When we meet Azzy Williams, the central character of Graeme Armstrong’s debut novel, he is just fourteen years old, and yet to become one of the most prominent members of gang, The Young Team.
In that window to his adolescence, Armstrong shows us the hurtling inevitability of gang culture that awaits not just Azzy, but all the boys in The Young Team, the overlooked youths of North Lanarkshire. Having swapped stealing beers from home for haggling with an ‘eld alky’ to buy them alcohol from the off licence, Azzy and his pals charge into the weekend, inflated with attitude, dizzy on adrenaline and Buckfast, and looking for trouble – guaranteed to be found in their ‘enemies,’ the rival gang, Too Boiz.
The Young Team, Too Boiz… they’re all young boys living in poor postcodes, in a hurry to grow up and it’s the street they turn to for their training. As Azzy tells us ‘They don’t teach yi how tae survive oot oan the streets in school…furget PSE, social education…Yi learn fae yir pals, n the army ae big cousins, brurs n elder wans who feel it their duty tae lead and mislead yi tae the form ae truth that the streets offer.’ An armour of designer labels – Fred Perry, Lacoste and the ultimate aspirational garment, the Berghaus Mera Peak – go some way towards giving the illusion of self-assurance.
Over the next few years, Azzy is drawn into a life of violence, drug abuse and the suffocating pull of gang culture loyalty. Regular altercations with Too Boiz create an escalating cycle of retaliation that steers the story towards grave territory. In public Azzy acts recklessly, while privately beginning to imagine a different path. Teachers see his potential, as does Monica, a former girlfriend – and he sometimes sees it too: ‘A momentarily hate maself n the way A talk n aw the time A’ve wasted.’ A post-festival anxiety attack in his childhood bedroom, and later in a car packed with his weed smoking pals are vivid and affecting in their bleakness. They’re also quietly hopeful moments that reveal Azzy’s inner turmoil taking siege, his growing resistance towards conformity.
While The Young Team is fictional, Armstrong’s own observations of gang culture – having lived it and left it behind – make this a compulsive read. You can feel passion and fight from him on every page to show us the insecurities and anxieties crackling away under the exterior of these young men; the heavy burden of masculinity and all they misunderstand it to be; and the complexity of existing in a perpetual cycle of debts, from the financial to the moral.
Adjusting to Azzy’s street vernacular is initially challenging. When you do, his witty, beautiful observations on life and his compassion for all – from his enemies through to his mother – are poetic, his voice lingering in your mind long after you’ve read his story.
When did you decide to write The Young Team?
I began writing this novel in January 2013 in my first tough days of stopping using drugs for the last time. On Christmas Eve 2012, I went to church instead of out with the young team with my mum for the Watchnight service and went cold turkey the following day. I had tried and failed several times before, but this time was like a Christmas epiphany. That was my moment of transformation. The Young Team was a constant companion and a reason to fight and strive and just to keep going through these hard times. Seven years later… it would be a Times Bestseller. My faith stayed with me as well. It has become an important part of my life.
What was your writing process?
I wrote consecutively, start to finish. The Young Team was written as a bildungsroman trilogy. Each novel represented the succinct age periods, 14, 18 and finally 21. This was seen as a commercial decision but really it wasn’t. The novels were very long – the total words would have been around 250K – a Lord of the Rings length saga. I combined these into a single novel and began to cut them back across the five years of working independently and seeking representation. Finding a literary agent was the hardest part of the process. Once I was signed, I continued to edit and refine. After several months work, it was sent out to publishers and was acquired quickly by Picador at Pan Macmillan. The dialect required particular effort in its crafting to make sure it was a realistic linguistic portrait that was both authentic and legible to the outside world. The language of the novel is incredibly important to me in terms of representing my community.
How cathartic was it to write?
It was not as cathartic as people might think. I was aware that I was creating something. It wasn’t like it was a sudden release. I’ve actually written a memoir style of events and that was much more cathartic because that was more of an outpouring. But The Young Team took craft; it was hard work.
