The writing on the cover is a bit funny. Then I realised it was meant to be that way. White writing on black background. A san-serif trick for the short-sighted drunk. A black dog appears with a red collar. Declan’s dog, Horace. But there is also an allusion to the Churchill version of the Black Dog. Declan is the narrator. He’s the wee guy that wants to be a writer. We’ve all been there. Writers write stuff. But there is another narrator. James Cavani. He writes stuff too, but people read it. He also produces his own work and acts in films. In other words, Kevin Bridge’s ego and alter ego.
Most everybody in Clydebank knows who Kevin Bridges is. He’s the success story everybody is proud of but also thinks he’s snide and getting too big for his boots. My mate Gordy, for example, works security. He held open a door for him, or it might have been Frankie Boyle—celebrities are all the same—and he didn’t say thanks. Prick.
Everybody has a story about meeting celebrities. I’d a square-go with Marti Pellow’s brother, and his mate Kojak, for example. And I’ve a nod-of-the-head knowledge of local gangsters, but not where the bodies are buried. Sometimes they nod back and remember my name. That’s the way I want to keep it. That’s the way Declan wants to keep it too.
The plot is easy. Simplicity is best. Declan packs shelves in the local supermarket. He wants to be a writer. He gets lippy with local gangsters. Cavani wants to return to that purity of purpose he had when he was younger. Declan reminds him of somebody. I’ll let you guess who saves whom.
Sure as fuck, you already know. First lines are crucial, we’re always told in creative writing courses. The novel starts with a snippet of Declan’s writing.
‘It’s Sharm El-Sheikh, Ryan, “Sha-rm El-Shake,” shake like a milk shake, not, “Sha-mal-Shook,”.’
She’s got her big grin on and lookin’ roon the livin’ room, makin’ sure they’re aw laughin’. EVERYCUNT.
I’ve removed all the gs in my writing when trying to convey dialect. Put in an apologetic apostrophe. Took it out. Put it in, again. You’ve got to be true to you, but also your characters. It’s not like SRA when you can look up the back of the worksheets for the right/write answers. Learn by doing.
If I was playing the big man, I’d point out most books have grammatical errors, such as ‘e-mail’ instead of email. Cavani, for example, is meant to do promotion work in London, but blanks it to come home. His wee sister, Siobhan, has overdosed again and is in hospital. He reckons that will cost him $100 000, the equivalent of £75 000. That’s on the low side of Truss economics. And it would be useful if pronouns replaced proper nouns to make the writing sharper.
I remember when we went to Ireland and got two Irish punts for £1. A pint of Guinness for nothing. Cavani (and Bridges) know that the writer is trading in a kind of meme nostalgia that never happened.
But I don’t recognise the Clydebank I know from the pages, which is always a disappointment. Aye, I know Cider McIver that works up the golfie and is always sneaking off to go to the bookies. Doof Doof, Declan’s mate, also works for the council on the golf course, but I can’t picture it, although I can picture him.
Like most first novels, it’s overwritten. A bit like a comedian constantly reuttering the punchline and asking the audience if they got it. But what do I know? I’m like the Declan’s of the world. Read on.
William Watson aged eleven and his brothers, George aged ten and Robert, aged nine, lived in Kitchener Street, Clydebank. Ten-year-old John McNeil lived in the same row of tenements. The Forth and Clyde canal ran parallel to the block of houses. Two rafts of Styrofoam-packing material overturned. Two of the Watson boys fell into the water. Their brother and McNeil, floating above them, tried to save them, but didn’t make it ashore. The police recovered three bodies after dragging the canal. The fourth was found by a naval frogman, who was said to have cried as he brought the body to the canal path.
Tiny was too wee and his big brothers wouldn’t let him on their rafts. He recently died too. RIP.
