Sort of a sequel, but only sort of. Proudly and unapologetically Scottish. Full of heart, full of great music, full of colorful and engrossing language. Plus, Boy George. Still not suitable for Tories.
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David F Ross has created a world for his characters to inhabit. Whist the story here is set in the same area and chronologically follows The Last Days of Disco, it is only a sequel in the sense of the timeline. Some characters appear in both books, but I couldn’t call The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas the second in the Bobby Cassidy series, on account of the fact he’s hardly in it.
In taking the ‘shared world’ approach for his Disco Days trilogy, Ross is creating a richly detailed environment for his characters to inhabit, its still a grim world, a world of 1980s hardships and Tory cuts. Of Scotland feeling cut off from England and the impacts that decisions made hundreds of miles away by people with no real grasp of the reality have on people. No punches are pulled and some of the characters are very much products of their time. There is racism and homophobia running through the story, highlighting for me how we have moved on but how recent this all was in the grand scheme of things and how easy it would be to slip backwards, a real social conscience runs through the book . One scene in particular involves a journalist named Farah Nawaz and our protagonist legging it from an ill-advised interview location to avoid being leathered by Neanderthal morons. Farah doesn’t re-appear until much later in the story, but nonetheless this remains one of the most memorable sequences in the novel for me. I mentioned our protagonist, I suppose I should talk a little about the story I enjoyed so much.
Dale Wishart took a bit of a knock during the course of events in The Last Days of Disco. A knock that left him in the hospital. A knock that left him not quite himself as he recovered. Reborn as Max Mojo (his name changed by Deed Poll), he is determined to put together and manage the most successful band to ever come out of Ayrshire. Max is passionate, vocal, unpredictable, fiery, not always an entirely nice guy. Now all he needs is some musicians, some songs and some gigs. Enter a wonderful cast of characters thrown together to form The Miraculous Vespa’s. Some with connections to the previous stories, others new to the world. All with strong personalities. Lead singer and cash cow Grant is a particular stand out, his evolving confidence through the story has a real ‘coming of age’ element about it. Alongside the story of the developing band there is a concurrent tale around the Ayrshire gangs and the struggle control, this element is more of a direct follow up to Last Days of Disco. As Glasgow continues to clash with Kilmarnock and the surrounding areas, there is a police operation to end both operations and bring some legitimate opportunities to those that cooperate. As the story builds, so does the sense of clinging on for dear life, events escalate to a dramatic conclusion which impacts on everyone in not entirely expected ways.
I can’t talk about my views on every character in the story as there are so many (to the extent that there is a handy guide at the beginning of the book should you ever get lost) populating Ross’ rich world. However, I do just want to mention Fat Franny Duncan. In the first book he was a bit of a bastard, lording it over his patch with an iron first, in the second his influence is starting to wain and he is a better man for it. The changes life brings to Fat Franny, for me, make up the most heartening sub plot in the book, he goes from someone due his comeuppance to a person you hope succeeds and makes a life for himself. I was with him throughout.
Music really drives the story, and the rise of The Miraculous Vespas is as unlikely as that of some real-life events. I’m thinking in particular of the rise of Joy Division, the fiercely loyal people, the varied and often clashing personalities of those involved. Max and Grant could almost be Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner (I’ll leave you to decide who is who). The insistence of operating outside of London and staying local, of a label built with no real care about money is almost Factory in its stylings. Various myths that built up around certain events, (I still like having a pint at The Castle on Oldham Street sat in the corner where legend has it that Tony Wilson signed the Joy Division contract in his own blood) have all the elements of a legendary band’s tale.
All of this is told with a style all his own with a dark sense of humor and compassion for how difficult life was for so many in the early 1980s in Britain. The effects that Thatcherism had on so many economies, a lot of the characters that are involved in the crime family’s activities are there more out of need than of desire. For those in the band, music provided a route out of an otherwise bleak looking future (again, I can draw similarities with the story of Joy Division here).
A richly varied, textured and colorful novel. The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is the second in The Disco Days trilogy. The third The Man Who Loved Islands brings characters from the first two books together to wrap the whole thing up, 30 years after the events of books one and two. It should be one hell of a final ride.
(PS, Sorry David, I never did like The Smiths!!)