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.   

Maggie O’Farrell (2017) I Am I Am I Am. Seventeen Brushes with Death.

maggie o.jpg

God always gets the best lines such as ‘before you were I am,’ that’s why he’s God. If you don’t do God, try some Sylvia Plath, ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart, I am, I am, I am.’ I’d never heard of Maggie O’Farrell, didn’t know she existed until her name appeared on the front cover, plugging another book by a Scottish author, Damian Barr. I hadn’t heard of Barr either and for some reason I thought O’Farrell was Scottish too—she’s from Northern Ireland—but I always try to read the best Scottish writers that are not Scottish. I’ve hit enough bum notes to know O’Farrell is an exceptional writer, she is, she is, she is.

I loved this book for its simplicity and its truth. Good books always resonate with truth. This book jumps back and forward in time, in a naming game, identifying parts of the body. Chapter 1, or the first brush with death, ‘Neck’ (1990).

O’Farrell is eighteen and this is her first summer job, a break with the mundanities of normal life.

This day – and day in which I nearly die – began early for me, just after dawn, my alarm clock leaping into a rattling dance beside the bed. I had to pull on my uniform, leave the caravan and tiptoe down some stone steps into a deserted kitchen, where I flicked on the ovens, the coffee machine, the toasters, where I sliced five large loaves of bread, filled the kettle, folded forty napkins into open-petalled orchids.

This is classic show, not tell. For anybody that’s worked in the service industry (Vera Clarke springs to mind) we know this is a small operation, forty isn’t a great deal of people, but enough to keep you busy. The beauty is in the pretension, napkins aren’t napkins, but orchids. The setup, here is equilibrium; the writer’s job is to destroy it.

But O’Farrell already does that. She leaps back to where the would-be killer lies in wait for her. The reader knows she escaped, ghost writing isn’t real. She begins with the confrontation, the killer first line, all novelists need to attract the reader’s attention and keep us close.

On the path ahead; stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.

So this autobiographical story is a thriller. All good stories ask questions.

He straddles the track with both booted feet and he smiles.

It’s the smilers that always get you. Why is the would-be killer smiling?

Jump backwards, (‘Lungs,’ 1988)

I have never cared for gangs, for social tribes, for fitting in. I have known since I was very young that the in-crowd isn’t my crowd; they are not my people.

Jump sideways, (Whole body,’ 1993)

I am here on my way to Hong Kong, because four months ago, I went to look for my degree results…In a year or so, I realise the mess I made of my finals was nothing of the sort, it will seem to me a merciful escape. What I wished I had known, aged twenty-one, as I cycled away from the results board towards the meadow by the river in Cambridge…is that nobody ever asks you what degree you got. It ceases to matter the moment you leave university.

Jump to the present day, (‘Daughter,’) and weep.

…you are reading the story of Persephone to your daughter and you can’t quite believe how pertinent it is, and you wonder what people knew of this then. You and your daughter turn to face each other wordlessly, absorbing the tale of the girl who ate six fateful seeds, condemning herself to the underworld, and the mother who fought to bring her back.

…She is, she is, she is.