Watching Scotland play is a duty rather than a pleasure. I was brought up in an era when fitba was on the telly you watched it. If Celtic was playing Clydebank at Parkhead I’d go to the game and rush home to see if I was on the telly with the other 17 000 crowd haunting Paradise. I didn’t go very often. Obviously, watching every single game when Scotland played in the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. We beat Brazil and there was that Archie Gemmill goal against Holland when we nearly qualified for the next round. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hLuv5AlXWE
It was great being on the road with Ally’s army. I didn’t go anywhere, but the idea was a good one. I’ve only been to one Scotland game at Hampden. I was accompanying some adults with Learning Disabilities. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. And I know what they were thinking…
Obviously, I’m a Celtic man. So I gave David Marshall the once over. Celtic flung £5 million at a Greek keeper that couldn’t catch a pound coin if you handed it to him. So signing Marshall on a free transfer takes me back to Hampden with those Learning Disability adults. Marshall made a couple of good saves here. But he was at fault for the first goal. Grillitsch hit it from about 30 yards. Marshall palmed it to his right. The six-foot-seven Austrian powerhouse, Kalajdzic, swooped and scored from the rebound in the 55th minute. Kalajdzic had another goal disallowed two minutes later for a push on Tierney. Scotland got lucky there, because there was little contact.
Tierney was Scotland’s best player. Captain Andy Robertson plays in front of him. I don’t think that works. Both are full backs. I think it’s either/or, not both. And Tierney is simply better. Celtic rather that wasting £20 million on duds should have kept him for another season. He’s sorely missed.
On the other side of the defence, we had the Belgian phoenix Jack Henry. Playing Henry allowed Clarke to push McTominay into central midfield. The Manchester United played had not a bad game. Henry in comparison is Mr Potato head, six foot five and he can’t head a ball. He’s not one I want to keep at Celtic. But he’s good enough for Scotland. Strangely, a Scotland team without any of the Champion’s players. We even had my namesake, O’Donnell, playing at right back (I’m better than him, but slower, a lot slower, and can’t take shys). O’Donnell proved his worth by taking the free-kick from which Hanley equalised on the 71st minute.
The Austrian backline played high, the ball scooped in behind. The Austrian keeper, Schlager, had the option of coming for the ball but hung back. Hanley didn’t. Schlager also made a basic goal-keeping mistake on the cusp of half-time. He passed the ball to Lyndon Dykes, perhaps time-wasting, knowing Dykes doesn’t score many goals. But Dykes found Christie and the Celtic forward hit the keeper with it. It’s not been a great season for him either. I’ll miss Christie when he leaves Celtic.
I’ll mention Stuart Armstrong because he also played for Celtic. Scotland are good at draws and the game looked to be petering out to a 1—1. Then a nothing ball was thrown into the box and Kalajdzic from the penalty spot, with the ball slightly behind him, powered it into the net. Marshall had no chance with this one.
I didn’t rate Scotland’s chances. With ten minutes to go it looked like another defeat. Armstrong played his part by going off a substitute. This allowed Celtic stalwart McGregor to come on and John McGinn to push forward and play up front with Adams (an Englishman winning his first cap for Scotland).
Kalajdzic’s goal was a beauty. But John McGinn’s was even better. You may remember that Celtic let McGinn go to Aston Villa. And he’s a Celtic die-hard, his grandfather player with Celtic. And I played with his McGinn’s uncle, Johnny Gibbons, in the school team. (I may have peaked too early here). Gibbons’ sister and McGinn’s mother played in the netball team. Some thought that’s where I belonged. The goal McGinn scored was probably offside, but even Scotland needs a bit of luck. Another bog-standard cross into the box. It wasn’t very high. McGinn did an overhead kick and it soared into the corner. The kind of winning goal that you dreamed about when playing school fitba—even though it wasn’t the winning goal. Scotland had to hang on for a draw. I wonder what the odds are for Steve Clarke being the next Celtic manager?
Clarke brought on ex-Rangers player McLean to run about for thirty seconds, which was an improvement on bringing on McBurnie. Next up Israel (again). We play them every second game. That’ll give me a chance to sympathise with El Hamad for not being good enough for Celtic. And to call for Bitton to be give a free transfer. He’s nearly as bad as Henry. If I’ve missed mentioning any Celtic player let me know (James Forrest doesn’t count. And we all know where Griffiths is at, but whose box he’s in is anybody’s guess).
