The Young Team – Graeme Armstrong

YOUNGTEAM

1966.

The Place is located on Victoria Street in Edinburgh.  It is the hangout for young Mods from the capital.  Tailor made mohair suits on HP, neat haircuts, sharp shoes and attitude.  The kids inside are working class boys and girls from Broomhouse, Clermiston, Drylaw and the other estates in the city.  My dad is there with Jo-jo, Davie Allen and one or two other “faces” from the YBT (Young Broomhouse Team).  There might be bother once things spill out at the close of play but for now the atmosphere is upbeat.  Shoes are for dancing, not kicking.  Hands are for clapping, not punching.

A whisper starts to make its way around the club.

The atmosphere changes.

A gang of boys and girls from Glasgow have arrived.

Tongs.

Toi.

Fleet.

It doesn’t matter, Glasgow is a mean city.  Scarred by a level of deprivation and poverty that the schemes in Edinburgh come close to but can’t quite match.  It is also a city with a long and bloody history of gang violence…real violence.

Blood on the tracks.

Knives.

Swords.

Axes.

You think I’m joking.

That’s because you don’t know.

Things get tense almost immediately and soon enough my old man finds himself being chased down Victoria Street by a guy who has pulled a sword out from inside his coat.  He grabs at my dads arm and as he prepares to swipe the sleeve of his suit comes away and he makes his escape.

In the morning my grandpa notices the suit jacket sans sleeve.

“What the Hell happened here?” he ask.

My dad explains.

“I’m guarantor on that suit.” is his fathers response.

It’s difficult for many people to imagine the ease with which violence is accepted in some communities.  That’s because they come from communities where violence doesn’t exist anywhere outside of a Hollywood movie.  It’s the same with drugs or “corner boy culture”.  David Cameron may have wanted us to hug a hoodie back in 2010 but he couldn’t have explained why those kids were wearing hoodies or why they were rowing and fighting instead of enjoying a quiet night in.

He should have asked Graeme Armstrong.

Armstrong was part of a world that is served up as entertainment by Netflix and Hollywood with films like “Green Street”…a cartoon vision of what actually happens in communities across the UK.  For Armstrong it was the West coast of Scotland, in Airdrie North Lanarkshire and it was a bleak, hopeless, hilarious, desperate and brutal world that he occupied.

The last time I was in Airdrie was for a football match at some point in the late eighties.  A Scottish Cup tie between Hearts and Airdrie.  After the match, which we probably lost, I walked back to the car with my dad.  Ahead of us another small group of Hearts supporters were making the same journey.  Coming in the opposite direction came a small group of teenage boys.  Out of nowhere one of them punched one of the Hearts boys, hard in the face, sending him reeling.  Then they were gone.  A drive by shooting with trainers and fist.

That sort of magnesium flare of violence litters the debut novel from Graeme Armstrong which chronicles his own experiences of gang culture in a nowhere town.  There are lots of books about boys in gangs and, if we are being honest, they are usually the sort of pulp fiction that brought Richard Allen notoriety in the seventies with his Joe Hawkins “Skinhead” novels.  “Young Team” is something very different.

This is a serious book.

Literature not pulp.

Participant observation and not the wet dream fantasies of an Oxbridge graduate looking to make a name for themselves by posing as something they never could be.

This is vital, visceral and powerful writing.

What Armstrong has is a voice and a story.  Which sounds obvious but so many writers don’t have either or they develop it as their career progresses.  Armstrong has arrived, fully formed, as an important and significant presence on the literary scene.

This is a story about desperate circumstances, the reality of hopelessness, a look inside the homes of what used to be called “broken Britain” and an exploration of what it means to be a young boy in a community where your social standing is determined by your ability to hold your own in a square go.

It isn’t an easy read, at times it requires strength and courage to turn the page but each time you do you are rewarded with another killer line, another perfectly chosen word, a beautiful, but, ugly mental image.  This is what it looks like when someone sets out to write something because they have to and not because they have nothing better to do.  This is the sound of the streets…a howl from the margins and it deserves to be read by anyone who wants to find out why the absence of aspiration is a disease we need to work hard to remedy.

The Young Team is out now on Picador and can be ordered here.