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The Glasgow Short Story

Moira Burgess

Alan Spence’s
Its Colours They Are Fine & Way To Go Scotnote
It’s safe enough to declare that the short story form is flourishing in Glasgow at present, sharing in the general flowering and excitement which has marked Glasgow writing for some years now; but how valid is the term ‘the Glasgow short story’? Is there such a thing, a separate sub-genre, as it were, of the Scottish short story? Hamish Whyte and I boldly declared that there was, a few years ago, by compiling two anthologies of Glasgow short stories, Streets of Stone (1985) and Streets of Gold (1989).

Between them, the anthologies cover some fifty years of short story writing. Our criterion was that a story should be set in Glasgow or be written by a Glasgow writer, though not necessarily both. Beyond that we were looking, I suppose, for something less tangible: a kind of essence of Glasgow, the spirit of the place, or people, or both together. What we found did, I think, go some way towards proving that the Glasgow short story really does exist.

The earliest story in Streets of Stone dates from 1936, and in our research we couldn’t find anything much farther back than that. We were looking, of course, for literary short stories, not anecdotes and not sketches. A couple of early stories could, at a pinch, have been considered: John Gait’s ‘A Rich Man’ from 1837 – the hero’s rise from messenger-boy to Glasgow Merchant – and a comic story by W.E. Aytoun from 1845, ‘How we Got Up the Glenmutchkin Railway, and How we Got Out of It’, involving two young Glasgow gentlemen who are trying to make their fortune on the stock exchange. But they didn’t quite meet our demands, and, in terms of an anthology, their inclusion would have drawn all the more attention to the hiatus between 1845 and 1936.

During that hundred-year gap, incidentally, Glasgow short fiction was thriving, but in the form of sketches. Everybody knows J.J. Bell’s Wee MacGregor, which was published in book form in 1902. Bell took a chance on book publication precisely because his short, humorous sketches had been so popular on their original appearance in the Glasgow Evening Times. Similarly, Neil Munro’s Para Handy sketches, and his Erchie sketches which are specifically set in Glasgow, were eagerly read in the Evening News before they were ever collected in book form. And they were far from being alone in their field. William Donaldson’s seminal work Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (1986) first alerted scholars to the treasures of humour, Scots language and social comment to be found in Victorian and Edwardian periodicals. Light as they are, these sketches are rich repositories of information about contemporary Glasgow, and they speak with a Glasgow voice.

Jeems Kaye, for instance, is well worth rediscovering. These sketches appeared in the Glasgow weekly periodical The Baillie during the 1870s and 1880s. In the very first one we find that horse-drawn tramcars have just taken over from horse-drawn buses, and he doesn’t see this as an improvement. He avoids using ‘the caars’ whenever possible, but one cold night he and his wife are forced by circumstances to wait for a tramcar, and we’ve all shared his experience: ‘The first siven that came up were gaun tae the Goosedubs, and that, I need hardly say, was no oor road’.

And in the wake of the Year of Culture, with the Year of Architecture ahead, we cannot overlook a contemporary view of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tearoom, as seen by Erchie, who visited it about 1903 with his friend Duffy the coalman. Please call to mind at least a general picture of the Mackintosh style as Erchie says:

Ye’ll no guess where I had Duffy. Him and me was in thon new tearoom wi’ the comic windows ... There was naething in the hale place was the way I was accustomed to; the very snecks o’ the doors were kind o’ contrairy ... The chairs is no like ony ither chairs ever I clapped eyes on, but you could easy guess they were chairs; and a’ roond the place there’s a lump o’ lookin-gless wi’ purple leeks pented on it every noo and then.

However, the honour of inaugurating the Glasgow short story proper seems to belong to George Friel and Edward Gaitens, who were writing literary short stories, set firmly in Glasgow, in the mid 1930s.

George Friel is probably best known for his five novels, all set in Glasgow, of which Mr Alfred MA is now considered to be in the very first rank of Glasgow novels, with The Boy who Wanted Peace and Grace and Miss Partridge not far behind. His short stories remained uncollected for many years, but were published in 1992 under the title A Friend of Humanity.

