So what, you might say. You probably know the trajectory that follows.
You’ve got Damian Barr, who grew up near Ravenscraig steelworks, a solid working-class town. Him being gay wasn’t his fault—or even a fault—but being a fucking Tory, Maggie & Me, was just a step too far.
Deborah Orr, Motherwell: A Girlhood, which just about sums it up.
You’ve got Kerry Hudson’s whimsical, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (fiction) and Lowborn (factual) that deals with what it means to be working-class poor.
Meg Henderson’s wonderful Finding Peggy, but a bit before Hudson’s time.
Darren McGarvey, with his Poverty Safari.
Janice Galloway’s autobiographies This is Not About Me and All Made Up are my clear favourites.
She mentored Graeme Armstrong and The Young Team, the story of Azzy and Airdrie, if you’re fucking asking, and it’s told in dialect.
Scottish actor and comedian, Jane Godley, described as Nicola Sturgeon’s alter-ego (before she fucked up and went a bit too far and behaved like a politician—grabbing the money). Handstands in the Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival, which told a tale of incest and marrying into a gangster’s family in the East End of Glasgow was, to my thinking, underrated before clicking on to Amazon to find over 2000 five-star ratings, which shows I was deluding myself, but not as much as Sturgeon.
We can even fling in Alan Bisset, Boyracers, which tries to do the impossible and make Falkirk cool.
And if we’re stretching it, Maggie O’Farrell I Am I Am I Am, seven brushes with death. She’s from Northern Ireland, but kinda Scottish.
The real daddy of fictionalised memoir, Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain. A gay boy growing up in Glasgow’s housing estates and watching his mother slide under the couch with drink, while drowning, but claiming to be simply waving and doing her hair.
What does Aidan Martin add to this amorphous list, or, in other words, what kind of story can a guy in his late twenties tell us that we’ve not already heard? In terms of markets, what’s his Unique Selling Point?
Livingston isn’t very cool, which is a good starting point.
First chapter, ‘Groomed’. He’s standing outside McDonalds. ‘Heart racing.’ I don’t like heart racing, because it’s clichéd city. But we know what he’s talking about. He’s not there to have a Big Mac and chips. It’s in the chapter title. He’s fifteen and meeting an older man, with a North English accent, who calls himself Derek.
White-van man is a world of disappointment, but he’s organised. He’s got a room in a hotel booked and a cover story. He’s brought a bottle of Buckfast for Aidan, because that’s what you do. Fantasy is never reality.
‘Escapism,’ Sexual addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction.
‘You’re fuckin’ dead, after class…
‘Truth be told I wasn’t as violent as the lads I was always fighting. Some of them seemed at ease taking it to the next level. But the idea of jumping on someone’s head or stabbing them felt sickening to me. Survival was day to day.’
Plotting of beginning, middle and end is quite straight forward. Aidan is suicidal, but the reader knows that if he’s written a book he can’t be much good at killing himself. The writer’s job isn’t to make things simpler, but more complex.
Grandpa dead. Grandma deteriorating fast with depression and diagnosed as bipolar. His wee brother, ‘DJ was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma one of the rarest soft tissue cancers in the world’.
Bargaining with yourself. ‘Money was getting tight, so we started on the cheaper drugs too. Back on the eccies, speed and valies. We had a few attempts at crystal meth, and I found myself smoking an unknown stuff from foil.’
Aidan had yet to hit his rock bottom, in Alcohol and Drug Anon language. But he’d a Higher Power looking out for him. This is shown in graphic form.
‘I self-harmed with knives…some otherworldly force flung the knives out of my hand.
All I can say is I know it truly happened.’
The reader knows Aidan is going to make it. But he’s honest about it. His relapses were to do with a lack of humility. I’ve heard the same story in so many forms. My brother, for example, telling me he was just going to have a few pints. Aye, we knew, what that meant. Deep down, so did he.
We’re in the world of repetition. Even the language becomes boring and clichéd. Recovery is slow. Aidan at 25 is at West Lothian College. He will have relapses. He will find himself. The reader knows that. God help us, if I start quoting Rumi and Leonard Cohen, We’re all broken. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
I’m a reading addict. The pleasure of recognition lies not in revelation—although that has its place—but in resonance.
‘I am grateful to be clean.’
Hallelujah has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with a clean heart that cries out. Read on.
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.
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.
Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, tells the story of how he went from spike to spike and from town to town. The hungry and downtrodden were given a few slices of bread and some sweet tea. A bed for the night. Moved onto to anther town. They were not allowed to settle. Moved on to another town, a circuit of homeless, hungry men and women moving in an ever-expanding circuit of misery. This was the nineteen thirties. The Beveridge Report and full employment meant the citizens of Britain would be taken care of from ‘cradle to grave’.
