Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: February

2nd February 2017

This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
(Faber & Faber, paperback, 304 pages. Out today and available here)

Review by Andrew Weatherall

On the 6th of July 1977 the chief door-kicker-in locked his manager in a cupboard somewhere in the corridors of Capital Radio, ripped up the officially sanctioned punk playlist and went on air to deliver an important message to revolutionaries everywhere. The message being year zero is merely a starting point, not a state of mind. John Lydon’s choice of music that night on the Tommy Vance show included tracks by Tim Buckley, Bobby Byrd, Neil Young, Third Ear Band, Peter Hammil and Augustus Pablo, to name but a quarter of the diverse artists he played. 6 months later, Johnny posed the question ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ and shortly after that all the people more interested in Charlie Parker than Charlie Harper made their way through the next splintered door. The room they entered is now known as ‘post punk’ and in the shadows of that room dwell Airdrie’s own, Memorial Device.

Although this is factual context and fictional band, after reading David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device [An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986] there’s every chance you’ll swear you once heard one of the records or cassettes mentioned in the book played on the John Peel show. This goes beyond evocation: you will become a willing participant in somebody else’s hallucination. Memorial Device are the central band of the piece, but around them Keenan deftly draws an utterly believable array of characters and catalogue numbers. A world where people created beautiful, beguiling art because the punk rock aftershock had democratised it, but, as Ross Raymond says in his introduction, ‘Went off and became social workers and did courses in how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs. Not Everybody. Some died or went into seclusion.’ Characters like Big Patty, whose interview at times reads like stream of consciousness poetry, and who sums up the lie of punk. ‘Art was supposed to open you up to life and here we are…we had narrowed it to the point of a fucking black box…with a bunch of dirty mirrors lining the wall’.

As well as Big Patty, there is a whole cast of margin dwellers ‘reading, listening, sticking up posters, taking notes, passing out, throwing up, rehearsing…’ Within their stories there are even more nebulous presences, that although ghostly, add depth and verisimilitude to the story. I don’t really want to elaborate any further because in many ways, this fictional history feels like my personal history, and it will reflect yours too. You will know or will have known your town’s answer to Goosey, Rodney The Rod, Sinew Singer, David Kilpatrik, Teddy Ohm, Lucas Black [‘vocalist in Memorial Device, automatic dreamer’]. To draw my parallels would be to intrude on your part in Mr Keenan’s hallucination. This is, however, no exercise in nostalgia. The past is equally as ugly as it is beautiful, the people equally as flawed as they are heroic. Provincial dreamers and schemers, shamen and showmen interacting in Keenan’s beautifully constructed world of prosaic exotica. But this work is so much more than just a well-crafted story: it is also a treatise on memory, the search for identity and mythology and their contribution to the human condition. It’s William McIlvanney meets Patrick Modiano with a post-punk soundtrack. This Is Memorial Device is also about hidden history, on the subject of which I’ll leave the last word to David Kilpatrick, guitarist with Chinese Moon. ‘Behind closed doors at the back ends of estates, in crumbling mansions in Clarkston and modern flats above chip shops there are hidden some of the most eccentric characters ever to escape from a novel; some of the greatest musicians; the most heartbreaking chanters; the heaviest drinkers ; the least responsible workers; the slackest teachers; the most committed intellectuals; the oddest astronomers; the most obsessive collectors; the most serious amateurs; and of course the greatest failures.’ A hymn to those who wanted to but didn’t.


This is Memorial Device is available in the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £12.99.

Andrew Weatherall on Caught by the River