They are sombre, sensitive stories. Many have an autobiographical element – the Plottel family encountered from time to time is generally thought to be based on Friel’s own family – and others are marked in Friel’s notebooks ‘Wholly true’, drawn from the working-class Glasgow life around him. Quite unforgettable, for me, are ‘Clothes’ – a searing memory of a child’s humiliation in his Education Authority suit which marks him out as poor – and ‘Home’, tracing in unsparing detail Mrs Plottel’s long day of cleaning in the suburbs, which she isn’t even paid for because her airy employer doesn’t have the right change. Friel was neglected even as a novelist for many years, but at last he has been recognised as a major Glaswegian writer, a reputation further justified by these stories.

Edward Gaitens is unquestionably one of the finest short story writers produced by Glasgow, or even perhaps by Scotland. In a sense, short stories form the major part of his work, because he published only two books – the collection of short stories Growing Up (1942, long out of print) and the novel Dance of the Apprentices (1948, now available in Canongate Classics) – and Dance of the Apprentices is in part a reworking of some of the stories in Growing Up.

The title story ‘Growing Up’ heads a remarkable collection of stories, the more remarkable since, as we’ve seen, they were among the first literary short stories set in Glasgow. The 1930s, when Gaitens began to write, is, of course, the decade when several of the classic Glasgow novels were published – George Blake’s The Shipbuilders, James Barke’s Major Operation, and, indeed, Alexander McArthur’s No Mean City. It is interesting to speculate whether this upsurge in Glasgow fiction had any influence on Gaitens, in the broad sense that it was now seen to be ‘possible’ to write about Glasgow, but I am sure these books had no influence on the style or content of his work. In no way was he jumping on a bandwagon: he is a true original. His picture of working-class life is certainly more authentic than Blake’s and perhaps more personal than Barke’s, and between his writing and that of No Mean City there is really no comparison.

In addition, some of his stories have a poetic quality which is hardly, at this date, to be found elsewhere in Glasgow fiction. ‘The Sailing Ship’, included in several anthologies, is one of the finest. A young man is the central character – Gaitens himself perhaps? – and the story meshes most credibly the realistic details of his actual situation – he has come back, after two years in prison as a conscientious objector, to slum life and unemployment – with his dreams, his sensitivity, his response to the beauty of the great sailing ship France. The story ends:

Sunset met her like a song of praise and his heart went after her as she rippled past. Ach, if he could only have served her on her last few voyages, before she was dismasted and broken up! She dipped slowly into the dying sun and the waters fanned out from her bows like flowing blood. Then the sun went swiftly down and her beauty was buried in the darkness. ‘Goodbye, lovely ship!’ he called after her. ‘Goodbye! Goodbye, France!’
     So ecstatic was his concentration upon the vanishing ship that he felt her decks quiver under his feet, saw her high spars tremble, heard the flap of her sails, as he gazed with uplifted head. He was sailing on, away from the ignorance and misunderstanding of his parents, to the infinite nobility of the sea! His eyes were moist, his hands in his pockets painfully clenched, his limbs shook like a saint’s in the ardour of prayer. And for a long time he stood there bareheaded, unaware that darkness, with small rain and a cold wind, had enveloped his transported body.

Following these excitements of the 1930s and early 1940s, there may seem to be another considerable gap in the history of the Glasgow short story. Nothing much was published in book form, in fact, for thirty-five years, between Growing Up in 1942 and Alan Spence’s Its Colours They Are Fine in 1977.

Glasgow short fiction was not dead during these years, nor even sleeping. Stories were being published in ‘little magazines’ like Saltire Review and Scottish International, and on the Weekend Page of the Glasgow Herald where several Glasgow writers, later to be famous, were trying their prentice hands, and Glasgow stories were well enough represented in anthologies. Missing from the publishers’ lists of those years, however, are collections of the work of individual writers. Perhaps this was purely a matter of fashion, and hence of publishing economics – short story volumes by new writers are often seen as slow to sell. For whatever reason, we didn’t get, as we should have done, for instance, collections by such fine writers as Margaret Hamilton and Joan Ure.

