Interview: Author David Keenan on the magic of Airdrie 'I wanted to fly in the face of grim stuff and be affirmative and celebratory about the small town experience'

In his novel This is Memorial Device, David Keenan took a fictional band in the post punk era and mined the creativity and joy he experienced in his hometown of Airdrie. It struck a chord with readers around the world and has already spawned a play with a TV adaptation in discussion. On a walking tour of his corner of North Lanarkshire, the author talks to Aidan Smith about the magic hidden in plain sight and the need for small towns to be loved and cherished more

It is raining in Airdrie, as it was during previous attempts to meet the unofficial town bard, which were promptly abandoned. So, collars up, David Keenan and I are carrying on regardless today, as you really must in a place with, let’s say, a casual, booty-call relationship with the sun. “As if,” Keenan once memorably wrote, “some clown had stashed it in a black sock and tossed it into an empty parking lot.”

Why don’t we dive into a cafe? Well, Airdrie’s High Street isn’t immediately offering one and besides, the idea is that the author escorts me round his books’ most vivid locations. Then the rain stops. No sign of the sun but let’s not get greedy. And then, beyond the Greggs and the Card Factory and the vaping shops, a caff materialises. “Bacchialdi’s,” announces Keenan. “So called because it’s at the back of - look over there - Aldi’s. Genius!”

Hide Ad

It is. And so is This is Memorial Device. And Industry of Magic & Light, the prequel and Keenan’s most recent work. I tell him I don't know why there aren’t proper, advertised guided tours celebrating his novels. “Oh they’re coming,” he says. “Some amazing things are going to be happening in Airdrie in 2024.” He doesn’t say as much - too modest - but this must all be down to his thrillingly gonzo prose, bringing the town alive on the page and sending its name ringing round the world.

David Keenan in Katherine Park, Airdrie. Photograph by John DevlinDavid Keenan in Katherine Park, Airdrie. Photograph by John Devlin
David Keenan in Katherine Park, Airdrie. Photograph by John Devlin

Maybe you don’t think about Airdrie much, or if you do, as a gnarly wee settlement, scowling away in North Lanarkshire. “It does exist in Glasgow’s shadow,” Keenan, 52, agrees. “But towns like Airdrie have been completely and utterly abandoned. I don’t think anyone cares for working-class people in these places anymore. Airdrie doesn’t have the life it did when I was young. It’s run down, rougher, and I feel very sad about that.”

Then Keenan, a fast walker, speeds up some more. “The magic for me growing up was that, behind closed doors, there were these interesting, eccentric characters. They were doing strange and fascinating things - in Airdrie. Think about that: how hard it must have been to be Iggy Pop here. Harder than being Iggy Pop wherever the real one was hanging out. I know there’s still magic in Airdrie, I can still feel the vibe.” Now, you probably won’t believe me, and think it contrived, but the nightclub we pass at this exact moment, a more recent addition to Graham Street, is called … Vibe. I point up at the sign. “See?” he says. “You’re feeling it too!”

What made me contemplate Airdrie before today, only my third-ever visit? Again, you might reckon this too neat, but there was an ad on the cover of old Airdrieonians football programmes: “Tip Top Restaurant - High tea.” It was never-changing and ran right through the Swinging Sixties. What a shame, I used to think, when everyone else was enjoying all that free love. But no: “Happenings were happening all over Airdrie,” Keenan wrote in Industry of Magic & Light. Was the town getting high in other ways?

This is Memorial Device is how Keenan blazed onto the scene. The best book about being in a band, ever, it told of a different era in music - post-punk, 1978-86 - but with the same raw power and the same depiction of Airdrie as an authentic setting for art and dreams and the possible.

Keenan’s debut listed standard put-downs of the town - “a dump, a horror show, an asylum” - adding that these merely served to keep the curious away. Well, devotees now make pilgrimages, sending Keenan photos of themselves at the railway station. Because of the book they know about Airdrie in Mexico and Colombia. Unlovely Airdrie buildings are celebrated on limited edition t-shirts. Dedicated social media sites revel in nostalgia for the toys, household furnishings and ephemera of the period.

