Later, everyone said he shoulda burnt the Most Powerful Hand, but it was me who said it first, them man not knowing too tough about the magic n dat. I reckon some of them just wanted a story to tell and, coz they didn’t have any of their own, they started catting the ting, repeating what they’d heard as if they’d been there when I told him what to do, or been with Deech when it all went left.
This is how it happened. Dario said yo Snoopz, Deech wants to chat to you about some move he’s got. I was like he wants to chat to me? And Dario was like yeah fam, he rates you innit, wants your advice or some shit.
So Deech comes to see me, tells me there’s this yard he’s been scoping and he’s got the drop from some man he knows who renovated it recently – did all their pine wood flooring and next boujee shit – and the man told Deech there’s a safe in this one room at the back of the house and it’s one of them fat-off yards with art on the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceilings like suicides and like five bathrooms and alladat, so you know the belly’s gonna be in that safe. The man gave him all the info, just wanted a 10 per cent cut of whatever came out of that safe, and he knew Deech wouldn’t snake the ting. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.
It was Deech’s first time doing a move like this, which is why he wanted to chat to me. I guess he looked up to me innit. What can I say? For a hot sec I was known in the ends for doing moves – and I mean real grimy shit, booting off doors and running up in yards and gunbucking everyone inside, taking all their ice and food and ps – proper greaze, you get me. Funny thing is though, it had been a while since I’d done one, months at least if not a whole year. See the fire in my heart was on its way out, even if I hadn’t quite got round to accepting it, but Deech had that fire with a piece of God and hell mixed up in it, bright and burning strong inside him, like you could practically see the heat from it all up in his face. Man was hungry forreal. I was at the end of something and he was at the beginning, know like dat?
So anyway, Deech came to check me in the attic of Dario’s mum’s yard where we all used to cotch and bun zoots, and we went through the whole ting – the best way to lick off the door, wear two layers of latex gloves, don’t mask up before you’re right in front of the yard, don’t look up at the cameras, what to carry, you know, the checklist of things to watch out for – but there was one thing I didn’t say and he sat there, folding his lip into his mouth like he wanted to ask me about suttin that we both knew we’d left out, but he didn’t know how to find the words.
Night rested the aching darkness of its back on the roof and then he said Snoopz, I heard that you bang juj before going on moves and that’s how it always goes right for you… and he left the sentence like that, floating in the air with all the smoke trapped in the attic and nowhere to go. You wanna know about the juj ting yeah? I said and ashed my zoot out in an empty Sprite bottle.
So I told him what to do. Told him to go and cop the Most Powerful Hand from the Haitian woman in Brixton. How when he burns it, before he asks the spirits for protection, he’s gotta stand barefoot on two bricks. How he has to concentrate forreal, eyes closed and alladat. How he’s gotta let it burn out on its own, even if it takes an hour to get done. Does it work? All I can say is whenever I did it, nuttin went left. We always got the belly and got away nice n clean, no repercussions.
So Deech went and did the move. Him and couple next man ran up in the yard when the family was at home – they needed to make sure there’d be someone there to open the safe innit. So they ran up in the yard, tied up the mum and the son – who was about six years old or suttin – and they told the man to open the safe. These times Deech had already gunbucked the man couple times to show him he wasn’t playing, but the man started acting like he couldn’t see properly coz of the blood in his eyes, telling Deech just take what you want and go. But Deech was only there for what was in that safe. He couldn’t pull the safe out and take it – it was one of them safes that’s built into the wall innit. Then Deech remembered that I told him once he’s inside, no long ting, you’ve got like five minutes max to do the madness and then you gotta cut, coz you never know what neighbour might hear a noise or clock suttin’s not right. Deech went over to where the man’s yout was tied up on the floor next to the mum, dragged him over to his dad, put the strap to the boy’s head and said open the fucking safe or I’ll headtop your kid. Fam, you won’t believe what happened. The man took one look at Deech holding a gun to his son’s head and fainted. No lie. Obviously they tried waking him up, but he was out cold, and the worst thing is, the mum didn’t even know the code herself. Deech said that there was no way she was lying – she was ready to do anything to get them out of there. He didn’t go into details about what they did with her, but he told me that in the end they even untied her so that she could try and wake her husband up. But she couldn’t. I don’t know, maybe he did have a heart attack. How should I know fam? All I’m saying is the man frassed out, the woman couldn’t wake him up, Deech couldn’t wake him up, and this brer was the only one who knew the code to the safe. What d’you think they did? They cut. I mean what else were they supposed to do?
