Agnes Owens, revered chronicler of working class life with dark wit and a keen eye for the surreal. Picture by Stephen Mansfield
NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY
I was keen to see an interview on television featuring Douglas Stuart, the author of Shuggie Bain, which has just won the prestigious Booker Prize, and it was an eye-opener.
Agnes Owens: Revered chronicler of working-class life with a dark wit and keen eye for the surreal. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
Asked by Damian Barr who or what had inspired him to write his prize-winning novel, Douglas Stuart replied immediately that one thing for certain was the writing of Agnes Owens.
I knew the name, of course, and I remember speaking to her only once apart from the odd words we exchanged at that book launch and years later when there had been a stabbing incident near her home in Haldane.
She said she admired my courage for “sticking my head above the parapet” in my columns because that was brave and it was something she herself was loathe to do.
Agnes was a very private woman, not a bit like Muriel Spark or J K Rowling, whose success brought them rich rewards and publicity they did not have to seek after.
Her obituary by Chitra Rawasamy in the Scotsman in October 2014 revealed how she had been “discovered”.
In the late Seventies, a trio of Scotland’s most celebrated writers – Alasdair Gray, pictured right, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead – paid a visit to an unremarkable leisure centre in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. There, at a local writers’ group, they discovered a legend. A middle-aged woman who had started attending the class “to get out of the house”.
She had lived as hard as she liked to laugh and wrote the darkest and most brutally hilarious stories of working-class life in Scotland they had ever encountered.
She was, of course, Agnes Owens, who died earlier this month following a long illness, and whom Gray famously described as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.
I kept phoning her on her landline to arrange a time and she would answer promptly, only to tell me with a certain amount of satisfaction that she probably wouldn’t be around when I turned up. “If I’m not in,” she said rather vaguely, “I’ll be somewhere nearby.”
When I did pitch up, it was the dreariest of spring days – the kind of weather you’d find in an Agnes Owens story. Great sheets of rain closed over Loch Lomond, almost obliterating the view. Outside her house I paused to admire a crop of daffodils standing tall in the garden. Before I knew it, the door had swung open and there was Owens, who had clearly been spying on me. The first thing she did was make me promise not to mention the daffodils in my article.
“I’ve had it with journalists comparing the sunniness of my flowers with the darkness of my stories,” she said, rolling eyes that flashed with mischief. At 81 years old she was sharp as a tack, and I was reminded of Lochhead’s description of her: “She still looks middle-aged, not old, and her mouth still turns down humorously at the corners . . . Any of the quiet wee deadpan things she says are more than well worth listening to.”
Lochhead was right (and I never mentioned the daffodils . . . until now). That day, Owens told me the extraordinary story of her life. She was a wickedly funny and occasionally heartbreaking raconteur with the softest of voices and the sharpest of wits.
Her own life was like one of her stories, replete with tragedy, drink, violent men, poverty, flashes of black-hearted humour, and rare moments of kindness that could kill you.
She told her life story like one of her characters too: unsentimentally, economically, and with punchlines in the most painful places. I remember thinking as the afternoon wore on, the room grew darker, and the rain fell heavier, that there was enough material for a brilliant memoir.
Owens was born in 1926 in Milngavie just outside Glasgow. Her father, who lost a leg in the First World War, worked in a local paper mill. The family was poor, but not uncommonly so and, despite Owens being described as a “hopeless case” at school, they insisted she go to college to learn typing.
She never ended up using the skills she acquired. Instead, she married a man recently returned from the Second World War and they had four children together.
A man broken by war, her husband couldn’t stand fireworks, drank too much, and frequently ended up on the ward for alcoholics. “That was my happiest time, going to visit him,” she said, before the killer punchline: “It meant I didn’t have to put up with him back home.”
He died at the age of 43 and Owens remarried and had another three children. In between bringing up her large family, working as a typist, in factories and cleaning, she began to write.
Her first novel, Gentlemen of The West, was a collection of stories about a young brickie, based on one of her sons.
