“It’s no that shite being Scottish, Irvine” – The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong

The Young Team opens, “The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin.” Thanks to James Kelman and Irvine Welsh we immediately know that this is Scotland, but if Graeme Armstrong writes with the same accent as such illustrious ancestors, it is with a contemporary urgency.

Azzy Williams is one of Airdrie’s Young Team. We first meet him aged 14 when he and his friends are “the troops our age.” Theirs is an oral culture, much like life in Beowulf’s beer-hall, “Monday tae Thursday in school is aw aboot the tellin ae yir tales ae valour fae Friday n Saturday.” Azzy relates these tales of combat with their rival gang, the Toi, with a rhythm, pace and timing that may owe as much to Billy Connolly as Irvine Welsh but with an intelligence and dawning self-awareness that constantly stops to consider a deeper understanding of himself and his community. The Young Team are “both lords n prisoners ae yir ain area”, this novel rarely strays beyond a few streets of a village in a declining Lanarkshire:

“Aw the normal folk hud been driven oot ae the town centre… The rest ir stuck here, forever wheelin’ roon this nightmarish carousel ae degradation that used tae be a proud n thrivin market town.”

The Young Team is a more claustrophobic, enclosed novel than Trainspotting. The Young Team rarely venture into the wider world (they go to an occasional rave), they belong to and are restricted to the streets around their local off-licence and drinking in their local Orange Hall. As the novel progresses and Azzy ages, he gains a more mature awareness of his own world, and the novel turns increasingly interior as he struggles with drug addiction and the burdens of his national culture:

“The sufferin of young Scottish males largely untold, behind bravado n the

expectation that yi hud tae fulfil the role ae hardman n no even huv the feelins

yir meant tae talk aboot.”

The comparison with Trainspotting is inevitable and is admitted by Armstrong, Azzy’s bedroom is decorated with “the big Trainspotting line-up poster is still on ma wall,” but it has a philosophic, self-aware working-class voice that is more in keeping with a James Kelman novel. Armstrong tells a good story, the rush of a fight or escaping the polis, his writing has the raconteur atmosphere of talking about the night before in a pub the following day. The Young Team is an insider account of life in a gang, life in a small Scottish town, its psychology and relationships, using the language of therapy as much as the lessons drug-dealers learn about their trade: “Aw drugs ir addictive, cos they’re a behaviour pattern, a social activity, a copin mechanism n a full time occupation in their procurement n takin.”

In the 1990s there was a Scottish renaissance, Irvine Welsh became its most enduringly famous writer, but The Young Team recalls one of its other writers (who deserves to be more widely read now), Duncan McLean. McLean’s Blackden is also set in a small town and observes its life as frantic and enclosed as a motorcyclist on a wall of death, The Young Team describes that world in the twenty-first century, it also highlights Armstrong’s ability to take on the power and vivid descriptiveness of writing in a Scottish accent. The strength of Armstrong’s language is its energy, the energy (like the adrenaline rush before a fight) of facing and then escaping an old life: “he’s changing n isnae so burstin wae that madness n reckless desire tae git in bother or git oot his heed.”

Any Cop?: Fuckin aye. The Young Team is self-conscious about coming after something as successful, and defining, as Trainspotting but it builds its own identity with an emotional honesty that suggests there is a way to create a new future, “It’s no that shite being Scottish, Irvine.”

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