Scottish novelist Johnny Proctor is the author of the 'Zico' trilogy - the three books Ninety, Ninety Six and Naughty span the decade that was the 1990's. From violence on the terraces, first loves, the rise of Acid House, illegal raves through to the clubs of Ibiza and beyond, this epic story is a gripping testament to the decade that gave us ecstasy, britpop and Euro 96. We caught up with Johnny to discuss the books, his writing process and the decade that was the 1990's.
The trilogy follows the antagonist Zico and when we meet him in the first book, Ninety, he is 15 years old, living with his aunt and uncle.
Where did you grow up and what kind of youth did you have?
One where I was a 15 year old living with my auntie and uncle! Fortunately, I suppose, my youth, growing up wasn’t too dissimilar to Zico in the book which - as the reader will go onto see over the three novels - opens up all kinds of scenarios that would generally be considered as unlikely for the average Scottish kid growing up but ones that I had the authority to write about. It was irresistible not to take advantage of my own less than by the numbers upbringing and add that to the story and by doing so opening up all of the doors that, creatively, it did.
Before living with my auntie and uncle I had spent some time in Spain with my mum but primarily had lived elsewhere in Fife with my nana and di before they became too old to look after me so I was then off to the East Coast of Fife to stay there. Was just your average Scottish kid growing up, really. Playing fitba with your mates from sun up to sun down, smashing windows, running from the police that kind of deal.
Was taken to Tannadice at an early age to see United and was immediately mesmerized by these differently sets of dressed groups of lads who I would see either at games or on train station platforms before or after that would soon go on to be called casuals. Weirdly they were wearing similar same labels as me due to the fact that my mum (via Spanish boutiques) was kitting me out in Lacoste etc. Labels that I had no concept of what they were but that none of my friends would wear it. Seeing all of these older lads all running around in it struck a bit of a connection. Something I - from Zico’s point of view - give a passing reference to in Ninety.
Zico is heavily into his clothes and specific labels and I got a kick out of Gio Gio & The Donnelly Brothers being mentioned in the first book,
what are some of your favourite labels from back in the day?
That brief mention of Gio was a small nod towards Anthony and Christopher who I’m mates with and, in fact, used to write articles for the pair of them for their website before going on to be an author. Anthony is one of the most infectious people you could ever, ever, meet and when telling him at his legendary 50th down in Manchester that I was writing a novel based in 1990 I promised to squeeze in a little mention to pay a little bit of homage towards how important their brand was to the UK raver at the time. To me. For a couple of years of the early rave scene in the UK. Gio Goi was as synonymous with the club and rave scene as a White Dove was.
As for favourite personal labels from back in the day. With the vibe of raves it completely broke down the walls of ‘label snobbiness’ I’m instantly thinking of a 1990 event at Ingliston (possibly Eclipse but don’t quote me) where I went out for the night in a pair of Jordans, Champion sweat pants that I’d cut off to the knee and a Marseille home top! Labels though? Well apart from the obvious staple brands that have been and will always be linked to terrace culture like your Stoney and CP. I remember the start of the decade for lots of Italian and French labels that - while some may still be around - didn’t really stand the test of time but I’ll always remember that specific year for brands like. Ciao, Sonneti, Fiorucci, Chipie and C17.
Who are some of your favourite authors, did any particular book inspire you to start writing?
My own personal favourite authors and those that provide me with inspiration when it comes to writing my own novels are, amongst others, Hunter S Thompson, Irvine Welsh, John Niven and Don Winslow. Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting was a complete game changer for a lot of people, me no different. To see a book crafted in such a way for the first time was a defining moment for me. To know that books could even be written like that? Even though there is something like twenty five years between Trainspotting and Ninety in terms of when they were released. I still managed to draw inspiration from the story telling Irvine Welsh gave the reader.
As far as my Nineties trilogy goes though I, without doubt, drew the most amount of inspiration from Hunter S Thompson and his ‘gonzo journalism’ style of writing that completely places you square in the middle of all of the insanity that he is experiencing himself. The fact that I’ve had people come to me and say that they felt as if they were reading about themselves at times - instead of the main character Zico - has been the best feedback I could ever receive as that was exactly what I was trying to achieve with anyone who picks up the trilogy. Because the average person to pick up the book will identify with Zico in some way or other. I wanted the books to be that kind of an immersive experience where you really wanted the boy to do well and get out of all of the shit that he was in because - in that moment reading the book - it feels like you’re the one that’s in the shit.