Margaret Hamilton was a prolific writer of short stories from the 1940s until her death in 1972, but, as far as I know, her stories remain uncollected, though they are to be found in various anthologies. Not all are set in Glasgow, but we may look at ‘Jenny Stairy’s Hat’, dating from 1947, for two main reasons. First it is the economy of its style. It covers a long period of time, summed up near the end of the story:

Jenny had always been quiet about things. Her brothers had cheated her out of marriage with a man who loved her less than his dignity. She had been left alone to bear the burden of her mother’s helplessness. She had been indirectly to blame for the death of two men she had loved. And now a man was asking something from her.

Technically speaking, a short story shouldn’t really need such a summary, and Hamilton herself might have managed it differently in later years, but I quote it to suggest that many a writer would have made a whole novel out of this story, and to less effect. The second reason to note ‘Jenny Stairy’s Hat’ is that it speaks movingly and without fuss for women’s experience in Glasgow; something which had scarcely ever been done in this way before, and was not to be done again, with one exception, until quite recent years.

That exception is the writing of Joan Ure, whose stories, similarly, should have been collected long ago. Posterity will probably regard her as a more important writer than Margaret Hamilton, and Alasdair Gray has a fine appreciation of her personality and work in the volume Lean Tales (1985), but even her plays, for which she was best known in her lifetime, remain uncollected. There is one of her sensitive short stories, ‘Kelvingrove Park’, in Streets of Stone, and another, ‘New Journey Forth’, in Carl MacDougall’s anthology The Devil and the Giro (1989). More stories, poems and prose pieces are hidden away in the back files of periodicals; let’s hope they will be found soon.

Glasgow writing entered a particularly active phase in the 1960s, and at the end of the 1970s, in terms of the Glasgow short story, it all came together. What exactly happened? It’s hard to say. The writers appeared, but, as we have seen, to some extent they had always been there. The general liveliness of the writing scene helped, but this had been so before – for instance in the 1920s and 1930s – without any great upsurge of short stories. A foretaste of the riches to come appeared in 1976, in the shape of the little book Three Glasgow Writers, which contained work by Alex Hamilton – some of whose stories were set in housing schemes, an area of Glasgow life not much treated until then – Tom Leonard, now so well known as a poet and critic, and James Kelman, to whose work we’ll return at greater length.

Then in 1977 Collins published a collection of Alan Spence’s short stories – which had been appearing individually, here and there, for some years – under the title Its Colours They Are Fine. And this was immediately recognised as something special.

Allan Massie’s extremely favourable and perceptive review in The Scotsman spotted Spence as an exciting new writer, and the excitement has remained through his later works of fiction (all too few: a novel The Magic Flute, in 1990, and a second short story collection, Stone Garden, in 1995). Massie also recognised at once that Its Colours They Are Fine isn’t just a collection, but a short story sequence, building from childhood – the little boy in the marvellous first story ‘Tinsel’ is only six – through school and adolescence, to stories of adult experience. Not all are connected – ‘Greensleeves’, for instance, about an old woman in a tower block, stands alone – but in most of the stories there are multiple links; the same wee boys appear in different situations, and there’s a recurrent examination of the Glasgow sectarian syndrome, in the title story and in others.

And in a bold yet delicate move Spence brings back one of his nice tough wee Glasgow boys, Shuggie, in a later story, ‘Brilliant’, as a teenage hardman with a steel comb in his pocket, ready for a run-in with a rival gang. Spence doesn’t specify what happened between stories – where, if you like, Shuggie went wrong; there’s no explanatory paragraph like the one we saw in ‘Jenny Stairy’s Hat’. Spence, a consummate artist, just presents the situation and leaves us to react to this waste of a nice wee boy, with pity and, maybe, shame.

