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Authors: Agnes Owens

Agnes Owens

Praise for Agnes Owens

‘Agnes Owens' hallmarks have been a frank irony, a deadpan gothic quality and a down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people's normality.'

ALI SMITH

‘I think of another literary hero, Agnes Owens. What if Agnes had been “granted” a proper chance to write when she was fighting to rear her family? . . . 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?'

JAMES KELMAN

‘Agnes Owens is the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. I don't know why.'

ALASDAIR GRAY

‘Agnes Owens stuns her readers, as usual, with her good, blunt-weaponed clarity in
Bad Attitudes
.'

THE GUARDIAN

‘Owens pulls no punches. her understated prose finds acerbic humour in the lives of characters hovering between farce and tragedy . . . Owens is a gift to the Scots urban world.'

OBSERVER

‘Owens is a gentle writer with a slicing wit . . . honest and unaffected.'

SUNDAY TIMES

‘Agnes Owens has a canny eye for tragi-comedy, a compassionate heart for the unfortunate, an acute ear for dialogue and a mind that clamps her characters like a steeltrap in the predicaments of passion, poverty and the patterns of their lives.'

FINANCIAL TIMES

‘Like all Owens' fiction
Bad Attitudes
is as terse and grimly, comically deadpan as the best of Evelyn Waugh and Beryl Bainbridge.'

DAILY TELEGRAPH

‘Agnes Owens has an appealingly wicked eye for familial love on the dole . . . reminiscent of Muriel Spark.'

SUNDAY HERALD

‘These stories leave an echo. Their compassion lies in their honesty. Owens will not let us look away.'

THE HERALD on
People Like That

‘A remarkable book . . . funny and sinister'

BERYL BAINBRIDGE on
A Working Mother

‘Something in common with early Billy Connolly . . . in the sense that its observation and timing bring humour to a sad reality.'

NME on
Like Birds in the Wilderness

‘The best things in
Lean Tales
are the stories of Agnes Owens . . . she creates little dramas – rich gobbets of life.'

FINANCIAL TIMES

‘Owens's reliance on the rhythm of ordinary speech is aggressively non-literary.'

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS on
Lean Tales

‘Strong, realistic and thoughtful'

MOIRA BURGESS

‘A remarkable and idiosyncratic voice'

THE HERALD

‘Accomplished and resonant and . . . always informed with a comic astringency'

THE SCOTSMAN on
Gentlemen of the West

Agnes Owens
THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES
Agnes Owens
This ebook edition published in 2011 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road
Edinburgh
EH9 1QS
www.birlinn.co.uk
This collection first published in Great Britain in 2008 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
Gentlemen of the West
was first published by Polygon Books, 1984, copyright © Agnes Owens, 1984; Postscript copyright © Alasdair Gray, 1986;
Lean Tales
was first published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1985, copyright © Agnes Owens, 1985;
People Like That
was first published by Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1996, copyright © Agnes Owens, 1996;
The Dark Side
was first published by Polygon, 2008, copyright © Agnes Owens, 2008; Introduction copyright © Liz Lochhead, 2008
The moral right of Agnes Owens to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
ebook ISBN: 978-0-85790-140-8
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
To all those who are interested
Contents

Introduction by Liz Lochhead

Arabella (1978)
This story is first because earliest written, though eventually published in Agnes Owens' second book,
Lean Tales
.

GENTLEMEN OF THE WEST
(1984)
Thirteen stories. These were seperately written, but being episodes in one man's life were published as chapters in a novel
.

McDonald's Dug

McDonald's Mass

Grievous Bodily Harm

Tolworth McGee

The Auld Wife's Fancy Man

Up Country

The Group

Paid Aff

McCluskie's Oot

Christmas Day in the Paxton

The Aftermath

The Ghost Seeker

Goodbye Everybody

Postscript by Alasdair Gray

LEAN TALES
with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman (1985)
Eight stories, without
Arabella
.

Bus Queue

Getting Sent For

Commemoration Day

The Silver Cup

Fellow Travellers

McIntyre

We Don't Shoot Prisoners on a Sunday

A Change of Face

PEOPLE LIKE THAT
(1996)
Twelve stories
.

The Lighthouse

The Collectors

The Warehouse

When Shankland Comes

A Bad Influence

People Like That

The Marigold Field

Intruders

Léonie

The Hut

The Castle

Marching to the Highlands and into the Unknown 297

THE DARK SIDE
(2008)
Fourteen stories in a book (this one) for the first time
.

