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‘Honest Poverty’ and Agnes Owens at 70 – Scottish Review of Books
by Alasdair Gray

‘Honest Poverty’ and Agnes Owens at 70

October 29, 2009 | by Alasdair Gray

POVERTY IS SO DEPRESSING that even the poor hate to be reminded of it, and most incomes which allow some spare-time, pleasure and independence – incomes Robert Burns called honest poverty – are earned by work that pleases the imagination so little that people of every social class are entertained by the kind of people reported in the daily news – criminals and the very wealthy. Riches bestow freedom, or a convincing illusion of it. Love, loss, pain, death, are the materials of every life, but the rich wear them with distinction. Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited can die in a Queen Anne four-poster bed set up by the estate carpenters in the Chinese drawing-room because getting and spending has not laid waste his powers. Which is why (says DH Lawrence) artists love aristocrats, not because aristocrats have been good patrons (most have been rotten patrons) but because unearned wealth lets the owners develop distinct individualities – make themselves instead of making money. Every flower that grows does that and so should all of us! – says Lawrence. So we want writers who help us imagine ourselves heroes or heroines born great and wealthy or achieving these things by talent or marriage.

Yet heroes and heroines need servants, buffoons, opponents and rabbles to show, by contrast, their finer quality, so common folk also enter fiction, history and the daily news. Homer, while celebrating the courage and cunning of the mighty, has truculent, low-class Thersites declare that heroic grandeur is not worth its cost, and Homer’s epic shows Thersites is right. Centuries later a Shake-spearean prince tells a band of artists what their profession should be in words which could have inspired Brecht or any good Socialist. Your job, Hamlet said, “is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Reflecting the constitution and abuses of an age is an enormous work. Dante, Langland, Chaucer, Sir David Lyndsay did it, and Shake-speare in his history plays, where kings, princes, archbishops, common citizens, rustic squires, labourers and parasitic scoundrels are drawn into social union by an imperial plundering raid on France. After Shakespeare nearly two and a half centuries, and the French and Industrial Revolutions happened before writers of his scope recurred. While Karl Marx analysed the dependence of wealth on poverty in the British Museum, a former child-labourer in a bottling factory, and the kept woman of a London editor, and a man who had played the fiddle for money in Dorsetshire pubs, were also tackling the state of Britain. Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy described how makers of wealth in workshop, colony and farm supported the bit of society that called itself Society.

After Jude The Obscure was widely damned by critics in 1895 Hardy devoted himself to poetry. The only equally great writer with experience to create lowly-paid people with considerable viewpoints was DH Lawrence, from a community of coal miners, close neighbours and chapel-goers. His first major novel Sons And Lovers tells how a miner’s wife, despising her common husband, brings up a son to be professional and monied. This was Lawrence’s own story, and later novels show he disliked how it turned out. He found friends among the middle class and aristocratic people but no worthwhile community – only cliques based on love affairs and conversation about art and ideas. So he “washed his hands of England” and searched Australia, New Mexico and Italy for communities like the Eastwood of his childhood, but not based on wage slavery, and died without finding it.

He left behind a literature almost completely bound to the privileged classes. Galsworthy, Forster, Virginia Woolf, Wynd-ham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh, are dissimilar authors, but describe people quite detached from their source of wealth in land, trade or industry – bankers handle it for them. In Howards End, Forster’s Miss Schlegels notice they stand on an island of money in a wide ocean. Their finely tuned lives consume the money but sea-waves cast more at their feet, making them uncomfortable because they know the ocean is people. In most other fiction, highbrow or popular, the lowly paid were again what Homer’s epic described – servants, truculent eccentrics, jostling rabbles.

Some British twentieth-century writing attempted a closer view of common folk but condescended to them because written for middle class readers. No Mean City, set in 1930s Depression Glasgow, shows youths resorting to criminal violence. The angle of vision shows social victims, like beetles crawling over each other at the bottom of a tank, which is also the view of most Marxist writing. There are no suggestions that such people can initiate anything valuable or be much, even to themselves, unless they join the Communist Party. Arthur Greenwood’s Love on the Dole does not condescend to the unemployed but his indignation with rottenly-governed England spoils it as a work of art. Alas, storytellers cannot be moralists. Characters can voice moral judgements when these convince and entertain but if authors make their stories texts for sermons then sermons they become, and a sermon cannot reflect the whole age and body of a time. Only Dickens has been able to invent convincing worlds while telling us they should not exist. In drama Pinter, Bond and Orton can show badly straitened commoners without moral indignation – they find exploitation and torture entertaining. And they do not show working people.

