Powerful things, dreams. David F. Ross’ The Last Days of Disco is bookended by two – the teenage fantasy of Bobby Cassidy racing around Monaco and the disturbed nightmares suffered by older brother Gary following his time in the Falklands War.
Quite the juxtaposition, but then an awful lot happens between the two points as we follow the lives (and dreams) of the Cassidy boys in early-80s Kilmarnock. Bobby – don’t ask to see his tattoos – and his best mate Joey Miller aim at avoiding the dole, school and the army by setting themselves up as the new kings of the mobile disco scene, becoming caught up in conflict with the local party-entertainment-mafia kingpin. Gary, meanwhile, pursues a career in the Army (in an attempt to make his father proud), eventually being caught up in the Falklands Conflict.
I was born in 1980. As such there is zero chance that I was politically aware (or aware of The Jam) at any point during Thatcher’s reign. I do, though, have many a memory of the TV news containing phrases such as “strikes”, of the threat of the IRA and not knowing what Gerry Adams’ voice sounded like, of Simon Weston appearing on various television shows and of the image of the Iron Lady herself holding court.
Accordingly, I’m often fascinated to see and read portrayals of those times that served as a backdrop to my own childhood that fill in the blanks, as it were. To learn that it wasn’t all He-Man, Trap Door or Roland Rat on TV and that the god-awful music on Top of the Pops, and that which Bruno Brookes played on a Sunday Evening, wasn’t the only kind being listened to.
Along with plenty of references to ‘proper’ music, Ross evokes a vivid portrait of urban blight under Thatcher rule: a family of seven (soon to be eight) “all living in a three-bedroomed, mid-block council flat….. the only flat in a block of six that didn’t have the windows boarded up”, interspersed with transcripts from TV interviews and newspaper reports for increased context.
But context is really all that such ‘grey’ is for as this is no sad-sack, misery-guts, woe-is-life under the Tory Battle-Axe read. Far from it.
The Last Days of Disco is a thoroughly enjoyable, uplifting and bloody hilarious book that’s shot through with a clear and knowledgeable devotion to music (“the beauty and power of the 45rpm” as the PR summary so succinctly puts it) and a wicked, wicked sense of humour.
I come close to choking on my coffee when Hamish picked up the microphone to speak only for “a bang. A blue flash. A high-pitched shriek. And then the still unamplified but now perfectly audible ‘Ah! Ya fuckin’ bastart hoor, ye!’” Not to mention his abduction-at-urinal-point (seriously; poor Hamish comes in for such a drumming I did start to wonder if the author had something against him at times). Nor to mention the laughs I had imagining Mr King’s repeated rants of barely-repressed anger at each play of Shakin’ Stevens… “Ah’m fuckin’ agreein‘ wi’ him an’ he calls me “a cheeky wee cunt”.'”
Throughout, Ross demonstrates a real skill when it comes to rendering situations life-like, be it the brilliantly-funny first encounter with Hairy Doug and the disarray he and his ‘python’ live in to the disturbing nightmares that haunt Gary following his experience in the Falklands –
…he saw the crudely shaped limbs of what appeared to be tailors’ dummies sticking out of the marshes and the mud as he advanced – bayonet out – towards them.
As he got to them, they weren’t mannequins but real people; kids barely out of their teens just like him, crying for their mums. It was Gary’s job to silence them. As he stabbed at them they didn’t just fall and die like they did in The Longest Day. They grabbed desperately at the blade…. it took ten thrusts to silence the desperate screams of the third. All of them were so close to Gary he could feel their hot breath on his face.
A real talent with words is at work in these pages.
Location is a key character in many a novel and The Last Days of Disco is no exception. Small-town life in Ayrshire is wonderfully described with dialogue delivered in Kilmarnock vernacular adding to both sense of place and the general hilarity: “Ah’m Franny fuckin’ Duncan. Noo whit dae ye want. Ah’m in ma fuckin’ scratcher.'”
The main story arc is beautifully bolstered by a strong cast of supporting characters. From dubious party entertainers making phallic balloon animals and hapless van drivers to local gangsters (Fat Franny Duncan is one of those woefully unaware self-styled master villains so comedically-inept as to almost warrant his own novel), each with any number of laugh-out-loud moments.
Seemingly minor plot lines intersperse into one and eventually meet that of the main in a thoroughly unexpected and compelling way with Ross deftly blending together the build up of conflict in the Falklands with that of the Ayrshire mobile disco scene.
In all honesty, I did not expect a novel that started out with young Bobby Cassidy dreaming of Sally McLoy’s “tits jiggling away like jellies in an earthquake” to slowly and surely become such a multi-layered social / political-commentary with so many plot twists and turns nor for it to do so with such skill and depth, but bugger me if that’s not what it did.
In his first novel, David F. Ross has given us a heady blend of social realism, tragedy, humour and Paul Weller. There’s not a dull moment in these pages and I wholeheartedly recommend getting your hands on a copy pronto.
While a lot of my favourite bands got started in the 80’s, the term “80’s music” to me still brings back nightmare like images of Duran Duran or Spandau-fecking-Ballet on Top of the Pops (not to mention the horror of Bros). Thankfully David F. Ross put together a quality (The Human League aside) playlist of those songs that brought about the book, you can check it out here: http://t.co/Pi5ReU5V16