Bernard Hare (2005) Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew.

I picked up this book and put it down a few times. I doubt if I’d have read it, but for one thing—it was Bob’s book. He carried it around like a lucky rabbit paw in his rucksack (not so lucky for the rabbit) Mostly in the first 150 pages of the book, around the middle of the book, Bob scribbled messages to himself in biro He underlined words like Urbie and wrote things like ‘Visible From Space So We r Told’. Adding a tick mark to quote from the narrator to Sparky, ‘Here, who you calling a cunting heretic?’ I don’t know if Bob finished the book. I guess I finished it for him.

Mad, Bad, or Sad?    1990, According to The Guardian headline, Five ‘cold-hearted and evil’ teenagers, from Skelton in Leeds, tortured and killed Angela Pearce, aged 18, who suffered from schizophrenia. The three girls and two boys showed no remorse when they were led away from the dock. Bernard Hare, the middle-aged narrator, known as Chop in the book, and his adopted son given the name Urban Grimshaw, visit the shallow grave where Angela Pearce was buried and leave a memento, a gold locket, at the site. Recognition that could have been them that did the torturing. Them that was tortured.  

Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew—his brother Frank, Skeeter, Sparky, Sam, Pinky, Theiving Little Simpkins, Trudy, Cara, Molly, and Pixie with the exception of the Tyson, the dog, who was sold by Greta his mum for a fix, where mad, bad and sad. As we all are. We’ve gone to the dogs is the message of the book. It’s almost 20 years since Angela Pearce’s murder and Chop gave himself grief. He saved himself and the adolescent boys and girls that looked up to him for some kind of parental guidance.

 Hare/ Chop is initiated into the Shed Crew and becomes one of them. Their unofficial leader and guru. I wasn’t overly convinced by the screeching tyres and stolen cars and the way they’d outfoxed the police. I was convinced the girls were sexually abused by nonces and the boys were thugs that stole and did whatever they could to stay one-up and alive. Hare, for example, has the reader believe, a fifteen-year-old Sparky, who was ‘built like a brick shitehouse’ and sets up home with Natasha, a schoolgirl who needs a good shagging and is straight out of the pages of Trainspotting, somehow also reads the collected works of Shakespeare for fun. Quotes, verbatim, from The Merchant of Venice, ‘do I not bleed…’. That’s just clichéd shite with a coating of literary havering.   

And I certainly wasn’t convinced that twelve-year-old Urban fell into a sewer, then into the canal and Chop dived into save him and Tyson bit him. They both survived. Covered in pish and shite they went to Urban mum’s house, because it was closer. Chop also knew not much would be said. He’d been shagging his mum, Greta. And had taken the boy out to help on a few of his jobs, delivering stuff. Man and van. Man, van and boy, made a more interesting story with a moral punch. Urban was street smart and he’d warned Chop, because he liked him to stay away from his mum, because she’d destroy him.

Here was have the shtick:

He was twelve going on thirty-seven. Oddly enough, I was thirty-seven going on twelve. Maybe that’s why we got on so well.

The road trip from Leeds to Aberdeen is believable, as is the glue, butane sniffing, boozing, drug taking, and even the code of conduct. The 101 houses that Greta inhabits. Her madhouse where her children and their pals go to take drugs. Chop goes too. But he also offers a safe house for the kids to decompress and teaches them to play chess and be still. To be children for a while.

Hare is making a call to arms. He’s saying this shouldn’t be happening. We all know that. Just think what low-life David Cameron was thinking when he made that speech at the Conservative Party Conference telling a wailing audience of yahoos that he had a list of families in London that were costing the country millions. His solution, their solution, of course, was to cut them off. Cuts, cuts and more cuts. To make the poor pay. Chop does that too. Goes on mad rants, usually about Thatcherism and the empty promises of consumerism. We’re kindred spirits. The world he wants is the world I want. For those not in the know, this is a book worth reading. For the rest of us, a reminder how far we’ve fallen.  Allegedly, the sixth richest nation on earth and we can’t even feed our children. Fuck, right off. You should be fucked off too. It’s not a read it and weep book. It’s a read it and understand, but as I said, I’m not sure Bob did read it. He was fucked up in so many ways and so wanted to be normal. Viscerally, I’m sure he understood.  That could have been him. That was him.   

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.