Poets make the best writers. Ways To Fold a Swan is a chapbook. I remember Rachel Smart from when she was an editor at ABCtales (she probably still is). I read everything she wrote. Poetry mostly, but also prose. Story of the week stuff.
I like her writing because she writes about people I recognise. People like me. Working class, and unashamedly so. Words she recognises come preloaded with meaning.
‘Rouse, ravish, rape.’ Roe versus Wade. Tens of millions of poor women have suddenly been disenfranchised by a coterie of rich white guys. Hierarchies of hidden meaning.
The narrator, Leda, is on a journey. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on push bikes. Leda has to find out how to be more herself and not what other—men—want her to be. She needs to grow up.
‘Leda is different to others. She has been different her whole life. Her parents never made a meal out of it.’
First lines are important. It needs to ask questions of the reader, but also draw us in.
‘Her companion reckoning she’s got nice hair shouldn’t tip her mood, but it’s the one adjective that turn Leda wretched.’
I had to read that line several times. I’ve grown proficient with words. I even know what semantics means. But I wasn’t sure what adjective Leda was referring. Then it hit me. ‘Nice,’ is hell of an insult. Nations don’t go to war, when they’re called ‘nice’. Relationships don’t break down over niceness. Leda is saying they do.
D. H. Lawrence wrote a poem about it. The English are So Nice/so awfully nice.
Lust doesn’t turn to hate, but an escape from the fate of so many other nice girls that can’t see who they are, or what they will become.
Leda claims a different self. An autonomous self, guided by a rejection of a male reading of Greek mythology. Zeus, and how her namesake, was raped by an Olympian God who’d turned himself into a swan to claim her beauty. How Leda was meant to feel grateful for this, because, after all, he was a god.
In the same way, the driver of a ‘Vauxhall something drives by her. It’s a flashy white model and it slows right down when the driver gets close.
he says: Get in.
And then: Sweetheart you do hand jobs? She calls him a dirty bastard and legs it all the way to the hotel.’
He was simply kerb crawling and claiming dominion. In another story, she could think herself lucky.
‘The thing that really riles Leda about the word nice is it’s a cop-out.’
Leda isn’t willing to do that or play that role. Neither is Rachel Smart. I used to have a verbal jibe at her: Smart by name and Smart by nature. Jesus, I wouldn’t dare call her ‘nice’.
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.