Rich Belbin reviews a novel that celebrates the anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles of the 1970s.
Joe Thomas, White Riot, Arcadia Books, 2023, 400 pp, £10.99
Hackney, 1978. The local community feels under threat from both fascist attacks and police brutality, but discovers ways to fight back. In the midst of this ‘decent copper’ Patrick Noble tries to investigate a suspicious, possibly racist, death, while fighting racism and corruption in the police, at the same time as helping to set up networks of informers in both the far right and far left.
By 1983 he is doing this around the notorious Stoke Newington nick, where Colin Roach has just died (supposedly by suicide), and which is just a couple of miles away from the National Front headquarters at Excalibur House.
Fortunately, Noble isn’t the only central character. There is also Suzy, a photographer with the Anti-Nazi League, and John, a Hackney Council solicitor (a job the author’s father used to do). Between them we are thrown into a heady world of politics, music and violence.
Although this is a novel, what makes it especially interesting is the intermingling of fact and the fictional. Real events such as the murders of Altab Ali and Colin Roach are central, as well as the Rock Against Racism carnivals and ANL demos that feature heavily, but it is the death of the fictitious character Shaktar Ali that provides the fulcrum around which everything pivots.
Like Thomas’ previous novel, Bent, about the notoriously corrupt Soho copper Harry Challenor, White Riot is a product of very detailed research. The novel comes with not just a reading list of inspirations and further reading/viewing, but page by page notes detailing exactly where and when quotes from the real people in the book come from.
And these are real people many readers of this site will be familiar with – unsurprisingly as two of Thomas’ key resources are Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down (an oral history of Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge) and David Renton’s Never Again. So, we meet up with Red Saunders and the late David Widgery of RAR, the Ruts and Paul Weller. They mingle with the fictitious characters, many of them other musicians and activists from other causes.
For the most part this works well, though the sections with Margaret Thatcher are decidedly the weakest, and sometimes the language of real-life locals comes over rather stiltedly in comparison with the vernacular used elsewhere (though possibly because their words often come from police interviews).
These minor flaws aside, the book is a pacy and entertaining read. You are taken right back to the seventies and early eighties, with all its joys and horrors. Many of the details may well be familiar, but there are so many of them that there will be something to surprise almost everyone (I knew nothing of Hackney Council’s attempts to defund the police, for instance).
It’s not a revolutionary tale, with the key cops being far too decent, but it is the first book of a trilogy, and hopefully the skullduggery and the price that is paid (by others) for police deception will develop in the coming volumes.
The second book in the trilogy, Red Menace, taking us from Live Aid to Broadwater Farm, is due out in hardback on February 1 2024.