Hi Dougie, I’ve had a look at your manuscript. We both know that it’s hard trying to get anything published when we write about people like us, using the language we speak—Scottish dialect. Remember all that fuss when James Kelman, for example, wrote in stream- of-consciousness, working-class dialect and a judge ofThe Booker Prize winner 1994, a Rabbi, no less, resigned because she (it might have been a he) thought How Late It Was, How Late was shite? Dialect in your manuscript isn’t as combative as Kelman’s and it runs light touch as, for example, William McIlvanney. You’re far more likely to pick up readers and have far more chance of finding a publisher because of this.
The trick is to be consistent. And I must admit you did a great job. I only spotted two slippages and both were the same (you were consistent in that too, which is a good sign). When the narrator leads with ‘It got her goat’, when, for example Agnes Bain questions her son, Shuggie, while living in Pithead, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ I think you mean: It got on her goat. He got on her goat. Not he got a goat. Small things, but you might want to look at that again.
Your debut novel will never win the The Booker Prize, but if you’re looking for a publisher most people that write books offering writing advice tell you to never start with mood music or the weather.
‘The day was flat.’
Do you need this?
The day was flat. That morning his Shuggie’s mind had abandoned him and left his body wondering down below. The His empty body went listlessly through his routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.
That’s an intriguing opening paragraph to your manuscript. And it leaves the reader with a question, why is tomorrow different from today? Your book begins and ends in the same place: Glasgow, The South Side 1992. The titular Shuggie Bain, fifteen, going on sixteen, going out into his past and coming back to himself. Time doesn’t stands still. He bears witness to his mum, Agnes Bain’s passing.
But Shuggie is not the sole narrator. That would tie your book to his life experience. And when you take the reader back to Sighthill, 1981, Shuggie’s experience as a boy aged four going on five isn’t enough to carry a book. He’s not old enough to know what marks him out as being different from other wee boys, as being shunned, bullied, spat upon. Different in a way that his brother, Alexander, aged 15 and nicknamed Leek is different, able to retreat somewhere inside himself. Or the way his eldest sister Catherine, aged 17, is different but the same, as the other women at the Friday night card school in Agnes’s mum and dad’s high-rise flat. By giving yourself an omniscient narrator you give license to travel through time and follow your characters to where the story takes you. This works well, in your circular narrative journey, but like any superpower it must be used cautiously.
Agnes Bain, telling, not showing, since the novel is mostly about her being an alky, is a good place to start.
‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Her man, who when he shared her bed, now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things.’
Shug Bain raping his second wife, Agnes, beating and humiliating her on a trip to Blackpool worked great. It showed exactly the kind of psychopathic narcissist he remains in an aging body with is sweep-over bald head. His holy of holies was his hole. The father of fourteen children, none were loved, but some like Shuggie were an embarrassment, not a chip off the old block and best jettisoned. If Shug Bain was born a rich American he might well have been elected 45th President. But in telling, not showing, his true vindictiveness finds an art form. When he takes Agnes and his children from the relative safety of Sighthill and her mum and da’s house to Pithead, it had been a test to see if she would follow him to the gates of hell.
‘She had loved him, and he needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces for another man to collect and repair later.’
Crawling around the warped logic of his psyche works well. But the constant mirroring shift in point of view from one character to another can be overdone.
Catherine looking at her half-cousin Donald Bain, who she marries to escape her mum’s alcoholism and back again, to show what the other is wearing, or how they feel, is a neat trick, but could be classified as overwriting. A shift from Agnes’s lover and potential saviour in Pithead, Eugene’s point of view, for example, back to Shuggie’s in the following paragraph tells the reader little we need to know.
‘For a while Eugene said nothing. The strange little boy had stunned him to silence. ‘You know son, maybe it’s time you thought more about yourself. Leave your mommy for a while.’
Here again we have someone looking queerly at Shuggie. We get it at that point. No need to over-emphasise and over-write.
