Work­ing man’s blues

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The­bi­gread THEDEARGREENPLACE&FURSADIE Archie Hind Poly­gon £8.99 THECOMPLETESHORTSTORIES Agnes Owens Bir­linn £10.99

‘WOrit­ers,” says Mat Craig, “are al­ways other peo­ple.” The hero of Archie Hind’s ac­claimed novel The Dear Green Place, he is speak­ing as much for Hind as for him­self. A bravura work about the tri­als Mat Craig faces writ­ing his own novel, The Dear Green Place is, among other things, a cri de coeur from its au­thor about the al­most in­tractable dif­fi­cul­ties that be­set a man from a work­ing class back­ground who has artis­tic am­bi­tions. Veer­ing be­tween self­loathing, de­spair and ar­ro­gance, Craig is tor­mented by the con­flict­ing de­sire to de­vote him­self full-time to writ­ing “the best novel ever to have been writ­ten in Glas­gow”, and the guilt of a fa­ther with a fam­ily to feed.

Even more cor­rod­ing than the fi­nan­cial ten­sions this as­pi­ra­tion raises is Craig’s sense that in even try­ing to write a lit­er­ary novel he is get­ting far, far above him­self, step­ping past an in­vis­i­ble No Tres­passers sign into ter­ri­tory owned by those of a su­pe­rior class and at­ti­tude. In one dev­as­tat­ing para­graph, to­wards the close of the novel – shortly af­ter he has de­stroyed his man­u­script – he tries to pin the blame for his in­ad­e­quacy on his home en­vi­ron­ment: “Where did the fail­ure of his work come from?... Was it in the lan­guage he spoke, the gut­ter pa­tois which had been cast by a mode of life de­void of all hope or ten­der­ness. This self-pro­tec­tive, fob­bing off lan­guage which was not made to range, or ex­plore, or ex­press; a lan­guage cast for sneers and abuse and ag­gres­sion; a lan­guage cast out of the ab­sence of pos­si­bil­ity; a lan­guage cast out of a set of feel­ing – from pover­ties, dust, drunk­en­ness, ten­e­ments, en­durance, hard phys­i­cal labour; a re­duc­tive, cow­ardly, timid, snivelling lan­guage cast out of jeers and vi­o­lence and dif­fi­dence; lan­guage of vul­gar keelie scep­ti­cism.” f course, the tri­umph of The Dear Green Place is that while its hero rips up his novel, Hind pub­lished his, and be­came a lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion. That was in 1966. He was never to pub­lish an­other novel, dy­ing ear­lier this year with only one to his name. Like Mat Craig, Hind had de­pen­dants to pro­vide for, and ric­o­cheted be­tween var­i­ous short-term jobs – on the buses, in of­fices, as a news­pa­per copy-taker – in or­der to pay the bills, while his work was put on hold. Now, how­ever, Poly­gon has pub­lished the un­fin­ished novel he laid aside some­time in the 1970s. Sit­ting next to The Dear Green Place in a new edi­tion with a fore­word by Hind’s great friend Alas­dair Gray, Fur Sadie may look like a frag­ment, but it is rich with mean­ing, and prom­ise.

First ti­tled For Sadie, then Für Sadie, to echo Beethoven’s sonatina Für Elise, it has now been col­lo­qui­ally re­named, and it’s not hard to hear it spo­ken by the Park­head Glaswe­gians who peo­ple the novel. In­deed, the comic open­ing scene in­tro­duces the most un­likely of ar­rivals “fur Sadie”, as a pair of re­moval men lug a pi­ano up her ten­e­ment stair. There’s noth­ing com­i­cal, h o w e v e r, a b o u t Sad ie ’s new pur­chase. A mid­dleaged house­wife with a pedes­trian hus­band and two grown-up sons still liv­ing at home, Sadie bought this sec­ond­hand pi­ano on a whim. She can­not play it (yet), but as a child she proved her­self un­usu­ally mu­si­cally gifted, and only a sense that mu­sic lessons were not for the likes of her pre­vented her ac­cept­ing a phil­an­thropic of­fer of tu­ition by a well-off friend’s mother. Re­gret at that de­ci­sion has fi­nally caught up with her.

