For some reason, I always believed that decadence is half in print and double on TV. This boyhood blinker lurked in my subconscious for years to come, irrespective of a couple of books that effectively challenged that notion.
So it’s almost a pity that John Niven’s Kill Your Friends leaves me wondering whether, with the proper cast and someone like Shane Meadows in the director’s seat, would make a darn good film. Decadent it is, and pointedly strong in print at that.
I’ve always admired John Niven’s, uhm, verve. His views cynical to the edge of hopelessness, his descriptiveness and humour brusque almost to the point of coming across as a little nasty Scottish terrier. In the nineties, Niven was the A&R executive who signed Mogwai and turned away Coldplay. His monthly piece on Q, titled London Kills Me (or, according to circumstances, New York, Los Angeles, Germany…), is a rousing critique of what would normally bother a slightly nervous writer in his middle ages.
Sounds pretty attractive – enough to compel me to buy the aptly titled “Kill Your Friends.” The monthly Q column and the novel share strands of loquacity which lubricate – now that’s a term – Niven’s introduction to Steven Stelfox, a young A&R executive of a major London label in the heyday of Britpop and New Labour, in 1997: Oasis have just released “Be Here Now,” the Spice Girls are in full swing, and Manic Street Preachers (James Dean Bradfield and Niven are friends) are, I mean, huge.
Recounted entirely in the first person, the novel does borrow a few ideas out of another cult “masterpiece” of the late nineties, the epic (sickening, if you ask me) Trainspotting, albeit the setting here is completely different: Stelfox, a young and ambitious A&R, will do anything in his power to climb the ladder.
Even more enjoyable, since the story tends to sag a little from the midpoint onwards, is Stelfox’s total aversion to everything around him. One critic defined him as the anti-everything, which just about suits the guy perfectly. His often disparaging remarks about everyone from failed artists to working class, from immigrants to housewives, even work colleagues, indie bands, the whole lot, defines what the book, and probably the whole Britpop era, is about. So we read about tolers, hags, losers, crackheads and all the sad stereotypes that clutter Stelfox’s sick world. Make sure you learn the Urban Dictionary by heart before you launch into this.
“We’re larging it, mate” yells one of the book’s characters at the shivering cold and wet festival goers at Glasto (’97 was a historic edition, with Radiohead’s epic set going down in history while Stelfox, heavy on E, watched in cynical disgust). It’s pretty much the phrase that tells a story, but the Happy Mondays it ain’t.
No wonder Niven says his late father would not have got to the end of the book. Maybe I’ll read his earlier novel, The Amateurs, for something more soothing.