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2024-04-21 📌 My review: South Coast Diaries by Duncan MacDonald

Tags All Personal Fiction

[South Coast Diaries] I have Rich Pelley to thank/blame for the book recommendation. This Grauniad article mentions it, and its author passing away in 2017. This took me to the book on Amazon and some searching for more details such as this on (which at the time of writing claims "Sadly, in October 2020 Duncan passed away. His last act was to finally get his book published".) Then an article from around the same time as Rich's over here mentions towards the end "Duncan died in 2017, but then a strange thing happened. In December 2019 his original Twitter account (@scumland) tweeted “If you see me on the beach in Worthing, come and say hello”. There are a couple of explanations for this, but the one I like to believe is that someone who loved him, and missed him, popped it on there as a tribute. And why not, if you find yourself on Worthing beach, raise your glass, can or cone and say “hello” to the memory of an excellent writer."

Plus Somerled Press doesn't appear to be connected to any other books, and seems to exist for this project. All of which kind of gave the impression that this might be a shaggy dog story. Sadly it isn't. Later I found a PC Zone podcast with his sister Vici MacDonald, in which she talks about this. Duncan apparently died of an aneurysm / burst artery, possibly related to previous injuries as well as general health problems.

So, to the book... Vici being a writer, editor and magazine designer, South Coast Diaries is a manuscript tidied up twenty years after it was due to be published, posthumously, as a gesture of affection to complete something that became important to both of them. It's well written and presumably well edited, and by that I don't mean to suggest ghost written, but thoughtfully laid out (a bit Adrian Mole due to the diary style) although she mentions elsewhere fixing a few place references, etc, as the book was written from another seaside town rather than Hastings where it's actually set. British seaside towns, for anyone who doesn't know, tend to have massive economic and social problems, and be left behind even more than cities.

Writing this knowing that someone may be searching for references to the book and finding them is a bit awkward because, on the one hand, I want to acknowledge and signpost a book, and on the other it's not just a couple of sentences of "here, this is funny, read it". It's also literally awkward because Google Keep persistently auto corrects words in a way that makes it a bloody liability, and I haven't found a better way yet of structuring notes for writing drafts and keeping them available on all devices. I keep reading things back and it's changed names and non dictionary terms. So sorry, it may not even be what I wrote in places. At the moment I've got a lot of partially written stuff about books, retro and computing and am not particularly looking forward to the editing and tidying phase.

I read Your Sinclair (potted description: a very idiosyncratic computer magazine) from about 1992 as a 10 or 11 year old, and got a lot of back issues with cover tapes from a local newspaper ad. So I'm familiar with the mid run issues that are regarded as the magazine's golden age, even if the whole magazine hadn't been lovingly archived on Spectrum fan sites and the Internet Archive, and even if people hadn't been building websites about it for thirty years. That's not to say I've read everything right from the beginning or the Your Spectrum title it evolved from, but it's not a bad grounding.

Duncan was one of many staff writers and freelancers who leaned into the mag's anarchic style, and apparently went on to do it elsewhere for PC Zone. Piecing together some tributes and quotes in articles, YS -- and specifically editor Teresa “T’zer” Maughan -- gave him a chance and an outlet at a point he was living young and free in a camper van, and he bounced off other personalities there well and turned in copy.

I don't have any history with PC Zone so I'm aware there's lots of other context I'm missing. Everything2 (which is a hypertext site similar to H2G2, being a writing community barely contained by what nowadays we might describe as a wiki without the framework of Wikipedia) offers

"Mr. Cursor (person) by fondue Sat Nov 13 1999 at 9:48:58
Mr. Cursor was the name of a column that appeared on the back page of PC Zone magazine (UK edition) from issues 1-54. Mr. Cursor was the alter-ego of the brilliant Duncan MacDonald, and was basically the archetypical PC newbie. His column described his exploits involving rhinoceros-hide suits, snooker, eating cockroaches, octupus orgasms, dung beetles, 'chives', American tourists and occasionally even computers. The column usually revolved around slightly dubious 'real life' exploits of the protagonist (being, a slightly bewildered one-time Zero/Your Sinclair/Game Zone journo living in a squalid council flat and expounding his drunk/stoned/stupid philosophy on a number of bizarre subjects). Funny stuff."

I'm not sure I can offer quite as optimistic an overview as the Chris Morphy-Godber retrospective on Substack and I'm not sure I can end on as an upbeat note as it mentions Duncan's reviews for PC Zone (like his YS output) usually did. Perhaps it'd be better not to post this at all, but here goes.

