Stars Are Stars by Kevin Sampson

A combustible love letter to post-punk Liverpool
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The Independent Culture

Anyone familiar with Kevin Sampson's uncompromising brand of lad-lit, epitomised by the bluntly titled Powder, Outlaws and Clubland, might be surprised to find that his seventh novel is a love story. Perhaps the three-word title is a sign of his going soft.

Danny May is growing up in Liverpool at the end of the Seventies, across the river from the Tranmere-supporting hooligans of Sampson's debut, Awaydays. Danny has left football and violence far behind - it's "Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop and Camus" that do it for him. He's a nascent bohemian, doing sketches for cash in dockland bars while waiting to study painting at Liverpool School of Art. When he meets Nicole, a middle-class student doing PPE, the attraction is profound. She falls for his artless poetry, he for her intelligence.

More than a love story, this is a love letter from Sampson to the post-punk scene that, in Liverpool, coalesced around the legendary Eric's nightclub. The politics of the day may run through the novel - anti-fascist marches, the numbing shock of Thatcher's first election - but the highs and lows of Danny and Nicole's relationship are firmly synced to the soundtrack. They see Wire play Eric's on their first evening, listen to the Bunnymen and A Teardrop Explodes, and have their first big bust-up over a Joy Division gig.

Nevertheless, when Tory cuts close down the art school and Danny drifts into heroin and crime, it's not love, but the pull of a community squaring up to corrupt police, that brings him round. Come the rioting in Toxteth in July 1981, he's in the thick of it with a camera, recording the police brutality, but a witness, too, to the all-consuming absurdity of the mayhem. We see the brass dome of the Rialto "stoked to overheating by the uprising fires", an "ultra-scarlet cupola, blazing out high above the city".

This is the central image of the book, a symbol of youth ablaze, though you can't help feeling it burns so brightly thanks to the catalysing effects of nostalgia. Other writers tackling this era have done so with more satirical intentions, but Sampson, like Danny, is a romantic. He can be terribly mushy, but he convincingly captures that mindset, peculiar to youth and perhaps to that time, when politics, music and desire could mix and combust to such powerful effect, and an argument over whether Bowie was really a fascist could harm a relationship as surely as infidelity.

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