:: Article

All the Angels Sing

By Max Dunbar.


Hood Rat, Gavin Knight, Picador 2011

In summer 2009 the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling visited Manchester’s traditional crime flashpoint Moss Side as part of the corporate softening of the Conservative Party’s image. After doing the usual multi-agency shit and police patrols, Grayling concluded that ‘Even as someone well aware of the gang problem in our society, it was a shocking and enlightening experience. What was going on there at the time was nothing short of an urban war…. [classic crime drama] The Wire has become a part of real life in our country too.’

If you are going to reference The Wire you need to get your figures straight. Grayling’s speech outraged the local press, which pointed out that Baltimore, where David Simon’s masterpiece is set, suffered 234 murders in 2008 while Manchester had just 35. Also, Baltimore has a much smaller population, at just 600,000 to Manchester’s 2.5 million. Moss Side is a scary name to throw around, but everyone recognises the area is much safer than it was when Grayling’s party last enjoyed power. (‘Twenty years ago, you drive through here fast,’ a middle-aged cab driver told me when I asked him if he’d known the place long.) The illegality of weapons helps. Even professional criminals have to pay over the odds for a gun that’s never been fired. Grayling’s speech damaged Cameron’s strategy to win over the north with One Nation philanthropy and illustrated, perhaps, why the Tories will never be the party of the inner city.

Yet there were similarities, that grow more visible as the recession continues. Both Manchester and Baltimore are great industrial cities, and the death of manufacturing has caused a working-class crisis in both cities. Consummate junkie Bubbles strips metal from tin roofing and the aluminium walls of abandoned rowhouses to feed his habit. In Manchester, in fact all over the UK, we’re losing steel, lead, copper, and iron from roofs and phone lines and gullies and chimney stacks and railway stations. Donations of clothes left outside charity shops overnight will likely be gone by dawn. Like the price of scrap metal, the price of scrap clothes has rocketed. There is even a suggestion that organised crime is involved in the stolen metal trade. In The Corner, a street-level precursor, Simon describes this as a kind of cannibalisation of the city.

Gavin Knight’s book follows both sides of the law in Manchester, London and Glasgow. Like Simon and Burns, Knight absents himself from the narrative, which is localised and focused on single characters in three cities. This has confused British reviewers, who like their crime clear-cut. Some critics compared Hood Rat to David Simon’s police reportage book Homicide, others dismissed it entirely as fiction.

Truth be told, there is a feeling of unreality to the whole thing. GMP’s Anders Svensson is a troubled idealist copper in the McNulty mode. By the end of his adventure the man’s second marriage has fallen apart due to his dedication and long hours, leaving Svensson spending many evenings at a strip club. You expect the guy to tell us that he doesn’t always play it by the book but, goddamnit, he gets results.

The Manchester chapters are littered with traces of verisimilitude – GMP’s ‘Ageing Behind Bars’ posters, the evidence lifted from bullet striation marks, all this jolts the reader back into reality. As Knight tells it, the two targets, Merlin and Flow, were wanted for two murders, one of which was killed at a drive-by past the wake of the other. Cell siting on Merlin’s phone created a dot pattern identical to the route of the murder car. Stringer Bell would have turned his face to the wall at the mere thought.

You can’t help thinking at times that Knight has simplified what was a complex and exhaustive investigation, that had massive impact – gun crime went down by 92% after the arrests. The book needs more space. And Knight’s tone lets him down. Too many stories of abuse, violence and grief are rendered with terse staccato relish and reverence. He’s like the crime reporter, thrilling at nods from detectives; or the student barman staying back after hours to listen to the faces, thinking this’ll get him respect and women, when any one of those villains could tell him there is more respect and women to be had by going to your lectures and working hard. Knight is absent in the way that the piano player is absent from the bordello.

Yet the book is a step forward for British true crime. Here’s a passage set in the Easterhouse A & E, which sees many facial injuries from baseball bats and golf clubs:

From the neck up it tends to be broken cheekbones, broken lower jaw, smashed-in teeth, broken nose… a mid-face fracture where the bones of his face can be disarticulated from the bones of his skull. His face will all be in pieces like a chocolate Easter egg smashed against a table. Not life-threatening but difficult to fix. A broken jaw will probably keep him out for a few weeks. It will be very uncomfortable, difficult to eat and he’ll lose a lot of weight; his lower lip and cheek will go numb. For a long time later when he bites into food it won’t feel right, the teeth won’t fit together. Sometimes the blows from the baseball bat or golf club break up the cheekbone and damage the eye socket so badly there is nothing to hold up the eye… He has double vision and finds it very difficult to drive, to ride a bike or play snooker. If he gets a really good whack in the eye he’ll get a haemorrhage behind the socket and the optic nerve will get squashed. He will go blind in that eye.

I can’t help thinking the cuts programme and flatline growth rate will kill Manchester’s renaissance. If that happens, young men are going to have to find strength inside themselves and remember another Stringer Bell line: ‘Later for that gangsta bullshit.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 4th, 2011.