Colin Burnett (2021) A Working Class State of Mind.

I bought a copy of A Working Class State of Mind because I like Colin Burnett’s writing. I’m an editor on ABCtales and some of his fiction appeared online. Most of the other editors are English. Whisper it, we’ve even got an American. But he recognised the moron’s moron Trump as the narcissistic psychopathic puckered lips organism that he proved to be. I got nudged towards Colin Burnett’s work because as the resident Scot it was my domain. And Colin Burnett writes in the Scottish dialect of Leith as did Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting.

It’s a risky venture, because it limits the number of potential readers in a market saturated with fiction, and everybody shouting and nobody listening. But hey, even Rabbie Burns needed the helping hand of the Masons to become an international icon. The Scottish language promotes intimacy, and in getting closer to the language you get to closer to yourself and your class, or so James Kelman would have us believe. What resonates within us is who we are. And if you’re one of those that declare I’ve no interest in politics then you’ve not been paying attention. Politics is about power. And we the working class lost the propaganda war by the early seventies. The narrator in the first story, ‘A Working Class State of Mind’ puts it this way.

The greatest trick those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae believe we aw huv equal opportunities. Fae the moment we first open our eyes and until the time finally comes tae close thum. Oor lives huv been mapped oot fur us by they’m fae the cradle tae the grave. In this country ‘cash is class’. When yur born intae a family wae a bit ae money and the right postcode, you’re oan the home straight while the rest ae us are jist warmin up fur the race.

A trio of characters run like Edinburgh rock through the stories. In the last story of the collection their backstory becomes the story. Dougie is about to go to Secondary School, the infamous Ainslie Park, but he’s got company, his wee mate Craigie is going to the same school. Dougie’s mum is trying to convince him it won’t be that bad.

‘That wis until ma faither decided tae inject himself intae the conversation.

“Son” he said, while lowerin his newspaper.

“Jist remember, eh? snitches git stiches.”’

The reader is already familiar with Aldo. Adlo is the ballast that makes most stories work; he appears as a wee skinny Asian kid with a kick-ass attitude. He’s a familiar figure in any working-class community. The hardman that takes nae shite. But he’s also funny, but not deliberately so. And he has a heart. In ‘Lost and Found’, for example, he rescues a stray puppy tossed like a hot dog from a car. We learn that Aldo had to split up from his one true love because he found out she was a Tory. I know the feeling well, having a big sister I slotted into that category, but there’s no divorcing her. The irony is there’s nobody more capitalist in his approach to the business of drug dealing than Aldo.  

In ‘House of Horrors’, for example, gambling is just a casual breeze.  ‘He didnae need the money as he made maire fae sellin snow than a doactur did fae savin lives. Still there wis aloat ridin oan this fuckin horse. Ma two grand, and Aldo’s yin.’

From ‘Wuhan to Leith’ and ‘Lost and Found’, Aldo’s innate capacity for violence is harnessed to indirectly help the community. But usually not in term of labour exploitation.

‘Business hus plummeted cos ae this virus. Ah’ve loast a lotae fuckin money, that’s fur sure. None ae ma runners will pick up or droap oaff fur me in case they catch it. Deep doon ah jist wish ah wis still dain ma community service cos nuttin wid deter they retards fae dain business. Thanks largely tae the fact that none ae thum are playin wae a full deck. Been buzzin oot ae ma nut maist ae the day. Oan coke and heavy bevyin.’

The weakest story in the collection is ‘Sebastian the Great’, possibly because there’s no Aldo. Here the narrator is Callum. He’s sipping watered down lager as he attends a literary even in Edinburgh. I guess we’ve all been there. I labelled them Americans. When asked what they have written they rhyme of a staggering amount of bullshit. And they’re hooked into the Scottish literary establishment. One guy I met had, like our friend Sebastian the Great, a grant from the Scottish Book Trust to write a book and was late by two years—but unconcerned. I read his book and it was shite, but hey, that’s my opinion. Everybody loved him, as does the middle-class in this story. The problem with the story isn’t in the facts. We know the publishing industry is dominated by the middle classes and mainly women. The problem with the story is it become a bit of a rant. Better if Aldo bust it up.

I’m becoming predictable too.  I hate the Tory scum. And what we’ve become. That’s my rant. But Colin Burnett puts it more eloquently. Read on.   

Notes:

Noticed this about [adrenalin] andreline pumpin through yur veins, p14

Jeremey Kyle who wis convinced his cat wis the antiChrist. It wis summit tae dae wae the cat sittin oan his phone and diallin 666  (p16).

Ah guess General Custard must huv said the

21

same hing at Little Bighorn. And we aw ken what

turned up there, another load ae irate Indians [overwriting]

Ah feel like Leith’s answer tae Dr Dolittle 21

 And when the time comes tae draw oor final

breath, we’ve accumulated enough debt that our

creditors will be hoadin a seance. 24

The greatest trick those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae believe we aw huv equal opportunities [all in it together] 24

Story about a spider. Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn.

The greatest trick

those in power ever pulled wis gittin the workers tae

believe we aw huv equal opportunities. Fae the

moment we first open our eyes and until the time

finally comes tae close thum. Oor lives huv been

mapped oot fur us by they’m fae the cradle tae the

grave. In this country ‘cash is class’. When yur born

intae a family wae a bit ae money and the right

postcode, you’re oan the home straight while the rest

ae us are jist warmin up fur the race. 24

House of Horrors.

ah’m oan yin ae

they zero­hour contracts. Ken, the hings where yae

dinnae ken if yur gonnae earn a quid or a livin wage

fae month tae month. And that’s why the bookies 28

As ah enter the shoap flair the young

cashier Megan wis chattin tae Auld Tam at the coonter.

