No Age of Innocence

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Review of 'The Edge', Alan Gibbons, Orion Books £4.99

Children's books are making the headlines. This isn't new, as any book that deals with sex, drugs or rock and roll is worth a scream from the 'Daily Mail'. What seems to be new is that some children's books are being read by adults. Philip Pullman, author of the 'Dark Materials' trilogy, won an adult prize, the Whitbread Award, and the 'Harry Potter' books are published with more serious 'adult' covers. Meanwhile Terry Pratchett has always written books that have been read by anyone over the age of eight. It's interesting that Pullman, Rowling and Pratchett (and we can throw Tolkien in here too) all write fantasy. It seems, for the moment, as if this is the only kind of literature that will be read by child and adult. Social and historical realism, the two kinds of children's book that have dominated the booklists for the last 20 years, tends to stay firmly fixed to specific age groups.

Alan Gibbons, long time member of the NUT and the SWP, a regular speaker at Marxism, has produced a raft of novels for children. They mostly focus on the lives of the working class children and teenagers he knows from his native Liverpool, though in 'Street of Tall People' he looked at London kids caught up in the Cable Street march of 1936. In 'Which Side Are You On?' he time-travelled to slavery times. His style is direct, the stories move quickly on and they frequently hit moments in which the protagonists have to make what we might call personal socio-political choices. There are very few novelists for children who try to do this: we might include Robert Cormier, Robert Swindells, Beverley Naidoo and Benjamin Zephaniah.

In 'The Edge' Danny and his mother, Cathy, are running away from her boyfriend Chris. He has been violent with both of them and so they run to Cathy's old home on an estate north of London nicknamed the 'Edge'. Cathy's mother and father (Joan and Harry) have a very different attitude to their daughter and grandson coming home. Cathy, Joan and Harry are all white, but Danny is the result of Cathy's affair with Des, who is black. Harry is a racist and brought about the breakup of Cathy's relationship with Des and it's why she's been away in London for 15 years.

The Edge is a nearly all white estate and on it live a gang of white racists who we come to learn almost certainly burnt out the local mini-market, owned by Asians. They don't like 'half-caste' Danny turning up and they like it even less when he strikes up a relationship with Nikki, a white girl who once went out with the gang leader.

The focal point of the book is Danny but, through a series of mini-chapters within the main chapters, we get to see what everyone in the story is thinking as the drama unfolds. 'Review' readers will be familiar with Gibbons's agenda--there are soft racists who can be reminded that we are all human beings, and there are hardline racists and fascists who have to be confronted where they live--otherwise they end up dominating the neighbourhood. Even so, soft racism has the power of 'lighting the match' for the racists' fire.

The way this is dramatised is through the character of Harry, the grandfather, who has to make up his mind whether Danny is a human being or not. Under attack from the racist gang next door, he takes up arms (well, a baseball bat, actually) against them. All this is tense enough, but we also have the other story of the violent ex-lover, Chris, bubbling along through the book. He's a psychopath who thinks that his brutal domination of Cathy is love and so he spends the whole book working out how he can track her down. Meanwhile, Danny's father, Des, is still around and is wondering if he can or should make contact with Danny and Cathy.

The three stories--the racist punch-up between Danny and the gang, Des's reunion with Danny and Chris's arrival on the scene--all happen at the same time. The result is a good few pages of punching and whacking. I was reminded of the ends of James Cagney movies, where outsider, bad guy Cagney makes sure that justice prevails from his fisticuffs. Though this is conventional enough in movies, it's almost completely missing from children's literature, which from the 1960s onwards has been dominated by a dislike of all violence and war.

Another break with convention is to be found in the character of Chris. Just as Macbeth comes over as rather fascinating, Chris, sustained throughout the book by his scheming monologues (addressed to himself), is similarly lurid. We, as adults, might say that he's a classic case of society's violence turned in on itself, coming out as repressed and denied violence on women and children. There's a bit of a mismatch in the book between the racist violence that works its way through in the social/personal politics of Danny and Harry, and the sexual violence of Chris that ends up being quite literally brushed to one side with him being banged up in prison.

As always, Alan has taken on the kind of issue that is not only going on on our doorsteps but is also one that is rarely tackled by writers for children. He avoids moralising and hectoring his readers, going instead for strong uncomplicated identification with his leading character. Danny is no postmodern ambiguous hero. In that sense, the book is a marriage between an old style of writing and a most modern theme. It's an excellent, challenging, rough-tough read for anyone over about eight years old.