Despite being an avid reader over the years I really hadn’t ever had any inclination to become a writer. It was just something that I fell into. At the time, one of my favourite websites was Sabotage Times (now long gone) and one Saturday morning they appealed for anyone out there who was able to put together a few thousand words on Detroit rapper, Danny Brown. I stuck my hand up despite having zero experience of constructing an article and here we kind of are.
With the almost sanitisation of today's society with the smoking ban, all seater football stadiums all but gone & time
moved on from Acid House culture, do you think that society for young people has changed for the better or
do you feel that they are missing out on the experiences that Zico has in your books, the standing on a terrace,
the all night raves?
I guess that if you’ve never experienced the elation of a rammed terracing erupt at a last minute goal for your team or five thousand people standing in a smokey warehouse at 4am all raising their hands for a piano break without a single camera phone in sight then you’re not going to know what you’ve missed.
Being older and having been able to have the luxury of sampling the environment of a football terracing (prior to all seater stadia) in the afternoon and then a rave at night. And then sampling the watered down sanitized versions of what today offers both during a Saturday afternoon and a Saturday night. It would be incredibly naive to suggest that todays experience is better than back in the day before various aspects like all seater stadiums and Sky TV changed football and you had the explosion of camera phones and ketamine at raves. You can’t really argue that the atmosphere both inside the stadium and in the club has suffered because of those things listed.
I think Dean Cavanagh nails it inside Ninety with his book by saying
‘A great portrait of a seminal time for youth culture in the UK. A nostalgic must read for those who experienced it and an exciting and intriguing read for those that didn’t’
The emphasis on the exciting and intriguing read for those that didn’t get to experience it all first hand.
It took a while for the younger generation of readers to find my novels but now that they have I’ve had some of them coming back to me saying how jealous they are that they missed out on those days but they’re still well in the minority. The kids going out to clubs and festivals don’t really know what they’re missing out on because they’re too busy having their own experiences of *this* era of House Music. Being honest it’s probably better that way too. They’re in no way getting the experience that we got in the Nineties but they’re getting their own one instead.
Without question though, going out is almost a completely different experience than it was when Acid House first swept the UK and the following few years that happened as a result of the explosion. There’s definitely an age and attitude thing at play there also. I got a really good example of this at an Elrow last year where having VIP tickets. Inside that area were clubbers who were a touch older and clued up musically and when inside that specific part of the festival it was as close to what you would describe as the early days of House in the UK with the crowd dancing from beginning to end. Strangers all talking to each other like you used to do in the most random of ways back in the early day. It was a reminder of the general feeling that raving in the Nineties brought where everyone in there were partying with each other rather than all individually.
Then on the other hand when you stepped out into the general area of the festival you could barely get anywhere for immobile kids stuck in K Holes in the middle of the afternoon. An image, to me, that is the absolute antithesis of what a rave ever was.
Yeah the younger generation have missed out but there lies a certain irony in that, they themselves have the capability to return the original attitudes and atmospheres of the Nineties back into clubs and raves again if they stopped taking Ketamine and kept there phones in their pockets for most of the night. It’s a different world we live in now though so I wouldn’t see any of either of those two things changing anytime soon.
And if we’re being honest. Had smartphones been around back in the early Nineties we’d have used them every bit as much at raves as people do today. We just got lucky and got to experience what atmospheres were like previous to camera phones becoming the distraction that they obviously are.
How much of the trilogy is autobiographical, did you ever meet a nutter like Nora, the leader of the
Dundee Utility Crew who appears in the first book of the trilogy, Ninety?
This has been a question I have been persistently asked since the book came out. Some, worryingly, took the story - due to how I chose to write it in the style that I did - as complete gospel and assumed that it WAS an autobiography. It wasn’t too far away though from that, mind you. Like all writers, they tend to take pieces of real life that has either been an experience of theirs or their group of friends and weave them alongside some fiction. It’s what some of the best writers in the world do and it was a formula that I was happy enough to follow suit with. I definitely would not say that I’ve had a boring life up to this point so writing a book that covered a period like the Nineties. I didn’t have far to look for inspiration with regards to using full on anecdotes or recalling certain surreal experiences when it can to authentically putting across my story.
