In June 2006 I was working in youth health services on Black Prince Road, Lambeth in London when a 15 year old black boy was stabbed to death by a gang of around 10 others. When I arrived for work the morning after, the street was still littered with scattered debris, the remnants of the previous night's fierce and deadly battle, and after the police had removed their evidence. The dead boy was known among friends as 'Tiny Alien' due to his diminutive stature, and cute features. His parents were incredulous that this could happen to their good, studious son, real name Alex Mulumba, who had ambitions of becoming an engineer. Alex's bereft father denied his son's involvement with gangs or weapons but it was to be after his death that his father learned of the full extent of his son's membership of a well known, notorious local gang, and that he was killed by members of a rival gang.
Painful evidence of this soon emerged with pictures of Alex Mulumba posing on a website holding gangster weapons. This was to prove to be a familiar pattern with the gang-related murders of 'good' black boys who were subsequently found to be heavily involved in youth gang life, in other words, they were 'bad' all along. The harm to the black community is compounded by the realities that the perpetrators are often young black males. Mulumba's killer was Abu Sarpong, aged 18 years given a life sentence, with a minimum 14 year tariff. The cause of the killing was a minor altercation earlier in the day.
The search for answers has focused on the black family and black communities, and there are certainly questions to be asked there. Is it to do with fatherless families without strong male role models that creates a vacuum to be filled by a Mr Big?
This is one factor explored in the new Young Adult fiction book by Alex Wheatle, 'Liccle Bit' dramatises a toxic set of circumstances that sees 'good boy' Lemar (nicknamed 'Liccle Bit' due to his small stature) drawn fairly easily into life as a young gangster.
'Liccle Bit' is Wheatle's first work for the Young Adult sector, but his own background as a black male who grew and developed against a backdrop of inner - city deprivation, has given him much to draw on. The novel is a triumph in observational writing, accurately capturing the rhythms and flavours of Black British life. The dialogue is witty, fast and very funny, adding to the tragedy of the action that sees Lemar drawn from being a 'good boy', to one who gets in deep with gang life. A talented young artist from a loving family with all the modern day challenges, he involves himself in activities that threaten to bring catastrophe to the door of his family.
Wheatle is also very close to his subject through the youth work he does, and through visiting schools, prisons and Youth Offending Institutions where he has got close up to the issues. A book like 'Liccle Bit' is a great read, and if it can be read by young black males it could have a positive impact. Who did Wheatle have in mind when writing the book? He said:
"Liccle Bit is for everybody to enjoy and learn from and if it engages those students from all sort of backgrounds where reading is not the top off their priorities then that's a bonus. From my experiences of visiting schools, literacy levels are going down so if I can encourage any student to pick up a book and engage in a good tale then that's brilliant".
In this general election year, politicians are in listening mode, so what message would Wheatle wish to transmit to them? Inequalities and confused messages about literacy would be at the top of the list:
"I would make it compulsory for every school to have a library. We have to give all our children every chance of progression and social mobility. Every student has to be given hope that their time in education is for a purpose and will be rewarded. The foundation of that is to have excellent comprehension and reading skills. With the aforementioned, they can study and research any subject with confidence. That is why I would suggest that I would include in the school curriculum a half hour of every week to be dedicated for reading for pleasure."
Alex Wheatle was awarded the MBE for services to literature in 2008, after an acclaimed literary career starting with Brixton Rock, his first novel, which was followed by a further six novels.
Liccle Bit will be published by Atom Books on 5 March 2015