Roughly ten years after World War Two and the creation of a Welfare State English reviewers started saying that a social revolution had discovered its voice in work by Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, John Braine. Yet Lucky Jim Dixon’s bumbling irreverence for authority was no more revolutionary than Bertie Wooster’s. Jimmy Porter’s contempt for a Britain where “all the good old causes had been won” (he meant full employment with some welfare services) was then being voiced by rich people also nostalgic for Great Britain’s Empire. Joe Lampton revelled in the affluence his parents never knew. The only working class things about these heroes were their names. Like their authors and DH Lawrence they had joined the middle classes through improved state educations. Unlike Lawrence they did not feel they had left behind anything worthwhile. But some books showed the cost of ceasing to be common.

The talented working-class hero of David Storey’s This Sporting Life is a rugby footballer. He pushes his career by machinations that estrange him from a woman he loves, and as a well-paid sportsman tries to regain her – an ageing woman burdened with a shopping bag, met in a street. He is offering her a great deal – himself, money, posh home in affluent suburb. She turns away; he cannot get her to see him, hear him or acknowledge he exists. By submitting she would become his property, his appendage, feeling, looking and being out of place. The flaw cracking the couple apart stems from his talent, but also cracks Britain apart. In Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner a talented sportsman deliberately loses a race, to stop his victory being used by a highly-paid head master to glorify a kind of boys’ prison. The story of A Kestrel For A Knave, by Barry Hines, is yet harsher. A victimised schoolboy nurses a wounded hawk and starts healing his own spirit by teaching it to soar, which his community barely tolerates before his working brother kills the hawk out of spite.

None of these books are comical. Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar is comical but equally desperate. Billy’s mother thinks of her family as “just ordinary people”. His father says, “I may be just an uneducated working man but . . .” They take wage-slavery as a norm and treat their son’s imagination as a disease, which it is, because all he makes with it are fantasies and funny dialogue. His council-house community is so warm and close that when trying to leave his hated funeral-parlour job and go to London as a script-writer, his boss won’t accept his resignation. Billy eventually skulks away from the train to Lon-don and his adventurous girlfriend and returns to his parents’ house, cheered by an imaginary nation of which he is President. He will stay in the community, using his imagination like a solitary vice.

Yet even good English fictions showing the cleft between commoners and the privileged from the common viewpoint show hardly any productive work for which working classes are paid! Living, by Henry Green and set in a steel works, is the great exception. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trouser Philanthropists, a great book set in the building industry, is not an exception because the author was Irish. Otherwise, for close views of people at work in good fictions that are not mainly social propaganda, we should look to Scot-land. The House with the Green Shutters, by George Douglas Brown, gives a fine, dramatic inside view of a carter’s firm and growth of a modern grocer’s business that replaces it. Much of John Macdougall Hay’s Gillespie is badly written and crafted, but the good part shows the surprising yet logical way a dull, insensitive, greedy shopkeeper comes to master and lay waste a fishing community by mean penny-pinching and sly deals with the local banker and lawyer. Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song shows the last of Scotland’s peasantry from a woman’s viewpoint.

Nineteen sixty-six saw the publication of Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place. Through the hero, Matt, we learn what it is like to be a costing clerk in a Clydeside factory, then killer in Glasgow’s municipal slaughterhouse. These jobs are quite well paid, socially necessary and Matt finds them satisfying. He gets on well with his family and workmates, most of them Socialists who find nothing eccentric in his love of literature. They joke cheerfully about his habit of sitting up late trying to write a novel, are only angered when he twice loses a good job by taking furtive days off to write for hours in a public library. Like Nabokov’s The Gift this novel describes some communities composing a city from the standpoint of an apprentice writer, and gains interest by indicating what he writes. The writing of Nabokov’s lonely hero is appreciated by very few, but his obscure success seems a triumph. Only Matt’s wife believes his book will be any good, but rather than depend on her while working to finish it he destroys the manuscript.

In a study of recent working class Scottish novels Douglas Gif-ford mentioned that Archie Hind and I had written about imaginative commoners who, after tough struggles, despair of producing a fine work of imagination. Douglas regretted that neither novel indicated what he, lecturer and critic, lived by indicating – these books were in a fine Scottish literary tradition. This was because The Dear Green Place and half of my Lanark were meant to be tragedies of common artists whose art is not wanted by their own people, or by anyone else. Both books have been reprinted several times so, despite using some raw autobiographical material, these tragedies are only ours in the sense that Hamlet was Shakespeare’s. Both are in a genre to which Goethe, Wordsworth, Proust, James Joyce and Thomas Mann have added – The Romance of The Artist. Most great art shows believable people who are not artistic, which brings me to The Busconductor Hines.