Yince she cloacked ma presence in the shoap ah’m

suddenly bein cawed oor by her.

“Dougie” she says. “Come oor here fur a

second. Yae kin settle this argument fur us.” 29

A puny boay cawed Paul

who ah kent fae the boozer hud jumped oantae a till.

He wis a small guy wae prickly black hair and a

tangerine complexion, due tae his love ae the sunbeds.

Aldo knoacked this boays front teeth oot wae yin

punch.”

Ah couldnae understand why Stevie hudnae

mentioned Aldo wis involved in the mayhem. Probably

thoat it went withoot sayin. Ah love the guy, ken? but

Aldo scares the shite oot ae me.

“Fur fuck sake” ah says. “Anywey, why are yae

whisperin? Aldo’s no even here” ah add as ah take a

casual peek aroond the room, jist tae be shaire.

ah’ve no seen Aldo in

here fur nearly a week.

His

mother and faither own and run a popular Indianoan

Portobello High Street. Aw his faimily are hard workin,

law abidin citizens, and they didnae ever toil fur

money. So there really wisnae any excuses fur Aldo

and the borderline insane wae the wey he’s turned oot. ‘A Little Taste of India’

He

might be a lunatic but he’s oor lunatic, 36

Now ah kin feel ma hert skippin a beat

and ma blood pressure seems tae huv went up a notch

or two efter aw that excitement fae the race. The hing is

though yae kin ask any seasoned gambler and they’ll

tell yae what ah’m aboot tae say: “A gid start doesnae

add inches tae yur dick.” 37

“How yae doin ya willy

washer?”

Fae that remark ah didnae need tae be

Columbo tae ken who it is: Aldo. He alweys makes

the same stupid joke anytime ah see him

Aldo

must be aboot 6ft 2 wae a muscular build oan accoont

ae bein a weightliftin and droid enthusiast. He hus

these tribal tattoos covered acroass his bald heid, which

doesnae make him look any less ae a looney tune.

Ah’m a haime help.”

This is the first time in

months ah’ve been anywhere near a win.

He didnae need the money as he made maire fae

sellin snow than a doactur did fae savin lives. Still there

wis aloat ridin oan this fuckin horse. Ma two grand,

and Aldo’s yin.

he

probably only gits tae see boays like this oan the telly.

Someboady who wis born wae a silver

cock in his mooth. Tae ma shock and the posh cunts

nerves, Aldo seems tae take in what ah jist said tae

him and he gestures wae his hands that he is ready tae

forgive the boay fur winnin by remarkin: “Yur right,

Dougie.”

Sebastian the Great. 47

A

night ae networkin as a writer at yin ae these fancy

theatres in the centre ae Edinburgh. Aye ah goat

invited through makin the shoart list fur a playwritin

competition.

Maist ae the folk in here emit that

unmistakeable smell ae private education.

Cos ah’m someboady who

doesnae believe the middle classes own a patent fur a

wee hing cawed ‘imagination’. In other words ah’m the

great, big, dirty pink elephant in the room.

“Ah’m, Callum” ah tell him. Before takin

another sip ae ma watered doon pint.

“So, Callum,” he says “how long have you been

writing?”

“The past five year” ah say “what aboot yursel,

likes?”

“Oh, fifteen years or, so.” He says. “Writing’s

been good to me, you know?”

“Naw ah dinnae fuckin ken.”

“Ah’ve been peyed only the yince” ah tell

him. “And that particular commission wis jist

enough tae keep me in beans and toast fur a week.”

This sends him intae an unrestrained fit

“That’s Melvin Andrews, the playwright. The

Scottish theatre fund has just handed him twelve

thousand pounds to write a play about why his last one

was so bad.”

“But if his last yin wis sae bad” ah say “Then

why are they commissionin him again?”

“He’s one of the chaps,” he tells me

reassuringly. “You don’t question the credentials of one

of the chaps. Better to just write a cheque.”

lits be real. We kent as many astronauts as we

did writers when we wur growin up.

comin fae behind me: “I haven’t missed Sebastian

Wolfston’s talk, have I?”

Oot comes a middle aged elegant looking boay

wae readin glesses pushed tae the edge ae his nose.

Grinnin fae ear tae ear, so he is. He’s goat long and

shiny luxourious black hair. Which is only bested wae

his Colgate smile and a yellow scarf draped roond his

neck like some Eton educated disciple.

“I know a lot of you are just starting out on your

writing career,” he says. “But just remember one

important thing. Your first commission is likely to be

no more than five thousand pounds. But don’t worry.

Eventually you still start to make real money …”

Though, of course. Ah dinnae scream anyhing.

Ah jist sit there smilin and applaud back at him.

Along wae the rest ae these performin seals.

Or, mibbie,

even a new symptom ae the virus itself. Fuck

knows, likes. But what ah do ken fur sure is

ah’m self isolatin until ma beautiful English

mother tongue starts workin again.

“It wis inspired by ma hatred fur Boris Johnson

and of course ma own personal loathin fur the Tories.”

