Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze reviewed

Who They Was Book Cover Who They Was
Gabriel Krauze
4th Estate
August 03, 2020

This life is like being in an ocean. Some people keep swimming towards the bottom. Some people touch the bottom with one foot, or even both, and then push themselves off it to get back up to the top, where you can breathe. Others get to the bottom and decide they want to stay there. I don’t want to get to the bottom because I’m already drowning.

This is a story of a London you won’t find in any guidebooks.

This is a story about what it’s like to exist in the moment, about boys too eager to become men, growing up in the hidden war zones of big cities – and the girls trying to make it their own way.

This is a story of reputations made and lost, of violence and vengeance – and never counting the cost.

This is a story of concrete towers and blank eyed windows, of endless nights in police stations and prison cells, of brotherhood and betrayal.

This is about the boredom, the rush, the despair, the fear and the hope.

This is about what’s left behind.

Fiction or non-fiction Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze is Snoopz’s story. This is the name that Gabriel uses in his life on the streets and in the gangs in London. That life consists of crime, drugs, friends, girls and, slightly surprisingly, his time at uni doing his English degree. It’s violent and at times unpleasant – knives are normal, guns sometimes. The police, courts and prison make appearances. It is not a “pretty” story, it’s visceral and edgy.

As an old person it took me a little while to get into the language being used here. There were a lot of words I didn’t know (or in some cases didn’t make sense in the way they were used). “Food” means something very different to me than it does to Snoopz and the gangs culture of South Kilburn! This is so far from the world that is usual to me… If you do find you can get the language you are in for an interesting journey.

I guess I’m conflicted here. This story effectively glorifies violence, crime and drugs – “things” are simply something to be taken from others whatever it costs. It certainly shows young men seeing women as objects. So far so bad… However the writing and the power of the stories are remarkable. The tension between rivals – gangs or people – is tangible and quite scary. The sheer drive to rob, use women, get possessions and in this case to get an English degree come over so strongly. Living – and the obvious but usually ignored possibility of dying – makes for something that is very vivid.

For me the star aspect of this is the writing. Once you get into it (if you can) it is stunning for me. Most of it has a real lyricism. Parts of it are wonderfully poetic. I found myself wishing I had thought of some of the lines in it. It makes for a convincing but troubling read. I’m left with the feeling that Gabriel was probably a good boy – Snoopz is definitely not. However, good or bad, it comes over as something very real indeed. I certainly have no regrets about reading Who They Was.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review