Fast-forward to the seventies of high unemployment and stagflation. This is my era. I was on the buroo. Can’t say it bothered me much. I’d a home and family. One of my mates who got a diagnosis that suggested he might want to start looking at funeral plans gave me one of those: ‘I’ve worked all my day’s’ speeches beloved of Jeremy Kyle.
I had to stop him. ‘No, you didnae. You were there when Hamish (R.I.P.) scored a screamer when we the Unemployed club played another club at Milngavie.’
I had to remind him that I’d also been on the Job Creation scheme and I loved it, meeting good people, doing a wee bit and getting paid a wee bit extra.
I knew how the buroo worked and didn’t work. It was part of our non-working life. When I hitchhiked down to London, summer 1984, and moped about for a few days, and slept outside, I remember an advice worker walking across the road near Euston station and talking the DSS into giving me an emergency payment for accommodation. The DSS system was a patchwork quilt of different benefits.
Read Kerry Hudson’s books but, in particular Lowborn, to see how the system didn’t work very well, but at least was a safety net for women and children. Read Sue Townsend’s article in The Guardian to give you a feel of how things were before the safety net was torn away.
Every time I hear the figures for unemployment are continually dropping I listen to a lie. If you’ve read Sue Townsend or Kerry Hudson’s books, you’ll know that mothers suffer most from any changes to the benefit system. Townsend had to wait a week to get paid. Those were the good old days. Nowadays we can be talking three months. We didn’t used to have foodbanks. Now we do. For those that begin the day in debt and end the day in even greater debt to be told their claim will be sorted in three months is beyond rational belief.
250 000 officially homeless in England, 130 000 of them children. By 2023 an estimated seven million people will, according to government reports, rely on Universal Credits.
Universal Credit (UC) is based on the American model of deterrence. Welfare is a dirty word. People claiming are held at arm’s length by overworked staff. Universal Credit gave us the Windrush scandal. In order to qualify for benefits people have to prove who they are. Claimants have to have the right bits of paper, or else not only will they not receive any delayed benefits. They may also be deported.
Universal Credit also has a housing benefit element. Often the largest part of the payment to the claimant. Bureaucratic delay can often lead to landlords not being paid on time, or at all. Because the housing benefit is paid directly to the ‘customer’ to pay to his/her landlords such as housing associations also lose income, because people simply spend the money allocated (their benefits) and don’t pay their rent. The old system of paying the landlord directly helped those that couldn’t handle money, but it also helped agencies such as housing associations to continue with their work.
If we look at Declan, for example, who has been made homeless and is sleeping in a park—nobody cares. Or Ernie, who lives in the flats in Dalmuir without electricity and is reliant on foodbanks, but is expected to go online and jobsearch for 40 hours a week. The chances of that happening are zilch. He has no phone. No mobile. One sanction follows another. His money is stopped. He appeals and during the appeal process is given a little money. Nobody cares. It’s top-down government policy based on stripping away any rights the poorest of the poor have to a life. This is us now.
The Social Security Staff that used to sit behind screens no longer exist. It’s an open-plan office and they are now just as poorly paid as Townsend’s time but are now called job coaches. Most of the misery lifting is done before their clients of customers come in the door. Job coach’s job is to sell a lie. Their job is to sanction customers. Their job is to make sure those that can’t work are made so miserable they no longer attend their office or they find work—of any kind. Their job is to make sure they have a job, because they know the alternative. The down on their luck story is no longer an option.
We used to have a system of carrot and stick. Neil Couling, director general of Universal Credit the person responsible for keeping the reforms to benefits on course will give us the usual party line. Now it’s no carrot and works by using the stick. Let me paraphrase Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, who when duty called walked in circles and agreed to everything and having no idea, had a fair idea how the system was supposed to work for the patriot and little person.
There’s no doubting that a good officer had the perfect moral duty to beat his batman to death to enforce discipline and doing so twice was to be commended. And military doctors had a perfect moral duty to root out malingerers that feigned blindness and deafness and having only one leg by starving and beating and forced purging which killed many and cured others. Recent estimates suggest 5000 people die while awaiting their appeal for sickness benefit, which is rolled into the umbrella term, UC.
Universal Credit gives beating of a different kind, but no less harmful. No one with oodles of cash was hurt in the making of this policy. George Orwell would have recognised it at once. Class war.
