Aidan Martin (2020) Euphoric Recall

‘My name is Aidan and I am an addict.’

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.

Journey to publishing Shuggie Bain.

Journey to publishing Shuggie Bain. [online event, transcript]

Jamie Crawford (interviewer)

First draft, 900 pages. What did you start reading? Discover queer literature Alan Hollinghurst. Jeanette Winterstone.

James Kelman. George Friel. Alan Warner.

Sunset Song. Jamie, at 14, it wasn’t one of my favourite books.

Douglas Stuart I never thought I can do this. Real lifeline to connect with Denise Mina. Kirsten…

Reading middle-class narratives. Not my thing. Pride and shame at my poverty. How powerful A Kestrel and a Knave.

Do you still think those narratives are missing.

Still middle class industry. Like is drawn to like.

Took you 10 years. Where there points you thought you’d never finish it.

So busy. Cheats. How to write when I wasn’t at my desk. I never lost faith in it. I didn’t feel overwhelmed. Never very far away.

Getting to the point I want to do this.  How did you find your way to get published.

Met a woman at a party. Queried agents. Rejected by many. She sends it out to be submitted. When you get rejected, do you want to know? Answer. Just say no.

Books journey, finding your champion. Rejected 34 times. (by all the big publishers).

American publisher. Scottish guy.

Jamie Crawford, my first job was literary agent. Putting it out to US publishers. Thought process?

Simple. I live in America. In New York. It was swiftly rejected in UK and Scotland. Function of where I live. Many Scottish voices pushing outwards. Writing Shuggie a way of returning home.

Agnes difficult character.

Shuggie interesting voice. Didn’t want everything to come from his 7-year-old pov.

I wanted to stay in school. So I ended up living on my own in a bedsit and work 4 nights, DIY superstore. For the first time I didn’t have to take care of anyone else.

Collapse of city mirrored by characters, as city collapses. Agnes decaying too. Families struggling. Leanne. Even Annie’s (across the road).

AA, Alteen. Lots of families coming apart.

Drive to Pithead.

Agnes had hopes. She’s married the wrong man.  

Shuggie is  very quickly othered. Attack on feminist. Queerness.

Did you have a soundtrack in your head?

Kelly Marie. Middle of the Road, Bay City Rollers. Whitney.

Book hit the zeitgeist?

Pursuit of truth, struck a real chord?

I only set out to write a very intimate love story. Agnes trying to get on. Violence, misogyny. Create worlds and these characters. We’re still struggling with the same things.

The freedom of having no audience. Does that change how you write?

I’d finished my second novel before Shuggie was published. The way people have taken Agnes to their hearts.

Adaptation, who’s going to play Agnes? Writing pilot and outlines. Leek is my favourite character by far.

Adaptation? How’s it going?

Difficult. Consequence and forward motion. Remix in a way. I didn’t want to hand it over to a screenwriter.

Did you find the environment you grew up in frightening?

Class and literature?

MC writers write anything, but WC have to answer questions about WC narratives.

Different response? Scottish people, can feel the realism, on the page. I know Jinty. Universal experience. Lots of mothers coping with addiction.

Books about hope and love.

Up to 40 languages in translation. Right now published in four languages.

Events, talking about books.

Next book?

Young Mungo, published next April. Loch Awe? Set in the 90s.

Short stories for New Yorker. I have been writing for a long time. Working on my third novel. I spent three years living on the Hebrides. Writing about love and loneliness and textiles.

Have you become a writer full time? Yes, writing my primary focus.

My mother kept me focused by teaching me how to knit. Focussed on her memoir. Solidarity. Good people going through tough times.

I’ve spent my entire life in the world of women. Even textile college, 15 women to one man.

Favourite books. Graham Armstrong, The Young Team.

Andrew O’Hagen Mayfies. As You Were, Elaine Feeney.

Great Scottish Writers: Janice Galloway.

Great Scottish Writers: Janice Galloway.

Janice Galloway’s autobiographies This is Not About Me and All Made Up begin in the same way: ‘This is my family’.

