This is Memorial Device, where fiction and reality merge, adds a new layer to the Edinburgh scene – The Irish Times


“It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie.” So says a character in David Keenan’s 2017 novel This Is Memorial Device: A Hallucinating Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Vicinity 1978-1986. And it wasn’t easy being Siouxsie Sioux in Dundalk or Alan Vega in Kilkenny. It certainly wasn’t easy being Johnny Thunders in Larne. It took conviction, courage and commitment. But such local heroes existed and you might well remember them. In fact, you may well have been one of them. “That’s why people fell in love with This Is Memorial Device,” says Keenan, ex-musician, record store owner and music journalist. “Because it feeds on the memories of every little town we grew up in.”

The novel, about a legendary post-punk band called Memorial Device, is a celebratory, positive story about making art in a small town. It’s a type of fabricated documentary fiction and it features a series of first-person eyewitness accounts in a series of kaleidoscopic, subjective takes on a particular time and place. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth said she wanted to live in the book while it ran. Lisa McInerney found it “wild and tender and poignant and crazy”. Rather than small town life being restrictive and boring, the opposite is suggested. There is energy, spirit and imagination.

This Is Memorial Device felt real. This was partly because of the narrative method, the style of documentary oral history. But there were other contributing elements as well. The cover, a blurry, grainy photo of four young boys in a wooded wasteland, seemed to have real truth to it. It wasn’t something pulled from a photo library. And then there were the accompanying texts. Fans could get an “exact reprint” of the special commemorative edition of the Airdrie fanzine Go Ahead and Drop the Bomb, featuring interviews with the band. It was, as you would expect, photocopied and gloriously amateurish. Keenan produced a black and white photographic essay for The Wire magazine, involving a series of scenes related to the novel: images of apartments, doors, woods, cemeteries, fields with pylons, secret paths. Text accompanying a photo of Benny’s chip shop explains that it was a regular meeting place for daredevils, troublemakers and underage drinkers looking to get in: “Local punk Street Hassle , who is interviewed in Chapter 21 of This Is Memorial Device, lived in the flat just above the fish & chips sign.

In short, it was not difficult to be a believer. And of course, most importantly, and as Keenan said, the book drew on the experiences of other similar post-punk scenes, in Dundalk, Kilkenny or Larne. I thought of the apprentice electrician who lived near my grandmother who got on the bus with his 16-ply Bowie pants, eyeliner and wedge cut, and how, if he had visited to a relative in Coatbridge, he could have joined one of the bands in the book.

Making people believe that a text is real is a particular achievement, a testament to its degree of verisimilitude. Keenan said he wanted his books to form a relationship with the reader, to be alive. In a sense, all writing engages the reader to create meaning. We bring our own thoughts, feelings and experiences and put them into the story where we can. Yet This Is Memorial Device is an example of the world of a novel becoming something greater than the individual’s response to the text.

For starters, there are plenty of Spotify playlists, featuring music suggested by the novel, some of which can last up to 10 hours. There’s a Memorial Device T-shirt, for a band that didn’t exist, or didn’t originally exist. There are pin badges. There are songs named Memorial Device after the band, such as Group Zero on Belfast’s Touch Sensitive label. The Louder Than War website has published a detailed and in-depth review of the records by Bobby Gant. Incredibly, this was one of the world’s rarest EPs – the legendary Mushroom Giro Scene from, you guessed it, Memorial Device. It mysteriously arrived in a package at his home. Gant wrote of a gray area “where fiction and reality merge, make love, and spawn something beautiful that operates across realms and means many different things to different people”. He noted that the Memorial Device community engaged with the piece in different ways. One person asked what was going on; Wasn’t Memorial Device David Keenan’s fictional account of this period? Someone else wanted to know where to buy the EP, while others created stories about their favorite Memorial Device concert. And so, as Gant puts it, “the legend grows and another world is created”.

Another dimension is the Memorial Device Twitter account. Running since 2018, it now has over 30,000 subscribers. Operating independently of writer and editor, it creates a differently textured world of memory and experience. It is a testimony of times past and therefore another type of commemorative device. There’s MD’s guide to the 40 best smells of your youth. These include Vosene shampoo, Carmen hot rollers, caps from a cap gun and, rightly in the front row, dust from the first autumn lighting of an electric fire. That’s poetry. There is the MD guide to the 40 adornments of youth: Capodimonte porcelain figurines, small glass animals, wooden gazelles. Still, it’s not just a rosy, heartwarming trip down memory lane. Political commentary is just as likely. And then there’s the MD Alternate National Treasures, where people whose sensibilities somehow mirror that of the Memorial Device are bestowed treasure status. While they might be famous, like Johan Cruyff or Russell T Davies, they’re just as likely not. They could be a teacher, a caregiver, an electrician. Above all, this iteration of Memorial Device is a brilliant and supportive community.

Another Memorial Device manifestation is a play presented by the Royal Lyceum Theater at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 13-29. The book was adapted for the stage by Graham Eatrough, who also adapted Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark for the Royal Lyceum. It stars Paul Higgins (The Thick of It, Utopia, Line of Duty) as Ross Raymond, and encompasses live action, filmed and audio performances. The music is by legendary Stephen Pastel of The Pastels and is set at Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar, a venue where Memorial Device may or may not have played.

Since that first published book, Keenan has written For the Good Times, set in the 1970s Ardoyne and Gordon Burn Award winner, the otherworldly Xstabeth and the complex and mind-bending reading experience Monument Maker. His next novel, to be published at the end of August, is The Industry of Magic and Light. A prequel to This Is Memorial Device, and set in Airdrie in the 1960s and early 1970s, it centers on a group of hippies performing their own psychedelic light show. The first half of the book is an inventory of the contents of an abandoned caravan by one of the hippies and the second is in the form of a tarot card reading. It brings to life – non-mockingly, happily – working-class cities as places of transformation full of possibility. A huge detailed A2 poster is already available, a rock family tree produced by David Keenan and Lindsay Hutton entitled A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1957 — 1986. extended again, and readers will extend it even further, in all sorts of unforeseen ways.

This Is Memorial Device is at the Royal Lyceum Theater in Edinburgh from August 13-29


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