We have reached the 1980s and the problem is which writers to select, which stories to single out, in what was a remarkable decade. These were the years of ‘The Glasgow group’, comprising – among others – Agnes Owens, Carl MacDougall, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, all, happily, still at work, so that no final judgment can yet be given. It’s very much a question of catching up with what they have written so far and keeping a sharp eye open for future developments.

Agnes Owens came fairly late to writing and her first novel, Gentlemen of the West, was published in 1984, but she had already attracted attention for her short stories, some of which appear in Lean Tales together with work by Kelman and Gray. Her stories are all strong, realistic and thoughtful, but one or two of them – to my mind the most successful, and certainly the most distinctive – have a further quality. This is a black humour so marked that the whole story takes on a surreal dimension; not unique in contemporary Glasgow writing, but still unusual enough to bring the reader up with a start. ‘Arabella’ is a tour de force in this style, and really must be read in full, but something of the same quality crops up – it’s almost more disturbing this way – in an apparently realistic story, ‘The Silver Cup’.

Sammy punched the air and shouted, ‘It was a pal who left it here! [it being the silver cup.] ... He just left it while we went out for a gang bang with the boys up the lane.’
     Sammy’s Ma wrinkled her forehead. ‘Gang bang?’ she repeated.
     ‘What am I going to tell him?’ demanded Sammy.

And that’s all we ever hear about the gang bang. There’s a confidence about this which marks Agnes Owens out as a considerable writer.

Carl MacDougall published a collection of stories, Elvis is Dead, in 1986, though his reputation in this field had been high for a number of years as his stories appeared regularly in magazines and the annual Scottish Short Stories. There’s great variety in his work. Some of his stories are very funny: I recommend ‘Mister Brown the Taxi’, and what must by now be a minor humorous classic, ‘The Thomson Family Read The Sun’. Some, however, aren’t funny at all; far from it.

He doesn’t always write about Glasgow – don’t miss ‘The Soldier’s Tale’, a totally horrifying and credible story with its roots in the troubles of Northern Ireland – but when he does, he manages better than almost any other writer to communicate place and people together, and in balance; our intangible criterion for a Glasgow short story. Quotation doesn’t do justice to the complex and moving story ‘Getting On’, but in it we meet a young couple buying and decorating their first flat:

It was wonderful on a sunny winter afternoon: the gas-fire going snicker-snack, an opera on Radio Three, the Sunday papers, our chairs drawn over to the window, Lapsang Souchong; looking across the city, the river and the cranes, the high-rise flats, hills in the background and sunsets that bled the days dry.

Then they meet the old lady downstairs, forty years in the close, who says about her new neighbours: ‘They’ve taken a good close and they’ve ruined it.’ She goes on:

‘I could tell you some stories about the houses in this close. What’s the use, different people here now. This lot,’ again she waved her hand, ‘I don’t even know some of their names. One of them told me, such a quiet area and such a lovely view. View: I never see it. You don’t live on views.’

But this fine story – with his others – must be read in full and with care for a proper appreciation of Carl MacDougall’s work. He has since published two novels but I think there’s something special about his short stories; make up your own mind.

Alasdair Gray published a number of his short stories in the volume Unlikely Stories, Mostly in 1983, others in Lean Tales, and recently a new collection Ten Tales Tall and True (1993). In all three books – as one would expect from the author of Lanark – text, artwork and typography combine in a seamless unity. As to the stories themselves, no two are alike, and here again quotation absolutely fails to convey their flavour.

Which to choose? The hilarious story of ‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’, perhaps? This introduces us, among much else, to ‘the world’s first knitting frame, later nicknamed "McMenamy’s knitting granny" ’, and I should add it’s a real live granny. The ironic parable ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’? The haunting little story ‘The Star’, written when Gray was only seventeen?

If I had to choose one, it might be ‘The Comedy of the White Dog’. It begins with the straightforward sentence: ‘On a sunny afternoon two men went by car into the suburbs to the house of a girl called Nan.’ There’s a dog lying on the lawn, ‘a small white sturdy dog with a blunt pinkish muzzle and a stumpy tail’.

