Working man’s blues
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.