This was James Kelman’s third book but first novel. The quality was at once recognised. “A toughness and diversity that is utterly compulsive” – New Musical Express. “The writing has the vitality which can only come from economy, and a grim Glaswegian humour that surmounts helplessness and dereliction” – London Review of Books. “The mixture of suppressed Gothic horror and mundaneness makes this collection, with its own weird, off-key brand of humour, especially interesting” – City Limits. All true! The bus conductor Hines is a good husband, good father of a small son, earns the money his family needs by working night shifts. Late shift work interferes with the rhythms of normal family life. He sometimes (not often) relaxes by drinking too much, or being mockingly abusive toward friends and workmates though never to son and wife. Reviewers saw there was something wrong with this man – saw him as a deeply flawed character – because he was obviously as intelligent as they were, so why was he a bus conductor? Hines has been to university – why had be not joined the middle classes? They could not see the flaw is a Britain where essential workers earn too little to enjoy leisure with their families.

The narrative voices are cool and third-personal in the early pages, bring wife and workmates close up through dialogue, become inner monologue as Hines verges on mental breakdown, then return to the third-person as he recovers. He recovers by taking his son to the bus depot, complaining to his union management and nearly provoking a strike. This so relieves his frustration that he abstains from making the strike happen – it is called off. Yes, this is a story of Britain in the 1980s and also now though bus conductors have been abolished by designing buses that make drivers the conductors too. There is reason to think that nowadays even middle class folk are working unhealthily long hours for the money they need.

IT IS TIME to concentrate on Agnes Owens.In 1977 Lochhead, Kelman and Gray were part-time tutors for Glasgow University Extra-Mural Department, which paid us to sometimes conduct writing classes in the Clyde area. The three of us visited a writers’ class in the Vale of Leven. Most such classes produce a story or two that might have been published when short story magazines were sold from station bookstalls. Liz was the first to tell us the class contained Agnes Owens, a writer whose work was of even higher quality. When Kelman and I read ‘Arabella’, Agnes’ first short story, we agreed that she was an unusually good writer.

From time to time art publicists in London notice things are being achieved in Scotland and send a television company north to report on it. On one of these occasions an interviewer asked Agnes what made her write that story; she answered, “Spite”. The others in the writing class were, she said, very nice people and wrote stories about equally nice people. She often found life a nasty business, so shocked them by inventing a grotesquely repulsive modern witch. The story, however, is not itself repulsive – the language is too terse and dry to rub the reader’s nose in Ara-bella’s dirt, and her speech is more genteel than most debutante’s, the final effect being very very funny. Agnes has written equally good things since, though nothing as fantastic.

Agnes turns 70 this year. In the 1970s she was a typist and shop steward in an electric clock-making factory, twice married to bricklayers whose working conditions had induced rheumatism. Her first husband had died; she now had two self-supporting children and three still at school. This hard but not unusual life has taught her to face facts and mention them in the fewest possible words – good training for a writer. Writing, like every art, is learned after leaving school by folk who continue teaching themselves, usually by close reading. Agnes had read closely enough to clear her language of second-hand phrases ordinary writers use to hide their lack of ideas. Lochhead, Kelman and Gray’s criticism maybe helped her with a few minor details, but perhaps did most good by making her feel less lonely. In the Vale of Leven, as in Glasgow, nearly every major industry was closing, including the Westclox factory employing her, so she naturally asked those who liked her stories, “Who will print them? What will they pay?”

We explained that if she steadily posted her work to several small magazines, always with a stamped addressed envelope for return, she might get two or three stories published in four or five years but be paid very little, since many magazines printing new work did not pay for it. We told her that authors who feed and house themselves solely by being authors must write one or two commercial paperbacks a year which critics usually ignore – most authors with well-known names survive by hackwork for education and publicity establishments. We regretted that we could not welcome her aboard a fine ship called HMS Literature, though the ship certainly exists. It has no captain or senior officers and a usually desperate, self-employed crew who must totally ignore each other when working hardest.

Agnes Owen’s talent was too tough to be killed by learning that writing was not a full, free life but another sort of working life that she had known since childhood. Over the next ten years she earned thirty or forty pounds for a couple of stories and had a story accepted by an editor who disappeared without printing it. She wrote radio plays that producers refused with letters expressing interest in her next play. She completed Gentlemen Of The West, the first British novel about a brick layer in a housing scheme that was thought a great gift to the working classes in the 1950s because each flat had a hot-water bathroom and inside lavatory, though the scheme itself has as few amenities as an army barrack.