One of the men asks, ‘Is he asleep?’ and his friend says ‘Don’t fool yourself. He hears every word we say.’ Well, we’ve all said that about pets, haven’t we? There’s no hint yet – or is there? – of the way the story is going to develop, which it does with casual yet hair-raising power. A remark from a review of Unlikely Stories, Mostly applies well to this story, and perhaps to Gray’s short stories in general: ‘Expect to be thoroughly entertained, but don’t expect to be left feeling comfortable’.

James Kelman remains to be dealt with, and he’s a true rarity. It’s quite unusual for a writer to excel in both the novel and the short story form, yet in Kelman’s case it’s nearly impossible to decide whether he’s better at one than at the other. He tends to publish novels and short story collections alternately and his latest book, whichever it is, usually swings you in that direction. However, if I were forced to predict which he’ll finally be remembered for, I think I’d go for the short stories.

Surprising as it may now seem, Kelman didn’t find it easy at first to achieve book publication in this country; his first collection, An Old Pub Near the Angel, was published in the States in 1973. His work appeared, as we have mentioned, in Three Glasgow Writers (1976), and a booklet, Short Tales from the Night Shift, was published in 1978. These collections already contained stories like ‘No Longer the Warehouseman’ and ‘Acid’, which in their different ways surely approach perfection.

His first full collection, Not Not While the Giro, was published in 1983, Greyhound for Breakfast in 1987, and The Burn in 1991. By now we’ve all learned to recognise Kelman’s Glasgow, Kelman’s world, as set forth in these bleak, ironical, angry stories, often with a painful humour, always with absolute honesty. Not all his stories are set in Glasgow, but it may be relevant to quote a few lines which he wrote as an introduction to his section in Three Glasgow Writers:

I was born and bred in Glasgow
I have lived most of my life in Glasgow
It is the place I know best
My language is English
I write
In my writings the accent is in Glasgow
I am always from Glasgow and I speak English always
Always with this Glasgow accent
This is right enough

It would be foolish to recommend ‘a few of Kelman’s stories’ to you. If you haven’t read them already, you must read them all, immerse yourself in their world. As well as the two I’ve mentioned, however, there are others which are particular favourites of mine: ‘Not Not While the Giro’ itself, for instance, and ‘Forgetting to Mention Allende’. And there’s a small gem, ‘Old Francis’, which for me is the archetypal Kelman story. An old man on a park bench; three men stopping beside him; superficial friendliness; underlying threat. Nothing actually happens – this is often the case in a Kelman story – but something is going to happen, we dread it, and we’re helpless to stop it. In other words, we’re totally involved. This involvement is the hallmark of a Kelman story.

You may have noticed that women writers have not so far been over-represented in the history of the Glasgow short story, but the last few years have seen a great change. No account of the subject could now omit three young women writers: Dilys Rose, Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy. Dilys Rose, who was born in Glasgow, is one of the best short story writers of today, wide-ranging in the topics of her stories and thoughtful in her treatment of them. She has so far published two collections, Our Lady of the Pickpockets (1989) and Red Tides (1993). Because she has lived for some time in Edinburgh, and because the settings of her stories reflect her years of travelling and working overseas, she is perhaps on the margin of the Glasgow short story scene, but I would recommend ‘Barely an Incident’, set (I would say) in Queen Street Station, as another story which leaves the reader shaken and self-questioning.

Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy, on the other hand, were born in Ayrshire and Dundee respectively, but have settled in Glasgow, and it does seem that they are finding Glasgow a good place to write. Galloway published her first stories in 1986 and her collection Blood appeared in 1991. She is possibly best-known for her two novels, The Trick is To Keep Breathing and Foreign Parts, but, again, there’s something most distinctive about her short stories. Hers is very physical writing: you’ll probably never visit a dentist again after reading ‘Blood’, nor stand at a butcher’s counter with any degree of comfort after ‘The Meat’. She is often aligned with urban realist writers like Kelman, but, like Agnes Owens, she sounds occasionally a note of surrealism: as in ‘Breaking Through’, where the cat is seen ‘sheathed in golden-hearted arrows of flame’, later to be joined by his mistress, and in ‘It Was’, where a girl finds a face lying in the mud as she walks along. Her ‘Scenes from the Life’, stories in dramatic or film-script format, are particularly strong, packed with closely-observed detail, pared to the bone. One of them in particular, ‘The Community and the Senior Citizen’, must be read, though it isn’t fun to read.