I saw Deech couple weeks later and he told me all about it. He was upset fam, truss me. When he’d finished, I said did you burn the Most Powerful Hand though? He kissed his teeth and said nah fam, I never even got round to going Brixton to cop it from that Haitian woman, and then he bit the knuckle of his trigger finger and stared at something on the floor of Dario’s mum’s attic, while we bunned zoots and waited for the day to pass.
THE DARK KNIGHT
When I was a yout, and I mean a proper yout like four or five, I wanted to be a knight. I swear down. I wanted to have a full suit of armour and a sword and a green shield. I planned to ride around on horseback and have loads of adventures, especially ones where I’d end up saving princesses from dragons. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with the princesses – obviously I know now – but at the time I just knew it’d be a good look to save them and that maybe they’d take me back to their castles and their fathers would ask me to marry them. But I’d always refuse and say some epic shit like, “I must leave to pursue my quest”, and the princesses would cry and some of them would even throw themselves off the battlements and there’d be a massive banquet in my honour, and the next day I’d ride off to continue my adventures.
Of course I wasn’t planning to do this in the city. I mean, I’m a born and bred Londoner, the landscapes in my dreams are made of concrete and bricks and tarmac and pollution. But my thinking was that once I was old enough, I’d get my horse and armour, and I’d go out into the countryside where there were still plenty of forests. I figured there must be a bunch of mythical beasts and bandits lurking deep in those forests, and there’d be underground lairs and caves and the ruins of castles full of secrets, waiting for me to come across them. I guess you could say I was suffering from the joy of imagination. That’s how I know my mother was a good mother. She never told me it wasn’t possible, just let me realise it in my own way.
When I was a bit older, it was all about Batman. I could never get into the whole Marvel vibe where you’re just a normal kid getting bullied at school but then one day you get struck by lightning and two twos you’re fighting supervillains by shooting electricity out of your dick while wearing a silver jumpsuit but you have just one weakness, which is water, and somehow your enemies always work it out and… don’t get me started.
Batman, on the other hand, is my guy. I mean, his backstory is fully realistic. A billionaire who used his wealth to put decades of his life into learning every single martial art under the sun, fuelled by revenge for his parents’ murder – like who can’t get down with that? And coz he’s a billionaire, he invents mad technologies that he incorporates into a state-of-the-art bulletproof suit like some high-tech ninja, fighting crime and keeping the streets safe. Batman don’t play, he’ll crack a man’s head open. I had bare Batman action figures and comic books and my favourite T‑shirt had the bat logo on it.
Two twos I hit 13 and I wanted to be a gangster. Sometimes the dream was to be like the Italian-American mafia, like in Goodfellas, extorting businesses and wearing tailored suits and smoking cigars and eating lobster and garlic linguine (although I had no fucking clue what lobster tasted like). Other times I wanted to be a hood star. But I didn’t need movies for that. It was all there for me to see in real life on Harrow Road, in the estates all around where I grew up; you could see the olders who held the power and the fear, rocking leather Avirex jackets that creaked as they moved, destroying innocent dreams with the sparkle of diamond chains hanging from their necks, always rolling with these sexy young peng tings who’d never look twice at us dusty broke youngers – we all wanted to be like them man.
