The Manchester riots were not the London riots. The Manchester riots weren’t even the Salford riots. What began with the death of Mark Duggan on the 4th of August had changed massively by the time it reached King Street five days later. The protest against the unnecessary death of a young man had mutated as it spread and, it is fair to say, there were many on the streets of Manchester that night whose motive was not solidarity but greed. Not everyone. But some. And the moral high ground was lost in the space between breaking and taking. There are many problems with policing in modern Britain, but none of them are going to be solved by the theft of a navy blue parka jacket from Pretty Green or a Bang and Olufsen surround sound stereo system.
But, obviously, things aren’t quite that simple. Young people are disenfranchised. We are governed by a party that work on the assumption that only old people vote and thus only old people need to be placated. And so we have a government that concentrates on nimbyism and fear of the outsider and fear of the poor and fear of anything and everything that isn’t approved by the Daily Mail. That pretend that pensions aren’t the lion’s share of welfare. That, in a nutshell, is only concerned with the arbitrary economic markers that suggest a country might be successful and don’t actually give a shit about the people who they have been entrusted to represent. A government that think they can justify the bedroom tax. Who can look at the rise of zero hours contracts and think, “As long as unemployment is down, yeah, who cares? Am I right? Am I right?”
Sometimes, if you are young and unemployed, the thought of burning it all down, burning everything to the ground, must be more than a little cathartic. When you have nothing to lose, what would it matter anyway? You can’t miss what you will never have.
And so, the Manchester riots is a difficult subject for a novel. To balance the contradictions of the event with a clean narrative structure is a big ask. So it is with great pleasure that I can report that in Before the Fire, Sarah Butler has produced a novel that not only manages to navigate all the potential pitfalls smoothly but also, successfully, adds considerably more to the mix.
Stick is seventeen, awkward, and brimming with an ambition beyond what life has dealt him so far. His best friend, Mac, is the Eric to his Ernie; loud, funny, and comfortable in other people’s company. They are going to Spain for the summer. But the night before they are due to leave, Mac is killed in a random knife attack after a night out, and Stick is left with nothing. No holiday, no plans, no best friend.
Butler’s great trick is to make the riots the background and Stick’s grief the story. The riots have a gravity that he almost certainly can’t escape but they are not the drive of the novel, they are the setting. This frees Butler from having to have a moral position and the novel from having to have a moral. The riots become fact rather than opinion. The novel can breathe.
The portrayal of a teenager trying to cope with the death of a friend is expertly drawn (and as someone who lost their best friend at fourteen and spent the most part of the next decade angry, I have some experience of this). Everybody reacts differently to these things, of course, but there is a universal truth to them too. Would I have found myself in a riot if one had happened when I was fifteen? Looting Woolworths for Chapterhouse albums and Danni Minogue calendars? Probably. Who knows. Cannock doesn’t have riots. It has a Wimpy.
Anyone who has read Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love will know we are getting good prose here, and while the structure of Before the Fire is less quirky that is, given the subject matter, a sensible move. This is a successful shift in tone from Butler’s debut and a clear example of a writer hungry to expand their range.
Any Cop?: It is hugely refreshing to see Manchester as the setting for a novel that isn’t just a thinly veiled account of the writer’s time at university. Instead, Butler spent time with people who experienced the riots, and listened.