‘The secondary school was bigger than any he had seen. He had waited and cautiously followed a boy that lived on the landing downstairs. The boy was tanned and the colour of summer holidays. At the street corners he turned around and with big brown eyes he looked suspiciously at the little boy who followed him like a stray.’
‘Following like a stray,’ is clichéd. And I’m not sure you need a change in point of view.
For example, a simple tweak such as: at street corners he turned and his big brown eyes glanced in my direction. You retain your (Shuggie’s) point of view, which carries on into the following paragraphs and his experience of disappointment and alienation the East End school that he felt in Pithead. Dreams of a new start—dashed.
These are only suggestions. As the author you are omniscient, but also omnipotent. It’s your shout. Your characterisation stays the right side of caricature. Most debut novelists when trying to decide whose story it is, for good reasons such as they lack a more mature writer’s experience of life and what it takes to write a book, go to narrow. Agnes Bain is the focal point of your book. Shuggie Bain whose name is on the cover is the most consistent, but you go wide. Other characters get to tell their story.
Agnes is brutally raped by her husband, and another taxi driver. She’s also found with her tights ripped off at a party under a pile of coats. She’s diddled into sex by Big Jamie and countless others. She’s beaten and demeaned. But by going wide in your characterisation you highlight an episode even more chilling, and give your novel greater resonance and stickability with readers.
When Little Lizzie, Agnes’s god-fearing mother, somehow finds herself pregnant by the greengrocer she owes tick-money, while her husband, Wullie, is away fighting in the second world war, the reader fears the worst when he comes home. Agnes is still a baby, daddy loves and coos over. Little Lizzie doesn’t get it in the neck as we’d expect. Wullie understanding and soothing. He reassures her even after she admits to have done everything she could to get rid of the child before it was born. He takes the bastard child out for a walk in the pram, but comes back without the child or the pram. He no longer wants to talk about Little Lizzie’s mistake. He’s dealt with it. This sub-plot or story within a larger narrative helps set the background tone to the world Agnes lives in. Poverty isn’t just about money, it’s about circumstances and choices, who gets to say what. A mother can’t even mention the child she held and lost, because that wouldn’t be right, isn’t a fiction, and had the ring of a world-weary truth.
Poverty is the living coffin. Being an alky the nails in the coffin for Agnes and her dependents. Every generation writes its own epitaph. You got it with your sign spray-painted outside the pit in Pithead. ‘No Coal, No Soul, Only Dole’. In particular, you nail what it’s like to be dependent on the Monday book, followed by the Tuesday book of £8.50. No waffle. No generalisations. Being explicit ties you in with so many other great writers from Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012) Lowborn:Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (2019) to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and writers like Emile Zola that know the price of everything, especially failure.
I was brought up with the Provie man and Radio Rental for our telly. I imagine you stretching it a bit here. I thought renting tellys—paying 50p for programmes—went out in the seventies. But I bow to your judgement. Diddling the gas meter or electricity meter, well, that’s still an ongoing story. But I imagine it’s more difficult, if not impossible, now.
There’s a caveat I just don’t get. No milk in the fridge. No food on the table. No electric fire to turn on. Everything that can be pawned or sold is gone. Yet, Agnes is always on the phone. Where I came from, phones cost money. There was a waiting list for them to get installed and it cost (roughly) £110. That doesn’t include rental charges or call charges. When Agnes moves to Pithead, she’s immediately on the phone. When she moves to The East End, she’s on the phone—for taxis she can’t pay for—yet still on the phone. She even sends a phone cut off at the wire to Leek, like a severed head, emphasising their relationship was done. Yet, again, she’s on the phone afterwards. I suggest you look at that again.
Agnes’s relationship with her phonebook is part of who she thinks she is. Her relationship with the drink curdles the soul. I recognise the symptoms and you’ve caught them in flight.
‘Well, you get a little bit stronger every day, but the drink is always there waiting. Doesn’t matter if you want to run from it, it’s still right behind you like a shadow. The trick is not to forget’.
