It’s 2006, a park in Airdrie. Some lads in their mid-teens are posing for pictures against a harled grey-brown wall covered in gang tags and graffiti. One image is a solo shot, a handsome figure in sports casual glowering beneath a close-cropped head of hair, a bottle of Buckfast in his right hand. His left is giving the finger to the camera. In a second shot we see the same figure with two pals, but this time with tongue out and arms spread. It’s a familiar gesture to anyone who has seen the pre-skirmish phase of a street fight. Come ahead, it says. Come and have a go.

“I remember the pictures being taken,” laughs Graeme Armstrong, whose haircut/glower/middle finger it is on show in the snap. “They were entombed on a mate’s mobile phone for years. They’re great pictures. They show the madness. That day was during the Easter holidays. We were in a football park drinking and just carrying on. It was me and two mates and we’re all wearing the Berghaus. That was our pride and joy.”

Armstrong was around 15 at the time. The madness, as he refers to it, was the life he led as a boy embedded in gang culture and its attendant dangers: violence, drink, drugs, criminality. It didn’t help that his father had died of brain cancer when he was four, leaving him with no male role model.

“If you go back and look at my childhood, the death of a parent in early years is a huge risk increaser,” he tells me. “That, combined with my personality and my mentality, was a lethal mix. So my substance dependency was worse than my friends’, my behaviour was worse, I was more violent. I think that had a big impact.”

The Herald: Graeme Armstrong in 2006Graeme Armstrong in 2006 (Image: free)

Armstrong found a way through it, though. He secured a place to study English at university, followed that with a post-graduate degree in Creative Writing and in 2021 published a novel based on his experiences. The Young Team opens in 2004 and tells the story of Azzy from his mid-teens to his early 20s as he negotiates life in the gang which gives the book its title.

The novel has since been taught in selected schools and may soon be rolled out across the entire Scottish curriculum. There is also a TV adaptation in the offing – Armstrong is collaborating on the script – and as well as his upcoming second novel, Raveheart, he is working on a memoir, to be titled The Cloud Factory.

It was an excerpt from this which was published by literary magazine Granta last year when it named Armstrong in its prestigious, once-a-decade survey of the best young British novelists. He’s in good company: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis, Ben Okri, Sarah Waters and Zadie Smith have all featured previously, as have fellow Scots Iain Banks, Jenni Fagan, AL Kennedy, Alan Warner and Andrew O’Hagan.

“I don’t think you ever expect that,” he says of the Granta nod. “Especially the alumni you join, writers that are world famous. But I feel I earned my place because of my authenticity. A lot of the other writing was quite similar, in that millennial/zeitgeisty sort of way. They’re quite similar in style. The Young Team was a completely different enterprise to all that stuff.”

Ahead of the new work and the TV adaptation comes an appearance at next week’s Paisley Book Festival. Looping back to the issues which affected his childhood and teenage years – or afflicted, them if you prefer – Armstrong will join authors Alan Bissett and Brian Conaghan to discuss the thorny, troubled topic of Scottish masculinity. Bissett’s 2001 novel, Boyracers, and Conaghan’s latest novel for young adults, Treacle Town, explore similar territory to The Young Team, and the event builds on a similarly-themed 2021 Paisley appearance by Armstrong in the company of Mayflies author O’Hagan and Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain.

Armstrong has plenty to say on the subject. Alongside his writing, he has spent the last two years working in schools as part of a programme aimed at dissuading young people from entering gang culture, using his own experience to gain their trust and, to an extent, their respect. Last autumn he also presented Street Gangs, a three-part documentary for BBC Scotland in which he interviewed teenage gang members across Scotland. It’s quite a watch.


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In one sense, nothing much has changed since he was 15. In other ways, he thinks, things are very different. For a start there’s social media.

“I think social media is a tool that’s misused,” he says. “It can be really useful but it’s also quite harmful, especially when you’re seeing fights posted online and young people in the street hurting each other. The academic that we spoke to in Street Gangs emphasised that social media can sometimes worsen and prolong violence. And it sort of entombs it online, so if this thing happens to a kid it’s always there. These videos are shared widely, so it’s more stressful for young people online now than it ever was.”

There’s also drill music, a controversial subgenre of rap. “Most kids living that street life will identify with drill music, they’ll have aspirations of being drill artists,” he says. “But the reality is a lot of them are only 13, 14, 15 and they’re listening to really violent messaging all the time. And they can’t tell the difference between fact and faction. We can, they can’t. And they see it as an opportunity for employment, for unattainable wealth really. It’s pretty worrying.”

Last year Armstrong made 51 presentations – he calls them inputs – in Scottish schools and other institutions. This year he has already racked up 45. “To be honest, it’s turning into a bit of a full time job but unfortunately there’s a really high demand,” he says.

Young people at risk of joining gangs respond to him because of his story, and he can’t turn away from that. “The lived experience element, that wins a lot of trust and value with young people, especially ones that are living a similar lifestyle. And while the inputs I do are hard-hitting and they’re around gangs and violence, they’re pretty aspiration-focussed as well. The final quarter is talking about career input, education, about how you deal with all this stuff and how you can have a future.”

A future not exactly like his, perhaps, though just as he was once energised by Trainspotting, so might the kids of 2024 find inspiration in The Young Team. But one which may help lead a younger generation of Scots away from the thing he calls ‘the madness’.

The Paisley Book Festival runs from April 25-28. Scottish Masculinities: Graeme Armstrong, Alan Bissett and Brian Conaghan is at Paisley Town Hall on Sunday April 28 (5pm)