In a bizarre stroke of luck, Owens was told by a publisher that if she could get Billy Connolly to endorse the book, they would take it on.
She sent it to the comedian and, of course, he never read it. But then fate intervened and she got a job cleaning his house. She stole the manuscript back. By the time it was published she was 58.
Owens was never a prolific writer and never received the recognition she deserved, despite being dubbed part of a golden age in Scottish literature. Part of it was her subject matter: one publisher told her they weren’t interested in writing about poor people.
None of this deterred Owens, who continued to write under the most challenging of circumstances. One year after her first novel was published in 1984 she contributed eight stories to Lean Tales, a collection co-written with Kelman and Gray.
Then life intervened in the most tragic of ways. In the winter of 1987 her youngest son Patrick was murdered. At the age of just 19 he was stabbed to death outside the family home. “It took all your time to get through the day,” Owens told me that day in Balloch, some 20 years later. “You weren’t ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died.”
The covers of three of Agnes Owen’s collection of novels about working class life in Scotland.
Writing went out of the window but eventually she returned to her typewriter. In 1994 Owens published A Working Mother, an excoriating novel about being married to an alcoholic, which Beryl Bainbridge called “a remarkable book, funny and sinister”. In 1998 For The Love of Willie was shortlisted for the Stakis Prize.
Owens, for those who knew about her, was this country’s Flannery O’Connor, a tough, minimalist chronicler of what could be called a kind of Scottish western Gothic. The writer Ali Smith praised her “frank irony . . . and down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people’s normality”.
Kelman wrote that, “when she saw the squeak of a chance she grabbed it and produced those great stories we know. How much more could it have been?”
I met Owens when her Complete Short Stories were about to be published. She told me that, at the age of 81, she felt like a writer for the first time. She held up the book in her hands, revelling in its heft. She flashed me one of her crafty, girlish smiles.
“This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she said triumphantly. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”
When Owens died she was survived by her husband Patrick and her children Ann, Bill, John, Catherine and Margaret. Her daughter Irene died in September 2013 and her son Patrick was killed in 1987.
Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life.
Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good—her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits—all the family has to live on—on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her—even her beloved Shuggie.
A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Édouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.
Here are some reviews of Shuggie Bain:
“We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”
—Booker Prize Judges
“The body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marvelling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.”
—New York Times Book Review
“The tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel . . . Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating. He can even pull off all of them in a single sentence . . . This overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.”
—James Walton, New York Review of Books
“A debut novel that reads like a masterpiece.”
—Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
“With his exquisitely detailed debut novel, Douglas Stuart has given Glasgow something of what James Joyce gave to Dublin. Every city needs a book like Shuggie Bain, one where the powers of description are so strong you can almost smell the chip-fat and pub-smoke steaming from its pages, and hear the particular, localized slang ringing in your ears . . . It turns over the ugly side of humanity to find the softness and the beauty underneath . . . This beauty, against all odds, survives.”
—Eliza Gearty, Jacobin
“The way Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting carved a permanent place in our heads and hearts for the junkies of late 1980s Edinburgh, the language, imagery, and story of Stuart’s debut novel apotheosis the life of the Bain family of Glasgow… The emotional truth embodied here will crack you open. You will never forget Shuggie Bain. Scene by scene, this book is a masterpiece.”
—Kirkus Review (starred review)
“An instant classic. A novel that takes place during the Thatcher years and, in a way, defines it. A novel that explores the underbelly of Scottish society. A novel that digs through the grit and grime of 1980s Glasgow to reveal a story that is at once touching and gripping. Think D.H. Lawrence. Think James Joyce . . . A literary tour de force.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Douglas’s sharp narrative perspective moves from character to character, depicting each internally and externally with astute grace, giving a complex understanding of the dynamics of the Bain family . . . Shuggie Bain is a master class in depicting the blinding dedications of love and the endless bounds to which people will go to feel in control, to feel better. It hopefully sets the tone for more beautifully devastating works of fiction to follow from Stuart in the future.”