I honestly could not sit here and give you a percentage of how much of it is autobiographical as at times you will have an example of something that did happen slotted right beside something that didn’t.
So yeah, parts of it is autobiographical while others are of fiction. We’d be here all day going over which is which but I already would stick my neck out and say that readers wouldn’t be able to come away with a hundred percent record over what they thought was fact and what was the fiction. In their defence. There really is a fine line between one and the other at times.
I’ve met more than just one nutter like Nora over the years, I assure you! Chapter one of Ninety and the meeting with Aberdeen and then The Utility on the platform at Haymarket was based on a real experience that day of the cup semi final at Tynecastle. The character in the book wasn’t even meant to be finally called that but the name started to grow on me the more I got into writing the book so I just left it in the end. For a dangerous and unpredictable individual such as he is. I wanted to give him the complete opposite of a name. Something cuddly like an old ladies name that would offset what people would see in front of them.
The three books, Ninety, Ninety Six and Naughty span the decade that was the 1990's. What do you think made the 90's
so special and fondly remembered by many people?
It was simply a decade that defined so many people of a certain age and persuasion. Be that the coming of the age of Indie groups. The explosion of Acid House and all the ways it then splintered into so many sub genres. The link between music and fashion and football that I’m not sure had ever been so strong in such a way. It was a decade where, and I’m not sure the best way to even really put it. you felt, cool?
You were doing exciting things that *no one* had done before you like putting on a pair of flares, Kickers and a sun hat and heading off to Spike Island with your mates. Staying up all night and dancing inside a warehouse until the next morning or until the coppers decided was the end of the night, whichever came first. The crucial subcultures that sprung up that decade and ones that must have confused the fuck out of everyone’s parents because they’d had absolutely no point of reference to go by.
The groundbreaking music that was the soundtrack of that decade from The Stone Roses to Dr Dre to The Prodigy.
The momentous football tournaments such as Italia 90 and, especially, Euro 96.
Ten years is a long time for much to happen and - without any spoilers - inside Noughty, in my own random way, I have Zico summarising what the Nineties had included. From Monica Lewinski to The Spice Girls and Playstations to Poll Tax riots. It was a busy ten years for a lot of people.
It’s obviously all relative towards what age you are but the reception I’ve had with regards to the decade that I chose for a trilogy of books has been a favorable one so, evidently, it wasn’t just a decade that made a major impact on just me personally.
Have you had any feedback from some of the people from the 90's acid house and football firm scene?
Some of the most pleasing feedback I’ve had has been from the old guard who are the ones best placed to offer a genuine critique of the period of time that I’m describing in my novels. I was already prepared for potential nit picking over certain parts of the scenes that I delved into as that’s natural when you put your work out there and on subjects that people are passionate about but up to this point it’s been the complete opposite.
Despite slagging the absolute fuck out of Aberdeen and their ASC firm in the first 1 - 4 chapters of Ninety I’ve had some proper laughs with ex ASC over those passages of text in DM exchanges on social media. As you know having read the first book. Aberdeen are not the only football team to bear the brunt of Zico’s sarcastic viewpoint towards the scene but yet even so I’ve yet to encounter a problem with any fan who have read the book. It’s a novel at the end of the day but this is also Scotland where people can get super sensitive about their teams at times so it’s pleased me immensely that those who have read it “get” what I’m doing and can see that I’m not just using a book to have a dig at their team!
I’ve had feedback from ex and existing casuals telling me just how much I had nailed the feeling of an away day experience to see their team and all of the naughtiness that comes along with it.
Through the various mentions I give to Ajax’s F Side firm throughout certain chapters in Noughty. It has led to an invite from them to go over to Amsterdam for an Ajax home match to stand with them in the F Side of the Johan Cruyff ArenA. An invite that I intend to take up once we get to a point where we are resembling more of normality where fans can stand together inside stadiums once more.
On the opposite side of the subject matter of Ninety, Ecstasy culture. I have had a lot of original ravers literally thank me for the feeling that I’d left them with when they were reading certain chapters. For being able to remind them what those nights and mornings actually *felt* like. I’m paraphrasing here but have received comments such as
‘Best description of taking a pill and going to a festival I’ve ever read’
‘I haven’t rushed like I did reading the description of Zico’s first pill since the first time I took a Mitsubishi as a teenager myself’
Write what you know, they always say, it’s two subjects that would be a coin toss for what my Mastermind subject would be but to receive the feedback from the type of people who experienced that era for themselves and know what they’re talking about is still - and always will be - truly humbling to me.