I believe no talented male author, however working-class, could imagine himself such a man for 127 pages without feeling stifled or wanting to turn violently nasty. I believe only a wife and mother of bricklayers could have written it, finding their work and leisure interesting because refreshingly different from our own, in conditions she took for granted. Gentlemen Of The West is more than a dod of social reality we should rub our noses in, it is a work of art, each chapter an enjoyable short story. The earliest introduce a set of public house customers who at first seem to invite our amused condescension. Had the rest been like that, the book would have been enjoyable in small doses but disappointing in bulk, like the tales of O’Henry and Damon Run-yon. But Agnes Owens writes better than these good Americans. Her chapters accumulate into a real novel depicting a various, surprising world that is forcing a young man to understand it and himself. The humour is not in the violence and drunkenness which Mac takes for granted and tries to avoid, but it is in the misunderstandings of mainly decent people – the essence of comedy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to What Ho, Jeeves. The council flat where Mac and his widowed mother lives, the Paxton Arms where he drinks, building site where he works, wino squat where his best friend lives are not grotesque anarchies but maintained, like all societies, by affection and a code. The code insists on toughness, so affection must be hidden like a guilty secret. The code also creates misunderstanding because nobody knows all its rules. Mac’s mother sells a box of tools her son has kept under his bed. She cannot grasp that, like crown jewels in the Tower of London, they are not for use but for status:

“Wait a minute,” I said, scarcely able to credit my ears. “You didny gie him ma set o tools that took me two years to pay up when I was an apprentice brickie?”

“Well, ye never had them oot the box as far as I can remember.”

“Ye don’t understand,” I said slowly, my head beginning to ache. “Ye never use your own tools if ye can help it. Ye always nick someone else’s. If ye took your own tools they wid just get nicked.”

She was unperturbed. “How should I know that?”

“Ye don’t understand,” I said slowly, my head beginning to ache.

Mac is no fool, nor is he inarticulate, but here he shows us how hard he finds unfamiliar intellectual effort. That kind of understatement, in words so ordinary that they seem obvious, is typical of Agnes Owens’ art. It lets her present comedy and tragedy in a factual voice that is often that of her characters, and which never cheapens them, no matter how poor they are.

Gentlemen Of The West is now a historical novel showing a working class community in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was introducing a healthier, fitter Britain for the stockbrokers, investors and senior managements who supported her. It is becoming a ghetto for the unemployed. Hard drinking is frequent, but drug addiction and violence are far less than the 2006 level. By the last chapter Mac’s closest friend has died of drink and exposure, he has been unemployed for months and arrested as accessory to an unusually attempted theft. But like people in every social class, work is what Mac most enjoys. At the satisfying, believable end he leaves his mother and deadbeat friends in the Scottish west and goes east to Aberdeen near the North Sea oil rigs.

I showed this novel to Canongate who rejected it. Agnes sent it to the Molendinar Press, and was told it might be published if Billy Connolly said he enjoyed it. It was posted to him and placed on the pile of unsolicited correspondence nobody famous has time to answer. By now Agnes’ husband had left the building trade because of ill health and she was a part-time cleaner in houses and a local church. Billy Connolly employed her for a while so she got her typescript back.

In those days Edinburgh University Press’s Polygon Books, was run by the students and published Kelman’s first collection of short stories to appear in Britain. Kelman showed Gentlemen Of The West to the Polygon manager, Peter Kravitz, who published it in the spring of 1984. It was later issued by Penguin as a paperback. Her other books followed thus:
1985, Lean Tales, nine stories in collection of stories by Kelman and me, Cape Ltd 1987, Like Birds in the Wilderness, sequel to Gentlemen of the West, Fourth Estate
1994, A Working Mother, novel, Bloomsbury 1996, People Like That, story collection, Bloomsbury
1998, For the Love of Willie, novel, Bloomsbury 2003, Bad Attitudes, short novel printed with Jen’s Party, a novella, Bloomsbury

Each of these books dealt with an astonishingly different emotional territory and deserves an essay of its own. I have only space to talk about one. Here is how For The Love Of Willie starts:

Two patients sit on the veranda of a cottage hospital run by a local authority for females with mental problems, some of them long-term and incurable. Peggy, stoutly-built, middle-aged, with a hard set to her jaw, rises and stares down through the high railings at a bus shelter below.