Hannah Sweeny

The Writing Group

Roses

Meet the Author

Confessions of a Serial Killer

The Moneylender

The Phantom Rapist

Annie Rogerson

Visiting the Elderly

Chairles Will Pay

Don't Call Me

Mayflies

Neighbours

The Dysfunctional Family

A Note on the Author

Introduction

I've just read ‘Arabella' again. And it had exactly the same effect on me as it did the first time I read it all those years ago. From the shift in the second sentence when it had me doing a double take, it began its work of filling me with a mounting, irresistible and exhilarating black glee. It shocked, amazed and delighted me. As it has every time I've read it – which is quite a few times, for I have never tired of it since I encountered it on the very same night I first met its author. In, oh, 1976 or maybe 1977? Here's how I remember that – which might not be exactly accurate, but is true to my memory at least.

‘Get in, get out, don't linger' is Raymond Carver's famous good advice to the writer of short stories. This dictum would apply also to the tutor of the creative writing workshop – anything
in general
about writing one has to say that's of any value at all can be said in one or two classes. I don't know why Alasdair Gray and Jim Kelman and I were getting in, getting out, and sharing the job of tutoring that short course of evening classes in the late 1970s for beginning writers in Alexandria; was it run by the libraries, or, as I seem to remember, the extramural department of Glasgow University? I suspect, though we were certainly doing it for the money (we were all three more or less broke at the time), we still couldn't bear to commit to a full twelve wintry weeks of 45 minutes-plus there and 45 minutes back, going down every Tuesday or Wednesday or whatever night it was by blue train from Central to this wee back room in the exotically named Alexandria. (Vale of Leven, the place next door, sounded like something out of the Psalms and Para -phrases!) Anyway, far from being Egyptian, Alexandria was actually a pretty dreich and miserable wee rain-and-windswept town in the
West, so we agreed to four weeks each. Maybe the local writers had various skills to hone and had asked to have a poet and a short story writer and a novelist? At any rate, I did the first stint. At the end of the first evening, frankly, with the usual sinking feeling, I took away the wee pile of writings eagerly pressed upon me by most of the dozen or so men and women who had attended the class.

Among these was a single neatly typed piece of prose by Agnes Owens called ‘Arabella'. (Agnes was working as a typist in a local factory at the time.) It began with what I'd soon know as her typical deadpan aplomb:

Arabella pushed the pram up the steep path to her cottage. It was hard going since the four dogs inside were a considerable weight.

The
four dogs.
I sat up. The blue train rattled through the darkness, I read on and it was only a swift paragraph later when, taking in how Arabella had given her mother what she'd clearly meant to be a daughterly pat on the head, I learned that ‘the response was a spittle which slid down her coat like a fast-moving snail'.

In case you've not read it yet – it opens this collection – I'm not about to spoil your fun by giving away what happens to Daddy, or with Murgatroyd or to the Sanitary Inspector, but Flannery O'Connor herself would, I think, have approved. (You know, the great Flannery O'Connor who deplores how ‘most people seem to know what a story is till they sit down to write one', and is keen to remind us that what they forget is that it ‘must be a complete dramatic action'.) That night on the train with ‘Arabella', taken aback, I tried to put this terrifying, terribly funny story, so anarchic and archetypal, so short and so complete, together with the class I'd just left and that middle-aged lady in the neat coat and woolly hat with the fringe of dark blonde hair sticking out and the full mouth that turned so decisively down at the corners. A mouth she'd hardly opened except to say a couple of laconic and sensible
things. (Creative writing workshops are generally very short of either sensible or brief remarks.)

I'd like to say I recognised Agnes's genius straight away but it's not quite true. In those days I didn't have very much confidence in my judgements (nowadays I have too much and tend to be far too dogmatic about what I do not like) and I remember a couple of days later showing ‘Arabella' to Alasdair Gray, saying something like, ‘Have I lost it altogether, or is this . . . I mean it's
wild
. . . but isn't it really rather good?' I remember him reading, very quickly and sitting very still, till he'd finished, and the gleam in his eye and the wee wince around his mouth when he looked up and said very quietly: ‘Oh, yes.'

Alasdair and, a few weeks later, Jim really were the ones to help Agnes. (I remember her saying with not quite resentment but a baleful mock consternation, ‘Jim has made me take out
all
my adverbs.' But I knew she knew he was right, otherwise she'd not have altered a word of it.) At the time, she was writing the stories that would eventually be published as
Gentlemen of the West
. Actually, I believe it was the class – she said later she only came to it because she was fed up – that made her
start
writing the stories about Mac and his cronies (although cronies is far too sentimental a way of putting it).

Gentlemen of the West
is a kind of novel, because there is an overall progression of narrative towards a hopeful ending, the only hopeful ending – escape. I like though to enjoy these not as chapters but as discrete stories, particularly as the later ones, ‘McCluskie's Oot', for instance, seem to take a quantum leap and show her coming into her own, refusing to be cute anymore. They are tough and realistic in the way all her mature work is, making you open your mouth and shut it again.

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