Douglas Maxwell is talking about his generation. More specifically, the Ayrshire-born playwright is talking about the influence pop culture from a few decades earlier has had on his generation and ones beyond.
“When I was wee growing up on a housing estate in Girvan, once The Jam happened, it seemed like everyone became a mod,” Maxwell remembers of the post-punk late 1970s mod revival. “Before that, The Who was my dad’s favourite band. On May Day Bank Holiday, the scooter clubs would come out, and this was on the back of the film of The Who’s Quadrophenia, and they’d have fights like the original mods and rockers had, except now it was kind of a pantomime.
“It feels like there’s always been a bit of mod around, but it’s been put through a filter. One minute you couldn’t find the clothes, then Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur came out, and suddenly it was everywhere again. I could never be fully into it, but it’s always been there. Fashion is for young men now, but you still get this Paul Weller, Gallagher brothers thing going on with some men’s hair. Young people today don’t have that sense of being part of a tribe in that way. They can pick and choose from all over the place.”
Maxwell has channelled his first-hand observations into I Can Go Anywhere, his new two-fisted play that opened this week at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. The play focuses on an asylum seeker in Brighton called Jimmy, who embraces mod culture in all its parka-clad, pork-pie-hatted and Union Jacked glory. Taking its title from a lyric in The Who’s 1965 call-and-response single, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, Maxwell’s play has Jimmy name himself after the teenage wannabe played by Phil Daniels in Franc Roddam’s 1979 big-screen take on Quadrophenia, Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s mod era identity crisis rock opera, released by the band as a double album in 1973.
Jimmy’s self-made 60s obsessive encounters jaded academic Stevie, who once wrote a book on youth culture in the UK. In the spirit of old-school cross-generational plays such as Barrie Keeffe’s street-smart 1970s classroom-set drama, Gotcha, Jimmy’s commitment to an identity in such a wholesale fashion makes for quite a meeting of minds.
“Jimmy only wants to be seen as a mod,” says Maxwell, “It’s his entire identity, and he’s got this book about youth culture that he uses as a reference, and the writer of this book tells him that the mod thing isn’t going to work. It’s a play about not just being someone from somewhere, but also having somewhere to go.”
With just two people on stage arguing the toss, the epic nature of Maxwell’s writing in previous plays has been deliberately honed here in a studio piece full of big ideas.
“I wanted to write a boxing match of a play,” he says. “And I wanted to build up to this idea of cultural gate-keepers. Jimmy is someone who wants to come in, and wants to be part of something, but he’s being asked to show his credentials. It’s interesting as well, because the original mod movement happened in post-war Britain, when there was this feeling of optimism and looking forward. Mod was all about looking forward, and now, having that sort of identity gives you a sense of strength and belonging, and it’s a nostalgia for something that you’ve never lived through. At one point in the play Stevie says to Jimmy he’s like the National Trust.”
The debate Maxwell sets up couldn’t arrive at a better – or worse – time, and not because it just happens to coincide with the release of The Who’s first album of new material in thirteen years.
“The context of the play is important in terms of what’s happening in the world around us just now,” says Maxwell. “Obviously, there are so many things in mod that are about Britishness, and which gives it glamour and cool. But there’s an internationalist element to mod as well, that’s about Italian clothes and French films and all these great things that come out of Europe and America.
“So, on one level, mod has become this emblem of tribal Britishness, and in the play, you get someone coming here for who it means something more. Jimmy sees something fantastic in Britain through being a mod, and he wants to be part of that. The play’s using that as a particular allegory, but it’s on the night of the General Election, so you can’t ignore that context either. It’s a play about national identity, and who has a claim on it.”
In some respects, Maxwell’s play sounds like a mash-up of real life pop culture theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which looked at the various signs and signifiers of youth tribes; and the series of 1970s youthsploitation novels by Richard Allen, one of the pen-names of pulp fiction writer James Moffat.
While Hebdige’s analysis appeared in a post-punk climate that chimed with the mod revival, Allan/Moffatt’s series began with Skinhead and ended with Mod Rule, with the likes of Suedehead, Boot Boys and Punk Rock inbetween written in a similarly punchy tabloid style. For Jimmy and Stevie in I Can Go Anywhere, however, things aren’t so black and white these days.
“I think, with this play, by fictionalising Jimmy’s experience, I think you can go a little bit deeper,” says Maxwell. “He’s only young, and when you’re young you get a lot of strength from books and music and youth culture. The Smiths told you what books to read and what films to watch. The Jam did the same. But the question in the play as far as Jimmy is concerned is whether this is an identity or armour, the same as Dumbo’s feather, which Dumbo believed helped him fly, or whether he’d be like that anyway. The big question then is about who we are, where we are going, and how culture is valued in different communities. That’s the battleground of the play.”
I Can Go Anywhere, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until December 21.
The Herald, December 12th 2019