Sebastian stares wary intae ma eyes. Before he

bursts intae a high pitch fit ae hysterical laughter.

seat ah cannae

help but hink that ah’ve played aw ae these posh cunts

at their haime groond and actually won. 58

The Sleeping Giant 59

Ah said “Yae cannae

jist throw awey sivin year like a yaised rubber,

Cool as you like “Silly me, Douglas” she said “I

forgot you’re a student of Shakespeare.”

“Come on!” she hud said “Let’s make an

appointment at RBS.”

Choosin tae furget, inexplicably, mind you. The

yin fact aboot me that her and the entire world kent.

That ah um a degenerate gambler.

the mere suggestion ae shared finance is

insanity. And wis pretty much the same hing as handin

me a loaded gun.

how she earns twice as

much as me when she’s oot there teachin snotty nosed

brats?

ah meant tae ken that the selfish bastard

ah’d backed that day wida went and snapped his neck

efter failin tae sail oor the final fence.

ma plan wis tae huv the money back

in the accoont before she wid even notice.

last week

ah wis suspended fae ma joab pendin an investigation

“He was your responsibility, you were his

carer” she says. As if ah didnae hear enough ae that fae

Brian’s daughter and the rest ae his enraged family.

This wis a boay who survived the might ae the Third

Reich and a Japanese POW camp but in the end it wis a

simple peanut who cawed his number.

Aldo come tae inject

63

his ain lethal dose ae misery intae ma awready shitty

existence. Sure as shite tae. As ah answer the door ah’m

faced wae the steroid induced psycho that he is.

“Ah bumped intae Justine yisterday at that posh

coffee shoap in the centre ae toon ‘Sicilia’. She wis wae

some flash cunt cawed, Mario.”

“She wis wae Mario?” ah snap “that fuckin

chippy owner?”

“Ah ken this cunt is probably geein yur burd

her medicine the noo. 64

“Either that cunt Mario hus grown a third airm

fae somewhere or he’s goat a big cock” Aldo explains

tae me. 65

Ah only came tae invite yae fur a pint wae me

and Craig themorra doon at The Carousel. Craig’s goat

a new tart he wants us tae meet, true love apparently.

Aw and its quiz night tae. And as it happens wur

shoart ae a boay n aw.”

She went tae yin ae they places where they check yur

parents bank balance before agreein tae lit yae step

inside. St Johns Academy wis cawed. Nae doot yuv

heard ae it but in case yae huvnae then “We Are All

Posh Cunts” is actually the school motto.

Ah stroll through The Kirkgate. A wee shoartcut

taewards The Carousel. The place appears tae be

unusually quiet.

Justine wis alweys whingin in ma ear aboot how

ah shouldnae be best mates wae Aldo. Anytime his

name came up in conversation aw ah wid git fae her

wis “I don’t know how you can be friends with him.

He’s a stain on society.” Ah mean, dinnae git me

wrong, she hinks Craig is a fanny tae but at least she’s

marked him doon as a loveable yin. 69

“Savin the Kids” ah laughed. “Wur talkin aboot

Aldo here, no fuckin Bono. He jist hus a strict zero

tolerance policy oan cunts stealin his customers.”

Which jist so happened tae state the sentiments

ae maist ae the folk here: ‘Hibee Til I Die’.

“Fur fuck sake” ah crack. “Is there anycunt in

Edinburgh who doesnae ken?!” [no exclamation mark after a question mark, you  can have your own language, but not punctuation.

“Aldo, take it easy man” ah say. “The fuckin

hing is finished noo, anywey.”

“Naw, mate. We’ve been cairyin that cunt since

primary. He’s alweys been a doughball. Dozy prick

nearly drooned dookin fur apples yin year. He’s been a

fuckin liability fae day yin.”

“Aw” says Aldo. Before he shouts acroass the

room tae the lassie: “Excuse me love?! kin yae move

oot ae the wey, eh? Ah’m tryin tae cloack a tidy burd

and yur blockin the view!”

Craig seems tae be in a state ae utter disbelief.

“That is her ya prick. Caroline?! Wur oor here,

hen!”

Aldo bursts intae a fit ae laughter.

“That’s her? Fuck me, Craigy son” he scoffs.

“Aw that snow really hus fucked up yur eyesight,

But Aldo hus decided he’s hayin none ae it. He’s

clearly grown tired ae ma depressed mood. And every

five or ten minutes he’s offerin me an E. He takes a

small yelly tablet fae his jean poacket. Huddin it up

intae the light. As if he wur apprasin a diamond.

“See this wee hing, eh? it’ll take awey aw yur

problems, Dougie.”

The pair ae us aw teary eyed and

moved. Well, try and live through ten year ae the

Tories ya middle class ersehole. That’ll gee yae suttin

tae really greet aboot.

These workin­class hero thoats disappear when

the voice comes in though. A female, familiar voice,

which isnae Justine.

“What the fuck are yur dain here?!” ah ask her,

in a terrified, panicked state.

Sheep without a Shepherd 85

Yae see ah come fae a corner ae

Edinburgh cawed Leith. A place that wisnae known fur

it’s vibrant art scene or welcomin personality. Insteed,

it’s moment in the spotlight came fae the exploits ae it’s

skagboays and high levels ae social deprivation. Ma

name’s Steven Scott, by the wey. Ah’m thirty year auld

and ah’ve hud maire dreams than opportunities.