Perhaps we should start a book review by stating the obvious about God, everything and nothing. Books are holy to me, a companion to reality as I experience it. Entertainment and ecstasy, from the Greek, meaning a going out of ourselves, while actually staying in with a good book as long as it’s not fake, middle-class wordplay, wankery. Kerry Hudson book is a good book. She is one of us, working class, but I don’t like the title, Lowborn.
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.’ Philip Larkin in This Be Verse, sums up the Kerry Hudson dilemma of not repeating maternal history. Some birds fling their chicks out of the nest, but only humans bring them back to fling them out again. I was lucky, working class, never really liked my Da. Ironically, now people say that’s exactly who I’m like. In later life, understanding yourself, teaches you to be kind to your former self and those that have gone before you.
This book has that. Like Kerry I recently found a tenner on the pavements. It’s been years since anything like that happened. I didn’t leave it on the pavement for someone more needy to find, as Kerry did. But in the same way I regularly loss money, ten or twenty quid out of my pockets and I hope somebody that really needs it, gets it. There is a deep irony that a working-class woman is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, because the status-quo is based on that lie, the exception to the rule, is the rule. Rich, white men in politics, publishing and the media can point to her and say, there she is, you lot just don’t work hard enough.
Kerry tackles that lie. She has a list of her own. Those in the shitest jobs always work hardest. I’ve found that too. Men don’t care what age you are. And drunk is never too drunk for sex. Raped, bullied, beaten. She’s lived life where those knocked down, often don’t get up.
And like Kerry, something else resonated, both intellectually and emotionally. The Jeremy Kyle Show offended me at a deep level and I couldn’t stay in the same room in which it was on. Mary, my partner, used to laugh at me, say it was only a stupid show. For me it was emblematic of the propaganda war that us, poor people, lost. I’d read about one of the tick-box tests of whether the subject could consent to being on the show was dependent on what medication they were on. I wrote a couple of stories about it. They were meant to be funny stories offering some deep insight, but didn’t. In terms of doing unto others what you’d do to yourself, the Jeremy Kyle show, like all those shows with the tagline, before or after them ‘Benefits’ was deeply sacrilegious. It wasn’t just a case of those that lacked nothing baiting those that possessed nothing and expected nothing it was a destruction of a damaged person’s psyche. It led to suicide and poor Jeremy, whose accumulated millions, being binned. A Pyrrhic victory of sorts.
Kerry Hudson understands that innately. It was part of her. We can read about experience or we can experience experience. Hers was both, being also from an early age a voracious reader. Libraries were her church. With that comes compassion for her childhood self and others like her. If we talk about spectrum, The Jeremy Kyle Show and his ilk (they’re searching for the next, more sociably responsible, Jeremy Kyle, perhaps they’ll hire Prince Harry) are at opposite ends.
I wanted to try and understand the motivations and hardships involved in such a complex situation [childhood poverty, being pushed from pillar to post, and taken into care].
But then there was that child. And I realised my childhood made itself known to me every single day. In the way I engaged with others, when I slept, when and what I ate. In the thought patterns seemingly designed to undermine me, to make me feel whoever I was interacting with, which made me beg in all sorts of ways for their approval. In the deep loneliness, the way I often said I was a ‘black hole for love’ no matter how much I had been and was loved in my adult life.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire asks ten questions to measure childhood trauma and each affirmative answer gives you a point. Research has shown that individuals with an ACE score of 4 or higher is 260% more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than somebody with a score of 0. 240% more likely to contract hepatitis, 460% more likely to experience depression and 1220% more likely to attempt suicide. I scored 8.
One of my favourite lines in the book comes early. She’s talking about her granny, who spent her whole life working in fish houses. I spent a few months working in Clipper Seafoods in Aberdeen, roundabout 1980, which has a chapter to itself. I know that boom town. Her granny worked filleting fish. My mum’s sister also worked filleting fish. It was one of those jobs that women could make a decent-enough-living because it paid piece-work. If you were quick with the knives, you made more than the run-of-the-mill. Hudson’s granny was young and quick and pretty. But she wasn’t a soft touch. You need to be hard. That’s part of what this book is about. Hard on yourself, hard on others. Take nae shite. So when somebody called her granny a cunt, she held her knife to her throat.
‘I’m a good cunt, a clean cunt, and I care a cunt for no cunt, right cunt?’
Speak so I can see and all that jazz. The angel’s choir surrounding God couldn’t have put it better. Kerry Hudson was thirty-eight when she wrote this book. Newly married, she hoped to have a kid. I wish her well and all kinds of well. She’s one of us, speaking out of the wilderness where we’ve been cast down by the money men. Lowborn? Not in my book.
