The Apprentice returns

It's the time when a group of hand-picked bright young things descend on the capital, inflated egos stuffed into leather briefcases, bombastic one-liners shoved up sleeves, CVs suitably embellished, and a much-touted readiness to claw their way into Lord Sugar's heart and the nation's homes. The latest series of The Apprentice is the show's 8th outing. Is it still the BBC's prized thoroughbred or just a dead horse ready for another flogging?

There hasn't been any drastic changes to the show's format since it first aired back in 2005, so it's evidently the "colourful" personalities of the contestants that keep viewers coming back. It's fairly easy to recall the standout characters that made last year's show so reliably entertaining: the kooky wide-eyed gaze of winner Tom Pellereau; the "Woman of the Future" Melody Hossaini, who never missed an opportunity to remind us she'd been taught by Al Gore, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama; the icy Scot Jim Eastwood who trumped the mandatory two faces with a calculated five. Then there's the no-nonsense approach of Lord Sugar, Karen Brady and everyone's favourite facial contortionist, Nick Hewer. This year's candidates are notably youthful, the oldest being a sprightly 33. So does this mean our young unemployed will find themselves inspired by a whole set of new role models? I think not.

No one's fooled by the sharp tailoring, the flashy aerial shots and the commanding tones of the faceless receptionist Frances (who is Frances anyway? Does she work part-time? Is she really a man?). Underneath it all, The Apprentice is the crudest of pantomimes, starring statisticians who are flummoxed by measuring cupcake ingredients, marketing execs who fumble their way through presentations, inventors who aren't particularly inventive. Reality TV has reminded us that hubris is hilarious, and that's the enduring appeal of The Apprentice. Not that I'm above all that or anything. To adopt some Hewer gold, I'll probably be on it "like a tramp on chips". The first episode of the new series puts one of the teams in a zoo, so we can easily compare the mental agility of the contestants to that of chimps.

At a glance, this year's candidates are not only young but, dare I say, level-headed, personable and dangerously normal. Walking, talking, cliched person specifications, yes. But deluded and near-maniacal on the level of Baggs "The Brand"? Apparently not: Gabrielle Omar, a 29-year-old architect, has a "trusting nature"; former Head Girl Bilyana Apostolova's greatest weakness is "dealing with confrontation"; and Duayne Bryan's worst confession is that he once pretended to be Tinie Tempah. All very tame. The show had better get a bit more savage than that if it's going to keep bums on seats. "It's not a playground, it's business, says Omar. Sorry, I think you'll find it's TV.

"The Apprentice", series 8, begins tonight on BBC 1 at 9pm.

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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times