Stars are Stars, the latest novel by Kevin Sampson, will stick in the gullet of the promoters of Liverpool 08, European capital of culture, and their skewed sense of the city’s regeneration.
Sampson, who is still living and writing in Merseyside, is one of a generation politicised by Thatcherism, the routing of the Nazi National Front (NF) and punk’s musical earthquake. He wrote for music publications such as NME and Sounds and his interests in music and street culture are reflected in his novels. In Stars are Stars he brings that era back to life.
The novel centres around the relationship between Danny, a working class lad from Toxteth, and Nicole, a middle class leftie. Danny does sketches for a living and wants to enrol in Liverpool’s School of Art, while Nicole is doing a politics degree. Her background and education grate against his streetwise scholarly knowledge.
Their initial courtship is beautifully touching and realistically painful, but love will bite in conflicting ways in a short space of time. They want no substitute for intense emotion in love and romance, but Danny’s alienation leads to shallow acts of betrayal.
What is brilliant about this love story is that Sampson captures the spirit of the time. The great 1978 Rock Against Racism carnival in London’s Victoria Park and the power of The Clash enraptures Nicole but fails to excite Danny whose contradictions hit you in the face – capable of shock effect racism, but happy to trounce NF thugs.
Sampson accurately portrays the SWP’s frenetic anti-Nazi activities although, through Danny, he rehashes some lazy clichés.
As Thatcher becomes prime minister, Nicole, now an SWP member, resolves with her comrades to tackle the new right, chillingly reminding us of the bigotry which was the essence of the Tories: “They hate! They look for revenge, they hate all the strikes, the unions, the punks, they all start with ‘in my days’.”
As she takes sides, Danny watches her taking different roads. They go to Paris to see Danny’s favourite band, Joy Division, where “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays like a premonition of things to come. Doom starts to engulf them when Tory cuts close down the art school, and heroin invades Danny’s veins as two million people go through the dole queues.
Dumped, his loving nan dead, Danny is drawn into the 1981 Toxteth riots. A thrilling climax ensues with one of the best descriptions of a riot I’ve ever read. Lines jump with verve as Sampson pictures the unleashing of years of pent up anger at police racism and harassment. The description of the joy of not taking any more, and the sweat and sheer exhaustion of those 72 hours run off the pages.
Stars are Stars is a must read novel, Sampson manages to immerse the reader in this time when music and politics mixed to such powerful effect. And as a treat, a list of songs to read the book by is given on the bookmark.
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