Two of the West of Scotland’s major obsessions are music and crime, so it’s a smart move on the part of David F. Ross to write about both in his second novel The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas. Any one who has been involved in or around the music business will know it’s also fairly apt.
The Miraculous Vespas are an up and coming band led by the charismatic and unstable Max Mojo, known to his parents as Dale Wishart, who puts together a disparate bunch of misfits who bring their idiosyncratic personalities to a group determined to make it big, by fair means, but more often by foul.
Their rise (& fall) is set against the backdrop of localised criminal activity which is controlled and fought over by a small number of families all after the lion’s share of ever decreasing spoils. Imagine the Cosa Nostra on the Costa del Clyde and you have some idea as to what these families aspire to.
A lot of the comedy in Ross’ novel comes from the distance between the fantasy and the reality of crime in 1980s Scotland. Opening up video stores rather than casinos, sporting nicknames such as ‘Flatpack’ Frankie and Wullie ‘The Painter’, rather than ‘Lucky Luciano’ or ‘Spats’. Ross never shies away from the fact that threats and violence are never far away, and he is not glorifying such behaviour. Rather he is trying to give a realistic portrayal of a time and place, and the lengths some people would, and will, go to to make a living, often using methods which are not strictly legal. The thought that this may involve homo-erotic initiation ceremonies only adds to the overall sense that the serious and the absurd are never far from each other.
In 1980’s and ’90s in the west of Scotland, the criminals were almost as well-known as the footballers around town, and Ross plays on this. There are references to Glasgow’s ‘ice-cream’ wars, and at least one character who is known as ‘Fat’. At this time, books on, and even by, local criminals were big sellers, often on offer at bookshop tills alongside the diaries and Oor Wullie annuals. This told of a sub-culture and a readership apparently keen to celebrate such characters, similar to the treatment of The Krays in London. Ross acknowledges this phenomenon but also shows the dangerous posturing behind it.
Ross gets all his culture references spot on, from the universal, such as Alessandro Altobelli and Flesh Gordon, to the local; Glasgow’s Rock Garden and Dundee’s Fat Sam’s. However, the real joy in reading The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is in the musical detail. This is a book for music lovers. Long forgotten bands are mentioned, such as Jake Burn’s The Big Wheel, the fabulous Bourgie Bourgie, and Ayrshire’s legendary Nyah Fearties. The book’s sections refer to songs by Orange Juice, The Smiths, Johnny Thunders and The Rezillos, and throughout there are mentions of venues, people and places which will bring a smile to those who were there, and will intrigue those who were not.
Ross is immersed in the music which he references, and there is a list of songs referred to as an appendix. I would suggest reading the novel with YouTube or Spotify to hand so you can hear first hand those bands and songs which are referenced but may have passed you by. There is also a Spotify playlist which I also recommend, and which you can listen to here. It’s a musical education in book form.
The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is the second part of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first part, The Last Days of Disco, to enjoy it. How do I know? Because I haven’t and didn’t feel I had missed out for one moment. Having said that, I certainly will rectify that now. Mention of a trilogy made me think of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown books, and there are parallels between The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas and Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments. Like that, it is written with an eye for the absurd but a genuine love of the music both writers reference. Ross doesn’t want you to laugh at The Vespas, he wants you to laugh with them, and at the madness that surrounds any band when there is a sniff of possible success. Just ask Boy George, who makes an unforgettable and prophetic appearance.
There is another fictional band that came to mind as I read The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas, and that is The Majestics, the never-say-die rock ‘n’ roll band who are at the heart of John Byrne’s TV drama Tutti Frutti. Both are playing in the ’80s, although at the opposite ends of their careers. What unites them is that the portrayals of bands and individuals both ring true. Ross shares Byrne’s eye for detail and ear for patter, a twisted sense of humour, and love of his subject. And like reading or watching John Byrne, The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas is a blast. Sometimes you want a book which unashamedly entertains, and David F. Ross has done just that. There’s a riot going on, and The Miraculous Vespas are at the centre of it.
David F. Ross will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside Chris Russell at 7-8pm, Mon 29th Aug.
Here is the audio version of this review: