Book Review: The Last Mad Surge of Youth by Mark Hodkinson
I’ve been writing (for a long-term project) a lot about the late 70s and early 80s of late, that incredibly fertile period that has become known historically as “post-punk.” (At the time, it had no such identity: “D.I.Y.” was about as close as it came.) That made it especially poignant that English writer Mark Hodkinson should choose this moment to send me his novel The Last Mad Surge of Youth, given that it deals with much the same period. Rock’n’roll novels are notoriously hard to get write, or even right, but from the opening section, set in 1980, in which lead characters Barrett and Carey are to be found at the local library of their un-named northern town surreptitiously photocopying the cover for their debut “album,” it’s evident that Hodkinson lived the era. His depiction of that early 80s DIY culture – the fanzines, cassettes, and vinyl, as well as the fierce anti-Thatcherite politics that were considered equally important – is presented with affectionate though unalloyed clarity.
“The C90 contained a single track on each side: Factory Workers and Alienation. They had strummed unplugged and out-of-tune electric guitars while the television, radio and vacuum cleaner were on in the background, re-creating, they hoped, the cacophony of the factories and mills around them.”
But the past is only part of the story. The Last Mad Surge of Youth alternates sections (without chapter breaks) between Barrett and Carey’s progress in the 1980s group they come to call Killing Stars, and Barrett’s dilemma come 2009, a washed-up, middle-aged alcoholic rock star attempting to claw his way back into the public eye even as he’s not sure that it’s the right thing to do, for himself, his family, or the public good. The story is at its most vivid when set in that highly distinctive past, but Hodkinson’s understanding of (what’s left of) the modern day music business, and the culture of celebrity, not to mention his cruelly accurate assault on Irish nationalism in the English provinces in the closing sections, shows that as a writer he is also very much in touch with the present.
Hodkinson, certainly, is no naïf. He has spent the last decade-plus writing about football for The Times, at one point spending a season each, as “a sort of writer-in-residence,” at Barnsley, Manchester City, and Rochdale, work that was subsequently gathered together into book form, as was his football memoir entitled Believe In The Sign. His devotion to the art of creative writing is such that, a few years ago, he set up his own imprint, Pomona, which has published both new and old works by such great British writers as Barry Hines, Trevor Hoyle, and Hunter Davies.
Pomona is also behind The Last Mad Surge Of Youth, though not for lack of trying on Hodkinson’s part to sell it first to a major British publishing house. (As is often the case, he came perilously close to a commercial deal or two, but in the current market, blah blah blah….) Personally, I am as fully supportive of self-publishing. We live in a world where just about every musician is expected to self-finance his or her first CD or vinyl or MP3 release, where film-makers are expected to ratchet up heavy personal debt producing their first movie, and where painters, photographers, sculptors and playwrights are all, likewise, conditioned to finance, produce and disseminate their work for as long as necessary before they can expect any sort of benefactor or patron. Creative writing, almost alone of the arts, lives in a cultural limbo, where to self-publish is seen as some form of defeat, a mark of ignominy.
Fuck that. Really. The major publishing houses no more have a direct line to public taste than the major record companies, and the more self-published and independent books we see out there, the more likelihood that creative writing will no longer be perceived as an elitist form of art, but as an essential part of our human personalities. I speak, of course, as someone who started out by publishing his own fanzine, and so I will be eternally biased, but I speak also as someone who feels greatly enriched by The Last Mad Surge of Youth. I would hate to think that without Hodkinson already owning his own book company, it might have languished unpublished. It’s a brisk read, and it has its weaknesses – some characters aren’t fleshed out fully, there are some plot issues, a couple of scenes I couldn’t successfully picture for real, and I didn’t love the ending – but I’ve felt the same way about books by Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks. So there.
The Last Mad Surge Of Youth comes with a back cover endorsement by Kevin Sampson, author of Britain’s last hugely successful rock’n’roll novel, Powder. That book was side-splittingly funny; there were times, likewise, when I laughed out loud at Hodkinson’s quick wit – especially the dialogue. But the two novels are otherwise worlds apart: where Powder was born of Madchester and acid house, The Last Mad Surge Of Youth is the product of the darkly depressing and yet ultimately utopian era of the early Thatcher years. It’s in that D.I.Y. spirit of yore, of refusing to accept the odds, that Hodkinson went ahead and published The Last Mad Surge Of Youth himself. My bookshelf is a better place for his doing so.
You can find The Last Mad Surge of Youth all over the place: at amazon.com here in the States, at amazon.co.uk, hopefully at your independent British bookstore, and of course, via the Pomona web site. At £7.99 it’s only the price of a ten-song collection of MP3s. or about two pints of lager at current London prices. Let’s face it people, books remain among the best bargains in the world. So, please, support your independent authors.
The next iJamming! post will feature an excerpt from The Last Mad Surge of Youth, published – but of course – with permission.