336 pages, Polygon
Review by Pat Black
I’ve said my farewells to the dear green place in the past couple of weeks. Like most other ex-pats I’ll probably spend the rest of my life pining after my home town (though hopefully without resorting to singer-songwriting or poor watercolours). So let’s make a start on it, with a review of one of the great novels written in the city by one of its sons.
The Dear Green Place refers to the original Gaelic name for Glasgow, Scotland – Gles Chu. You’d be forgiven for mocking the name any time you pass through – the Wet, Grey, Windy Place might be a better way of putting it. But if you’re there when the sun shines and the wind stops blowing, it can be a colourful town, right enough, from the red sandstone through to its many green places and parks. And the neon of the nightlife. Don’t forget the nightlife. Hold onto it!
Archie Hind was, for all of his days, a working man whose roles in life included that of slaughterhouse labourer and bus driver. He harboured dreams of becoming an author, though – and they came true in 1966 when he published his first and only complete work. It took four major literary accolades in its time, including the Guardian First Book Award, but sadly it didn’t quite make enough money to provide Archie with the freedom to write that he craved. He published journalism, wrote some plays and attempted another novel, Fur Sadie – which is included in this book – but that was our lot from Archie. He died in 2008 aged 79.
The Dear Green Place is a weird piece in a lot of ways precisely because it avoids the kind of clichés which occasionally bedevil literature from Scotland, and Glasgow in particular. There aren’t the cheeky young scamps, windowsill-dwelling harridans and inverse snobbery we sometimes see on show from writers such as George Friel (great though Mr Friel was). There’s little nostalgia about the life of the book’s protagonist, Mat Craig, almost certainly modelled on the author’s own experiences.
Mat is working as a clerk for a manufacturing company in Glasgow when we meet him – not long demobbed from war service. It’s a steady job, and that’s all someone from Mat’s working class background can ask for... Or is it? He wants to write. He has ambitions to make great art in that industrial, pragmatic city. Worse still, his job bores him. Politically attuned to the left, he holds the highest hopes and ambitions, way beyond those of his kindly, well-read father (not based on Hind’s own dad, I understand). But away from the writing and the pseudy conversations with his relatives and friends, he simply has to work. There’s no escape from that – no funding from rich parents, no easy shuffle from ancient university to well-paid job, no concrete aspirations in that grey time after the Second World War. And soon a wife and family come along. But still, Mat must strive.
There’s a brilliant section detailing a walk Mat takes along the river Clyde one morning when he simply decides not to go to work. This is not the decision of a lazy man, but of one driven in a different direction to the one the rails are running. He speaks about the industrial apparatus that clogs up the river and its tributaries in almost glowing terms. What he would make of the river now, cleared of all the pipes and chemicals and shipyards, cleaner, but a graveyard of a proud industrial past, we can only guess.
Then there’s an astonishing part set in a slaughterhouse where Mat finds and takes a job, detailing exactly what happens to the poor cows once they are herded into the slaughtering pen, down to the last drop of blood used for the black pudding. One of the creatures almost takes its revenge on Mat before going under the hammer, a scene that sticks with you.
Drinking and violence is less well-described – clichéd though it is, this one-two punch of excess does partly define Glasgow and the west of Scotland, like it or not – with only the odd incident showing how alcoholism, bloodshed and stinging prejudice can blight a whole place. He also steers well clear of sectarianism, another unfortunate and uncomfortable fact of life in the dear green place... and how some people must hate the “green” part.
But by and large this is a depiction of the working man’s struggle to fit into a way of life that must have seemed barred. There’s a prevailing attitude in Glasgow that in life you’ll get to work, you’ll get by, and you’ll die – and sooner than you think. Hind rejected this. He was one of the pathfinders of working class Glaswegian artists after the war; his contemporaries Alasdair Gray and James Kelman followed in his footsteps, and Gray’s foreword to this new edition is a fantastic read in its own right. I do love this idea of these creative geniuses getting together at literary salons held at Archie’s house, huddled together in a kitchen as if it was a Parisian cafe and discussing art, writing and politics.
I got a shock with the fragment, Fur Sadie. A play on Beethoven’s Fur Elise, rendered in the Glaswegian dialect, this is the tale of a middle-aged east end housewife in a drab marriage who decides to rekindle her teenage love of piano playing. Sadie hooks up with a teacher, a tempestuous bull of a man named McKay (“she realised he was a widower or unmarried... she wondered if his underclothes were clean”). They don’t get along at first, and Sadie struggles with her lessons... But gradually she starts to get into it. She begins to laugh with McKay. And then...
We’ll never know. Brilliant as it is, Hind let the story go. It gets so you dread the moment when the pages start to run out, and you resent the fact you will never find out how Sadie’s education ends. But the fragment is a fine showcase of Hind’s skills, and how far they had progressed since The Dear Green Place. The author manages a difficult trick; to write about music, something that never translates well to prose. Hind makes it sing, right enough.
It’s an awful shame that Hind didn’t get to write so much more, that he had bigger fish to fry than writing books. But his work has survived and is remembered. It’s not a tragedy.