I enjoyed this memoir. It reminded me a bit of Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. Only it wasn’t Tony Hogan that stole Damian Leighton Barr’s mum but Logan the plumber. Glen is one of those taciturn men that does twelve-hour shifts in the Craig (Ravenscraig Steelwork) and says things like ‘make your bed and lie in it’. He makes good money and they are one of the first in the street to own a colour telly. But the colour telly is in 25 Ardgour Drive, Carfin, with their Da.
‘It’s the 12th of October 1984. I am just eight years old. Me and my mum are stuck to the BBC Nine O’Clock News in the strange new flat.
…Flat 1, 1 Magdalene Drive, Carfin.
My wee sister, Teenie, has cried herself to sleep in my mum’s lap. Our old life is crammed in the cardboard boxes bursting all around us.’
Mum is pregnant with Logan’s child. Make your bed and lie in it. Or use terms like *Spoiler a middle-class convention to alert the unwary reader to what-the-fuck?
Spoiler, Maggie Thatcher survives the Grand Hotel and Brighton Bombers. “‘Shit disnae burn, Maggie won’t,’ says my mum.”
Spoiler, Logan disnae burn either, but he really should.
Spoiler, Damian is gay, or even homosexual. In the working class community around the Craig that’s a worse offence than making your bed and lying in it. Or being a smart-arse, both of which are true of Master Barr.
Damian Leighton Barr I admire your wit and wisdom. Margaret Hilda Thatcher I hate you with a passion as hot as the ovens of the Craig that you cooled. Making 85 000 miners unemployed was a masterstroke. Fossil fuels are killing the planet, but, of course,
‘There are individual men and women and there are families…There is no such thing as society’. Margaret Thatcher, 23rd September 1987.
Spoiler, aye there is. They fuck you up, your mum and dad. So do working-class communities. So does society You’ll find it here in this memoir. Now fuck off and read it. Or don’t. I don’t really gie a fuck.
Kerry Hudson thanked me on Twitter for saying how much I loved her book.
She said something like ‘thanks guy’ (she probably wasn’t sure since I’ve got a picture of a koala bear on my profile and unless they turn round it’s often difficult to tell the male from the female. Even Koala’s make mistakes, but unlike me, they never blog about it. So although I look like a koala, don’t be fooled by the furry face and benign smile).
I think Kerry read my blog. At least she said she did, but she might just have been tw0-faced. You decide.
It’s a catchy title that titillates. You know when you open the pages it won’t be like wading through text book squiggles of grey snails lining up to teach you something meaningful about the author’s life that you don’t want to know. It won’t try and regress you or teach you that God is on your side if you can just [well, fill in your own bit here].
To begin with Hudson’s book disappointed me. It has been described as autobiographical. Here, the narrator Janie, describes her birth: ‘“Get out, you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!” were he first words I heard.’ Janie’s Ma is prone to these sudden attacks of verbosity. Janie develops a similar foul mouth, ‘filthy temper’ and stubborn streak associated with the Ryan woman. Her little sister Tiny has a different Da, one that filled the familiar pattern of fucking, fucking it up and fucking off. Janie’s Da was an older married man in London. Sometimes Janie’s Ma made the decision to move on — they, for example, went looking for Janie’s Da, described as an American — and sometimes the decision was made for her. Tony Hogan pulled her earrings out of her ear with a yank, but he wasn’t an American. He was a low-level gangster and drug dealer her Ma had hooked up with. He took care of Ma so well she was hospitalised and Janie taken into care. Ma survives on Crisis Loans from the DHSS, Giro payments and Housing Association homes that fleas wouldn’t live in. Worse though was the slum landlords that rented out Bed and Breakfast, locked them out during the day and asked for extra in cash. Mrs Sheathes had a number of houses in Canterbury, such a pretty city, but it could have been anywhere, Aberdeen, even fucking Airdrie which was supposed to be Glasgow or Great Yarmouth, that wasn’t so great. By this time Janie is pregnant, being viciously bullied at school and is threatening to follow directly into her mother’s footsteps of anywhere but here.
‘I stood up and she did too. I was an inch, maybe two, taller than her, even barefoot, but she got right into my face, pushing my head forward into the space between us so she was shouting into my mouth: “Do you know what I’ve done for you two? What I’ve been through? You’ve no idea! I sacrificed my whole life so you an’ Tiny could have a good start. So don’t call me a bad ma”’.
The reader does know what sacrifices Ma has made. The problem of the omniscient baby narrator grows long enough legs to support the narrative. And you’ve got to love Ma and Janie, Tiny and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Remember them?