Hide Ad

Memorial Device, the two-minute, three-chord, nearly-heroes of the tale, have their sound approximated by others on tribute EPs. “Memorial Device Alternative National Heroes”, also on social media, hails the unsung and forgotten. The stage play of the book was world-premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and tours nationally in the new year. There may yet be a TV dramatisation.

And then there are those organised Airdrie dauners. Walk, as I’m doing today, in Big Patty’s footsteps! Buy chips from Benny’s, the Memorial Device frontman’s eaterie-of-choice! Get a trim at Peter the Barbers where he worked while waiting on the big break! Admire the shipping container in the Forrest Street driveway where the combo rehearsed! Tick off the close where bandmate Lucas Black and Paprika Jones had a shag! So who’s going to be the guide for the tours, the Mr Airdrie? Well, who do you think? …

Hide Ad

Keenan looks pretty much like how you’d want your favourite authors to look: bountiful whiskers, beret, coat that could be a cape, cuban heels and many rings, each with a story behind them. “This one,” he says, pointing to the gold thumper, “was given me by my grandfather. He was a member of the original IRA, did some time in jail and made it from a coin.”

Of course he didn’t always look like this. “I was a total square as a kid. Didn’t drink or smoke. A bit of a geek, member of the local astronomy club.

I was a bit too young for post-punk - the first record I bought was by Dollar - but used to love just sitting on a wall watching the older kids in their leather jackets Tipp-Exed with ‘Throbbing Gristle’ or long coats with Penguin Modern Classics falling out of the pockets. Just walking down the street these guys were weird, beautiful and avant garde. They didn’t have to all be in bands but I fantasised that they were.” (And how did the groove go? As Keenan wrote: “Music has to sound like a building coming down, otherwise forget it.”).

“Aged 17, I wanted to go to a gig but was clueless about them. I asked my father who liked Perry Como and he said everyone would be sat at tables wearing suits. So I borrowed his dogtooth one, combed my hair nice. I was all set for the Pastels at Fury Murrys in Glasgow and Dad drove me through.

“He waited in the queue with me, saw me inside okay. Everyone else looked like they were in the Ramones with these mad bowlcuts. Dad came in later, bought me a coke, sat by the stage with the bouncer. When we got home I took off his jacket and, standing in front of the mirror, messed up my hair. I’ve never brushed it since. Rock ’n’ roll had just blown my mind.”

Keenan tells lovely stories about his father Tommy who escaped the Ardoyne in Belfast - setting for second book For the Good Times - at the height of Ireland’s Troubles. First a merchant seaman, he became area manager for Easyfit and Keenan, oldest of three, would accompany him on the shoe-shop rounds. He admits to a lasting footwear fetish, but only for boots. “I never wear shoes, don’t like showing my ankles.”

Hide Ad

Another eccentric aspect - well, he is from Airdrie - might be the fact of not owning a TV. “They’re ugly, it’s a passive experience and I haven’t had one in the house for 20 years.” With partner Heather he spends his spare time in the allotment. So when the small-screen version of This is Memorial Device was first mooted, and the producers of one of the TV dramas of the age were mentioned as being interested, he had to ask his mother Elizabeth: “What’s Line of Duty? Is it any good?”

Tommy was illiterate all his days. “Dad never went to school. His father - who was also illiterate - had him out selling kindling from a young age. Then he met my mum and became interested in cultural things and was insistent that I read. ‘Books will change your life,’ he’d say. I used to think: ‘How would he know?’ Later it occurred to me that because he had such a high opinion of novels he would probably be disappointed in a lot of them. So I kind of made a vow that I would try and write books which could be an illiterate person’s fantasy of what literature might be.”

Hide Ad

Sadly his father died before his son was published. Tommy knew that up until that moment he’d been a music journalist, although couldn’t grasp the concept. “I told him: ‘Imagine if you met Perry Como, had a conversation with him and then wrote about it.’ He still didn’t understand. In fact, he was obviously worried about me because one day - I was in my thirties and living in my own flat in Glasgow by that point - a letter arrived saying my application for a paper round had been successful. He’d put my name forward. ‘But son,’ he said, perfectly serious, ‘you’ve not got a job.’ I could have been the oldest paper boy in the whole of Scotland! But, you know, he was the loveliest man and I’ve still got all the Christmas and birthday cards he sent me, when he had a bloody good go at writing. There would be a comma after every word: ‘Always, remember, you, are, an, very, special, person.’ To me that was like modernist poetry - just beautiful.”