Maire

kicks in the baws fae life than ah care tae remember,

tae.

Ma minutes and hours oan this planet wur

programmed tae be spent in some soul destroyin

callcentre fur a pittance oor minimum wage.

When ma faither wis a young man. Back when

he wis aboot ages wae me now. He worked doon at the

world famous Henry Robb shipyaird.

The shipyaird closed in ’84, likes. Efter ma dad

and his mates marched fae the gates. Aw the wey

acroass tae the auld state cinema in Great Junction

Street. A revolt which ultimately failed as a final stand

against the establishment. 87

huddin up a sign which read “Dinnae bring back the

thirties.”

Whether yae went

tae graft oan the shipyairds or doon the pits it gave yae

a life long sense ae camaraderie. Thatcher took that

birth right awey fae future generations.

tae. But only if yae wur willin tae die fur Queen

and capitalism “Here’s a rifle, son. Go oot and shoot

cunts”

watch ma dad slip awey wae lung cancer.

And then ah hud tae sit and watch ma mum go capma mum passed awey wae cardiac

arrest. 91

Ma weapon ae

choice wisnae a rifle or a chisel, it wis a library caird.

It suddenly dawned oan me that education is indeed

power. And there’s nuttin maire dangerous in this

country than a workin man wae a library caird who

isnae afraid tae use it.

“Mr Scott” it says. “We are delighted to inform

you, that you have an unconditional offer to study BSc

(Hons) Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University

in Musselburgh.”

The world really is ma

oyster. 93

Glory Hunter 95

Aldo wis never a supporter ae Leith Star and he wis

never yin fur keepin his thoats oan the matter tae

himsel. Then there wis me and Craig who huv follaed

thum religiously since we wur auld enough tae wipe

oor ain erses.

Especially,

since the majority ae thum are local lads and they

wid spend their weekends boozin doon at The

Carousel, jist like everyboady else. But when yur

talent’s bein cawed intae question by a six­fit two,

coked up, steroid induced mountain. 96

Fur oor big trip

oor tae face the dangerous Bonnyrigg Rose in the

Scottish Cup. This game is huge fur us, likes. As the

winner gits Clyde at haime in the nixt roond. And no

only that, but the match will be televised live oan

BBC Alba.

“Loast did they” he asked. Aw gloatin and

confident that this wis jist another glorious failure fur

the club. “Useless Motherfuckers.”

“Naw” ah telt him. “We fuckin won!!”

wearin a Leith

Star strip. And he kept mutterin the same words, oor,

and oor again “Wur in this taegether, lads”.

Honestly, it wis fuckin ootrageous. 100

Three supporter’s buses left fae

the Carousel at aroond quarter tae two. Bonnyrigg is a

wee workin class toon oan the ootskirts ae Edinburgh.

Listen,

the opium ae these posh cunts is the blood, sweat and

tears ae the workin class. And the opium ae the workin

class is anyhin that blanks oot the realisation ae kennin

wur a mere slave tae the capitalist machine.” 102

“Excuse me, pal?!” he shouts oor tae the barman,

who is busy servin customers.

“Ma Granny coulda hit that baw harder ya fat

usless cunt, git yur erse in gear!!”

“Well, it’s cos he’s goat four fuckin fingers, ya

thick cunt!!” 107

This cunt is actually makin sense

fur yince. It’s no like playin by the rules hus goat me

anywhere before. This win wid set the the club up fur a

gid few years tae come. And lit’s be honest. Huvin

morals isnae what it’s aw cracked up tae be. 108

“Fur fuck sake, Aldo.

Yae jist cawed him the Jimmy Saville ae Scottish fitbaw.

Yae even tried tae pin an unsolved murder oan him fae

five year ago. He’s no taken the bait, ah hink its oor

noo.” 109

Aldo’s masterplan tae fuck wae Bonnyrigg’s

keeper hus proved tae be nuttin shoart ae a

masterstroke. 111

“Ah’m standin here wae a supporter who hus

follaed his team through the gid times and the bad.

What’s yur name, sir?”

“Aldo” he answers aw gleefully.

“Well, Aldo. Why don’t you tell me how proud

you are ae these players? This is a great achievement

fur yur club.”

“Aye, that’s right, Jim” Aldo tells him. There’s nuttin like the feelin ae community

spirit. And kin ah tell ma missus suttin, who’s back at

haime watchin?”

“Sure.”

“We did it, baby! And you owe me ma hole

when ah git back!”

Ordinary Criminals 115

“Tommy, ah’ve goat suttin fur yae the dae” it

says.

Ah thoat tae masel as ah turned roond: “Please,

God, dinnae lit it be this cunt” ― but sure as shit ah

wis faced wae this gleeful Postman Pat.

“Aw, that’s great, Gary” ah sais.

“Ah hope it’s gid news, Tommy” he tells me. 117

Accordin tae this glorified fish wrapper ma

Joabseekers Allowance hus been stoaped because ah

only managed tae apply fur fourteen joabs this week

instead ae the thirty these cunts wanted. Thirty joabs a

week? dinnae make me fuckin laugh, that’s maire the

Tories huv created since they miraculously goat intae

power.

