Review | This is Memorial Device by David Keenan

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Scottish music in 1983

This is Memorial Device, David Keenan, Faber and Faber, February 2017, pp.304, £14.99, (paperback)

News of the death, back in June, of Bogdan Dochev, the Bulgarian linesman who failed to flag up Diego Maradona’s handball in Argentina’s win over England at the 1986 World Cup, prompted me to revisit some stills of that infamous goal: the diminutive forward implausibly out-jumping the English goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, to propel the ball into the net with his fist. Aged only five at the time, I have no recollection of watching the tournament, and in all likelihood I did not catch a single minute of it. I experienced Mexico ’86 as part of a heritage, in its afterlife on the pages of soccer magazines pored over from 1988 to 1990, the formative years of a lifelong obsession. Those shimmery, low-resolution photographs of sundrenched Latin American stadia had an impressionistic vitality that would, over time, become inextricably bound up in my memory of early youth. When, twenty-five years later, the photo-sharing app Instagram appeared, with its filters enabling users to doctor their photographs in Ektachrome tones, it was my generation that flocked to it in droves. The photo on the cover of David Keenan’s debut novel is, I am reliably informed, from the author’s personal collection: four young lads hanging out, squinting against bright sunshine, in blurry low-res. It is a quietly, understatedly evocative image. They say you should never judge a book by its cover. They are mistaken.

This is Memorial Device is composed of a series of fictive interviews with the fictive personalities comprising a fictive music scene in the Scottish town of Airdrie in 1983. The music is broadly categorisable as post-punk — The Fall, Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop are frequently name-checked — along with a smidgen of emergent electronica. The interviews are loosely concerned with retracing the trajectory of a cult local band called Memorial Device, but pan out to a wider panorama of the local subculture of Airdrie and nearby Coatbridge.  The unprepossessing backdrop is no accident: this novel is a fond celebration of youthful esprit and artistic energy, which can flourish in the unlikeliest of places. This, lest we forget, is the culturally impoverished landscape of 1980s Britain, where Turkish Delight is considered ‘sophisticated — you know, like garlic or pasta.’ You have to make your own fun here.

‘Behind closed doors at the back ends of estates, in crumbling mansions in Clarkston and modern flats on the main street, in solitary bedsits and grim flats above chip shops there are hidden some of the most eccentric characters ever to escape from a novel.’

Keenan’s milieu is indeed populated by oddballs and deviants of various kinds. We are informed that Big Patty, the frontman of Memorial Device, is rumoured to have taken to imbibing his own urine during a short-lived flirtation with Satanism. In his younger days he is often seen with a book sticking out of his back pocket, which is considered a bold statement in itself; an acquaintance recalls his horror at seeing him ‘walking along the road and reading at the same time.’ A precocious wannabe named David Kilpatrick makes a band entirely of mannequins, who ‘play’ to a backing track in a shop window; he receives enquiring letters from local artists, robotics experts and perverts, all of whom take an interest in his work. As for Mad Mary Bell, she once drank a bottle of plant food for the hell it. Often the idiosyncrasies are of the carefully cultivated variety – young men and women experimenting, trying things on for size. It is in this spirit that we find Maya, in a white fur coat and white leather jacket, acting ‘moody as fuck’ and affecting ‘total disdain for the world but still trying to impress it’.  In a similar vein, a young man discovers that his sister’s boyfriend doesn’t wear underwear and, when she tells him she finds it sexy, decides it’s a good look for him: ‘From that day on I threw all of my scants in the bin and just walked about with my bollocks hanging carefree.’

A sizeable bawdy streak runs through this narrative. ‘I was a stockings man back then,’ recalls one veteran of the Airdrie scene (he doesn’t tell us what changed), before proceeding to fondly reminisce about how he used to fantasise about his girlfriend’s mother while making love to her. If occasionally crass, the novel’s sexual content is by and large affectionate in tone – a good-humoured celebration of transgressive, taboo-breaking subversion rather than gratuitous leeriness. Recalling his crush on the frontwoman of a local electronic band, John Bailey waxes reverential about her breast implants, hailing them as ‘a thumb in the eye of fate or God or whoever dealt the cards in the first place.’

One interviewee, who goes by the preposterous moniker Street Hassle, is asked to sum up the Airdrie music scene in one word. He replies: ‘Pointless.’ Here, as elsewhere in this book, the self-deprecation is mere deflection – the default, protective diffidence of the earnest. He goes on to articulate, powerfully and persuasively, the attraction of punk and its derivative forms:

a lot of people that might have been doing something else with their lives suddenly realised they could get away with being themselves and still survive or even thrive … punk was a way of aggrandising weird character traits and specific tics and making levels of ability interesting because it got rid of any notion of a norm so everything became fascinating and every failure became a breakthrough …. these back-room gigs and wha-out art-centre shows and rehearsal-room jams, which were like new routes to immortality, man, like for a moment everyone was beatified or forgiven…

The easy, anecdotal register of Keenan’s prose renders it both realistic and highly readable. There are occasional, playful forays into local dialect (‘Do you even know what a plamf is? A plamf is somebody that sniffs dirty knickers.’) and bar-room bravado (‘I took off my guitar and fucked somebody right around the head with it.’). Every so often we are treated to a delightfully on-point visual description. When a chap called Goosey is scalped – yes, scalped – during a brawl after a gig, the narrator remembers that ‘his head looked like a skinned beetroot’. A moment of late-night tension is rendered thus: ‘a split second where their moon faces were like a pair of empty brackets ( ) in a crime report or a Russian novel.’

This Is Memorial Device may be read straightforwardly as a nostalgic paean to the author’s own youth. Its portrait of raw, late-adolescent zeal – often misguided and misdirected, but always energetic and earnest, a force of nature – transcends its socio-historical context: ‘Back then,’ says one interviewee, ‘we were on the tipping point between terror and goad.’ But its greater significance resides in its documenting of a mode of cultural engagement that would be rendered nearly obsolete within a couple of decades. It is impossible for anyone over the age of 30 to read this highly entertaining novel without feeling a sense of dislocation, and of regret – however counterintuitive, however reactionary – for the passing of an era in which cultural capital was so  precious that you cherished every little bit you could get your hands on. Young music obsessives – myself included – were once in the habit of compiling lists of our favourite albums, which we often referred to as our favourite albums ‘of all time.’ The casual hubris of that ‘of all time’ – equating the forty-year stretch from Elvis until the 1990s, a mere blink of an eye in historical terms, to all eternity – says so much about the solipsistic, naive confidence of a generation who took their singularity for granted, and experienced  their heritage as a long cultural moment that would endure in perpetuity.

It is, of course, pointless and futile to dwell on the decline of guitar music per se; it will take its place in posterity’s broad sweep of something called popular music. What matters is the the total transformation of the ecology of cultural consumption, in particular the decline of the object fetishism that drove our earliest engagements with music and literature alike. Never mind sniffing underwear – one of Keenan’s characters sniffs vinyl. This is what we are losing in a world of digital superabundance: the peculiar numinosity invested in the physical object by virtue of its connotational properties, its promise of access to something transcendent; and the attendant sense of urgency, bordering on mania, that animates our search for meaning in a world of scarcity. But we have gained so much more in return, and besides, our irrepressible impulses – creative, critical, social and sexual – will find new outlets, as they always must.

Words by Houman Barekat, originally published in the October/November 2017 edition of The London Magazine.

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