James Desborough reflects on the transience of cultural context and the role it plays in his novel, Old, Fat Punks

Game designer and writer James ‘Grim’ Desborough is best known in literature for an impressive number of tabletop RPG books, with titles such as The Munchkin’s Guide to Power Gaming, Cthulhu Britannia: Folklore and Cannibal Sector One. He is also a prolific short story writer with one published collection called Pulp Nova as well as inclusion in a raft of other collections. In 2015 he published his first full novel, Old, Fat Punks.

Old, Fat Punks opens with a gratuitously visceral scene of violence: “Droplets of red spray combine, back, onto the bullet, coating it with a crimson sheen. Gobbets of flesh follow, traumatised, torn and ragged. A stray white tooth and fragments of scalp and hair join it along with fatty lumps of what must be brain tissue. The bullet moves backwards through shards of de-fragmenting bone and reverses, quickly into the rear of the skull. The flesh ripples like a liquid. The skin flexes across the surface of the head like the beat of a drum, recorded in slow motion. The bullet emerges, again, backwards, through a wall of smiling, smarmy, grinning, porcelain teeth.”

In juxtaposition, the second chapter comprises something of an ode to the traditional British pub. The one in which we find our protagonists is of a particularly special breed, the punk dive venue. James says it “is partially based on The Dev. I only stopped in The Dev a couple of times; it was really important in the Goth/Alt scene in the ‘90s, and a friend of mine worked bar there for a while. That and the Electric Ballroom were all part of that Camden alt scene that’s under so much risk from all the redevelopment …”

His tone becomes wistful as he continues. “When did we even really last have one [youth culture movement] worth the name? Of size? Emo? It was the last thing that felt like a full-on youth movement to me. Since then everything’s fractured. There’s no ‘big thing,’ I don’t think. Fashion and music all seem very highly personalised and granular.”

Rejecting the suggestion that SJW culture is any sort of contender for the canon, James explains, “I don’t think it’s a single, unified thing. For all we make fun of rainbow hair and the stereotypes, it doesn’t seem that cohesive beyond the overarching ideology, possibly because of the fixation on identity politics. Punk was a reaction, but it was still creative. The fashion, art, and music still resonate today. I don’t know that such will be true of the social justice types. While punks proclaimed to be nihilistic and so on, it was still a creative energy. SJWs seem to only tear down and not to create — unless you count derivative slam poetry and pseudo-art stunts. I don’t think they’ll have lasting impact.” Despairing of modern culture, he concludes, “There’s a desperate paucity of authenticity, perhaps exacerbated by the climate of fear in creative industries. Hipsters seek that authenticity with retro, obscurity and craft, but it’s ultimately not the same — it’s table scraps from the past.”

Protagonists Derek, Tim and Trol are aging punks disenchanted with the society in which they find themselves a part. “The punks in the book are a bit older than I am, but they reflect my despair some,” James tells me. “The grumblings I see in a lot of my generation and older: that hard won rights and freedoms — and older concepts of equality, of fighting racism, sexism — have been replaced by something that seems to be bringing them back.” Bemoaning “the sheer weighty pointlessness of politics today” as “undemocratic, controlled by special interests, and in which votes barely count,” he laments that “protests achieve nothing, and petitions simply get a patronising nod,” and how “change, real change, seems impossible.”

“Post-Obama ennui,” he muses.

In the story, however, this bleak void of disenfranchised ennui yields an unexpected sense of liberation for Trol. “So, it doesn’t make any difference whether you do something or not… Isn’t that just as much a reason to bloody do it anyway? If nothing you do makes any fucking difference either way, doesn’t that free you up to do anything? Anything at all?” Initially his companions Tim and Derek brush aside this insight, until they reach their own breaking points with the world around them. Tim loses his teaching job and gets beaten to a bloody pulp for standing up to a racist bully. Derek, when he is asked to produce a rap song with a sample of Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, decides that he can’t bring himself “to deface it for the sake of a racist fucking paedophile who spends all of his money to look like a gilded cockend.”

Author Desborough is a political animal, an anti-SJW leftist with a history of putting leaflets through doors for the Liberal Democrats “increasingly begrudgingly, till I stopped. You could say I’m political, but not into politics as it exists. I back electoral reform, fiercely badger my MP on a regular basis, support free expression, advocate for sex workers, that sort of thing, but party politics leaves me cold, and I was never that keen in the first place, just tactically anti-Tory. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of point [voting] in my constituency. It’s solidly Tory, and nobody is remotely capable of challenging them here, but I still … swallow my bile and do the deed.” By contrast, the characters in Old, Fat Punks choose a radically more direct approach to opposing a political system they abhor.

A pacey rollercoaster of a book, Old, Fat Punks promises to simultaneously engross, entertain, and appall the reader with a startling level of personal investment in witnessing Tim, Derek and Trol’s awful plan coming to fruition. I wholeheartedly recommend Old, Fat Punks to anyone unafraid of visiting the darker aspects of the human psyche.

Elizabeth Hobson serves as Creative Distractor at Trigger Warning. She balances raising two meticulously untamed luminaries with being a morbid, over-excitable yet analytic futurephile and social critic. She enjoys reading, writing and talking. Find her stuff here.