It would be a mistake however to assume that - due to the nature of Ninety - my trilogy is a series of books about “casuals and ravers” as there is a lot more aspects that are spread across the three books that the readers are going to find as they go.
As anyone will see when they move onto Ninety Six. I completely changed the format of how I wanted to write the remaining parts of the trilogy because the story was now a lot bigger than just what was going on with the main character Zico. All be it, all things directly or indirectly being connected to his world.
The colourful “occupation” of Zico’s dad in itself providing an outlet for all kinds of humorous but dangerous insanity that have nothing whatsoever to do with terrace or rave culture.
It’s a coming of age series of books where you will notice the difference to the main character where in the beginning of the story he’s a boy and by the end a man. Although not that his life choices may always reflect that across the three books.
The books were released a year apart in relatively short succession, what is your usual writing process? Do you
set yourself a time frame to get things done?
Being purely independent. Any targets set are ones that have come directly from myself so there generally is never any pressure with regards to deadlines. Everything stood by how Ninety would do and then I would tailor things to match. If Ninety hadn’t caught on across the UK and then further afield I’m not sure I’d have followed up with Ninety Six although, technically, the full story was already in my head when beginning the trilogy.
I still find it a little outlandish that it was almost a year to the day when Ninety Six followed Ninety considering the day Ninety came out I still had no idea if I’d be writing a follow up or not.
It’s a commitment and a half to write a novel. Takes up a lot of your free time. You hardly see your mates. You don’t get to relax and read the books you want to or watch the films on your list. Sacrifices have to be made if you want to get it written and ready. Like I said though. I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck asking where the book is. Apart from the public! It was only through the unexpected response I received from Ninety in those first three to four months following release that I decided to get my head down and write the second part as there seemed to be a feeling that something was building with the book and it would be sensible to keep things going myself by getting Ninety Six written and out.
Through the quick turnaround of Ninety and Ninety Six being written and released. I specifically didn’t set any targets when it came to concluding the trilogy. I dropped Ninety Six on April 2019 and then took the summer completely off from writing and caught up with the more fun things in life. Done things like Elrow and Defected Croatia and just let the book thing rumble away on its own. I had the third part written in my mind but didn’t really have much plans on when to transfer that on to a MacBook screen. Believe me. No one is more surprised than me that, once again, the third book arrived in the month of April. Exactly like its two predecessors.
I basically came back from Croatia in August last year. Took a few, well needed, weeks recovery and then decided - on a whim - to just start on it. It, more or less, took around the same timescale as the previous two books. Around four months to write the first draft and then about the same amount of time for editing and promoting ahead of the release date. So yeah, if you want to bring a book out inside a year. Be prepared for it pretty much dominating the majority of those 12 months.
No one has ever told me how I’m *meant* to write a book so my own individual process so far has involved writing the first draft then going back and starting to read what I’ve written while editing as I go. And that’s where the hard work really begins as far as my own formula that I follow. Despite the story being virtually the same. The first and second draft can be unrecognisable from each other. From then on I’ll re-read the book again and again while continuing to make minor little edits.
I keep doing this until I am completely sick of the sight of the book and by that point I’m ready to let go of it. I don’t think there’s an author who could read a novel that they have written from start to finish and not see even the smallest of opportunities to make an edit regardless of how old or new their piece of work is so there really does come a time where you have to admit that it’s not going to be any more ready than it is and just move onto the next step of getting the book printed and out to the general public and await the feedback.
What are you working on at the moment, what's next for Johnny Proctor?
One thing I’m *not* working on is a Covid 19 novel There’s going to be enough of them as it is in around a years time and beyond! You’ll get the details as and when but I’ve already tentatively started work on my next project although Covid 19 has hampered some of the research plans I had. It’s something though that I’m looking forward to getting stuck into now that I’m free of the pressures of making sure a series of three books running into each other making sense. Only the unhinged would take on another trilogy and while I may be unhinged I’m not *that* unhinged! It’s going to be a stand alone book that’s set in Edinburgh and follows a group of characters that couldn’t be more different to Zico and Si in the Nineties trilogy but I promise that it’s not going to be any less entertaining for it.