Galloway is often cited as a feminist writer. Her central character is often a woman alone, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. Her characters explore what is to them very definitely a man’s world, and question its assumptions, as in the fine story ‘Fearless’. Fearless is a drunken derelict who shouts and swears at the women and children in the small town of her upbringing, and she observes that ‘we had to put up with it the way we put up with everything else that didn’t make sense or wasn’t fair’. She rebels, but:

I still hear something like him ... coming across open, derelict spaces at night, blustering at bus stops where I have to wait alone. With every other woman, though we’re still slow to admit it, I hear it, still trying to lay down the rules ... The outrage is still strong, and I kick like a mule.

A.L. Kennedy’s stories, collected so far in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1991) and Now That You’re Back (1994), are unique in their structured power. A typical Kennedy story opens in a wandering, casual way; hard to see what, if anything, is ever going to relate to anything else. By the end we know the answer. Everything has been relevant, everything connects, and it connects with stunning force.

The stories (and her equally distinguished novels) move with beautiful freedom between present and past, sometimes letting us glimpse the future: after the last words of ‘Tea and Biscuits’, for instance, or ‘The Moving House’, what’s going to happen next is all too clear. Kennedy’s careful, gentle words draw her characters in a few lines. In ‘Didacus’ we meet a small woman called Jean who makes love with her boss before going home to her unemployed husband.

He (her husband) sits on the mattress in the way that he sits when she knows that she has to go and hold him ... The streets around them flatten under the wind as it rises and the final doors are locked until the morning ... They consider the freedom ahead.

In ‘Star Dust’ we listen to an elderly woman remembering her life: how it was and how it should have been. She has taken up photography; she loves the technical terms involved:

They are happening now, they are young words and, because I understand them, part of me can still be happening now and young.

But ideally she’d like to direct films for people that she knows – ‘for’, as well as ‘about’ – and its in those terms that we hear of her mother, her childhood, her marriage, her brief love-affair. The story works delicately on many levels to leave us with a picture of a woman we are never going to forget.

Worth reading, in addition, are short story collections by Jackie Hodgman, The Fish in White Sauce Incident, and Jimmy Miller, Tenements as Tall as Ships, both published in 1992. A collection by Jeff Torrington, The Devil’s Carousel, was published earlier this year to join his acclaimed novel Swing Hammer Swing! There have been anthologies like An East End Anthology, edited by James Kelman and Workers City, edited by Farquhar McLay, both published in 1988; and new stories are appearing in ‘little magazines’ and in pamphlets published by writers’ groups. It does seem that the Glasgow short story exists.

Quite evidently, at least, Glasgow is a good source of story ideas – a good place to observe the kind of split-second incident which so often proves to be the germ of a story. One could call up the often-cited likeness between a short story and a poem – significant content in small compass – and one could be daring enough to draw a comparison between the kind of snapshots of Glasgow life which can make a short story, and Edwin Morgan’s Instamatic Poems. There’s no need to do so, in fact, because Edwin Morgan has more or less done it himself:

As far as observation is concerned, writers who live in large cities and use urban material develop – instinctively! – a very quick, unstudied, unprying, oblique, yet intense and unforgetful way of looking at people and things: it’s like using a very good silent automatic camera disguised as a pair of eyes. To look too long at anyone is dangerous (in Glasgow at any rate – I don’t know about other places), and so the rapid flickering scan is characteristic of the urban poet. The many minute impressions are a shorthand which he can expand later within the (slightly!) less nervous world of the poem. The urban poet and the urban short story writer, gleaning impressions and crafting a work of art; the modus operandi, I’m sure, behind the Glasgow short story.

See also:


Copyright © Moira Burgess 1996.


Last updated 7 June 2011.