Ah goat tae

ma appointment at the Joabcentre oan Commercial

Street fur half ten in the mornin. Ma advisor wisnae

meant tae be seein me til ten tae eleven

Yince yur in this place that invisible Britain yae

only hear whispers aboot or see oan a thirty second

BBC news bulletin becomes clear as water. Aye, we’re

aw ordinary criminals in this place that’s the yin hing

that bounds us aw taegether. 123

“Sally, have you got the

vouchers for the Edinburgh North East foodbank

there?”.

Ah must huv been standin aboot here fur at

least half an hour until ma name is finally cawed, “Mr

Cooper” a voice says.

Ah’m no messin likes, this wanker

looks like he’s yin cauld awey fae blowin his brains oot

. This [full stop on top line.]

Class Treason 129

Aldo and Craigy, are baith sat oan the vomit­worthy,

cream leather couch. Craigy looks sober, likes. But its

clear yae cannae say the same hing aboot, Aldo.

He then looks up at us aw teary eyed “Lads,

they’re the best runners ah’ve ever hud.”

Ah pause. Understandin what he meant but

hopin tae fuck ah wis in fact mistaken.

“Please tell me you’ve no goat thum droappin

oaff gear fur yae, Aldo?”

He smirks, pleased as you like. “Of course. Ah

git cheap labour and they git tae finally serve a purpose

in society. Everboady’s a winner.”

Yae could cut the atmosphere in the room wae a

knife. Ma hert’s still beatin like a Cherokee drum due

tae the rush ae adrenaline. Craig tries tae engage me in

conversation “Where the fuck hus Aldo goat tae?”

“That”s fuckin right” he barks. “Yur a middle

class wannabe. The dregs ae society.”

“Look in the fuckin mirror” he explains. “Since

yae goat wae her you’ve become a middle­class

wanker. Fur fuck sake, yae dress like a banker noo”

“She’s goat gid fashion sense, that’s aw. Only

makes sense tae git her advice.”

“Sure” he says, wae a grin. “Then there’s this

place?”

“What’s wrong wae it, likes?”

“It looks like a fuckin showroom.

Aldo continues oan wae his tirade. “A couple’s

night?” he tuts. “If ever there wis three words that

didnae belong taegether in the same sentence. Ah bet

yae went tae some posh theatre or suttin. Tae watch

some tart greetin fur an hour cos she’s loast her shoe”.

ootburst ah never really gave any ae this

any thoat. But as much as it pains me tae admit it, eh?

he’s actually goat a point.

Aldo wis speakin

sense and that ah really huv become a middle­class

prodigy withoot even realisin it.

From Wuhan to Leith 139.

Business hus plummeted cos ae this virus.

Ah’ve loast a lotae fuckin money, that’s fur sure. None

ae ma runners will pick up or droap oaff fur me in case

they catch it. Deep doon ah jist wish ah wis still dain

ma community service cos nuttin wid deter they

retards fae dain business. Thanks largely tae the fact

that none ae thum are playin wae a full deck.

Been buzzin oot ae ma nut maist ae the day.

Oan coke and heavy bevyin. Yae could argue it’s a

normal day fur me but ah hink it’s a mindset hing wae

the boredom n that, ken? Started oan the gear earlier

and ah’ve jist been chillin oot. Listenin tae a few tunes,

ever since. It’s no the same as bein doon The Carousel

Lost And Found.

ah’m surprised wae what ah

find inside. Insteed ae a white brick ae gold ah’m

huddin this tiny puppy in ma airms. And it’s starin at

me wae its huge baby seal eyes. Jesus, he looks at me.

Before he lits oot a tired yawn and he seems content.

Which astonishes me, tae be honest ­ seeins how he’s

jist been chucked oot a motor.

He’s lovin the attention tae. A proper

showman so he is. Lyin sprawled oot oan his back as he

takes in her beautiful Hollywood smile.

“He’s so cute” she squeals.

“Aye, he’s awrite” ah tell her.

“What’s his name?”

ah mean his name,

is…Bruce.”

Thank fuck ah’d watched Die Hard last night

Will yae look at this, eh? this wee hings a fanny

magnet. Ah mean, she’s practically goat her mooth

wrapped aroond ma cock as we speak.

He droaps doon oan the couch a depressed and

158

defeated dug. He stares up at me and gees me a soft

whimper. Ah try tae make him understand ah’m dain

this fur him:

“Listen, you’ll love it there and in nae time

you’ll be wae yur new family.

The drive up tae the ‘Paws Dog Sanctuary’ oan

the ootskirts ae the toon hus been hard fur aw

concerned.

“Aye, yae kin, mate” ah tell him. “Ah’ve broat

ma dug Bruce here tae be re­haimed.”

He smiles at me “You must be Mr Ali?

“Oh, god no” he tells me. “He’ll be a new

member of doggy heaven.”

“Lower yur fuckin voice, you!” ah scream. “He’s

goat a gid grasp ae English!”

“Bruce, dae yae ken that guy, eh? Talk tae me,

son?” He replies in barks which grow increasingly

louder. It’s a clear “Oh, ah ken that bastard, awright”

if ever there wis yin.

“Did you throw this dug fae oot that motor a

couple ae weeks back, daft cunt?”

He smirks knowingly, as if in appreciation ae a

cherished memory. “Oh, that?” he says. “That mut’s jist

lucky ma petrol wis oan the rid. Or he wid huv been

gone fur a swim doon the docks.”

“Bruce, son” ah say “cover yur eyes, pal. This is

gonnae be fuckin messy.”

And believe me, eh? It wis.

