Today we hand over to David F Ross and he takes you on a booktrail of Kilmarnock as seen in his book The Last Days of Disco…..
Last Days: The Spirit of the Place
Genius Loci is a Latin phrase that architects – my alter ego does that for a living – understand well. It refers to the protective spirit of a place; the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of it. Its soul, in other terms. When I started to write my first novel, The Last Days of Disco, I desperately wanted to harness the identity of the place in which it would be set. In that sense, writing the book followed a fairly similar process to the one which many architects go through in trying to understand and empathise with the context in which they then attempt to design a response to a particular problem.
The Last Days of Disco is fundamentally about people; their hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, failings. But it’s also about how they respond to the environment around them. Whether they feel trapped by its economic and social constraints or freed by the often subtle – and not always legal – opportunities it nurtures. Place is very important to me, and I set out to write a story in which the context became a peripheral but important character in its own right. The authenticity of the book’s characters hopefully comes across in the way they relate to each other, but also in the familiarity they have with their surroundings.
The book is set in 1982 and located in Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire, historically famous for being the home of Johnnie Walker’s Whisky. Like almost all of the town’s industry, the world famous Johnnie Walker plant has now closed. The town hasn’t had its troubles to seek in the 30 years since the book’s timeline ended, however its strength of spirit is palpable.
I’m not from Kilmarnock. I was born in Glasgow but, from my teenage years on, I have lived, loved and prospered there. It’s a part of my soul and I love it dearly, sometimes because of its faults rather than despite them. I hope the book captures some of that unique sense of place and my feelings for it.
There are a few key locations in the book that remain much as they were when I was the same age as the central characters, Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller. The story includes descriptions of these places but I thought it might be interesting to show how they are now. Although for the purpose of authenticity, they are illustrated in black and white. As some of you will recall, in 1982 … in the hinterland of Thatcher’s Britain … everything was monochromatic.
The first photograph shows the ‘entrance’ to Onthank in North West Kilmarnock, where the fictional Fat Franny Duncan and Joey Miller both live … and where I grew up. It’s a fairly typical working class area which has the same problems of unemployment, addiction and a lack of a culture of hope and aspiration as many other areas. But it has wonderful stories and inspirational people such as William McIllvanny, who also grew up there.
In the book, one of the early Heatwave Disco gigs takes place in the Kilmarnock Masonic Hall. It’s the type of impenetrable, defensive building that gives nothing away and that whole storyline was born of simply imagining and exaggerating the myth of the Masons and what they might get up to.
Five minutes walk from here, on the edge of the town’s brutally outdated one-way traffic system is the Conservative Club. The sign remains over the door but the building has been unused for decades. A metaphor for the current status of the party in the town, maybe.
Events at the end of the Conservative Club gig, led to the central characters spending a night here, in Don McAllister’s police station. Don office – if you’re curious – would be on the top floor, far right.
En route to the Conservative Club from the Masonic Hall, you would pass the Henderson Church; the scene of the riot when Heatwave Disco were ‘supporting’ local band, The Vespas. Without giving too much of the magic away, this part of the storyline is drawn more from personal experience than the others.
On the other side of the Masonic Hall is the Dick Institute, one of the most handsome and impressive buildings in Kilmarnock. The original printing press that produced Robert Burns first edition of poems (The Kilmarnock Edition) is still housed here. The description of Hobnail’s wife, Senga finding an outlet for her own personal dreams through the classical music that she plays as she works there cleaning the building’s interior is one of my own favourites in the book.
In the centre of town, the old street patterns and the unique independent character has been lost as a result of the dominance of traffic planning in the 70s. A one-way road system, a centrally placed bus station and the construction of a massive, impenetrable multi-storey car park tell the story of that dominance far better than I can. Such structures tend to neutralise the public realm around them, and this shot is of the Foregate, where – in the book – the entrance to the Metropolis night club is located, under the mass of the car park above it.
The car park itself offers great views across the town’s distinctive skyline – and all of the key buildings described earlier can be seen from its top deck – but very few people ever go up there. I liked the idea of Wullie the Painter falling asleep in his car up here on his birthday, oblivious to what was happening below.
Finally, I wanted to include a view that isn’t in Kilmarnock but is pivotally important not only to this story, but to its sequel The Man Who Loved Islands. I love this panorama from the promontory at Troon Harbour. You can see the Heads of Ayr to the left, the wonderful isle of Arran to the right and the bizarre volcanic plug of the Ailsa Craig in the middle. It’s a place that always makes me feel calm and I tried to capture some of that feeling for Gary immediately before he left to return to barracks in London. When my dad died, I scattered some of his ashes here. It’s a very important place to me.
I hope I’ve managed to capture the unique flavour of Kilmarnock and its fantastic people in The Last Days of Disco, and that it becomes as fondly representative of ‘place’ as Roddy Doyle’s – one of my literary heroes – work is.
The Last Days of Disco is released on March 8th by Orenda books. Thanks David for showing us around!