We know what’s at stake. And we care enough about your characters knowing they’ll fail, but we can’t just look away. That’s page-turning power.
I hope my suggestions make sense. And I wish you well with your debut novel. I’d a similar novel set in Clydebank in the early ninety-seventies and nobody wanted to publish it. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough. But I hope you do better. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your novel is great. If in doubt, write another, better, novel. Send me it, I’ll have a look. Writers write, reading always.
I was surprised a panegyric to the Monsters of Templetown by Stephen King was on the back cover and not the front. I’d describe that as bad marketing, but perhaps this was not to confuse the reader, because despite the title there are no real monsters. Lorrie Moore describes the Monsters of Templeton on the front cover as, ‘A bold hybrid of a book’. What she means by that is the stories are factional, and it’s a love story of place as much as characters. For Templeton read Cooperstown. Lauren Groff in the Author’s note explains,
‘I have grown up with these characters almost as if they were real people and they formed the myth of my own town in my head. They belonged very firmly in Templetown.
In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies…The story saw history as malleable and tried about a different kind of truth about my little village on the lake, one filled with all the mystery and magic that I was surrounded by in my childhood.’
I weigh story-telling by truth-telling. If I can’t tell where truth begins and fiction ends, that’s a good starting point. The Clydebank I write about rings true, because it is true. Templeton rings true because it is true. Harper Lee takes the reader back to the deep South and the old town of Maycomb during the hungry thirties in To Kill a Mocking Bird. A child’s eye view of change in a town where nothing really changes.
The narrator is Willie ‘Sunshine’ Upton (illeg.) born 1973.
The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.
That’s a killer first line to start any novel. All novels need questions that need answers so the reader turns the pages. Here we have two in the first sentence. Why is she disgraced and where did the monster come from?
Her disgrace is that aged 24, she’s pregnant; an English Harvard professor on an archaeological dig in the Alaskan tundra is the father, but he’s married. And Willie inadvertently tried to run his wife over with the supply plane. But there is symmetry in her disgrace.
Her mother Vivienne Upton (‘Vi’) 1955—arrived back in Templetown apparently pregnant, also aged 24. Vi claimed not to know who the father was, having lived in a commune with drugs and ‘free love’ on the menu. Vi was the town’s official hippy. But she was also a property owner. Her (and Willie’s) ancestors had founded Templetown. It was in their blood. Their backwater town cured them of all ills even Vi’s acne.
Willie paints the backstory of the town and friendship with Clarissa, her Harvard best friend, who was an orphan like Vi (her grandparents being killed together in a car crash). Clarissa, in New York, suffers from lupus and her ongoing health concerns provide some ballast to Willie’s attempt to find out who her father was.
Vi had told her that he was a son of the town fathers. Willie therefore must play detective and this allows her to outline the history of the town using forgotten letters and uncover dark secrets that allows other characters to speak for themselves. For example, Sarah Franklin Temple Upton from her Journal, 1913-1933 m. Asterik “Sy” Upton 1895-1953, before she walks into the lake like Virginia Woolf with a pocketful of stones.
Journals, letters and with a little help from a friendly, resident ghost, Willie tries to unravel the truth, while having a little fling with her childhood sweetheart.
All the parts fit in a coherent way, but some are a bit of a squash. There’s photos and portraits too, such as that of one of her forbearers and his dog—used to hunt Indians. A mish-mash of telling and showing. Worth a look. Read on.
I live in Clydebank. That’s in West Dunbartonshire. The place where women in Scotland are most likely to be beaten up. Poverty is not gender blind. Women, for example, are 60% more likely to be carers than men. Women (and men) living in poverty are far more likely than their more affluent neighbours, such as those living in areas such as Bearsden, in East Dunbartonshire, to die younger, to suffer from ill-health and mental-health issues, to be unemployed, homeless, to become an addict and be imprisoned. Poverty is a place marker. Pupils at Drumchapel High, as a rule, do not go to university. Children who attend Bearsden Academy, a mile away, a world away, in East Dunbartonshire, do.