Hind con­stantly breaks into his nar­ra­tive to il­lu­mi­nate Sadie’s per­son­al­ity, plac­ing her within the same re­stric­tive in­her­i­tance that dogs many from hum­ble up­bring­ings: “For most of her life, Sadie would be one of those whose de­sires and am­bi­tions would at­tach to noth­ing spe­cific be­cause noth­ing very spe­cific ex­isted for her. Her life at­ti­tude would al­ways be hope­ful rather than ex­pec­tant. This at­ti­tude, more than any­thing else in life, di­min­ished intelligence by pre­vent­ing its use, for in­telli- gence has to grap­ple with the con­crete by cre­at­ing new in­di­vid­ual ex­pec­ta­tions and sit­u­a­tions … ”

So when Sadie de­fies ex­pec­ta­tions, in­clud­ing her own, it takes ev­ery­one by sur­prise, not least a gruff but charis­matic pi­ano teacher, McKay, who is non-plussed at the ar­rival on his doorstep of a mousy, head-scarfed wi­fie. His first in­stinct is to turn her scoff­in­gly away, but when he dis­cov­ers that she has per­fect pitch and an ap­petite for learn­ing to match her tal­ent, he puts her to work. By the time the novel breaks off, Sadie has ab­sorbed the ba­sics of har­mony and fin­ger­ing and is on her way to mas­ter­ing the key­board.

It is a poignant in­di­ca­tion of Hind’s own

artis­tic tra­vails that the last sen­tences of the man­u­script de­scribe Sadie sit­ting de­spon­dently in front of her pi­ano, un­able to play be­cause of the con­flict her new pas­sion is arous­ing in fam­ily, neigh­bours and, above all, in her­self: “She felt in her­self a kind of grit­ti­ness, al­most phys­i­cal, like the un­pleas­ant feel­ing when emp­ty­ing the grate and coal-ash blew into her hair. As if life was a fric­tional process al­ways throw­ing off this abra­sive coarse dust which clogged her own ac­tion.”

The con­straints faced by writ­ers from the work­ing classes are epit­o­mised in the work of Agnes Owens, ar­guably Scot­land’s most dis­tin­guished ex­em­plar of the writer for whom the pos­si­bil­ity of writ­ing full-time was only a pipedream.

Now over 80, Owens has lived a life familiar to many women – bring­ing up a fam­ily while jug­gling low-paid jobs. Owens is a born writer, as driven and per­fec­tion­ist as those with acres of time at their dis­posal, even though, as she re­calls in a fa­mous au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story in this col­lec­tion called March­ing to the High­lands and into the Un­known, “some­times it was the last thing I wanted to do, es­pe­cially af­ter clean­ing some­body’s house”. Even when she had a novel pub­lished, she re­flects that writ­ing “didn’t pay the rent”.

In her chatty but in­sight­ful in­tro­duc­tion, Liz Lochhead, one of Owens’s early tu­tors, writes: “By the time of the pub­li­ca­tion of her first book I knew Agnes was a great and quirky orig­i­nal. Her sis­ters, if she had any at all were … oh, Beryl Bain­bridge, Molly Keane and Shena Mackay. But by the time I was read­ing Bus Queue, Peo­ple Like That, When Shank­land Comes, I was think­ing Chekhov and Isaac Ba­bel.”

What fol­lows is the full trea­sure trove of Owens’s pub­lished short fiction, from the trea­cledark Ara­bella, which first caught Liz Lochhead’s at­ten­tion in class, through Gen­tle­men of the West, her su­perb bit­ter­sweet rosary of tales about a young brickie in a god­for­saken town, through the col­lec­tions Lean Tales, and Peo­ple Like That. It con­cludes with a new 14-fold col­lec­tion called The Dark Side.

As a ti­tle, this last could stand for Owens’s mo­tif, since her tales are fre­quently haunted by death, and some­times down­right mor­bid. But what dis­tin­guishes them from works sim­ply of pun­gent and at times pes­simistic re­al­ism is their sharp hu­mour and psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fun­dity, and the some­times star­tling, al­ways un­pre­dictable shafts of wit that leaven their som­bre, painful sub­jects. In flat con­tra­dic­tion of Mat Craig’s lin­guis­tic de­spair, Owens proves that the “lan­guage of vul­gar keelie scep­ti­cism” can be as ex­pres­sive as the lan­guage of kings.

The most re­cent sto­ries are less richly tex­tured than her ear­lier works, more ruth­lessly eco­nom­i­cal. It’s as if Owens is now dis­till­ing her ideas, as in Con­fes­sions of a Se­rial Killer, where a life’s mur­der­ous CV is reeled off in a few pages, or in The Dys­func­tional Fam­ily, where a sorry but un­self­pi­ty­ing tale of mis­er­able ne­glect and its con­se­quences is can­tered over un­for­get­tably in lit­tle more than a thou­sand words.

Of course, in th­ese in­stances Owens has said all that needs to be said, but part of the plea­sure of her sto­ries is their un­put­down­able read­abil­ity, mak­ing a pig and a glut­ton of the reader. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to pick up this sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion and find any­thing more worth­while to do for the rest of the day than read it cover to cover. Un­like the mid­night oil-burn­ing Hind and Owens, this reader was lucky enough to have the time to do that.


Archie Hinds died last month at the age of 79, leav­ing one pub­lished novel, The Dear GreenPlace.Nowa­nun­fin­ished­manuscript has resur­faced.

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