Stylistically, she doesn’t use quotation marks. There’s no standard way of writing in the Scottish language and dialect. I was checking her work out to find some kind of consistency in my writing. Reaching for the musicality of speech mixed with social realism. She’s light-touch and mostly Standard English. Not into writing as we speak. No, Ah, for I or even A, for the subjective pronoun. Think James Kelman, How Late it Was, How Late. A style mimicked by Graham Armstrong in his autobiographical novel, The Young Team.

 In the short story ‘Still an Animal’ from Galloway’s collection Jellyfish, for example, the narrator and her wee boy, Calum have finished playing Crazy Golf:

‘They took the balls and putter back but the attendant was no longer there, just a man holding a child by the hand.

Stop fucking whining he said. You’ve had plenty, you greedy wee cunt.’ [quotation marks my own]

This is speak so we can see territory. Looking at that, or listening, we know exactly what kind of man, what kind of person is talking. We can work out what kind of relationship he has with his son. Work out what he’s wearing and where he lives. And how his son is going to be a chip off the old block or dying to prove he’s not.  I’m quite a connoisseur of fucking. Well, in the written sense. Carl MacDougall, for example, tends to use ‘fucken,’ and, if I remember correctly, Bernard MacLaverty ‘fuckin’. I’ve used the latter in my writing, but sometimes with the apologetic apostrophe for non-Scottish readers, fuckin’, or reekin’ or boggin’. There’s no wrong or right orthography, but apologising for how we think or write seems stupid.

Galloway’s great strength isn’t in the use or non-use of a fucking apostrophe it’s with telling us the things we already know. Her characters are people that speak, like us, dress like us, but are a major disappointment to themselves. We can stand outside our reading of the text and think I’d never do that, when, in fact, Galloway’s only holding up a mirror. There’s such a great descriptive phrase in her first autobiographical book she uses it again in her second. The character that gets to speak it is Janice’s Granny McBride, and she’s lived in Saltcoats so long Saltcoats lives in her.

My Granny McBride, near blind and unable to swim, had been pool attendant for three summers by the time I was two…It was only for one fortnight or summer, after all, the fortnight of Glasgow Fair.

‘They’re on holiday, she’d explain. Anything might happen.

More often than not, the Glasgow visitors sat on the sand in the thick of genuine Saltcoats drizzle, crazed with freedom, eating dry bread straight from the packet…The mistook rafts of bladderwrack for sharks or submarines, and harmless jellyfish were pounded to pieces with rocks, sticks and penknives…’ [quotation marks, my own].

In ‘It’s Still an Animal,’ Jellyfish, much the same thing happens. The reader (me) can make tenuous connections to her autobiographies. In a similar vein suggest that ‘and drugs and rock and roll’, from the same collection has similarities to her breakout novel, The Trick is To Keep Breathing shows—without telling—the hierarchical relationships in Glasgow’s psychiatric wards between nurses and patients and patients without patience, and some that are simply mental, and can’t help themselves, poor dears. Similarly, ‘that was then, this is now (1)’ isn’t about love but sex, adolescent sex and finding out what your body is for.  The nascent pubescent sexuality expressed so well in her autobiography. I could even stretch it a bit and draw a relationship between George Orwell (Eric Blair) in ‘almost 1948’ and a young Galloway, who also crashes her moped, but is largely unharmed. Her boyfriend had taught her the basics, but they still had sex when they split up, because she thought it was a fair exchange.

Her sister Cora, of course, was a different kettle of fish. A Cruella de Ville type that would happily skin Dalmatian pups for a nice jacket, or hand them to her mum, their mum, to do the job for her. She’s eighteen years older than Cora and has abandoned her kid and husband (we find out later it should be kids, plural). She breaks Janice’s nose, routinely beats her up, and also smacks their mother around. Waited on hand and foot. If she was a man, we’d find it perfectly normal, if not perfect. But as a character she gives leaven to Galloway’s stories. Without a Cora-type character, they’re pretty much of a muchness. Cora is gold, deeply engrained and deeply mined.

We know Cora. In Cora we trust. And because we can trust her, in Galloway we can trust, singular and plural.     

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.