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GAVIN KNIGHT – HOOD RAT

In crime on January 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Gavin Knight is an investigative journalist who’s first book, Hood Rat, has been received with high praise and acclaimed not only in the UK, where it was first published, but around Europe and Asia too.

His narrative style to portray real and violent events has been a true success and Gavin has been called to write articles and speak about the riots that raged in England for 5 nights back in August 2011.

Hood Rat, your latest book, was published by Picador in July last year. It’s been widely acclaimed and being developed into a film. What got you interested into this world of inner city crime?
I had written about gang crime as a journalist for The Times and Prospect. I felt that the way these crimes were being reported was superficial; the more gang members and cops I met, the more I realised there were powerful human stories behind the headlines that weren’t being told. My wife, who’s also a journalist, told me to go out and find the kind of stories I wanted to write. So I did.
You poured over 100 hrs of pure interviews in your research. Tell us about them. How did they go? What happened, anything hairy?
 I transcribed 100 hours of digital tape myself and used that material to shape the narrative. It gave texture, context and dialogue from reported speech. Many of the subjects were brilliant story tellers. Also I can’t write shorthand and have a terrible memory so it’s the only way to do an interview !  Most of the subjects were inspiring, fascinating company especially Karyn McCluskey and John Carnochan the co-directors of the Violence Reduction Unit, DC Svensson, the gritty Manchester cop and Pilgrim, the armed robber from Hackney.
There was one hairy encounter in Possil Park in Glasgow when I was confronted by an 18 year old and felt like someone had left the door of the panther cage open.

What other tools did you employ to research Hood Rat?
 It was primarily a piece of investigative journalism so it took a long time to track down characters who had powerful human stories to tell. In fiction you can make these characters up but in non-fiction you have to go out and find them.  There are surprisingly few detectives who are like DC Svensson for example; he was unique. Cops who have read the book comment on how detectives like him, who are deeply immersed in the underworld, are not easy to come by.  Trust is very important. Criminals are also initially reluctant to talk to you.
What did you want to get from writing Hood Rat? Did you succeed? Any regrets?
 I enjoyed the challenge, the work and meeting the protagonists. If you feel strongly about the issues and angry that people are being abandoned in society then that puts fire in your belly. Many of the main characters were inspirational people.  It is a side of society that is often discussed but never really investigated in depth – so it was fascinating to see people in the front line. I was thrilled with the response, but the feedback from the protagonists was the one that really mattered. I learnt a lot too.
Your writing has been compared to Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. How do you feel about it?
 No one can touch In Cold Blood. It’s a true crime classic. I liked the way he used the techniques of fiction to tell a true crime story and that influenced the style of Hood Rat. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is another extraordinary true crime book with a novelistic style.
The book is written in a New Journalism style. Did you actually made a conscious choice (if so why?) or it just came to you?
 I’d written long articles on crime for publications like Prospect and the Times, but I was wary of writing a book full of social context, statistics and analysis. That would be earnest and worthy. So I set out to use the techniques of fiction to make it more readable, give it a gripping narrative.
Hood Rat will be published in Germany sometime this month. How has it been received so far? Do they see similarities between their inner city crime and the British one? Why the interest?
 The German publisher liked the original proposal. She was a Wire fan.  They already publish crime fiction authors like James Ellroy, James Frey and Dennis Lehane; they said that even though Hood Rat was non-fiction its literary style made it fit well with those writers. It was very flattering for a first book to be mentioned alongside those writers. We had great fun with the German translator discussing words like “ballies” and “flossing”.  It’s going to be published in Germany first, then Spain and Italy.  There was huge international interest in the riots and I ended up being called up by Spanish, Japanese, Brazilian and French press. All the foreign press had a touristy preconception of Britain and were shocked to find out about real life in our inner cities. A piece I wrote for El Pais in Spain was retweeted 2,000 times. All large post-industrial nations are dealing with a marginalised group in society who feel they have been abandoned. They have drugs, violent fathers and knife crime as well.

You were invited to speak about the August riots in 2011. What’s your take on it and the way the police and the government reacted to and dealt with them?
 The conspiracy theory that it was a truce of organised gangs was exaggerated by the Tories. Michael Gove and others were rolling it out at the time, and I wrote a piece in the Guardian refuting it. Gangs and young people have become the new bogeymen under the bed for large factions on the right. The Home Office statistics released months later proved that the riots were far less to do with gang violence than originally stated. Many of the subjects I interviewed for the book were not surprised by the riots; they’d already seen the levels of violence simmering. What is interesting now is that the Government have conveniently forgotten about it. The latest ONS statistics show knife crime has risen by 8% in the last year. A Centre for Social Justice report stated that children are now “dumped” in custody. We also had the revelation that Thatcher’s government had considered “managed decline” as a policy for the inner cities following the Toxteth Riots.
You spent a long time following police officers in drug raids, arrests, etc. How do you feel about that? What’s your perception of police officers now compared to before spending time with them? What did you get out of the whole experience?
 I have a high opinion of police officers. Almost all of the ones I was out with were doing a difficult job on fairly low wages and not getting much credit for it.  Many were dedicated and passionate. Some had witnessed appalling things and one or two were even haunted by them.  There are a lot of endemic problems in society and we cannot police our way out of them. The level of violence in deprived areas is down to many different factors: deprivation, alcohol and drug abuse, parental abuse, intergenerational disadvantage, educational failure, malevolent influences on the young.  The police are too often expected to deal with all of it.
What are you working on at the moment?
 Another book in a similar territory involving investigative research.
When can our readers find out more about you and your work?
The paperback is out on February 16th !
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  1. Quite surprised to see a stray reference to Possilpark in somebody else’s writing, since the same place (and many others like it) make frequent appearances in my own novels. Small world…

    regards,

    John

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