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Graeme Armstrong: ‘Nostalgia has its place but there is a younger Scottish generation, their stories matter’

The author of ‘The Young Team’, an award-winning novel as raw as it is lyrical narrating the life of a teenage gang member in Glasgow 20 years ago, feels it is time to move on from ‘Trainspotting’

Graeme Armstrong and his gang in the early 2000s.
Graeme Armstrong and his gang in the early 2000s.Cortesía de Graeme Armstrong

During the early 2000s, Glasgow was considered the European capital of crime. The city’s metropolitan area was the scene of a daily war zone - fueled by drugs, raves and trance music - between a multitude of youth street gangs vying for territorial control. Scottish author Graeme Armstrong, born in Airdrie, to the east of Glasgow, in 1992, was caught in the middle of this silent war during his teenage years.

Growing up in Glasgow at that time, it was difficult not to fall under the influence of the street gangs. For many kids, there was practically no other option. The gangs provided a sense of existence and a feeling of protection that it was hard to find elsewhere. Membership also came with drawbacks, of course. Belonging to a gang could lead to expulsion from school, as was the case with Armstrong, while these adolescent gangsters also bore witness to things that nobody, much less a child, should ever have to see. They could also wind up dead. Fortunately for Armstrong, he was able to escape from that world, and literature played an important role.

In 2020, he published his debut novel, The Young Team, which tells a story very similar to his own, although the protagonist is called Azzy Williams and lives in a working-class neighborhood, a deprived area lacking stores and employment where school-age children have nothing else to do but meet up in an abandoned house to drink Buckfast, an alcoholic drink consisting of pure caffeine and fortified wine. There are shades of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, but The Young Team has its own identity. In 2021, it received several literary prizes, including Scots Book o the Year, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Betty Trask Award. A television adaptation is in the pipeline.

“In mind own mind, The Young Team was always fiction but if someone described it as autofiction I wouldn’t be upset,” Armstrong says during an interview with EL PAÍS. “It very closely resembles my own life. We were in a gang in the same geography as the novel, there was an abandoned building as described. There was definitely lots of violence. The struggles of Azzy and the gang are my own. Some details have been turned around. It was my friend who murdered a boy with a knife, not my friend who was murdered.”

'The Young Team' author Graeme Armstrong.
'The Young Team' author Graeme Armstrong.

According to Armstrong, in real life there were many more deaths than are described in the book. “There are more cul-de-sacs than avenues in this kind of existence,” says the author. “Reality is often much more shocking than the fictionalized versions. I tried to explore male fragility and brokenness, not just the masculine fantasy of gangs. The pain and the passion were real, the longing for a softer childhood spent in my grandmother’s garden for example is clearly evoked. The nightmarish experiences with mental health and addiction are all factual experience. Fiction offered a blank canvas to delve into the past, but it has its limitations also.”

The Young Team is also a story of overcoming adversity. Over the course of the book the reader follows Azzy through 10 years of his life, living and feeling, courtesy of a literary tempo that adapts to the story, his first drunken experiences, the euphoria of his first drug binges, but also moments of darkness, when he loses one of his friends, and his attempts to escape from addiction.

Armstrong left gang life behind when he was 16 after a friend died of a heroin overdose. “His funeral was traumatic,” he recalls. “You can’t help superimposing your mother’s face on to his and yourself into the coffin. I was in a very dark place, surrounded by death and destruction and that’s when I found Trainspotting. It mattered to me and I decided to stay in school and try to go to university. That road would take another five years but it wasn’t until finding faith on Christmas Eve 2012 that I finally managed to defeat my own drug addiction and take those first steps away from gang life. This Christmas makes 10 years drug free. I’m grateful. I’m still praying and I’m still here. Many aren’t. These stories don’t often have happy endings.”

Writing became another form of escape for Armstrong, an antidote to the void and drug withdrawal. “In those first days of drug withdrawal, I was going crazy, stuck in my own flat with no money, no friends and loads of time,” he says. “I was only 21. I began to introspect like Alice in fucking Wonderland, going back to the beginning of all the madness. I was consumed by frustration and loneliness and set out on a mad quest to tell our story. Three months later, I had written the first of what would be three novels – The Young Team. It has been transformative. The energy of suffering and addiction poured onto the page. I went back to the University of Stirling to study a master’s degree in creative writing and continued to work on the project. There I was mentored by famous Scottish author Janice Galloway, who helped me take the professional step. It would take another seven years and 300 rejections before it was finally published in 2020.”

Graeme Armstrong (right) during his gang days.
Graeme Armstrong (right) during his gang days. Graeme Armstrong

In its original version, the novel was written in Glaswegian slang, which is almost impossible for anyone from outside the city to understand. To make the book work, Armstrong had to simplify it. “The language particularly took a lot of time. Using social media as teenagers, we were probably the first young Scots who ever translated our spoken Scots dialect into written words regularly,” he says. “Text messaging and MSN Messenger allowed us to write phonetically. We had no idea we were breaking an oral tradition into signified and signifiers and were performing a complex linguistic task. When it came to writing the novel, I had to decide on this as a fixed lexicon code and build it together into a language. Writing it absolutely truthfully can just make it too hard to understand.”

Armstrong’s influences are varied, from movie director Ken Loach to the books of David Keenan, an Airdrie author who wrote “about the punk band landscape of the 1970s and 1980s and it’s weird, narcotic and beautiful. He writes like a Russian master but is from just up the road.” Another, less obvious source of inspiration was provided by 2001 PlayStation game Max Payne.

Naturally, Armstrong also acknowledges the profound effect Trainspotting had on him, both in terms of the novel and the film, but with caveats. “Trainspotting was a moment that became a movement. Its halo effect is still inspiring artists like myself. It was fundamental in not only my success, but without doubt my survival. The book road mapped our creative landscape and allowed us to believe in working class stories. I’ve paid homage and shown my respects and always will, but I still think we’ve fallen into a trap. English middle class journalists constantly regurgitate it as a current reflection of Scottish working-class life as it’s really the only story/life/reality in Scotland they know or care about. Trainspotting was published in 1993 and set in the 1980s. Its style is befitting of that era, over the top, mad and actually more closely resembling surrealism than realism at points. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then and many tribes with their own trials and rituals have been overlooked in its shadow or held up against it as if somehow counterfeit. It’s a great legacy without a doubt, but it’s long since long out of date. There’s a lack of current Scottish stories which really resonate, especially strong authentic working-class voices. Women were in young team gangs. Where is their story? We haven’t heard it yet as we’re too busy coming up with tired Trainspotting puns from the 1990s. There is a lot of cultural gatekeeping around these parts and repeatedly debating, discussing, dissecting only stories like Trainspotting is a great weapon of theirs to seem open and inclusive, while being exactly the opposite. Back then, it reflected parts of my life accurately, like seeing point blank the carnage heroin creates, but culturally, musically and socially, the story didn’t resonate with my generation at all and we’re in our thirties now. It’s also an Edinburgh story, we’re Glasgow. Worlds apart, in every way. Nostalgia has its place but there is a younger Scottish generation below me now, their stories matter and must be given their time and space in the Scottish/UK cultural zeitgeist.”

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