07 December 2020 00:33
Sign up to FREE email alerts from MyLondon - MySouthLondon News Subscribe Thank you for subscribing We have more newsletters Show me See our privacy notice Invalid Email Steve McQueen's new TV anthology Small Axe has been captivating audiences with its heartfelt but often brutal portrayal of the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The five-part series has covered some hard-hitting topics such as the Mangrove Nine trial and racism in the Metropolitan Police but also lighter ones like falling in love. The name of the series comes from the proverb - "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe". But award-winning author Alex Wheatle, whose story the latest episode on Sunday, December 6 tells, was no small axe. For more news and features about London directly to your inbox sign up to our newsletter here.
Born in 1963 to Jamaican parents, he grew up in the notorious Shirley Oaks children's home in Croydon - which has been at the centre of a sexual abuse inquiry. In his teens Alex moved to Brixton where his life changed. Throwing himself into the music scene and buzz of the area, he was there when the 1981 Brixton Riots took place. To many, including those involved, the events were known instead as the Brixton Uprising. (Image: Mirror Screen Grab) The area at the time was faced by serious social and economic problems, including high crime rates.
In April of that year the Met Police began a new crackdown. Get more news updates for your local area by putting your postcode into our handy widget below: They called it Operation Swamp 81 after Maggie Thatcher's 1978 claim that the UK "might be rather swamped by people of a different culture". In six days 943 people, most of them black, were stopped by plain-clothes police officers. (Image: Chris Berry) Tensions were high and a misunderstanding over a stabbing injury led to full on riots breaking out. It was during this chaos that Alex was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, criminal damage and resisting arrest. Later a government backed report found unquestionable evidence of disproportional use of 'stop and search' powers by the Met Police against black people. Have you been watching Small Axe? Which has been your favourite of the films shown so far? Let us know in the comments here. While in prison Alex began reading non-stop and when he was released he turned his energy to writing. He is most well known and has won multiple awards for his books Brixton Rock, East Acre Lane and Crongton Knights. In 2008, he was awarded the MBE for services to literature. Learn the full story in the Small Axe episode 'Alex Wheatle' which airs on BBC One on Sunday (December 6) at 9pm. Is there a story in your corner of the city you think MyLondon should be covering? Please get in touch at [email protected] Underpinning this week's episode of Small Axe, Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed miniseries on BBC One, are timely ideas about the importance of understanding our heritage and history. It tells the true story of the award-winning author Alex Wheatle, who was taken into care in the 1960s as a small boy and raised in Shirley Oaks in majority-white Surrey. Housed in an abusive care home and educated at a violently racist school, the young Alex (played by Asad-Shareef Muhammad) knows nothing about his parents or his Jamaican background. He's never heard of reggae, and when his Jamaican friend Dennis' (Jonathan Jules) sister asks about his own family, he can't answer. You may also like Small Axe: what you need to know about the BBC's must-watch period drama There's a clear link between Alex's detachment from his Blackness and his desperate, devastating loneliness. One agonising moment sees him listening to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, as the author Roald Dahl chuckles in his upper-crust accent that he'd "love" to be alone on a desert island. The contrast with Alex's genuine, enforced isolation – he might as well be abandoned on an island, for all the community he's found in Surrey – is painful. Small Axe: Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle, shortly upon arriving in Brixton Everything changes when Alex moves from the care home in Surrey to a hostel in Brixton. Actor Sheyi Cole, who plays the teenage and adult Alex, does something astonishing with his face as he glides through south London in the back of a car: staring out of the window at streets populated almost entirely by Black people, he looks suddenly lit from within, as though he can't believe such a place exists. You may also like BBC One Small Axe: Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock proves joy is a radical act It's in Brixton that Alex meets Dennis, who teaches him (for a small fee) how to walk, talk, dress and act like a confident young Jamaican man (lesson number one: the police are not your friends). He's also introduced to Black people who take passionate pride in their roots, such as the barber who tells him forcibly that he is African – rebuffing Alex's cheery declaration that "I might be Black, but I'm from Surrey". Small Axe: Khali Best as Badger, Sheyi Cole as Alex and Jonathan Jules as Dennis in Alex Wheatle The film starts and (almost) ends in prison, where Alex has been sent for participating in the 1981 Brixton Uprising. He's sharing a cell with Simeon (Robbie Gee), an ageing Rastafarian on hunger strike because the guards won't serve him Ital food. Simeon impresses upon Alex the importance of understanding Black history, and tells him to start by reading The Black Jacobins by Trinidadian historian CLR James – an account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when self-liberated slaves successfully overthrew the French colonial government. (This isn't the first time the book has appeared in a Small Axe film: it also makes a cameo in Mangrove, where it's seen in the hands of activist Darcus Howe.) "Education, Alex," says Simeon. "Education is the key… If you don't know your past, then you won't know your future." Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in Steve McQueen's fourth Small Axe film It's a powerful line, and one that sums up the driving force behind the entire Small Axe series. From the Mangrove Nine to Leroy Logan, Steve McQueen's films are shining a light on Black British stories that have never been given such a prominent platform before. For many viewers, this episode may be their first introduction to the New Cross fire of 1981, in which 13 young Black people aged between 14 and 22 died at a house party. Initially, police believed the house had been firebombed in a racist attack – a plausible explanation at a time when racial tensions were running high in that part of south-east London and far-right group the National Front was active in the area. Yet officers later ruled the fire had been started accidentally inside the house, prompting an outpouring of pain and frustration from the local Black community that contributed to the Brixton Uprising a few months later. Small Axe: Fumilayo Brown-Olateju as Dawn in Alex Wheatle Part of the UK's problem with race lies with the fact that too many of us don't know these stories — hence the ongoing campaign to get more Black British history onto UK school curriculums. (Indeed, it's not hard to imagine a world in which the Small Axe series is shown in GCSE history lessons.) If you don't know about the background to the Brixton Uprising, or the events that led to the trial of the Mangrove Nine, it's easier to refuse to acknowledge this country's deep legacy of state-enforced and state-supported racism. You may also like BBC One Small Axe: the true story of the Mangrove Nine and their landmark victory for Black Britain