In spite of the fact that we’ve had a long-afflicted fetish for watching bloody, gory gang life in Britain on screen – A Clockwork Orange, Kidulthood, Top Boy, Danny Dyer, for god’s sake – posh critics weren’t so ready when confronted with Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel, Who They Was, last year.
The ultraviolent, autofictional account of the author’s early years growing up in a London gang in South Kilburn seemed to rub a few white-haired reviewers up the wrong way. But it didn’t stop the book landing on The Booker Prize’s longlist, wedging itself between the typical middle-class prose of the Prize’s nominees.
“I’m not surprised by some of the criticism,” says 34-year-old Krauze who, sitting directly in front of me, shrugs, slightly opening his mouth to show a diamond grill popped into his top teeth. “Given the hard nature of the book, and that there are a lot of people out there who are mad sensitive – even though they purport to be open to all things within art – the reality is that when they’re confronted by difficult, confrontational aspects, all their sensibilities come out. They’re offended by things and get bothered.”
Krauze grew up with little money. As the child of Polish immigrants, both artists, he was often given books for birthdays, never owning a games console and sharing a four-channel TV with the rest of his family. Reading was his first venture into the literary world. He found solace in the characters and storylines – unaware he’d be depicting his own plots 20-something years later. “If you get a kid into reading early on, that’s them sorted,” he adds.
Around the age of 13, though, Krauze was exposed to violent gang life in and around his northwest London home. By age 14 he’d witnessed a stabbing and, at 17, he’d leave home, finding himself in London’s criminal underground, breaking arms to steal watches and planting knives in those who merely bumped into him. On the first page of Who They Was, Krauze and a partner mug a woman outside her home.
“It’s about the pursuit of materialistic gain, a lack of empathy, and a lack of connection with other people,” he says. “You live in this mad, insulated world that’s about violence and respect – those things are paramount and most important.”
But alongside this, Krauze was living something of a double life, not that he’d ever call it that. He was studying for a BA in English Literature at Queen Mary’s University, sitting through lectures, writing essays, analysing books, and making a living through crime once the sun had set. Of course he didn’t have to. It was all down to passion. He stresses that he went to every lecture he could: “I’d come straight from court in my suit to uni, making sure I still hit up the seminar,” he says, with a smile. “I think that’s why my personal dichotomy is interesting to people. I don’t think there are a lot of people out there like me, and I don’t mean that in a good or bad way.”
Throughout his twenties, Krauze was balancing this dual-life as a “natural part of his identity”. He’d be sat in a trap house with a spliff in one hand and a copy of Book of Nature in the other, writing notes because he had a 3,000-word essay due in a few days’ time. “I wanted to be around my people, init,” he says. “To me, it was all part of the same thing.”
Krauze is well aware that reading is a privilege in its own right, one of which he’s grateful to have been exposed to from an early age. But to get more kids into books, especially the kid he was at 13-years-old, he emphasises the need for literature providing a “real window” into the lives of gang members and the precarious reality of a life in crime. Not film or TV, but actual books.
“We’ve got all that. What we don’t have is literature,” Krauze says. “If this [book] spawns a new generation of young people reading and writing about gritty urban realism, they know who to pay homage to.”
Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted debut novel by Gabriel Krauze, is out now