Funny Money

Fur Dalhousie Castle is

almost certainly yin ae the plushest venues in the hale

ae Scotland’s central belt.

So, yae kin imagine ma surprise when ma

beautifully decorated invite droapped through the

letterboax. Especially when yae consider this particular

delivery wis sent fae someboady who lives oan sixty

quid a week dole money.

Ah instantly felt obliged tae share the excitin

news wae wee Brucie. Who wis busy enjoyin his

mornin munch.

“Brucie, son” ah said “Yur uncle Craigy is huvin

an enagement pairty”

The little man’s steyin wae Mrs Henderson fae

acroass the wey. Ah couldnae ask Christina tae look

efter him since we hud finished oan such unpleasant

terms. She hates ma guts. But ah’ll no bore yae wae the

details.

distinctive lack ae talent

walkin up and doon the room. In fact, tae be honest

wae yae. Ah’ve no seen this many dugs assembled in

yin place since ah watched a hunner and yin

dalmatians in the 90’s. A reality which is as depressin

as it is demoralisin. Cos ah came along here wae much

enthusiasm and high hopes ae pullin. And that’s

exactly why ah pit oan ma best Ben Sherman shirt.

cloack the unlucky

bride standin there, as well. She’s the lassie wae the

animal print ootfit. Lookin every bit as if she’s a blond

beehive awey fae winnin a Lily Savage lookalike comp.

Ah’m startin tae question whether ah should git

up oaff ma erse and go in search ae the elusive, Dougie.

An unwanted physical approach

which startles me tae ma core.

“Awrite, Aldo” whispers a monstrous, ugly

voice, direct in ma ear.

And as ah turn tae reveal the soonds identity ah

see that it’s a vile lookin boay who’s wearin an equally

mignin burgundy cap. He’s also sportin a jaundice

coloured zippy which jist aboot pits him oan a par wae

Dougie fur the maist overstated fashion sense at this

bash.

“Dae ah fuckin ken you?” ah ask

“Nah” he says. “But…”

Ah stoap him midsentence “Well, ah dinnae

hink that needs tae change” ah say. Before ah wave him

awey like the bad smell he is.

Dougie responds wae a playful smile.

“So” he says, leanin forward. “Ah wis meanin

tae ask. What happened between you and Christina?

Ah thoat yae might go the distance?”

“That’s personal stuff, mate” ah tell him

“Widnae be right discussin it wae yae at a piss up. It

wis true love, me and her.”

Ma emotions git the better ae me and the pain ae

losin ma yin true love sets oaff the waterworks. Ah

bang ma fist oan the table “Ah cannae even say it”

“What did she dae, mate?” squeals Dougie.

“She wis a fuckin Tory” ah tell him, whist

greetin hard intae the tablecloth.

“A Tory?” he says “Ah dinnae fuckin believe

you sometimes, Aldo”

“Ah kept seein that Theressa May cunts puss,

when we shagged. Sometimes ah couldnae even git it

up”

“Jesus” he says “That’s fucked up, Aldo”

“Well, it’s the fuckin truth” ah tell him.

Fur a brief moment we sit back in oor comfy

seats. Enjoyin the company as what we are. Two auld

generational mates. Nae naggin burds tae contaminate

the unspoken bond we share, either. Although he does

enjoy the company ae his missus, eh?

“Dougie, Aldo, what are you two dain here?”

it’s Sally, eh? a plump lassie wae a surprisin fizzy

personality. Her dress code resembles suttin yae wid

find doon Leith docks.

“That useless motherfucker” she announces tae

us. “He left us wae no a pot tae piss in. Ah hud the

choice ae pittin Peter in care or lookin efter him. Easiest

fuckin decision in ma life”

“So, what happened?” ah ask fakin fur the sake

ae fake interest. “Wur the social full?”

Dougie gazes acroass tae me “She means keepin

him wis the easy choice.”

“Really?” ah says. Starin at her aw shocked, n

that.

“Of course, that’s what ah meant. Cheeky

bastard” she cracks.

“That’s, Leanne” She says “Marco’s sister. She’s

goat nae self­respect that lassie. Shags anyhing.”

“Eh, ah’m here tae see ma mate, Craig

Robertson” ah tell her “He wis broat in earlier.”

Even his fuckin eyes are jist lifeless slits. He’s clearly in

a bad wey.

“What the fuck happened!?” ah roar. 179

Dougie instantly springs up fae his seat. Lookin

absolutely shattered and pathetic “It wis the great

white”

Ah pause fur a second “A great white did this?”

pointin tae Craigy’s unrecognisable puss. “Wis he at

Portabelly beach, or suttin?”.

Dougie explodes “Are you stoned, or what?!” he

screams “No an actual fuckin shark” he says, almost at

a murmur “It wis Mikey Hood”

“The loan shark?” ah ask.

“Fur fuck sake, Aldo. Aye” his teeth grindin

taegether as his temper escalates.

“How dae yae ken that?” ah say.

“Caroline filled me in oan how Craig came intae aw

that money fur the pairty”

“Right, and?” ah growl.

“He’s been passin funny money aboot. And the

daft cunt wis pumpin five grand worth ae notes

through Mikey’s clubs.

“Ah’m gonnae be seein that

bastard, Mikey. Real soon”

“Yae cannae” Dougie says, aw frantically.

“How the fuck no?” ah ask him.

