The Young Team: Scots literature as working class self-reflection

Johnnie Gallacher reviews a recent piece of Scots language literature from working class Airdrie author Graeme Armstrong.

It is right to look back and reflect on the past experiences that make all of us who we are today. That’s what The Young Team does as a fictionalised yet authentic first-person account of the world of Bucky, beats, burds and baseball bats – the world of adolescent weekend warriors in the early 2000s, who so many of us either were or did our best to avoid.

Although the book deals well with the acquired tastes of “ned music” and an ultra-materialistic culture, this is only a superficial looking glass into that world. More importantly, the book locates the violent youth subculture of the time within a wider community and social context, humanising its characters through the anguish caused to parents and families and the unconditional love given back. The book’s examination of class is particularly interesting.

The main character, Azzy, consciously recognises himself as working class, but identifies others as sub-proletarian: certain friends, as well as the poor souls he crosses outside the shop to buy him drink, who he torments before suddenly maturing and taking pity on them. As the story progresses, his distinction between working class and subproletariat becomes blurred, as in the credit crunch era they all become NEETs (not in education, employment or training).

For all the comparisons with Trainspotting, author Graeme Armstrong’s proud neds belong to a younger generation and are cut from a different cloth to Irvine Welsh’s skagboys. Welsh belonged to the wave of ‘Cool Britannia’, whereas Armstrong’s book is more rooted in his own local area, sometimes straddling the Sheuch with depictions of loyalism which actually enhance the Scottish character:

“The YT always took precedence over any sectarian divide… It’s a momentary division, superficial here really, despite everycunt’s best act that it isnae… Yir united and divided at the same time. Yi felt part ae our blue brotherhood, but yir split fae the other half ae our community.”

Armstrong has said, in multiple interviews, that he received 300 rejections before eventually securing a publishing contract, and that many of these knockbacks were due to an aversion to the Scots language. It would be great to one day see the earlier draft he has mentioned, written in broader, MSN-era scheme Scots. Publishers will hopefully gain confidence in this medium – or, better yet, the Scots language movement will acquire the means to produce its own materials, independent from Anglophile hegemony.

As the eponymous young team are on their way to gang-fight rival youths from another scheme, Armstrong describes them as a “wee clan” with their “tribal chieftains… the army ae big cousins, brurs n elder wans”, carrying a flag stolen from a golf course “like the battle standards of eld Scottish warriors”. Such imagery evokes a timeless sense of self-respect, rootedness and place in a way which other nostalgic, more specifically noughties references cannot do.

But forget the obliteration of clan culture centuries syne. The deindustrialised town that the young team roams has lost its own purpose for existence and has experienced ‘clearances’ of so many pillars of the community. Shining a light upon the ongoing millennial mental health epidemic, the book relives the impulsive internal immediacy of the first generation to grow up with social media; the stresses associated with designer clothes “that your poor old grandad had to sweat to buy you”; rankles about social standing, status and finding your place among cliques of hard-nut hooligans; anxiety about being slashed or jumped by enemies – worries which brutally play out in the story; desensitisation to it all, committing these same acts of violence against others; and vivid accounts of panic attacks, bereavement, addiction and relapse.

It would be facile to moralistically write all of this off as toxic masculinity unworthy of our sympathy or attention, as Stuart Kelly more or less did in his review for The Scotsman. Like workers with toxic asbestos in their lungs, the young neds were infected by their surroundings. Unlike the silent killer of asbestos however, the neds know that they were touched by something deadly. Indeed, there were deaths. The survivors carry trauma, guilt and shame for those suicides, stabbings, and overdoses – and so do the perpetrators once they turn a corner.

Eventually, Azzy realises his substance abuse was self-prescribed medication, reflecting an “indomitable will tae escape a never-endin cycle ae abuse n neglect usin the wrong means”. He realises that chasing enemies through the streets was a path of self-destruction fuelled by an ingrained sense of inferiority. This is a self-diagnosis which he makes not just to himself, but to his people – not just his pals in the young team, but to the working class around the world. It was a joy to read his conclusion that his class deserves so much more than drink and drugs to lull the pain. I’d have liked to have seen more exploration of the follow-up realisation that “the road tae redemption is always gonnae be a lonely wan”; perhaps a sequel will detail the fight against these familiar feelings of alienation to achieve self-forgiveness and contentment.

Though it is right to look back at our past, we shouldn’t stare and we mustn’t get stuck there. Tales of teenage trauma needn’t define anybody’s life, regardless of bold affirmations at the time that “yees ir fuckin YTP noo, boays. It’s never gonnae be over”. Neds, real and fictional, have not had their names chiselled into granite like their clansmen forebears – they were scratched on swings and painted onto walls and have long since faded away. The past is gone, never to return, but the future is very much unwritten. Having explored the dark recesses of their own psyches and confronted their subconsciousness, street-smart survivors like Graeme Armstrong have turned their talents towards a revolution of peace.

Johnnie Gallacher is the owner of a keen writing elbow, working on a non-fiction book titled ‘Psycho-Nation: the early modern epoch – Scotland’s soul, overcoming history’s traumas, healing the national psyche and recovering the republican spirit’.

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