The shill game of trickle-down economics and taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich is most keenly felt in West Dunbartonshire and experienced directly by women. Women have always carried the baby, and the burden of poverty. Darren McGarvey illustrates this with a figure in which public cuts to services have deprived the poorest of the poor women of £80 billion of public services they depended on, while cuts to men’s services total £10 billion.
We think in pictures and deal in emotions. Such figures are in a sense, meaningless without context. Brenda, a charity worker, is shown, for example, disturbing sanitary products, what us guys used to call fanny pads. We’ve had fuel poverty, in which women can’t afford to heat their home and, or, buy food. We’ve got food banks. We associate women using an old sock as a fanny pad as a Third World problem. But at the end of the month, women in poverty have to make hard choices about their bodies. £3 spent on fanny pads? Or £3 spent on their children’s food? That’s where the old sock comes in. Hard choices.
Darren McGarvey is filmed at a Reclaim the Night Rally in West Dunbartonshire. It seemed sparsely attended, only a handful of women. And Darren and the camera crew. I’m not sure where it was. I’m not sure when it was. I hadn’t heard anything about it and I live here. As the target audience, a man, living in West Dunbartonshire, in microcosm, it wasn’t a success.
The experience of Astyn, whose boyfriend was a stalker, who strangled her, isolated her from her friends and beat her up, ended in a high-note, in that she’d left him.
Kirsty, a family counsellor, gave the viewer some insight into how the rich and the poor experience domestic abuse. Men in West Dunbartonshire tend to beat their partners. In comparison, women in East Dunbartonshire are far more likely to experience non-physical abuse, no bruising, but to the women’s psyche and soul.
Those of us that live in Clydebank need no introduction to who Paige Doherty was. She was a wee girl, barely out of school, murdered by a shopkeeper in Whitecrook and her body dumped in a field off Great Western Road. Her mum, Pamela, started a charity to channel her grief and offering children free self-defence classes.
It’s difficult to be critical of such a move, but although a good photo opportunity for Paige’s Promise also ended the programme on a high note. But listen to what Pamela said happened to her daughter. How many stab wounds and slashes Paige suffered. Watch the drama on BBC 4, Those That Kill. Kids play-fighting just doesn’t cut it in real-life scenarios. I should know, having been in plenty of brawls. It’s difficult to defend against the rogue psychopath. The larger narrative of unfashionable class warfare and public cuts are morally indefensible, but we lost the propaganda war. The rich feel justified in bleeding the poor. Boris Johnston’s promise to spend, spend, spend, shows how quickly the lie there is no money in the public purse becomes defunct and part of the great lie. I like Darren McGarvey, but this programme offers us what exactly? Paper cuts and empty promises of betterment.
‘There was people waiting, families waiting to be evacuated…’
‘I’m not sure how long we were away, although the house was damaged it was habitable…so we were in the back room with the windows boarded up because all the glass in the house was shattered, the blast had blown out all the windows…It was quite cosy. We had to cook on the fire.’
‘I stood outside the burnt shell of what was my home with my children, all we had was what we stood in… how lucky I was.’
‘We set off… a bus had driven into a bomb crater so deep that only its roof was visible.’
‘We were laid out on the floor of the foyer where there already a number of injured people.’
‘Bombs were falling. They were coming through the roof and one came right beside us hitting my mother on the right foot and burnt her leg. Father pulled my mother out of the hall. I jumped over the bomb. Father lifted the baby out…kicking the bomb downstairs…’
‘From under the old deal-table we crawled. Over the shambles we climbed, out to the street.’
‘It was another night of hellish noise and fire.’
‘The shelters were lost and we could not see.’
These refugees are not Syrians, where about half the population has moved out of the country. Out of the war zone. These refugees are the people of Clydebank. Bombed by the Luftwaffe seventy-five years ago. Some of them got as far as Kirkintilloch. The sensible thing would have been to have rounded them up and kept them waiting in camps. Their children and their children’s children. That would have taught them a valuable lesson. We have not forgotten.