How do you think gang culture affects the shape of self-esteem in such formative years?
Young men survive in these communities by safety in numbers and I think self-esteem is a big word that young men wouldn’t consciously use or think about. I heard a good quote once that in your teenage years you want to be the same as everyone and then in your twenties you want to be different and I think that’s true.
Poor mental health is a theme affecting many of your characters yet most are not even conscious of their suffering in order to take steps to get support. Do you feel like any progress is being made here?
The themes of mental health and masculinity are intertwined here. In the novel, we see panic and anxiety, complex trauma response and suicide hidden behind the hard shells of characters, without any mention of professional intervention. This was absolutely my experience. There is a definite reticence to seek professional help in communities like this because of stigma and quite frankly the outcome of seeking help. Often, if someone presented at a GP with mental health complaints, as some did, they were offered a course of anti-depressants when, potentially, they would have better suited talking therapies, abstinence from substance abuse/alcohol and focus on diet and exercise. The holistic factors of overall wellbeing were never considered. Lifestyle is fundamental to mental health. Poverty is a massive driver of poor mental health. Unless in direct crisis, access to talking services typically takes months. Young men self-medicate with alcohol and street Valium – a direct factor in our surge in drug fatalities in Scotland – the so called ‘blue-death’. I know countless young men who have committed suicide – the latest one of my own young team in the summer. It’s an epidemic, but without access to treatment – it continues. If we break our leg, we receive prompt treatment and physio – but if we’re struggling with panic disorder or depression – the treatment is patchy at best and we’re ignored with lethal potential. Why?
At one point Azzy says of another lad ‘I felt heartfelt sorrow that we’ve put that…mark on his face and doomed him forever to think like this.’ You invite understanding and compassion for all the young men, even those in the rival gang.
I think that’s mandatory. It’s too easy to make this a story of ‘we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys,’ whereas the reality of territorial and recreational violence is that there wasn’t good and bad guys; they were just guys. When you look at it from the vantage point of being beyond it you realise that. Facial injuries become such a brand on a young man. Someone with a face injury is a victim of violence but people assume – often wrongly – that they’re a perpetrator of violence, in gangs or organised crimes. It becomes a real challenge for these young men to get a job or even just move on.
Azzy acknowledges his ‘maw’, who is constantly worried about her son’s safety, as the ‘true unsung hero ae this story.’ Bearing in mind your own journey, how did your mother feel when The Young Team was published?
The Young Team isn’t a book any parent wants their child to be able to write from lived experience. My mother witnessed that journey and descent first-hand. Seeing her son come home covered in blood after being seriously assaulted, collecting me from police stations, attending court and just daily life with someone who is substance dependent is very challenging. Without her support, I’d have left home at sixteen and dropped out of education. My fate would have been predictable. You can’t undo the past, but I hope that my journey in gaining both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, living substance and alcohol free and the writing of this novel are atonement. She is absolutely the ‘unsung hero’. I stand by these words – she never gave up on me or accepted the life I had chosen for myself.
You acknowledge Trainspotting as an influence for Azzy, and presumably for yourself. What else inspired you?
Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen. I recently spoke to Martin Compston which was really exciting as he was one of my boyhood idols. That was the first time we saw our lives reflected on screen and seeing the emblems like a blue Berghaus Mera Peak really spoke to us. When I started to write this, Sweet Sixteen was a film I really thought about.
What have you been working on this year?
I’ve had the summer off to focus on writing but I’m returning to work. I’ve supported myself for these last seven years by working in the motor-sales. It’s long hours and demanding but I’m convinced there’s a novel in there somewhere! My next fiction offering, Raveheart is based around rave culture – definitely more Kevin and Perry Go Large in tone than something like Beats. Following this is the true story of my experiences in gangs in memoir. The working title is To Live and Die in LA-narkshire. This is a different enterprise from The Young Team. It’s challenging and darker, I think. Real life is often more unbelievable. Long term, I would love to return to university and take my PhD in English.