Thursday, 6 August 2015

Book review: punkPunk!

I prefer short stories to novels, the same way I prefer singles to albums.  So I guess that means this anthology of punk-inspired fiction is a bit like a compilation album.  Like most compilation albums it’s got stuff I like, stuff I like a lot and some stuff I don’t really get.

The book’s been put together by Andrew Hook, whose own story The Last Mohican closes the collection.  In the introduction he explains that he bought his first punk record in 1978 at the age of ten and a half. He admits he was coming at it too late and too young but says “these were my formative years and as a result I am a punk.” Note the present tense. (That’s how I feel, too.)

What these stories have in common is that someone in them is a punk. That’s it. Some of them are about bands and some of them are about fans and some of them don’t appear to be set in the real world.

I’m a purist about punk: I was there and I always think of punk as being about a particular place and time. This has made me rethink a bit (and made me try not to be prejudiced about one of the writers being 27).  This isn’t just about Britain in the mid-70s.

There are stories set in England, Scotland, Greece, Australia, the USA; stories set then, stories set now, and a story set in the future. That one’s Andrew Hook’s, imagining what it would be like if the Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester had actually changed the world.

There’s another speculative tale, BlankNoir by Stephen Palmer, which imagines punk taking place against a backdrop of civil war – the TUC against the government.  Like a lot of punk it’s both scary and hilarious. It’s also satirical: I laughed out loud at “he’d been a fan since their Surrey days in Matt’s parents’ mansion” (the band are all about class war).

I also liked Richard Dellar’s The Rock Star, in which someone lives a rock star life without ever actually becoming a musician.

There’s fantasy, there’s social realism, there are coming-of-age stories (some, I was glad to see, featuring women). There’s a lot of bleakness, which feels unfair because punk was something positive even if the places it came out of were not, and occasionally some humour.

There’s plenty of humour in my favourite, What Use Optimism? by Adam Craig. On one level it’s a simple story about a 50-something bloke trying to get his old punk band back together. On another, it’s a witty, economical picture of what’s gone wrong with music in the intervening years: it’s everywhere, and it doesn’t mean anything any more. I loved this.

I also really liked You Can Jump by Mat Coward,  another then-and-now story with something to say about both.  Because it’s about the time and place I identify with and it feels authentic, and because its hero Andy has “a true punk soul” and says things like “being nostalgic for punk is maybe a contradiction in terms”.

As Andrew Hook says of the book itself: “It’s not a nostalgia trip.”

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of this book to review. All the other books I’ve reviewed on this blog I’ve paid for myself or got from the library. Other than that, nothing’s changed.

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