Graeme Armstrong on The Young Team, gang violence and Trainspotting

Inspired by his own experiences in an Airdrie gang, Graeme Armstrong’s debut novel is an instant Scottish classic. We speak to him about the legacies of violence, mental health and Trainspotting

Feature by Katie Goh | 28 Feb 2020
  • Graeme Armstrong

Everyone has that book. Your absolute favourite, the one that changed everything, blew your world wide open and set you on a new path. For a teenage Graeme Armstrong, that book was Trainspotting. Sitting in English, a classmate suggested Armstrong study Irvine Welsh’s novel for his book report. “I read that book and it transformed my life,” says Armstrong. “The reason I went to university and studied English, and what probably saved my life, was reading Trainspotting.” 

It’s also the reason why Armstrong is about to publish his debut novel, The Young Team, a work of fiction but very much based on his own experiences in an Airdrie gang as a teenager. The novel follows its protagonist, Azzy, across three turning points in his life: aged 14 and new to gangs, then 17 and struggling with a drug addiction, and finally, aged 21, off drugs and trying to move on. “Me and Azzy are the same person in some respects and in other respects, we’re completely different,” explains Armstrong. “He’s a fictional entity but a mouthpiece for me to narrate my own experiences especially when it comes to violence and mental health and suicide and trauma.” 

In 2013, Armstrong found himself in a similar position to Azzy at the end of The Young Team. He had stopped using drugs on Christmas Day, 2012, and was in the early stages of drug withdrawal. “I was spending most of my time alone, away from friends, and I was struggling with that,” he says. “I wrote three words down – The Young Team – and I stared at it and thought, 'this is going to be a film, it’s going to the new Sweet Sixteen'. I realised after 15 minutes on Wikipedia that it was hard to make a film but I started to write the first chapter of The Young Team. I just locked myself away and wrote and wrote and wrote.”

Seven years later, Armstrong had his novel but the next challenge was publishing it. Was a story written in Lanarkshire vernacular about gangs a hard sell? “Oh, absolutely,” he laughs. “I did around 300 submissions before I managed to get an agent. People were interested in my story and the authenticity but some were very hesitant to commit to a novel in that dialect.”

Despite the success of Irvine Welsh – “the toughest and roughest renderer of dialect I’ve ever read,” states Armstrong – publishers were still unsure if The Young Team could work outside a Scottish market. But the novel’s vernacular isn’t just a stylistic decision, it’s inseparable from Azzy’s – and Armstrong’s – world. “It’s the way I talk, the way I think and the language of my community.”

While its dialect might make The Young Team seem like a story rooted in the specificity of its location, the novel’s exploration of mental health and drug use tells a universal tale of working-class masculinity that’s based on Armstrong’s own experience. “As a teenager, I was a daily drug addict,” he explains. “I would use drugs constantly and struggled with anxiety and panic attacks and my mental health suffered because of it. The legacy of that doesn’t just vanish.” 

Armstrong admits to being concerned with representing gangs, especially gang violence, but he hopes that The Young Team will encourage conversations about how masculinity, mental health and substance abuse intersect with one another. “I’m sure some people will say I glamourise gang violence and sure, the violence adds drama and pace to the book, but I don’t think the violence is particularly fetishised,” he says. “The novel is about the internal life of Azzy and the alienation of drug addiction and the loneliness of poor mental health amidst a gang conflict. There are lots of young men in the west of Scotland who are wounded by trauma and can’t talk about their feelings. They go on to become violent men, to offend, commit suicide and self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. We see that legacy in the book.”

Our conversation comes full circle as Armstrong contemplates how his school days shaped his future, Trainspotting aside. “When I started telling teachers I was going to study English at university it was met with healthy scepticism. One teacher said there was too much reading for someone like me and another told me to just leave school. But I hung on.” 

Now, with a Masters and publishing deal under his belt, Armstrong is just getting started; he’s already working on a new novel about rave culture. His success points to an institutional change that needs to happen in our education system: if we want to see diverse stories in the literary world, we need to start supporting kids from all backgrounds in the classroom. As Armstrong says, studying Trainspotting changed, and probably saved, his life. It’s also given Scotland a new classic in The Young Team.

Graeme Armstrong appears at Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 5 Mar and Aye Write! festival, Glasgow, on 12 Mar
The Young Team is published 5 Mar by Picador