April 21, 2012


by Nina de la Mer
250 pages, Myriad

Review by Pat Black

I used to dread the idea of nineties nostalgia art. If something from your youth comes around again, then by default you are no longer young. Nineties compilation CDs. Youngsters in tartan shirts. Blur coming full circle as a novelty act. It tends to put a date on me, just as surely as that brown suede jacket and slightly too-tight polo shirt. A reminder of the ineluctables. Time. Age. And the other thing that follows. And now, with Nina de la Mer’s 4am, it’s finally here.

As well as that transitory time between intoxication and sobriety for anyone on a night out, 4am refers to the title of a rave song by Orca. This is the perfect soundtrack to a novel looking at the lives of two lads in the British Army’s catering unit as they party in Hamburg during their posting at Fallingbostel.

Cal and Manny are aged about 20, full of beans and just about everything else you can think of as they escape their day-to-day lives on the base. As the epigram at the start of the book informs you, the army’s catering course is the toughest in the world, because “no-one has passed it”. The reality is that the “Cookie Monsters” in charge of the spuds and puddings are well down the macho pecking order of the military world – in Cal’s case, because he’s far too nice, and in Manny’s, because he’s usually off his nut on chemicals.

The narrative shifts between these two men, and de la Mer captures their voices well. Cal’s from Very Glasgow, so prepare yourselves for a few glottal stops and apostrophes, while, strike a light me old china, Manny sounds like he’s from South London. The two are best mates, and although united by their love of pills and raves, different characters; Cal very religious and conscientious, Manny more up-for-it and devil-may-care. Along the way we meet some other important characters, including Iain, a boorish thirty-something officer who does not care who or what he wrecks in pursuit of pleasure, and Steffi and Emma, a pair of students who attach themselves to Cal and Manny’s crew.

Along the way, hearts are broken, recreational drug-taking spirals into addiction and karma works its magic. The Rieperbahn’s charms are well-essayed, although as I’ve never been there I can’t comment on how well it comes across. But the foaming broth of spangled cheesy quavers and battered squaddies was spot on, as was the endless early-20s tour of crappy nightclubs and the desperate souls looking for the sublime within their sticky-carpeted confines.  

Thank god, I was a little bit younger than Cal and Manny around the time this book takes place, 1993-94, but the world as it was and its events are clear as day to me. The night Kurt Cobain’s death was revealed; the Bosnian conflict; even Arsenal winning the Cup-Winner’s Cup, are all horribly fresh in my mind. And yet we’ve now got young people making their way through the jungles of nightlife who weren’t even born then. Time, people. Time time time.

What time is love? (bass drops back in)

Where de la Mer is particularly brilliant is in exposing the thought processes and feelings of young men. Although these creatures are not especially complicated (a Venn diagram might contain “women” overlapping with “getting wasted”… and that’s about it), she gets that hard-to-spot nuance, too. That wanting to be loved is normal, even for stuttering, block-headed boys, and turning away from that isn’t. She also points out that the people who are good-natured do, usually, end up the happiest in life.

They have to suffer before they get there, though. I felt for poor Cal all the way through this. As he himself notes at a latter stage, there’s not one bit of suffering meted out to him that you can’t see coming a mile off; this does nothing to alleviate our own pain when it finally arrives. The torment isn’t all on-the-page, either. Indeed, there were some subtle parts in this book, with a deft commentary on how young men from broken homes find a family they always lacked in the Army - and how the Army in turn exploits this, occasionally through the agency of psychopaths.

4am made me cringe in places, but not for the sake of being off-beam or getting anything wrong. Rather, because it gets it spot on. A more cynical version of me looks at my own adventures in younger days, filtered through the prism of Cal and Manny and the mistakes they make, and can see how easily it is done. Because in those years, it’s quite difficult to get your head down and do the hard yards; to take responsibility and to work hard. A stern, somewhat patrician part of me winces at the things I passed up for the sake of partying and having fun in that crucial time. But back then, that’s what it was all about – your whole life was spent building up to the weekend, and each one more wasted than the last. Part of me wonders if these grubby rites of passage are hard-wired into us, as if it’s a genetic stage we must pass through – and if we’re lucky, we’ll contribute to society at the end of it.

And most tragic of all, you truly believe in love. You really do.

What can I tell you? It was the nineties, man. A strange time in our culture, particularly from a British point of view. It feels laughable even typing this, but one unseen character in this book is Ecstasy. Even for pommes de terre like me who were usually interested observers at raves rather than gurning participants, the drug was everywhere, an inescapable part of nights out whether you were taking it or not.

I think that a key component of any time capsule from the early 1990s must contain a couple of eccies. It’s odd that during the time when everyone and his dog was reading Trainspotting and mainlining Irvine Welsh’s skag likesay nu-porn adventures, the drug of choice was in fact something far more positive; a substance that, while being vilified in the press, actually blunted the hard edges and at its very best provided a quasi-religious, intense feeling of spiritual belonging. It’s precisely what you were looking for in the first place. Everything you imagined the drugs your parents did in the 1960s was supposed to do.

That’s unless wee Jimmy sold you half an aspirin, of course, and you sat there looking at sweating wall tiles for most of the night and waiting for something nice to happen. Hey, I said it was the nineties. That actually happened, too.

Nina de la Mer gets to the core of this odd time, as well as the occasionally brittle hearts of prima facie brutal young men. The fact that we now have a full generation of squaddies who’ve served in a time of war way beyond any beasting her characters encounter make this an important book, with an altogether different face lurking behind the smiley one on the cover.

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