Then came the era where mandem started watching DVDs about Alpo, Rich Porter and AZ in Harlem, or the Larry Davis story, or Maserati Rick in Detroit, and we all wanted to be like that; shotting crack and throwing money in the air in clubs and driving mad German whips. So we tried. We tried hard.
I never stopped loving Batman though, but it hit me as I got older that Batman is a bit of a fascist agent of the law. That’s what reading a bunch of books on social theory at uni can do to your perspective innit. It’s like realising that one of those beautiful 500-year-old marble tombs in an Italian church that’s covered in sculptures of winged skulls and hourglasses and swords and suffering saints, is just a cold, expensive box, filled with the bones of someone who was lucky enough to be rich and powerful, while normal people were getting their bodies dumped in plague pits.
I mean, think about it. Batman literally brucks up any basic criminal who snatched a woman’s handbag – broken teeth and arms and legs and all sorts. No compassion for whatever fucked up circumstances might have pushed that brer into a life of petty crime in rubbish-strewn alleyways. No empathy for the disadvantages and disenfranchisement that leads people into breaking the law. It’s easy for the rich to judge criminals ah lie? They’ve never had to struggle to find their place in this world. Maybe Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have become Batman if he’d had some proper therapy after that guy turned his parents ghost.
My father introduced me to The Godfather films. I remember how we watched part one with all the lights in the flat switched off and the room around us disappeared. My father grew up in a huge Catholic family in Poland with like eight brothers and sisters and 10 aunts and uncles and 30 cousins, so he loved how the massive Italian-American family gatherings in the films gave him a slice of memory that took him back to his childhood. It was like the smell of something that he last ate in his mother’s kitchen, bringing back moments of a forgotten time. I liked the sense of family loyalty that the Corleones stuck to and we both agreed on that one. I also liked how Don Vito ruthlessly murked all his enemies. We didn’t talk so much about that bit.
After I first watched The Godfather, I taught myself how to play the theme tune on the piano. Every time my father’s friends came round and they started drinking, he’d be like, “Play The Godfather,” and I’d sit down and play it on our upright piano and his friends would clap and then my father would let me sit with them while they smoked and drank red wine and talked in Polish and their shadows played across the walls and I’d feel all grown up n shit. He also introduced me to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. That made me want to be a samurai, but in a way I also wanted to be like my father in terms of how much he knew about great films that were gateways into other worlds you could fall in love with.
When I started doing moves, and I had 10 grand all in £50 notes stashed in a shoebox under my bed from one of the robberies, and I was still staying the night occasionally at my parents’ flat before I went on the run, I remember there was this one morning when my father invited me to come to a caff down the road for breakfast. It was tucked in between the laundrette and the barbers at the bottom of our road, nothing special about it, but it was nice to go and have breakfast with him, since back then I rarely saw my parents, let alone spent any time with them at all.
The sun blinked in the sky and I felt a cramp in my heart as we walked down the street and went into the caff. We did a bit of small talk over scrambled eggs and baked beans and tea. Then he looked at me with something in his eyes that I couldn’t work out and said, “I must tell you Gabri, you have more money than I’ve ever had in one go in my life.”
I just smiled, but I couldn’t say anything because I knew what he was talking about, and on the real he’d allowed me as well by not saying suttin jarring like I found this shoebox under your bed and where did you get all this money from? I stuffed a whole slice of toast into my mouth.
Then he said, “Do you remember why Michael Corleone became the Godfather?”
“Because he didn’t get caught. So if you get caught, you’re an idiot.”
My face was burning and I felt as if I couldn’t swallow the toast that I was still chewing, so I nodded and looked at my plate. Then we finished our breakfast and he went to work and I went back to South Kilburn to jam with the mandem on the block and bun zoots and watch YouTube videos and plot a next robbery.
