- 12 Feb 19
Geraldine Quigley was working 10 hour shifts in a call centre for minimum wage, before a Penguin writer’s programme allowed her to pen her first novel, Music Love Drugs War. Set in Derry during the Hunger Strikes, it’s a compelling account of how youthful optimism can quickly slide into a desire for violence and vengeance.
There’s a topic that seems unavoidable when Hot Press sits down to chat with Derry writer Geraldine Quigley. The date is January 22, which means that just a few days earlier, a group of dissident republicans set off a bomb in the writer’s home city. It’s an act that might’ve been common in 1979. Even 1989. But not 2019.
“I’ve been here before,” Geraldine says, even-handedly but with a hint of tired frustration in her voice. “Everybody dreads this. I mean bomb alerts happen regularly in this city. There’s unexplained devices lying somewhere and everyone’s just more annoyed than scared. Lisa McGee captured that really well in Derry Girls. That ‘For God’s sake, I can’t be bothered with this’ attitude.
“But what happened on Saturday… That was different. And I think it’s scared people. Because you know what? Derry still gets ignored. We had City of Culture, and maybe that will have ripple effects, but there’s very little in Derry for young people. Still no jobs. No future here for a lot of young people. If something kicks off, my fear is that the same pattern will happen again as happened before. I think every parent in Derry is worried about the same thing.”
Geraldine Quigley is one of those best placed to examine Derry’s current state. Having lived in the city all her life, her debut novel is a fictionalised reimagining of her and her friends’ youthful experiences. Music Love Drugs War tells the story of a group of final year secondary school students, bound together by their music tastes, and their drinking and drugging sessions at their local bar, The Cave. Over the course of one summer, with the Hunger Strikes as an increasingly prevalent backdrop, some of the gang fall in love, some make plans to move away from their blighted city, and some turn to violence as the riots on the streets reach fever pitch.
Work began on the novel after Geraldine was accepted for a programme run by Penguin called WriteNow. This was her first time writing fiction. “I was scouting around, thinking what I’d write about,” she reflects. “This was really the only thing that kept coming back – us in the ’80s. That group of friends that I had. Then it was a case of putting it into a context that would carry a story. 1981 seemed like the obvious year to set it.”
Why was the backdrop of the Hunger Strikes so important?
“Well we weren’t a political group,” explains Geraldine. “We didn’t consider ourselves nationalists or loyalists, but during that summer, you saw people becoming radicalised. They were starting to think about the injustice of this. Everybody was drawn into thinking about what was happening, and whether we should make a decision on it – whether we were for or against it. We knew people who were killed during rioting. That had an effect on us. So the question was, ‘How do you react to that?’ And for this book, I was thinking about all the possible ways someone could’ve reacted to it. I didn’t know anyone who became involved in the IRA, not directly, but I remember there was that potential for it to happen. So I was thinking, ‘What if? What if I reacted out of anger? Or grief?’”
Was there a specific moment when Geraldine thought she might’ve wanted to ‘join the struggle’? Or her friends might?
“No,” she says definitively. “I wasn’t interested in the politics of it. I mean, everyone felt for the hunger strikers. It was so traumatic. But me? Maybe if I had’ve been a fella, it might’ve been different, but I just thought, this is not my war. My group of friends – we were into music. We would’ve seen bands. That’s where our interests were.”
Two of the characters in the novel, Paddy and Christy, make the gradual slide from throwing stones at the British Army to joining Active Service Units of the IRA, over the course of several months.
“Recreational rioting was a thing that a lot of people did. If there was a flare-up, people were out in the streets throwing stones. But at that particular time, you saw it becoming far more serious.”
Geraldine’s prose during these sections is filled with tragic pathos, showing how young men naively felt like this was an act of heroism. “I really wanted to avoid glorifying it,” she notes. “This wasn’t Paddy and Christy taking this great stand. For them being sworn into the IRA, I had it happening in somebody’s bedroom, with them standing beside a cot, and someone coming in and making them ‘a soldier for Ireland’ in a cramped wee room. I wanted to show how ridiculous it all was.”
As well as documenting the effects of the Troubles, the novel also follows the everyday lives of Derry teenagers as they dig for new music, fall in love or experiment with drugs. How important were drugs for Geraldine growing up?
“Drugs weren’t an important thing for me personally,” she says. “I had my son when I was 19, so my focus throughout all of those years was: ‘I have him. I have to stay clear-headed.’ But drugs were very much a part of our youth – they were like a rejection of what was going on. The same way as you dressed differently to set yourself apart, this was like saying to everyone, ‘I live here. It’s not my choice. But I want to live as exciting a life as I can right now.’
“It’s as simple as this – there was nothing to do in Derry. Bands never came to Derry. A few bands came to Belfast – no one came to Derry. And if all you wanted to do was listen to live music, or see a live band, then you were in the wrong place. So there was a recreational element to experimenting with drugs.”
Geraldine notes that the title of the book indicates the things which were most important for her, with ‘music’ taking pride of place.
“Music was the community we lived in,” she explains. “Music was how we knew each other. It’s how we knew whether someone was a slabber or not: ‘What do you like? What do you listen to?’ You judged people on that. We would’ve been obsessive about our tastes. And we’d always have kept an eye on what was happening through the likes of NME and Hot Press!”
The author’s brother, Michael, was one of the founding members of The Undertones. Does she remember when they first made it big?
“That was a brilliant time,” she smiles. “I was young, so I never got to properly see them in the Kasbah, and I’m still raging to this day! But aye, for the family it was really exciting. Even just to be there in the background and hear what was going on – hearing John Peel, and hearing them going up to record ‘Teenage Kicks’. We basked in their glory an awful lot.”
Much like the buzz many people got from watching Good Vibrations, Geraldine’s novel documents the variety of cultures and lifestyles in Derry, which are normally overlooked in the history books.
“People who were writing the story or the history of Derry didn’t think it was important to write about these things. It’s interesting, because I was actually surprised with the reaction to this book. Penguin loved it. It’s been echoing with people who were there at that time. They’re saying, ‘I was listening to those songs at the time. That’s me.’ You know? People didn’t see the relevance of talking about what they were listening to. They didn’t think it was important. But it’s so important. It was part of our culture as young people. And if the only story you hear about Derry is from the history books, then you’re not getting the full picture.”
Music Love Drugs War is out now, published by Penguin.