Graeme Armstrong (2020) The Young Team

Gore Vidal is attributed with the quote, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. Graeme Armstrong is not a friend of mine. But the title of his book, The Young Team needs no detailed sociological explanation. I don’t need to go searching for definitions in The Urban Dictionary.  I’m proud to be working class, less proud to have a chib mark on my face and knocked guys out and been a baw hair away from being killed. I know about drink and drugs. When I started writing short bits about people I knew that had died, the bodies started stacking up. Many of them were suicides. Armstrong is telling me nothing new. But he’s on my turf. When I try and get my manuscripts for novels published and get knocked back that’s a lot of work. And I need to rise again. Go again. He succeeds. And part of me is glad, but part of me isn’t, because publishing is a small world. When I think of it I think of it, think of them, I recall the  D.H. Lawrence poem, The English Are So Nice.

Publishers are so nice

so awfully nice

they’re the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more they’re so very nice about being nice

about your being so nice as well!

If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Publishers are middle-class. Armstrong and me are working class. His is a niche publication. He’s taking up my space, but it’s not his fault we live in a middle-class world. It’s not my fault. The exception to the rule is used to prove the rule. A bit like coloured cabinet ministers in Tory land. Look, we’re not racist, their leader can say. His success is my failure.

But Armstrong is braver than me. His first-person, personal account, is in Scottish dialect. That’s a killer. James Kelman gets away with it in books about working-class life such as Kieron Smith, boy—a coming of age novel that covers some of the same ground—because he won the Brooker Prize with How Late it was How Late. Armstrong’s two sponsors of the book, Kerry Hudson and Janice Galloway use dialect, but only in direct speech. Alan Bisset also wants to let his characters in Boyracers, speak like he speaks, with a Falkirk twang, but descriptions are in the Queen’s English. Carl MacDougall’s characters when they swear say ‘fuckin.’ No apostrophe. Bernard MacLaverty (an honorary Scot) characters say ‘fucken’ (or it might be the other way about – I can’t remember). William McIlvanney’s characters swear, but perhaps less than you’d think.  Maggie O’Farrell’s characters don’t swear much, but then again, they tend to be more middle-class and go to university. Geniuses such as Lewis Grassic Gibbons (James Leslie Mitchell) create their own hybrid written-spoken language of North East dialect for a young Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to tell her story. Language can be a bit of a fuck-up and the more extreme can sound like pastiche of proper Young Team patter.

The beginning of the book, when the narrator is thirteen or fourteen-years old sets the tone. The book follows him and his muckers progress for about eight years. The Young Team, the Airdrie team, are living the life. The book is set out like a report. Part 1, Crucible. I’m not sure I like that. Or think it’s necessary. Let’s just tell the fuckin story, like Bernard Hare does in, for example, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew  (but then again his chapters in his novel begin with crappy poetry). Here’s the beginning of the book. Judge for yerself.

Urban Legends 2004

The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin. We’ aw stood intae a wee corner oot the wet n away fae the eager eyes ae Strathclyde’s finest. At weekends our area is jumpin wae polis, aw lookin tae bust yi. They never wanted tae git their boots muddy, walkin doon the Mansion but, so yi wur usually safe here. There’s two community police that sometimes ventured doon n busted cunts rollin joints, the fat wan called Muldoon n the skinny wan we aw called the Roadrunner, cos he’s rapid. The elder wans had told us aboot the polis raidin it once before we knew of the place’s existence.

Writing the gallus is easy. Writing the vulnerable is what makes characters walk and talk and become human. Azzy might be a hard wee cunt, but he’s just a wee boy and as he grows up he discovers clan loyalty isn’t enough. It offers no way out and he has panic attacks and becomes depressed. He’s not the only causality. Every day is ground-hog day and it’s wearing on the body and mind. With no way out, some of the not-so-young team become smack addicts in their teens, some kill themselves, some are killed. There are statistics in the chapter headings. But Azzy carries on his battle and it becomes with himself.

Higher education is the escape route. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced. And for such a poverty-stricken area, The Young Team, wae Azzy it’s leader, seem to be smoking dope and drinking all the time. Aye, I get that. But where’s the cash coming from? That I don’t get. It’s never made clear, in the way the music the kids listen to is, the tracksuits and sannies they wear and the cars they drive when they become older are.

Aurally, aye, I say to the way it is written. But those that need to read a book like this would be put off by the language. The dialect makes reading hard work. The middle-classes are so nice. So very, very nice. They might be surprised by what Armstrong writes about. I’m not. I know the score.  Azzy is not very nice, but his life is worth reading. Read on.   

Annest Gwilym (2020) What the Owl Taught Me.

I don’t usually review poetry. I’ll tackle pretty much anything else—fiction, factual biography, drama, documentaries, comedy, by which I mean politics and economics— with an insouciant swagger and the hope nobody will ask too many searching questions. Poetry leaves me too exposed as a fuck-wit. No-nothing. One of those dreams where you running around your old school naked and everyone else is laughing and pointing. Dib-dib, dab-dab. The emperor has no clothes – clichéd opinion.  

I’m breaking my exception to the rule, non-rule, because quite simply Annest Gwilym’s collection of poetry, What the Owl Taught Me, is in a word, beautiful.

I’m also shouting it out because unlike, for example, Les Murray, whose Translations from the Natural World it bears comparison, but he is published by Carcanet. Big-hitters in the publishing industry, able to get publicity and fees for poets.  She has none of those advantages of money working the media, or the prestige of established voices singing her praise and lifting her poetry out of the common muck, where Gwilym and Murray show, it thrives in Welsh and Australian soil, respectively.    

Gwilym needs to be more than a poet, but a one-stop shop, battling for attention with tens of thousands of versifiers and self-promoters. I read some of her work on ABCtales.com (she used the pseudonym Rosa Cruz). I bought her last poetry collection, Surfacing.  The rhythm of language takes you inside words, inside, for example, Crows, the first poem in the new collection.

They huddle like conspirators

in slick black suits

grazing the grid of the sky.

Their guttural chack chack chack

blisters the ears like car alarms.

Grass Snake (below) had me hunting for a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Snake.

A snake came to our garden,

slid over the rockery to the pond

to fish for frogs and toads

in the stunning heat of mid-afternoon,

with forget-me-not drooping.

Yellow doll’s eyes and a golden collar,

its olive narrowness, quicksilver-smooth,

it tasted air with a flickering tongue.

Ekphrastic poetry is commonplace but to get beyond the words and into a symphonic resonance in the reader, as happens here, in this collection, is a rare pleasure.

Last Night I Became an Emperor Moth won some competition you’ve probably never heard of (firstwriters.com) but it’s the words that matter. Listen to the way they ring.

I rode through the liquid night,

As a melon sluice moon crested a bank of cloud.

Part of the hush and curve of the universe;

Pleiades above me a diamond cluster ring.

Clothed in starlight, wings powdered,

furry belly glossy and plump.  

If you’re a poet, or would-be poet you could learn a lot from this collection. If reading is your religion then now is the time to sing praise. Amen to that. Read on.