Pangzai, known as the Drinking King, is a Chinese farmer who became a YouTube star with tens of thousands of followers by doing videos of himself drinking crazy amounts of alcohol and not getting mashup. When I get mad charged and I’ve smoked so much I’m not even sure if I’m getting high anymore, I watch his videos. I don’t know why, but I guess it’s like those meditation videos people watch – something that stops your brain from thinking and reminding you that being alive is brutal.
In his videos, he often sits at a plastic white table with Chinese pop-rock blasting in the background. He pours bottles of rum, brandy, beer and wine into a jug, cracks an egg into the mixture, stirs it with a chopstick and then downs it in one go. He usually follows this by eating a giant spring onion and slices of donkey meat and pigskin jelly.
Before his YouTube career, his one claim to fame was being credited for providing the artificial snow in an obscure kung fu film that had some small success in China and Mongolia. The fake snow turned out to be toxic after several horses died from licking it during filming, a turn of events which quickly ended his future in the film industry.
When an American fan tracked him down to his village in Hubei province, he asked the Drinking King at what age he would be comfortable with his children drinking alcohol. Pangzai replied, “In secondary school they can have a beer, but if they want to drink however they want, they need to get into college. In the future I would like to be their drinking coach; in fact, I’d say that’s my main ambition now, because then I can teach them how to drink as much as possible without falling over. After all, I don’t particularly recommend drinking to get drunk. You should drink to make friends.”
THE JUGGLING BEAR
Inmates in HMP Wandsworth – one of the largest men’s prisons in the UK – watch Love Island on their TVs at night. Banging on their cell doors shouting. “OI DID YOU SEE THAT, MEGAN’S A SLAG”. Someone else shouts “SHUTDAFUCKUP MAN’S TRYNA SLEEP”. The next day, a stabbing in the showers.
Joey Essex goes to Uganda to film a reality TV show called Educating Joey Essex. The credits roll. He says, “Africa is a great country.” The producers say, “This is great TV.” No one knows what his job or actual talent is. Someone writes “television personality” on his Wikipedia page.
If you’re really devoted to reality TV, you know that whenever there’s a season of Big Brother, you can actually watch a 24-hour live feed of the house. Night-vision footage of contestants sleeping. Sometimes they stretch and turn over in their beds.
I want to be famous.
I want to be on TV.
What do you want to do on TV?
I don’t know. Anything really. I just want to be on the screen and entertain people.
During the London riots, while teenagers and dissatisfied citizens loot trainer shops and burn police cars, news presenters on six-figure salaries attack the values of “young people today”. They discuss how shallow and ungrateful they are, how materialistic, how none of them want to do hard work nowadays, they just want everything on a plate, which is why so many are involved in the looting. One of the presenters phones up a plumbing company in Tottenham and says I’m so-and-so from the BBC and the receptionist puts her straight through to the manager. She tells him that she’s doing a piece on how young people in the area feel there’s a lack of opportunities and how the government doesn’t care about them and do you have any apprenticeships available? Later she describes how easy it was for her to secure a plumbing apprenticeship.
The Parthenon was built almost 2500 years ago in the city-state of Athens and is one of the greatest surviving remnants of Ancient Greece (not to mention a major global tourist attraction). Shaquille O’Neal comes back from a trip to Greece and a reporter asks him if he’s visited the Parthenon. O’Neal, legendary seven-foot-one star of the LA Lakers, replies, “I can’t really remember the names of the clubs we went to.” Apparently, the same reporter goes on to ask for his opinion on how to resolve the civil war in Syria, although that part of the interview doesn’t make it to print.
Some people are just famous for being famous. As Kim Kardashian said, when asked about her perceived lack of talent in relation to her global fame, “Well, a bear can juggle and stand on a ball and he’s talented, but he’s not famous, do you know what I mean?”