“He said if you goat involved, or the polis. Then

this wid seem like a friendly warnin.”

“Listen, ah’ll square him up wae what Craigy’s

due. If that pits this shit tae bed. And Craigy will pull

through, eh? stronger than ever”

Ah kin feel the relief in his voice “You’re a gid

mate, Aldo” he tells me.

Ah noad in agreement. “Craigy kin dae some

chores fur me. Yince he’s back up oan his feet. What’s

the docaturs sayin?”

Ah’m riddled wae guilt. Hence ma offer tae pey the

five bags tae clear the debt. Still, better tae keep his SOS

call quiet fae Dougie.

And

ah’ve goat it oan gid authority that he’s in a boozer oot

Granton wey cawed ‘The Highlander’. No jist himself

though. He’s goat his muscle wae him tae. There

should be nae maire violence though. Oan accoont ae

no wantin tae make hings worse fur Craig ah’m gonnae

pey the cunt oaff and jist leave it at that. By the time ah

make ma wey back in the room. Suttin’s evidently

ratteld Dougie’s cage yince maire.

The

Highlander is a notorious boozer in Edinburgh and it’s

a name that rings oot far and wide. It doesnae take us

long tae arrive there. Largely oan accoont ae the traffic

no bein that bad. Ah git the driver tae park aroond the

corner fae the pub and as soon as ah jump oot the rains

starts hammerin doon. This pub kindae takes me back

tae Saughton, likes. Wae it’s run doon appearance and

steel bars acroass it’s windaes.

Ah slam it doon oan the bar “What’s this?”

Mikey asks puffed up.

“That’s five grand” ah tell him “That’s Craigy

square wae yae, right?”

“Okay” he says, quietly.

“So, we’re gid?” ah ask him.

Tae which he smiles and taps oan the envelope

“The debt’s been peyed, aye. We’re cool”

A chorus ae laughter erupts fae him and his

entourage. And they’re too much in love wae

thumselves tae even notice what ah dae nixt. Ah walk

up tae the front door and begin boltin the place up.

As ah walk up back taewards they’m Mikey’s

still grinnin awey tae himsel. And he jist cannae fuckin

wait tae bait me some maire “Look aroond yae” he

says. Gesturin tae his five goons. “You might be a crazy

fuck, Aldo. But you’re oot gunned here, ah’m afraid”

“Lads!” ah shout. Ma eyes dinnae flicker fae

their direction. The hale place seems tae stand up in

unison. Instantly sendin the bar staff cowerin fur cover.

“Dinnae mind they’m” ah tell him, noaddin

behind me. “They’re only here tae make sure you cunts

suffer”

Takeover 185

That wis

until ah came acroass this auld photo ae me and

Craigy. A snap taken before we embarked oan oor first

day there. We looked like a pair ae scared fuckin

rabbits. Ah came acroass the hing while ah wis helpin

the missus tae clear oot the attic.

That wis until ma faither decided tae inject

himself intae the conversation.

“Son” he said, while lowerin his newspaper.

“Jist remember, eh? snitches git stiches.”

“Joe!” ma mum snapped. “Leave the laddie

alain.”

“Ah’m jist sayin” he tells her “Naeboady likes a

grass.”

“Well” ma mum quips. “That school is different

fae when you wur there.”

Then a welcomed distraction appeared

ootae naewhere. In the form ae a knock at the front

door. It wis ma saviour, Craigy.

infamous Ainslie Park. A

proper school ae hard knocks. The buildin auld and run

doon. A neglected concrete Victorian memory.

Miss Robertson wandered in. And she wis

accompanied by a young skinny Asian boay who

looked shy and extremely timid.

She then gestured tae the mysterious

south Asian boay.

“I have someone I would like you all to meet.

This is Aldo and his family recently moved to the area.

He’ll be joining the class today and I expect that you

will all make him feel welcome.”

“Listen up” he announced. “Every Friday ah

want a quid fae every yin ae you’s. And dinnae go

runnin tae yur mummy and daddies and start tellin

tales. Or tae that bitch in heat who jist left the room. Cos

ah will find yaise. And believe me. It willnae be poetic.”

Craig chips in “The hardest boay

at the school. Far as ah ken, mate. Is a laddie called

Mark Thompson. Him and his mates deal green, n aw.

But he’s a right horrible bastard.”

“Soonds like a kindred spirit. Ah’ll need tae

meet him tae set up some new hoose rules.”

“Dougie, son” he said. “C’moan oot, mate.

There’s money tae be made.”

“Aldo” ah said quietly. “How did yae git ma

address? Ah ken fur a fact ah never telt yae it.”

“School records never lie, mate” he said, wae a

grin.

“He’s ma new mate fae school, mum” ah telt her

“His name’s, Aldo.”

She wis walkin oan water wae his compliments.

He hit aw the markers, likes. Everyhing fae her hair

style. Tae how she could pass as ma sister. He even hud

ma dad eating ootae the palm ae his hand. Laughin at

ma faither’s terrible patter and he even insisted oan

dain the dishes. Jist his wey ae shamin me in front ae

ma folks. And the nixt words oot ae ma dads mooth left

me paralysed

“Ah wish ah hud a son, like you, Aldo” he said.

“Aye, but ah pit the bin oot last night dad” ah

uttered.

“Aye, the wrong fuckin bin, though.

