction — and he finds it.
But the difference in language is the lesser of the meaningful differences between Arkady and The Tyranny of Lost Things. The greater difference is one of perspective. It’s important that Frank and Jackson are marginal characters in every sense: orphaned, placed in inadequate care, dispossessed, relegated to the canals on the outskirts of a metropolis that grows and glimmers around them. It’s important that they are thrown right into the middle of the riots, rather than remaining on the fringes and witnessing events from a distance. It’s important that they find meaning in an occupation movement at a location known as “the Citadel”, and it’s important that the reigning powers see the Citadel as a site with an economic value totally at odds with the value it holds for Frank and Jackson. These things are important because they give the riots of Arkady a different texture to the riots in The Tyranny of Lost Things. In Cosslett’s novel, the narrator sees herself and her generation as targets of the reigning powers, as people whose social and financial interests are noticed, acknowledged, and systemically impeded. In Langley’s novel, the brothers are marginalised people who find themselves in the centre of events that nevertheless feel epochal, although by the end of the novel it’s clear that even those disturbances are marginal concerns — mere annoyances — for the land bankers and private security forces who extinguish them.
The real difference between the two novels has something to do with how dimly or brightly the rioters, as victims of austerity politics, show up on the radars of the people in control of things. In Cosslett’s novel, they are central: they riot because they are very much in the crosshairs of the authorities, although the authorities exercise domination via government policy more so than via force. In Langley’s novel, they aren’t central at all: they riot because, at best, the authorities register their presence as irregular blips, and their concerns warrant no attention from the powerful except insofar as the concerns of bugs trouble the conscience of an exterminator. Cosslett’s narrator feels the pain of being harmed by a perpetrator who acts with purposeful intent. Langley’s protagonists feel the pain of similar harm, but they also feel the pain of realising that the perpetrator doesn’t care a whit about their petty protests. To be wilfully ignored is worse, here, than to be singled out, and as a result the riots in Arkady become something more raw than a howl against austerity: they become almost plaintive, a cry for attention, a plea for an affirmation of existence.
Seven years on, it is bracing to see the riots of 2011 taken up in the pages of serious literature. Both Cosslett and Langley make important contributions to our understanding of what the riots meant then and what they might mean now, illustrating how the riots erupted from, and shaped, the prevailing political narratives of this country over the last decade. No doubt there are some readers who will respond more warmly to The Tyranny of Lost Things than to Arkady, because Cosslett arguably does the better job of holding up a mirror and reflecting the experiences of many people who lived in London in 2010 and 2011. But, of the two books, Arkady seems the one most likely to attract lasting interest. Its narrative simplicity, its artful distortions of London, its vivid depictions of the action on the streets, and its subtle, suggestive connections between the impetus to riot and the various aspects of the austerity programme — all of these things make it a rich and rewarding novel, not to mention an incredibly intense one. We should be lucky to receive more novels like it: how odd it feels, and yet how gratifying, to think that something so beautiful is another, quite unexpected aspect of the riots and their legacy.
MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.