From an article in the Daily Mail: “Shocking video has revealed the moment a 600lb circus bear attacked its trainer in the middle of a performance in Russia. The brown bear was pushing a wheelbarrow during the act in the western Karelia region when it suddenly lunged at the trainer, knocking him to the ground. The animal can then be seen biting at the man’s head and neck as screaming children sit just feet away. The 600lb beast was prodded with an electric shock device, as the audience fled for the only exit in the travelling circus’s big top.”
A kind and thoughtful face with the distance of the future like a horizon within his eyes. A red beret with a golden star on it. A socialist revolutionary in tailored military fatigues. A mother-of-pearl-handled pistol. A man who changed his country’s name from being a piece of the colonial pie of Africa known as French Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which literally translates as “upright father’s house”, or “land of the upright people”. I’m talking about Thomas Sankara.
He became president in 1983 after a coup d’état (ironically a French term for overthrowing the state), which got rid of a dysfunctional French-controlled puppet regime. Sankara swiftly set about engineering drastic social reforms that reversed the under-development and structural inequalities fostered by colonialism. Among his immediate achievements was the vaccination of 2.5 million children from meningitis, yellow fever and measles, a huge educational campaign that increased nationwide literacy from 13 per cent to 73 per cent in under four years, the planting of 10 million trees to prevent desertification, the outlawing of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, the reduction of salaries and general luxuries afforded to civil servants and government ministers, and the rejection of vampiric foreign aid in favour of creating total self-sufficiency.
In 1987, with the support of the French, cronyistic tribal leaders and officials who missed syphoning the country’s money into their private Swiss bank accounts, Thomas Sankara was assassinated by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. After peppering him with bullets, his body was chopped up and buried in an unmarked grave. Compaoré then established a dictatorship which was to last for the next 27 years, during which he reversed all of Sankara’s policies and the country’s general progress.
More time when people think about writers, they think of some dry, reclusive individual who poses in photos in front of bookshelves holding a cat, wears blazers and knitted cardigans and thinks red wine and hand-rolled cigarettes are somehow edgy. I know, I know, I’m talking smack. But you get what I’m trying to say, don’t you. Rappers are edgy. Ageing rockstars and coked-up actors are edgy. But writers? Nah. Well, at least that’s what some people think. But let me tell you about Yukio Mishima.
Born in Tokyo in 1925, he went on to write a bunch of mad novels about hidden identities, nationalism, death cults, sex and the unattainability of true happiness. Strongly opposed to the imitation of Western culture and Western materialism, he believed in the code of the samurai (known as bushido) and that a return to such values would prevent the Japanese from becoming a rootless people. He regularly lifted weights and was proficient at karate and the Japanese sword-fighting discipline of kendo. Eventually, he formed a private militia of about a hundred students, called Tatenokai or “Shield Society”, dedicated to traditional warrior values and protecting the Emperor of Japan.
On 25 November 1970, Mishima and four of his most loyal students armed themselves with katanas (the traditional Japanese samurai sword) and stormed the headquarters of a military base in Tokyo, taking the commanding officers hostage before barricading themselves inside. The parade ground of the military base was full of fresh army recruits, so while his followers tied up the commanders, Mishima went out onto the balcony and gave a rousing speech about the virtues of bushido and how a return to the old warrior ways would herald a golden age for Japan – especially after the Americans had dropped nuclear bombs on them and introduced baseball and Father Christmas. Unfortunately, the new recruits responded negatively, jeering and laughing at his performance, which also wasn’t helped by the fact that most of his words were drowned out by a helicopter carrying a news crew who were trying to capture the scene. Mishima then went back into the commander’s office and, shamed by his failure, proceeded to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide-by-disembowelment practised by samurai to ensure an honourable death.
In a remarkable display of conviction, he sat down and, using a short sword, sliced his belly open. According to tradition, one of his loyal followers, Morita, had been appointed as a kaishakunin, a person with the duty to behead the individual performing seppuku at the moment of agony. However, Morita just couldn’t bring himself to behead the man he looked up to. Out of shame at his own failure to perform this final necessary task, he kneeled down beside Mishima and cut his own stomach open as well. Another student then used his katana to behead both the writer and the failed kaishakunin.