“Dinnae you go swallowin yur tongue, Markie. Ah’ve

been meanin tae huv a catch up wae yae. Listen, eh?

you work fur me now. A fag gits selt fur fifty pence in

the playgroond? ah want ma cut. Ah’m a reasonable

man. Caw it a hunner per cent. Your reign ae terror

ends theday. And mines hus jist begun. Spread the

fuckin word.”

Ah realised that

naeboady at the school wid even dare try and mess wae

us ever again wae Aldo by oor side. It wis the first day

ae a friendship that wid stand the test ae time. And that

day wis truly yin tae remember.

Douglas Stuart (2020) Shuggie Bain

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 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. Him, 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.

The Booker Prize 2020, won by Douglas Stuart for his novel Shuggie Bain.

Who will speak for us? —is sometimes as simple as who speaks like us. We all might be Jock Tamson’s bairns, but in the real world debut novelists, and those using Scottish dialect don’t win prizes.  How Late it Was, How Late, well it was 1985 when something like this happened. James Kelman caused a kerfuffle. Rabbi Julia Neuberger saying the book was ‘crap’.  I prefer Jeff Torrington, Swing Hammer Swing, or a Janice Galloway’s memoir that’s not a memoir, or even Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, but I don’t get to choose. I’ve not even got around to reading Douglas Stuart’s book—although like many others I will, instead of reminding myself I should—so why should I be going on about it?

Because I’m a reader. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and last thing at night. I’d brush my teeth with a book in my hand, but it’s just not practical. But books should never be practical. They should be otherworldly.

I don’t change, but the world around absorbs me molecule by molecule. I look at the world differently after reading. I’m even one of few readers with input into a small Scottish literary prize. It’s not glamourous. An unpaid task to box-tick and summarise a novel in a pithy line that few will bother reading and which is churned up with other’s lines and average scores.

But, hey, I write stuff too. I’ve got a whole number of novels lying about like scrap cars with their wheels off waiting for that spark of the ignition key. When something like this happens the literary bar doesn’t come down. Failure and me get along just fine. We’ve been in a regular relationship so long some folk assume we’re married. And every spring a guy in a dress puts a black mark on my head and reminds me.

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’

I’ll leave the afterlife until after life. Still, we dream of leaving a mark—on a page. The Pied Piper of public opinion is playing our tune. We’re marching today from a slightly different beat, one that I recognise, one that others might recognise too. I’m not the type of person who writes a book. It’s only brainy and successful people that do that sort of thing. Only those sort that get published. Aye, right!  Dream 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.   

James Kelman (1998) How Late it Was, How Late

How Late it Was, How Late won the Booker Prize on its publication in 1994. It was a controversial verdict. Rabbi Julia Neauberger one of the judges is quoted as saying, ‘Frankly, it’s crap’ and threatened to resign from the panel if it won. Written in Glasgow dialect and telling the story of Sammy who did a bit of stealing, did a bit of time and has become blind after taking a hammering from the cops that arrest him, I don’t think it’s crap, but without knowing what else was up for the prize that year I wouldn’t have voted for it. I started reading it a few times, the language is familiar to me, as are many of the places, but I couldn’t really get into it. But I did finish it at the third attempt and I don’t want you to think it was a chore, because it wisnae, but neither was it a joy.

‘Yeah know the auld saying: life goes on. Sammy made it across the flats; it wasnay a scoosh case; he battled it out; he went for it and made it. So there you go and that’s that. Plus Helen hadnay come back. He knew it as soon as he stepped out of the lift. The fucking wind blowing in from the corridor as usual.’

Helen works as a barmaid in Quinn’s Bar and is Sammy’s partner. Sammy’s already been married and has a son Peter, who appears with his pal Keith to take some photos of the injuries Sammy suffered at the hands of the police or ‘sodjers’. That was Ally’s idea, he’s on a third of whatever compensation Sammy might win from the Sight Loss Department of Central Medical. Ally is an unofficial welfare right’s officer, the kind that many of us knew in the late eighties, a know-it-all that for a wee bit would help people fill in forms and get what they were entitled to and frequently werenae. He’s an expert in the system and humanity, bit of a pest and Sammy plays along with him even when he turns up at Helen’s flat at 5 am because he figures Sammy is one of those people that doesn’t sleep much, who lives on their nerves, much as Ally does when he starts washing Sammy’s dishes because it gives him something to do and helps him think. Sammy had to tell Ally to fuck off, but even that doesnae work. The threat of violence wouldnae work either, so Sammy plays canny and just lets Ally get on with it, even though he’s no intention of playing along. That’s the best way to get rid of him. Knowing people like Ally and knowing how the buroo worked as social satire it also just doesnae work, but I’d give it an A for effort, even though effort begins with an E.  Finding Helen with a H is an entirely different kettle of fish. She might just turn up. Then again she might not. When he goes to Quinn’s Bar to find out what might and what might not have happened, he’s flung out and is none the wiser. Being blind is most folk’s biggest fear. Sammy doesn’t let it get him down. He just soldiers on, regardless.

It takes immense courage to write in dialect and the number of rejection letters from publishers would be exponential to yer ordinary, proper English dialect. Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and more recently Irvine Welsh, to name a few, have taken on the establishment and won. Like Sammy they have shown immense courage rooted in who they are and who they arenae, for those that don’t like them, like Rabbi whatever the fuck, fuck them. The iconoclasts are better men than me, but I’m a better man for having read them.