There was a time before black British fiction, and that time was not that long ago. I am exaggerating for effect, but not by much. Courttia Newland was one of few shining early lights in that wilderness, with his wonderful novel from ’97, The Scholar. This story is like a scene from Top Boy yet all the more poignant for its temporal reversal.
First published in Sex & Death, Faber & Faber, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs; collected in Best British Short Stories 2017, Salt Publishing
I have to have a Newland story in here, but I confess I know Courttia quite well and have even had dinner with him on more than one occasion. My excuse for this one not being a buddy-entry is that I read it before I ever met Courttia. Back in 2014 I used to do a radio show on NTS, a local Hackney broadcaster that is now the biggest online radio station in Europe (potentially the world). I did the breakfast show on a Friday morning 9-12pm. It was immense fun. Sometimes I would invite writers on to read stories and talk about their work in between playing banging tunes to start your weekend. Courttia was one of those guests and we had a total blast. I had invited him based on this story, ‘Fresh for ’88’, because I loved it so much I wanted to hear him read it out loud. It’s a simple tale of two young friends entering a rap battle contest in the late 80s with a wonderful little twist at the end (I won’t spoil it for you). The beauty is in the dialogue, the sense of wonderment in the characters and that feeling that youth will go on forever. Newland captures a forgotten element of London’s cultural history so well.
From A Book Of Blues, Flambard Press 2011
London, early evening, any day. The warm black body lies on the cold black street.
Courttia Newland’s ‘Reversible’ begins with a sadly all too familiar scene. A crowd surrounds the body of a young, black man who has just been shot by a policeman. But ‘Reversible’ – as the title suggests – enacts its own revolutionary proposition: ‘The blood beneath the body slows to a trickle and stops. It makes a slow return inwards.’ Slowly and carefully, and with a methodical relentlessness and rigour, Newland turns back time and undoes this crime. Bullets leave the body, the young man rises, cars swerve away from the scene in reverse . . . ‘Reversible’ is both a daring and visionary story, and in itself an act of protest. There are of course other stories – novels – that reverse time to political ends: Philip K Dick’s 1967 civil rights movement novel Counter-Clock World, or Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. ‘Reversible’ is a great story, and it’s an example of the way that short stories are sometimes exchanged between writers, behind the scenes. I saw ‘Reversible’ in its draft form pre-publication after I’d sent Courttia a copy of a short story of mine that looked at the issue of deaths in custody in a different way. Out of that exchange came a live event at the brilliant Housmans Bookshop in King’s Cross, London, but also a sense of solidarity that was important at a time when I was unsure about the direction that this particular story of mine was taking. It was reassuring to learn that another writer was writing about the same difficult subject from a different angle, doing so with the utmost conceptual rigour and depth of thought, and without dishonouring any victim. Quite an achievement.
First published in Sex And Death: Stories, edited by Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs, Faber and Faber 2016. Collected in Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle, Salt 2017