But like I said, for me, growing up it was all about rappers. From when I was 13 I wanted to be a rapper. But fuck all the conscious shit. It was never about that. It was the gangsta shit I loved, it was rappers like Mobb Deep and Nas and Soulja Slim and all them No Limit man who I looked up to, real talk. Nas’s album It Was Written was something else. I’d even say it had one of the biggest impacts on me as a writer; just the way Nas evoked that dingy project-hallway-smelling-of-piss crack-slinging gun-in-the-bush watch-your-back eyes-bloody-from-weed fucking-bitches-in-the-lift fiends-and-snitches-and-undercovers-lurking vibe. On one level it transported me to somewhere else like all great writing, all great art, should. But on another level it also evoked something of the world I was already getting to know at 13, jamming on the block in Warwick Estate after school, watching the shotters hit crack sells in front of the chicken shop, sharing a zoot with five next man to get high before going home, clothes smelling of weed and empty hopes, blood on the floor of my local youth club after someone got stabbed up over the wrong word or the wrong look, shoplifting and happy slapping strangers at bus stops, blue and red bandanas and Nike Air Max trainers… and the thing about rappers like Nas and Mobb Deep is that their lyrics weren’t just some dumb thugged-out shit. I mean, they were thugged out, but they were also mad vivid and complex, using serious vocabulary to paint a picture that sucked you in until you drowned in the imagery.
One of the illest tracks on It Was Written was Affirmative Action, where AZ, Cormega, Nas and Foxy Brown all spat mad flames. So when Cormega, who’d actually lived that thug life forreal in the notorious New York housing projects of Queensbridge, dropped his album The Realness, I was hooked. The tracks on that album went right into my veins.
By that time I was 15, I’d already been expelled from school and was getting up to all sorts of shit on the roads with my best friend Depz. We used to draw chicks together and mash them in the bushes in parks, keeping an eye out for each other while we took turns as the day shivered through the leaves, robbing next youts for their wallets and phones, and getting into beef with brers from next ends over fuckery like not moving out the way or screwfacing or whatever.
When we listened to The Realness, it was the track R U My Nigga? that had us fully gassed. The opening lyrics asked the questions that mattered the most:
Ask yourself am I your man/
Would I die for you or by your hand/
If I go broke would you divide your grand/
Put me in your plans/
Hold me down with your heat if my shit jams?
Without saying anything to each other it’s like we knew this type of loyalty was the benchmark for our friendship and that we’d hold each other down forever, regardless of how sticky the situation might get. We’d sooner die for one another than ever run in a madness. Better to back it, no matter the odds, even if that meant getting our heads buss together and taking an L. Real talk. Three years later we’d drifted apart, stopped talking and lost each other’s numbers.
Fast forward about 10 years and there was a Cormega concert in Brixton Mass, a converted church, which my bredrin Ben went to. I was pissed that I didn’t cop a ticket when it happened, but I only clocked that I’d missed it the day after. Later, Ben told me he rolled up to the venue but there was no queue to get in and there were only eight people in the entire audience. Eight people. There were more people in Cormega’s entourage who’d flown with him all the way from New York, than in the whole crowd. No lie, on God.
Two twos Cormega comes on stage wearing a black fur coat with black sunglasses on, platinum chains swinging from his neck, holding an actual fully grown leopard on a leash, and starts rapping to an empty venue. The show was supposed to last about an hour and a half, going through all his greatest hits and classics, but after 20 minutes he set off the entire pyrotechnic sequence, starting with fountains of sparks and ending with a shower of dollar bills. Then he came off stage and proceeded to get drunk on Hennessy at the bar with the eight fans who’d shown up for the performance. I don’t know what happened to the leopard though.
Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted debut novel by Gabriel Krauze, is out now