“A man in that shelter resembles someone I once knew,” she tells her companion.

“Really?” says the companion, elderly and frail but known as the Duchess because of her imperious manner. “It beats me how you can remember anything.”

“I remember lots of things. That’s why I’m writing a book.”
“A book? You never told me. What’s it about?”
“About my life before they put me inside.”

She adds wistfully, “I had one, you know.” “I can hardly imagine it,” says the older woman.

The chapters alternate between Peggy’s 1990s hospital ward and her schoolgirl love affair with a Clydeside newsagent during the Second World War, the affair that led to her being registered as incurably mad. The great achievement of this book is to show that in neither place or time is she a mere victim. Here is a hospital episode:

An incident took place in the ward that jolted the patients out of their usual apathy, even those who were practically comatose. For no apparent reason a normally unobtrusive patient had thrust a fork into the chest of nurse during breakfast … five gathered round and whisked the erring patient so fast from the ward her feet scarcely touched the ground.

“To think I’ve wanted to do something like that for years,” said Peggy, doing a few steps of the highland fling.

“Better watch or they’ll have you off too,” said the duchess.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t mind. These jags they give you are as good as a stiff drink.”’

Peggy was a schoolgirl when teenagers were regarded as children and being an unmarried mother was almost unthinkable. We are not told about but shown her home life in a room-and-kitchen flat – initiative in getting a spare-time newspaper delivery job – death of father in an air raid – love affair with her employer.

‘When he came to the door one evening she nearly fell down with shock and pleasure.

“Willie,” she breathed. “What are you doing here?”

“Is your Ma in?”
“That’s what I was hoping.”

As she showed him into the living room it struck her the place looked a mess. Clothes lay over chairs, an ironing board stood in the middle of the floor; for the first time she noticed the dust on the sideboard.

He planked himself down on an easy-chair and told her to come and sit on his knee. Shyly she complied, thinking how handsome he looked in his grey pin-striped suit and more like James Cagney than ever. She asked if there was anything wrong.

“No, my love,” he said. “I just happened to be passing on my way to a boring committee meeting at the bowling club and thought I might as well look in.”

He took a flat-sided bottle from his pocket and offered it to her.

“What is it?” she asked.
“Gin. It’s good for you in small doses.” “I don’t know,” she said, remembering

with wonder how Willie didn’t like his wife drinking.

“A spot won’t do you any harm.” “Alright,” she said, thinking, why not?

This visit was as good as anything she could wish for. She took a sip and shuddered. He laughed and whispered in her ear, “How about going into the bedroom?”

“Alright,” she whispered, the bottom of her spine beginning to tingle.

Twenty minutes later they were back in the living room. Willie looked at his watch and said he would have to fly.

“Can I come with you?” she asked on an impulse.

“To a committee meeting?” he said, aghast.

“I could wait outside until it was over. Then we could go somewhere and – ” She broke off when she saw the angry look on his face.

With no shred of sentimentality we are shown the destruction of a hopeful, virginal girl’s soul by a very ordinary selfish man. It takes us swiftly, gently and inexorably to a shocking climax at the start of the last chapter, accounting for Peggy’s incarceration through the high noon of the Welfare State, Swinging Sixties and Tory revival. Peggy’s middle age also seems bound for tragedy because (though she does not know why) Mrs. Thatcher’s welfare cuts “return her to the community” – a community does not exist. Yet this allows For The Love Of Willie an end as surprisingly happy as Gentlemen Of The West.

Agnes Owens’ work has been recognised by reviewers. Beryl Bainbridge, the only English writer who compares with her, called A Working Mother “A remarkable book, funny and sinister.” When Lean Tales by Kelman, Owens and Gray was published in paperback the Irish Times asked why so little had recently been heard of Agnes Owens, because “she is the best of them”.

Is she still left out of nearly every survey of modern fiction because all her novels are short? Then a good publisher should treat them like the great novels of Nathaniel West and publish them in one volume, for if literacy lasts they will be read a century hence when most longer books are forgotten. Is it her characters are working class? She is not class-bound, for her posher characters are as real and as sympathetically imagined as the rest – see the Duchess in For The Love Of Willie, the lawyer and the Jewish businesswoman in A Working Mother. I believe she is neglected because she is elderly, lives in a rural housing scheme, so is not in the celebrity class.

From this Issue

Behind Wicket Gate

by Ronald Frame

A Tale of Two Books

by Iain MacWhirter

Ali’s Cave

by Brian Morton

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