Book review: Industry of Magic & Light, by David Keenan

In this prequel to his breakthrough novel This is Memorial Device, David Keenan suggests that, in 1960s Airdrie, anything was possible. Review by Aidan Smith

David Keenan
David Keenan

I’m pretty sure that the last time I mentioned the town of Airdrie in print was five years ago when David Keenan burst onto the scene with This is Memorial Device, the literary equivalent of a furious guitar squall for his tale of a merry band of local post-punk loser-legends.

This is a gross negligence on my part and the parts of everyone else who’s not written about this corner of North Lanarkshire in that period or indeed at any moment in the last half century-plus. For did you know that Airdrie was once as swingin’ as London, as revolutionary as Paris, as mystical as Marrakech, as vital as New York and as trippily far out as San Francisco?

In an abandoned hippy caravan there’s a map of Airdrie and its environs. On it, asterisks joined by lines intersect in the shape of a five-pointed star. “See where you are, and what you can do there,” is the unwritten advice of the map. “Don’t hitch-hike across America, don’t drop out in Woodstock, think local, think of the specifics of the ecology you live in, come to name its trees and birds, come to know its wildlife, but not just that, its stone, its geological history, it’s Roman remains, its wild-man roots … work magick on it, say the magick word and point to it … and find out that where you are was the centre of the world all along. Which is exactly what we were up to in these towns and villages of the Monklands in the 1960s.”

Industry of Magic & Light, by David Keenan

Industry of Magic & Light is the prequel to Keenan’s This is Memorial Device. It’s the era of the happening. “Happenings were happening all over Airdrie back then.” In fields, quarries, working men’s clubs and Airdrie Town Hall for an attempted levitation of said municipal building to end the Vietnam War. The book’s title is also the name of the specialists in psychedelic visuals for these quaint entertainments whose HQ is the caravan, and the first half unfolds in the form of a thrilling inventory of its contents.

Bicycle repair kit! Bazooka Joe bubblegum! Treets! Brown duffle coat! KP Peanuts! Ticket to Woodstock (the movie, Coatbridge ABC)! Fantastic Four comic, March 1966! Collapsed tent! Half-empty bottle of Vosene! Afghan coat! Packet of 20 Regal! It’s like Keenan has been in my childhood home, my old bedroom. Followers of the nostalgia-drenched Memorial Device Twitter feed will smile at all of this.

Keenan threads these votive objects into a tapestry as delirious and hallucinogenic as a John Cippolina guitar solo. You don't hear so much anymore about the latter's Quicksilver Messenger Service but they get a mention here along with Gryphon, Groundhogs and Third Ear Band, others surely enjoying long-overdue debuts in fiction.

Then what about the Monarchs of the Night Time and Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast? Are they real? Kommandos of Daath played the gym hall at Clarkston Primary School and everyone who was there went home and formed a band, just like what happened with the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols.

Ah, wait. This is Memorial Device was searing and brilliant and totally made up. Don’t tell me Keenan has done it again. I check my sacred Airdrie texts, the town football team’s match programmes from the 1960s with their adverts for the Tip Top Restaurant in Graham Street and “high tea”.

Maybe, just maybe, the place got high in other ways. Why couldn’t someone walk down the street in Airdrie, maybe even Graham Street, wearing aviator shades? Why couldn’t someone leave Airdrie for Afghanistan and later come back to Airdrie? Why couldn’t it be possible to find a harmonium in Airdrie, or chorizo or a beat-poetry reading? Why couldn’t LSD be manufactured there? Keenan is showing us how even in Airdrie – perhaps especially in Airdrie – the possibilities were infinite. And maybe, just maybe, he’s written another classic.

Industry of Magic & Light, by David Keenan, White Rabbit, 272pp, £18.99. David Keenan is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August