Alan Cumming (2021) Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

I was vaguely aware who Alan Cumming is. For independent film consortiums, Miriam Margolyes seems to be the pensioner of choice to go on adventures and sell the results to BBC, ITV or Channel 4. She’s been sent to America a few times and to Australia. The latest wheeze is Scotland. Yes, Bonnie old Scotland. Who’d have thought of that? Monopoly money for old rope. They flung in Alan Cummings as a guide, and driver of their motorhome. He’s Scottish, I didn’t know that. Stanley Kubrick though he was American, so I’m in good company. I wouldn’t know a good actor from a ham. But my partner who watched bits of the scenery in the Grand Tour said Cumming’s dad was bad to him. That piqued my interest. Now is the time to fling in some quotes about happy families being all the same. We’re off to a flyer. Cumming’s da was a sadistic cunt.

The book starts with discord. He’s in a marriage, I wouldn’t call it unhappy. They’re trying for a child. She’s an old acquaintance from drama school. A few years older. She’s the star turn with the operatic voice. The diva.  He’s the man with a childish face that gets parts playing adolescents. I thought Cumming was gay. So being married to a woman (he later marries a man) was the done thing. And if you’re going to do the done thing, you might as well do it early.

Before he went from the West End of Glasgow (the snobby bit) to Drama school he worked for D.C. Thompson and Company near Dundee, and near his home. He wrote the Astrology bits and pieces. You will find a stranger in Uranus. Not quite, but similar. The Fiction department. A Thompson clone was on ever floor.  When we grew up, Cummings being much the same age as me, they produced The Beano and Dandy, but also The Sunday Post, with Oor Wullie in it, a true Scottish legend. Cummings points out D.C.Thompson had a London address to give their publishing empire legitimacy. No unions, but Unionism and no Catholics were a given. Cummings ticked all the right boxes. Gay men or women, of course, didn’t exist and were too risqué for even the Fictional department.

I knew he’d done the MC in Cabaret. I hadn’t seen him in that, but watched (I suppose like everybody else) the film version with Liza Minelli. I’d read the Christopher Isherwood books, Mr Norris Changes Train and Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical is based. Cumming suggests that Isherwood and W.H. Auden et al weren’t there to fight fascism or do anything highbrow, but simply wanting to escape England and sample cock. No big surprise.

Authenticity:

‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are.’

Cummings was in New York, close enough in his apartment to witness 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers. He acknowledges the fear and mistrust of Muslims and those of non-white, pasty, Scottish skin colour that ensued. The finding of a scapegoat and the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. And how this all fed into the moron moron’s Trumpism (maybe I’m reading too much into a general observation).

Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Faye Dunaway, Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halley Berry, Gore Vidal…they’re all here (apart from Rod Stewart and Elton John). The book was five years late. Too early for a chapter on Miriam Margolyes and her observations on bowel movements and the howls of laughter that ensures. Ho-hum. Read on.    

Graeme Armstrong (2020) The Young Team

Gore Vidal is attributed with the quote, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. Graeme Armstrong is not a friend of mine. But the title of his book, The Young Team needs no detailed sociological explanation. I don’t need to go searching for definitions in The Urban Dictionary.  I’m proud to be working class, less proud to have a chib mark on my face and knocked guys out and been a baw hair away from being killed. I know about drink and drugs. When I started writing short bits about people I knew that had died, the bodies started stacking up. Many of them were suicides. Armstrong is telling me nothing new. But he’s on my turf. When I try and get my manuscripts for novels published and get knocked back that’s a lot of work. And I need to rise again. Go again. He succeeds. And part of me is glad, but part of me isn’t, because publishing is a small world. When I think of it I think of it, think of them, I recall the  D.H. Lawrence poem, The English Are So Nice.

Publishers are so nice

so awfully nice

they’re the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more they’re so very nice about being nice

about your being so nice as well!

If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Publishers are middle-class. Armstrong and me are working class. His is a niche publication. He’s taking up my space, but it’s not his fault we live in a middle-class world. It’s not my fault. The exception to the rule is used to prove the rule. A bit like coloured cabinet ministers in Tory land. Look, we’re not racist, their leader can say. His success is my failure.

But Armstrong is braver than me. His first-person, personal account, is in Scottish dialect. That’s a killer. James Kelman gets away with it in books about working-class life such as Kieron Smith, boy—a coming of age novel that covers some of the same ground—because he won the Brooker Prize with How Late it was How Late. Armstrong’s two sponsors of the book, Kerry Hudson and Janice Galloway use dialect, but only in direct speech. Alan Bisset also wants to let his characters in Boyracers, speak like he speaks, with a Falkirk twang, but descriptions are in the Queen’s English. Carl MacDougall’s characters when they swear say ‘fuckin.’ No apostrophe. Bernard MacLaverty (an honorary Scot) characters say ‘fucken’ (or it might be the other way about – I can’t remember). William McIlvanney’s characters swear, but perhaps less than you’d think.  Maggie O’Farrell’s characters don’t swear much, but then again, they tend to be more middle-class and go to university. Geniuses such as Lewis Grassic Gibbons (James Leslie Mitchell) create their own hybrid written-spoken language of North East dialect for a young Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to tell her story. Language can be a bit of a fuck-up and the more extreme can sound like pastiche of proper Young Team patter.

The beginning of the book, when the narrator is thirteen or fourteen-years old sets the tone. The book follows him and his muckers progress for about eight years. The Young Team, the Airdrie team, are living the life. The book is set out like a report. Part 1, Crucible. I’m not sure I like that. Or think it’s necessary. Let’s just tell the fuckin story, like Bernard Hare does in, for example, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew  (but then again his chapters in his novel begin with crappy poetry). Here’s the beginning of the book. Judge for yerself.

Urban Legends 2004

The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin. We’ aw stood intae a wee corner oot the wet n away fae the eager eyes ae Strathclyde’s finest. At weekends our area is jumpin wae polis, aw lookin tae bust yi. They never wanted tae git their boots muddy, walkin doon the Mansion but, so yi wur usually safe here. There’s two community police that sometimes ventured doon n busted cunts rollin joints, the fat wan called Muldoon n the skinny wan we aw called the Roadrunner, cos he’s rapid. The elder wans had told us aboot the polis raidin it once before we knew of the place’s existence.

Writing the gallus is easy. Writing the vulnerable is what makes characters walk and talk and become human. Azzy might be a hard wee cunt, but he’s just a wee boy and as he grows up he discovers clan loyalty isn’t enough. It offers no way out and he has panic attacks and becomes depressed. He’s not the only causality. Every day is ground-hog day and it’s wearing on the body and mind. With no way out, some of the not-so-young team become smack addicts in their teens, some kill themselves, some are killed. There are statistics in the chapter headings. But Azzy carries on his battle and it becomes with himself.

Higher education is the escape route. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced. And for such a poverty-stricken area, The Young Team, wae Azzy it’s leader, seem to be smoking dope and drinking all the time. Aye, I get that. But where’s the cash coming from? That I don’t get. It’s never made clear, in the way the music the kids listen to is, the tracksuits and sannies they wear and the cars they drive when they become older are.

Aurally, aye, I say to the way it is written. But those that need to read a book like this would be put off by the language. The dialect makes reading hard work. The middle-classes are so nice. So very, very nice. They might be surprised by what Armstrong writes about. I’m not. I know the score.  Azzy is not very nice, but his life is worth reading. Read on.