TURF started as a short story called The Angels of Hackney, which I wrote as an exercise on the Creative Writing degree that I took at Middlesex University. I was intrigued by all the peculiar characters that I used to see around my area, and there was one guy in particular, who we nicknamed The Sheriff. The Sheriff used to patrol up and down Stoke Newington Church Street in Hackney, often wearing a black-brimmed hat. He walked with a slow swagger andwould stop passers-by and wish them well and check to make sure they were okay. He clearly wasn’t all there, but he was extremely good-natured and seemed to have taken it upon himself to be the unofficial guardian of the neighbourhood, even walking one of my female friends home late one night.
Once he came up to me in a shop, took my hand and shook it firmly, and in earnest fashion, in a thick cockney accent he said, ‘Gawd bless ya.’ Sure that I’d taken his greeting in good faith, he walked out again, as if his sole purpose for coming into the shop in the first place was to pass on those words of goodwill.
The Sheriff sparked off an idea for a story about a group of angels, disguised as local eccentrics and down-and-outs, who protected the borough of Hackney. The main narrative surrounded one angel in particular called Brian, who was about to retire and go up to heaven to tend to his allotment in the sky, but before he can do so he had one last task to perform – he needed to protect a young gang member (a character who later turned into Jay), and with the help of the other Hackney angels (each with a distinct part of the borough to watch over), they set about turning the boy’s life around and subsequently giving Brian a good send-off.
So far, so twee…
When I left University I thought my Angels of Hackney story had something in it that could be turned into a full-length novel, so I got to work. But I found angels very hard to write about. Angels are essentially everlasting, indestructible beings – how do you write a story about creatures with that lack of fallibility? How do you make it interesting? How do you make people care? Of course lots of writers have – but for me it felt restrictive.
As I was wrestling with this, the issue of gang violence and knife crime, especially amongst young people, was an ever-present in the media. It seemed to be spiralling out of control, and a lot of it resonated with experiences that I’d had growing up. I began to think less about angels and more about the gang kid they were assigned to protect. Jay became the story’s main character from that point, and as soon as I started to write it from his point of view, in the first-person, the story really began to take shape.
I still wanted to keep an air of fantasy and mysticism, and I felt it made a really interesting contrast with the edgy, gritty and more serious themes of the book. I’ve always lived in a bit of a dream world, with a fairly loose grip on reality. In fact, I kind of believe that to a large extent reality is what you make it. So much of the world is based on perception and often there’s no way of really telling if that perception is right or wrong. A lot of it is just guesswork. I find that idea really fascinating and actually pretty liberating too. I think people spend too much time and energy looking for definite answers and black and white explanations. Leo, Jay’s crazy, down-and-out friend who lives in the community centre, thinks along similar lines to me on this one, I think.
It’s funny to think of the journey that TURF went on from that very first short story idea. It’s almost as if the entire story was turned inside out. But that’s a big part of what I love about writing: I think a story will eventually turn into what it wants to be. Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple computers, said, ‘Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become.’ I think the same is true of stories. I think there’s a part of a writer that knows what he/she wants the story to become, but that goal is not always clear to the part of the writer that’s tapping away on the keyboard, or scribbling in notebooks. Sometimes you have to take a back seat and just follow the material, follow your intuition. That’s what I did with TURF to a large degree. I wasn’t expecting it to turn out this dark, this heart-wrenching, but I’m glad I let it go down that path. It’s more powerful because of it, and I’m happy with how it’s ended up.