In previous columns, mention has been made of the Chemical Generation of writers, whose members included Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Gordon Legge, Laura Hird and Paul Reekie among others. They were a group who appeared in the mid 90s and who were collectively thought of as writers who reflected the thoughts, hopes and dreams (and nightmares) of a generation. Of course it was mainly a media conception, originating from Steve Redhead’s influential book of interviews ‘Repetitive Beat Generation’, but the phrase stuck and with it brought the misconception that these were all similar writers concerned with turning on, tuning in and dropping out.
As a result of their success there were a lot of novels published in and around the 90s dance scene, so much so I thought there was nothing original to write about it, so it was a real surprise to read Nina de la Mer’s ‘4a.m’ earlier this year. The novel takes us back to the clubs and drugs of House music and Happy Hardcore, and takes us overseas to the British Army base of Fallingbostel and the side streets, clubs and bars of Hamburg.
‘4a.m.’ follows Cal and Manny, two British squaddies who are in the Catering Corps and are based in Fallingbostel, and just like many other young men and women they live for the weekend, or any night they can manage to escape barracks. Although throughout the novel there are thumping basslines, pills and powders, the real success is how refreshingly De la Mer writes about growing up, what that means to friendships and relationships, and how that process is often, or always, a painful one. Near the end of the novel Manny says ‘I’d rather die than give up raving’, but no one can rave forever.
Manny is an Essex boy while Cal is fae Glasgow, and De Le Mer uses those strong accents and dialects to identify the men on page where they could have been difficult to distinguish, which was a worry. This is because the two are initially similar in their needs, likes and desires, and both address the reader directly. But as soon as their individual stories begin to unfold their distinctive personalities become clear.
The other characters are equally well drawn, never falling into the stereotypes that they could have, particularly the women who have such an influence on the two men’s lives. All the characters are well rounded, and not always very pleasant, but never one dimensional, and no matter how they behave we still care about what happens to them, particularly Cal and Manny. Add to that the spot on cultural references and it all adds up to a believable, and in the end, moving novel.
This is obviously a time, and a place, that the writer knows well, and she uses this knowledge to frame what is really a psychological examination of the two men. She understands that with the many highs, chemical or otherwise, there have to be terrible lows, and the novel captures and reflects this, moving from a frantic pace as the boys go in search of a good time, to a more reflective tone, often in the morning after, where the inevitable fear is accompanied by more genuine concerns. Both are required for the novel to work and De la Mer gets the balance right.
Here are a couple of tracks to take you back…way back. The first is German DJ Sven Vath playing at Amnesia in Ibiza. Remember the time?
This is a little soft for the more hardcore Cal and Manny, and I’m guessing De la Mer as well, and it’s from a little earlier, but this is one of my favourite tracks from my clubbing years, and I’m in charge. This is the mighty Derrick May with ‘Strings of Life’.
‘4a.m.’ captures a time and place brilliantly, and manages to introduce multiple characters without losing sight of their individuality. As well as focusing on the clubs it also sets out the madness of army life as can also be found in the likes of ‘MASH’, ‘Catch 22’ and particularly Robert O’Connor’s ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, novels which are as relevant as those comparisons to Welsh, Warner and Hird.
They say that if you can remember the dance music scene of the late 80s and 90s then you weren’t there. Well, if you were there you’ll be reminded of the time by ‘4a.m.’, but even if you weren’t then you’ll enjoy this novel as it examines human nature with a keen eye and insight. Some have called Nina de la Mer ‘the female Irvine Welsh’, but that doesn’t tell you enough about the quality of her writing (although she does invite the comparison by mentioning ‘Trainspotting’ in the novel). With ‘4a.m.’ she has managed to capture a recognisable, in this case masculine, psychological crisis, one where individual responsibility eventually has to be faced, and that can be the most difficult realisation of all. No wonder many refuse to accept this and choose to rave on.
Next Month’s Novel: William McIlvanney is the forgotten man of Scottish literature. Discuss. Last year he appeared at the Margins Festival and the crowd that came to hear him read proved to me that the man and his writing is still hugely popular, and I wonder why is he overlooked when there are discussions had about Scottish writers.
In the 70s and 80s if a household had only one Scottish novel in the house there was a good chance it would be one of McIlvanney’s, probably ‘Laidlaw’, ‘The Big Man’ or ‘Docherty’. In 2006 he wrote ‘Weekend’, a very different book about an academic reading weekend in Arran and that’s the subject of next month’s Indelible Ink.
- William McIlvanney Weekend (Nov)
- Jeff Torrington Swing Hammer Swing (Dec)
- Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
- Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
- Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)