Revisiting 1980s Scotland for my debut novel was invigorating
David F Ross’s ‘The Last Days of Disco’ recalls the prevailing mix of optimism and hopelessness of the era
David F Ross: ‘The Last Days of Disco is about people trying to make the best of things in difficult circumstances, their daily routines interrupted by unique turns of events that show them all to be fallible but also human.’
In 1982, I was 18 years old; the same age as the two principal characters in my debut novel, The Last Days of Disco. Revisiting this period of my life was invigorating. Everything seemed so changeable back then. The music, the politics, my own family relationships … it was all in some state of flux to a greater or lesser degree.
It was also when I felt most alive. The knowledge of life stretching out in front of me - like the highway in a Bruce Springsteen song - was a fear and a source of excitement. Many of the emotions captured in the book were very personal and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to address them from my current perspective.
Upon being asked to leave secondary school, directionless, there weren’t any histrionics from my parents. They had separated 18 months earlier and had enough of their own problems to deal with. This soon changed after a few months of the DJ-ing (I was a teenage mobile DJ) getting more and more out of hand.
Four, sometimes five times a week I’d stagger home hammered at around 4am, emerge from my room well after midday, struggle through the hangover period before preparing to go out and do it all over again at 11pm. In the summer of 1982, this was my daily routine, interrupted only when a World Cup match from Spain caught my imagination.
Eventually, an ultimatum was issued: get a proper job - one that necessitated the use of a National Insurance Number - or leave home. All the money from DJ-ing was spent on beer, clothes and, most importantly, records. I’d manufactured a friendship with a couple of girls from school who’d begun working in the local Woolworths store. In return for the odd few nights out with free entry to some private parties we were working at, they sold me records at a reduced staff discount rate of 35p a single.
Dj-ing was a hobby I got paid for, and while I was never going to give it up, I reckoned finding something else to remove the threat of eviction was a price worth paying. Following the showdown at home, I drifted into a bizarre variety of aimless and short-lived jobs, none of which hinted at any kind of future direction.
I landed a position as a part-time clerk in an undertaker’s business. This lasted two weeks. It was far too sombre and depressing. Before taking the job, I’d imagined a daily routine that was at least entertaining. I’d anticipated some real gallows humour with colleagues playing sick practical jokes with the bodies that they had to prepare. But it was very dour. Appropriately respectful, certainly, but resolutely boring.
From the funeral parlour I moved on to an ice-cream parlour and an equally short lived tenure. I lasted two weekends as a general dogsbody at Dairy County Ice Cream.
There were essentially four tasks in an ice cream factory. There was the mixer, the feeder, the cutter and the packer. This production line of milk-based produce all took place within a windowless space no more than ten feet square. Everyone took a turn at each job, on rotation after an hour. A bell sounded to signify changeovers.
It was a five-man operation, with the spare man regulating temperatures, fixing stuff that had broken, emptying deformed bricks back into the mixing vat and making tea for the boss. Every morning, and bearing in mind I only lasted four of them, he would start the day with a pronouncement; “Now my boys, let’s make some bricks of pure gold!” I earned 30 pounds in total. With part of my final weeks pay, I bought the Madness LP One Step Beyond.
A few months later, I went for an interview that seems inexplicable to me now, especially given the thrust of the book. In 1982, Britain was involved in a strange, short conflict on the other side of the world. In the run up to actually going to war, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was deeply unpopular. With my inherited tradition of socialism, nothing that she did was without suspicion.
A war 8,000 miles away off the coast of Argentina seemed ludicrous. No-one even knew where the Falkland Islands were prior to this conflict. Invoking the Dunkirk spirit to rally the whole country behind a common enemy and, conveniently forgetting all the troubles at home, seemed just a bit too opportunistic.
However, I can testify that this kind of political expediency worked. Having had a real fear that conscription was just weeks away, I innocently figured it might be better to have chosen a service, than have one chosen for me. Armed with nothing more than a cheap Burtons suit and a complete lack of appreciation of what might actually be involved, I pitched up at the Royal Air Force Recruitment office at Wellington Square in Ayr.
I figured that being up in the air dropping things on people was better than being in a muddy hole in the ground having them fire things at me. That I had considered the RAF would let me in a plane following a few weeks’ basic training demonstrated both my attitude and the lack of research I’d carried out prior to my appointment.
There were 15 fellow potential recruits, all of us looking like the cannon fodder at the beginning of every Hollywood movie from An Officer and a Gentleman to Full Metal Jacket. The RAF would clearly have a major job on its hands turning any of us into adults, never mind airmen prepared to put our lives on the line for Queen and country.
We all sat silently in the tiny waiting room, with its high ceiling and ornate cornice. Pictures of military aircraft surrounded us.
I was ninth in line and my Q&A lasted five minutes, and went something like this:
“Have you ever been arrested by the police?”
A prolonged silence followed by a hesitant ‘”Eh, no!’”
“Have you ever taken drugs?”
“Have you ever been in the ATC?”
A more sure-footed “Yeah, I’ve DJ-ed in their hall loads of times!’”
It should be noted there is no sense of humour evident in the armed forces recruitment process.
Four or five more rapid fire questions all concerned with why I wanted to be in the RAF, followed by the same hesitant responses were enough to establish beyond any doubt that I was not, nor would I ever be, RAF material. My tangible indiscipline, evident disregard for Her Majesty’s government and the lack of any personal goals showed me up for the desperate charlatan I was.
I trooped over to Ayr’s depressing Central Bus Station, feeling a distinct foreboding about my future. For the first time I felt I had no real idea of where I was headed, and that realisation troubled me.
It was relatively easy for me to tap into the mixed emotions of hopeful optimism and hopeless acknowledgment that almost all of my friends and I shared. The Last Days of Disco is about people trying to make the best of things in difficult circumstances, their daily routines interrupted by unique turns of events that show them all to be fallible but also human.
I love stories that mix these extremes of emotions so effortlessly. It’s exactly how I remember those strange but vital times in the early 80s.
The Last Days of Disco is published by Orenda Books.