His mother, still alive, was a history teacher who loved science fiction and Keenan’s interest in books began with her Issac Asimov. In return, he turned her onto Lou Reed. “She had an epiphany. Before she’d listened to Lena Martell. Every time he played Scotland we went together. The last time, at the end, he gave the crowd the finger. Mum thought that was great. She said: ‘If I hadn’t met your father I’d have married Lou Reed.’”

So what does she think of his novels? “She loves them although sometimes she gets a bit embarrassed by the content.” Keenan writes often and wildly about sex. He’s been taken to task about this by male critics - “as if they feel they should somehow be protecting women from my books.” Female feedback is invariably positive. “I’ve been told by women they like the sex. One - this was a fellow writer, just before a literary prize was announced - leaned over and admitted she masturbated to my books. The greatest review I’ve ever had!”

Reed, when Keenan was writing for Melody Maker and then The Wire, was the big interview that got away. His own music career was brief and unspectacular, but afforded him a bystander’s role in history. “I was rhythm guitarist in 18 Wheeler who performed at [Glasgow’s] King Tut’s the night Oasis were discovered. That’s the legend but I’ve always doubted it. Another of the groups on the bill asked for a slot for them so it wasn’t the case they threatened to wreck the joint and barged their way onto the stage. But I knew they’d be huge. Liam [Gallagher] was magical. 18 Wheeler, though, were crap. I was only on the first record and couldn’t wait to get out. It’s said that most journalists who write about music want to be musicians themselves. I was a musician who was a frustrated writer.”

Those frustrations included “six or seven” unpublished novels, one of which enraged him so much he took a sledgehammer to his computer. “I convinced myself I was the worst, most cliched, most shitty author of all time.” That one wasn’t Airdrie-set. Write about what you know, they always say. So he did.

On our walkie-talkie, taking in buildings which as a kid he cheerfully believed were haunted, Keenan doesn’t want to pass his old house. “A tree has gone, there’s paving, it’ll be too sad.” But he shows me the site of the first Clarkson Primary School. “Willie Brown was the great headmaster who dreamt up these hybrid plays which made no sense but were great fun. He sent me away over the summer to read The Hobbit and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Keenan also points out the former house of another inspirational character, William Scobie, who liked to quote Latin and taught him calligraphy. “He gave me a copy of The Book of Airdrie, this great record of the town, its people and what they did for a living. Aged 11, that was a key moment. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I actually live in a place that’s interesting enough to have a book written about it.’”

Hide Ad

For his book of Airdrie Keenan had a clear vision of what he didn’t want: “Cliched Scottish literature about drugs and booze and violence and misery. This is Memorial Device was written out of gratitude to Airdrie and I wanted to fly in the face of that grim stuff and be affirmative and celebratory about the small town experience. A novel that said ‘yes’ and pointed to the absolute magic.”

It’s fair to say he succeeded, and now for the biggest spin-off yet. Rediscovering Airdrie is an ambitious project taking its lead from the books and aiming to confirm the town as “Scotland’s most magical postcode”. Backed by local, national and Lottery funding, Airdrie will become “a vibrant centre of creativity, culture, enterprise and learning”. Keenan invented the story of a bunch of hippies attempting to have the town hall levitate in a bid to end the Vietnam War. For any other conflict that may not quite be possible under the scheme but new artistic endeavour will be funded.

Hide Ad

Fact and fiction definitely blur on these streets, now threatening to become sun-dappled. My tour finishes at Katherine Park which, naturally, is inhabited by a ghost. The greatest band you’ve never heard, Memorial Device continue to be nowhere but, more and more in Airdrie, everywhere.

David Keenan - an, very, special, writer.

This is Memorial Device is published by Faber & Faber; David Keenan’s latest book, Industry of Magic & Light is published by White Rabbit, £18.99



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.