Because Amazon allows subtitles, the book's listed as "South Coast Diaries: The hilarious diary of an aspiring musician in a crazy seaside town – a funny, feelgood, gripping comedy thriller of love, laughs and murder at the beach". Equally, the flavour text and summary for SSD, which I'm presuming are also Vici, give a similar pitch. But it's kind of in the way that Romeo and Juliet could be described as a love story with some crazy misunderstandings... not inaccurate, just not the whole story by any stretch. It can be quite dark in places.

The narrative is first person, told in diary form by a character given the moniker Duncan Donaldo. It could broadly be described as about surviving wilderness years that never end, surrounded with other damaged and dispossessed folk none of whom are very in control of their destinies.

Warning: spoilers from this point.

The book opens with a theory about a pachinko gene (a Japanese slot machine type game of chance played by dropping in metal balls to get a win/lose result and win prizes) and events happening to people, such as homelessness, that activate that gene and send individuals pinballing down and getting stuck in dead end towns or sucked into the gravity of cities. It's a well-developed metaphor, and like the rest of the story there's clearly a lot of thought and cogs turning behind the engaging prose.

I'd draw some parallels with Douglas Rushkoff's now fairly obscure 1997 The Ecstacy Club, another novel that at points involves fantasy drugs, and even an old friend's thinly disguised biographical Bimble Book archived here. SSD is darkly comic but if, as people have suggested, it's 75% true to life, that's not a very cheerful thought. I don't mean to sound judgemental with that, it's that at points the despair is palpable and rubs off on the reader. The second half of the story gets darker and more uncomfortable as various plot points converge, something its protagonist lampshades with comments. I might also draw parallels with Danny McCormack's autobiography I, Wildheart, and with Trainspotting, both of which have up moments but can be unrelenting at others, and I'm sure a friend would probably have added John Osborne's Look Back in Anger had this come out in 2004 when originally scheduled, with a working title of S.C.U.M.

Apparently there are recurrent themes in Duncan's writing about cooking cockroaches, and I think the idea of keeping a pet penguin may have come up in YS or I may just be misremembering Neon Evangelion. Full disclosure: what makes it darker for me is that it reminds me of old friends and acquaintances who might by now have dropped out and be dead, or in one or two cases because of their specific history with drugs I strongly assume are.

The love interest, a not entirely free spirit and artist/nurse called Angela is casually introduced as a recovering addict, and the lead character engages in identity theft, ripping off companies, loan fraud, a whole range of wackier scams, plus stuff generally associated with extreme poverty in ways it can be difficult to find humour in. It's largely written in a way that can be taken as writing for effect, but in the quarter of a century since has also been the way that a generation or two talks. Events are mostly getting by and surviving, squat or Auf Wiedersehen Pet like, every day a challenge, fixating on details of cooking with almost nothing edible in the house and the shame of not wanting others to know how bad things are, property damage, avoiding constant threats of violence, chancers, bullshit artists, sleeping tablets and cheap cider. Peppered with side conversations about topics such as how sausages are made.

You find yourself cheering for some of the wins Duncan pulls off, even if I'm getting more small c conservative with age on the subject of victimless crime. He cares about people, and principles, when he can. And it's impossible to say how exaggerated the kernels of truth have been to turn them into a story.

The ending, to a fairly long plot point about (spoilers) trying to kill the ex partner's violent mentally ill current partner with remote controlled aircraft but ultimately turning out for the better by the ex possibly being taken out of the picture by it killing someone else, is also somewhat on the bleak side if you think about it, rather than focus on the protagonist describing it with dreamlike PTSD. Re-reading it in the context of the author's and editor's father being a helicopter pilot who died on the job and seeing it on the news? Although that's not directly linked, and he reviewed flight simulators and seems to have gone on to maintain a lifelong interest in flying and RC, it does contribute a further unreal quality, and without getting too far into analysing people disassociation probably has a little to do with Duncan being who he was. Someone I didn't know, who was let down badly by the prospects and attitudes of this country - and let's face it, it hasn't improved in the last twenty years (or rather began to a bit and then fell off a cliff again in the last fifteen under terrible, venal and often literally criminal politicians) - and the world is poorer for not having.

I'd join him in quoting Kafka if I'd done more than skim Metamorphosis once, but will settle for recommending South Coast Diaries to anyone who liked both Trainspotting and Adrian Mole. It's very reasonably priced on Kindle and in paper, and it's probably best read on the beach or when the sun's out.

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