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Teenage Kicks

Susan McKeever

Music Love Drugs War, by Geraldine Quigley, Fig Tree, 288 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0241354131

It’s Paddy’s Night, Derry in 1981 and a group of friends have gathered in the dingy, smoky Cave to celebrate a birthday. It’s a haven for hippies, punks, hookers, bikers and rockers. Music – seventies punk, heavy reggae, new wave – throbs from the jukebox.

There’s the birthday boy Paddy McLaughlin (christened Elvis Patrick), his sister Liz, drunk, proselytising Christy Meehan, Orla and Sinéad, all heading towards the end of school and exams. There’s Noel, who’s been to uni and has a flat that provides a handy base for getting stoned, playing records and drinking scalding cups of tea. A seedy bedroom is the go-to spot for teenage groping and sex. Clean-cut, callow Peter is new to the scene and about to become Orla’s new flame. Kevin is older than the rest and is seeing Liz.

Outside the safe fug of the Cave, Derry is in ferment. British soldiers inhabit the streets and the hunger strike in the Maze prison near Belfast is on day fifty-two. Bobby Sands, closest to death, has become the symbol of heroics and making a stand to be recognised as a political prisoner in the face of oppression. It’s all people talk about.

Geraldine Quigley, a child of Derry and one of eleven, always knew she could write but never made it a priority. She started writing this novel when she was working ten-hour shifts in a call centre. She heard about the Penguin WriteNow mentoring programme – a scheme that promotes voices currently unrepresented in publishing, and sent in her application, never once believing she’d be accepted as one of the twelve mentees. In Music Love Drugs War Quigley wanted to convey what it was like being a teenager at the height of the Troubles, with the backdrop of music, drugs, drink and love and the normal humdrum life of teenagers on the cusp of their adulthood.

One of Music Love Drug War’s strengths as a novel is the frequent juxtapositions of ordinary life and the very real war that is being waged in the streets. On his way home from the night out Kevin, meandering through the streets lost in fond thoughts of Liz, suddenly has a rifle pushed against his chest and gets questioned and roughly searched for no reason at all by a group of British soldiers.

The girls apply black eyeliner, lie down to squeeze into too-tight jeans and talk about the merits of getting a fringe while Christy and Paddy are full-on rioting in the streets, throwing bricks mined from pavement; flinging petrol bombs made from lemonade bottles and rags. Smoking, burnt-out cars, shattered glass and rubble form the post-riot landscape every morning.

The relative domestic calm of the McLaughlin house is vividly drawn by Quigley – Mammy Bernie is a dedicated homemaker whose potatoes are legendary. She whips curtains off the windows to be washed and ironed, polishes floors, washes windows and changes beds just because Easter is coming. Da Jim, topped with a rockabilly quiff, broods before the hunger strike news on the telly and gets his dinner brought into him.

When Good Friday arrives, violence gets turned up a major notch. Bobby Sands has been given the last rites and as this news “ … filtered through the streets the violence flared ever stronger … it was the end of Lent.”

Kevin and Noel observe the ensuing riots “through a haze of cannabis and alcohol”, Noel commenting that it’s like being in a film and “all it needs is a really good soundtrack”.

But around the corner one of their crew has been hit by a plastic bullet and lies on his back “with eyes open and unseeing”, facing the night sky. Paddy and Christy witness the killing and it’s this that tips them fully into the dangerous IRA territory: they have to make a stand – do something to justify their friend’s senseless death. Quigley describes an unlikely setting for the taking of the membership oath – a child’s bedroom with Holly Hobbie bedsheets. However the atmosphere is sombre and intimidating; with a few words read out from a creased piece of card, the duo become members.

Their assignments move from hijacking a car in a petrol station to surveying border checkpoints for changing shifts. They’re kept in the dark as to the purpose of these jobs. At first it’s like playing soldiers: “We’re playing commandos. It’s The Guns of Navarone – you can be Anthony Quinn and I’ll be Gregory Peck,” Paddy whispers. They share a bag of hot, greasy chips and a can of coke in Buncrana before being picked up in a car to be driven to the hills for gun training. Jobs quickly get more serious and they’re put on checkpoint watch again but this time with a gun and a walkie-talkie.

You care about what happens to these people, this cast of youngsters, but some, such as Orla and Sinéad, could been developed more. It is also hard to understand what Kevin has been doing in his twenty-five years and why he is hanging around with a bunch of teens. Likewise, Noel asserts that he’s been to uni, which must make him older, but he’s also firmly entrenched in the gang, with no indication of what he does all day.

The novel’s punchy title, Music Love Drugs War, is reminiscent of Viv Albertine’s punk memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys but there the similarity ends. The Music in the title does not hold as much sway in the plot as the novel’s narratives of love and war. Tender, nascent love is explored by Quigley as is drunken fumbling – the morning after a party in Noel’s, Sinéad wakes up beside Paddy and says: “We were just talking, right?” War is the nightly riots, everyone’s complicit knowledge of who “the boys”are, the inflammatory sign on the edge of town with the number of days of hunger strike recorded, the constant military presence and random searches. Drugs are mainly just marijuana, and one episode of trying Noel’s granny’s “nerve pills” that serve no purpose but to put the lads into a paralysed stupor.

At the end of her novel, Quigley gives her characters only one option – to escape the scarred landscape of Derry and make a new life for themselves across the water among the very people who had invaded and occupied their home town. Just how they fare might possibly be the makings of another novel by this interesting debut novelist. But for now Music Love Drugs War makes for a gripping and memorable read that captures a unique and unforgettable time in Ireland’s history.

1/5/2019

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