Book Review - Sufferah: Memoir of a Brixton Reggae Head

Many of the characters in Alex Wheatle's novels are sufferahs – those born disadvantaged; outsiders who take on a hostile world and fight against repression and loneliness. His poignant memoir gives us insights into his own suffering: his early life in care, the bullying and abuse he endured, the brutality of the police. Yet Sufferah also documents his love of reggae, the joy of discovering his paternal family and his journey to become an award-winning writer. Reggae helped define Wheatle, offering him solace during the dark times and inspiring his creativity. As novelist-playwright Vanessa Walters suggests in her introduction: “These anthems provided context and companionship in his struggle.”

Wheatle was born in south London in 1963. His mother, Almira, briefly resident in the UK without her husband and children, had an affair with his Jamaican-born father, Alfred. After giving birth, Almira returned to her family in Jamaica, entrusting her baby son to Alfred. The pressure of caring for him was too much for the young carpenter and in the summer of 1966 Alex was sent to the Shirley Oaks children’s home in Croydon.

Clearly traumatised by his childhood experiences, this is a searing account of Wheatle’s time in care and the failings of social services. He avoids going into detail about the physical, sexual and mental abuse he suffered – “forgive me if I do not dwell on this aspect of my life for too long” – but lists the implements his sadistic housemother used to strike him, from coal shovels and fire pokers to steel ladles and curtain rails.

Wheatle is matter-of-fact about the blatant racism he endured as a boy: “As far back as I can remember, I was made to feel inferior because of the colour of my skin.” He passes quickly over the shocking incident at reform school that proved such a powerful image in Steve McQueen’s film about him, part of the Small Axe series in 2020: a teenage Wheatle straitjacketed and thrown on to the floor of an empty gym hall.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are moments of the joy afforded by music and its extraordinary ability to sustain and empower him. The first reggae track he heard, aged 13, was Rupie Edwards’s Ire Feelings. “Reggae hooked me from the start,” Wheatle writes. “It’s been a love affair that has never let me down.” He would walk miles to attend sound system dances and gleefully observes: “If I could’ve sat down for a reggae A-level, I’m confident I would’ve passed and gone on to Reggae University.

The April 1981 Brixton uprising was a result of the New Cross fire on 18 January, in which 13 young Black people died. This was followed by the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March to protest at the lack of a proper investigation into the blaze, which some suspected was a racist attack. Living in Brixton, Wheatle witnessed first-hand the police crackdown that ensued: “It felt like a military occupation. They stopped Black people with impunity… claiming we looked like we were about to commit a crime.”

In diary form, Wheatle vividly describes the days of the uprising, recalling the soundtrack that accompanied him, which included Freddie McGregor’s More Love in the Ghetto and Max Romeo’s Melt Away. When he was imprisoned for his participation, Bob Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootin’ played inside his head. His cellmate, Simeon, introduced him to the world of books and encouraged him to read: “If you don’t know your past, you can’t know your future. Know who you are and where you stand in the struggle.” It was to be the making of him. Wheatle’s debut, Brixton Rock, was published in 1999 and he was awarded the MBE for services to literature in 2008.

Conversational and full of self-deprecating humour, Sufferah is a potent tale of triumph over adversity. Angry but never bitter, Wheatle’s compassion shines through the pain.

Originally publihed by The Observer