Poverty is always a simple story full of missing people. In a week when American Congress has passed a Bill to give over a trillion dollars American taxpayer’s money to the obscenely rich, Kit de Waal’s, My Name is Leon, is a fictional, child’s account, of what it means to be poor and forgotten in Britain in the nineteen-eighties. The irony here is things were better then.
Leon is nine and he takes care of his mum, Carol, as best he can, his favourite programme is The Dukes of Hazzard. His mum’s life is chaotic. Drink, drugs and men. Leon has never seen the father of the new baby, Jake. Jake is white, his mum is white, but Leon is black, or more dark brown, but big for his age. Leon needs to take care of his mum and now he needs to take care of baby Jake. Jake is beautiful and funny and Leon loves him very much, but his mum is unravelling in front of him. Sometimes Leon gets help from Tina upstairs, but Tina can’t cope with Carol and Carol can’t cope with life. Leon and Jake are taken into care.
Maureen, the black and elderly foster carer, is an oasis of calm for Leon and Jake. I was recently looking at somebody’s story for them, and it was all tell and not show. That’s one of those gimmicky phrases like you need to kill your darlings that make you want to stick the head on them. But here is it, show not tell, translated into a world of caring in the term ‘neck-back’.
Right below the base of the skull, right where the knuckly backbone pokes up towards his brain, Leon has a little dent. It’s a groove that dips in between two hard bits and Maureen made it.
She must have made some kind of mark by now after six months living with her. It’s when she pushes Leon with her thick fingers whenever he has to do something, to go somewhere, to pick something up, to watch what he’s doing. Go to bed. She never pushes him hard, but it’s always the same place, same spot right on the neck… ‘his neck-back’.
Leon’s life would be perfect, if he had his mum and Maureen to live with them. But then he loses Jake, who is adopted by a white couple. Leon knows Jake need him to take care of him, but he’s powerless. And he’s powerless when Maureen gets ill and is taken into hospital. Maureen’s sister Sylvia is a harder kind of Maureen, but she agrees to take Leon in until Maureen gets better. Leon’s not sure about Sylvia, but he is sure Jake misses him and he has a plan to steal him away and bring him up himself, perhaps with his mum’s help. Leon’s sneaky that way, stealing change from purses, nicking things he might need, preparing himself.
He meets Tufty at the local plot, a safe place where locals come to feel their fingers in the soil and grow themselves into better people. Tufty is angry, of course, he is angry, at the casual racism and the way the police trample over his plot and trample over poor black people’s lives. Castro, Tufty’s mate, is killed by the police, but, of course, it’s not the police’s fault. The race riot that follows provides a kind of denouement of the book. But first Tufty gives Leon some advice. Gives all of us working-class people some advice that in the propaganda war against the monopoly of the rich that we got battered and lost, and we sometimes forget.
When people fuck with you, you got a choice. You fuck back or you swallow down…Swallow down enough times and you start to choke.
Amen my brother, sister, mother.