People Like That

People Like That was published in 1996 when Agnes Owens’ writing was briefly recognised, thanks in part to the support of other Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, all three contributing to Lean Tales in 1985. Sadly, the neglect which her work has generally suffered seems once again to be predominant, which will be all the more astonishing to the reader of the short stories which make up this collection, as vivid and vital as they are.

Owens’ career as a published writer, which began in the mid-eighties, was interrupted by the death of her youngest son in 1987 and, unsurprisingly, missing or dead children feature in a number of stories, including the title story, where a mother waits on the arrival of her son at a railway station. When the train empties, her son is nowhere to be seen until she notices “one young man coming towards her who might possibly be him.” He isn’t, of course:

“It was terrible the way she got everything wrong these days.”

In ‘The Hut’, in which a husband and wife sit in a shed on an allotment discussing a boy who hasn’t turned up – the husband jealous of the wife’s apparent keenness for the boy’s return – she suddenly tells him “the boy reminded me of my son.”

“The son I would have had but for the miscarriage.”

All types of loss matter. A drowned son features in ‘Leonie’, a story which stands out for being set in France during the Occupation (a clear indication that Owens’ sketches of small-town Scotland are a choice not a limitation). As with ‘The Hut’, it is the mother’s love which survives the longest. Leonie still senses her son in his room:

“The presence was nothing she could see or touch.”

Her husband, in contrast, cruelly doubts that he is the father.

Loss, however, does not always mean certain death. In ‘Intruders’ sixteen-year-old Greta is missing. Perhaps she is at her auntie’s, but that doesn’t stop her mother going in search of her. Her husband is quick to remind her he is not Greta’s father, another reminder that men opt out of parenthood more easily:

“She’s no ma daughter…I didnae clap eyes on her until she wis ten.”

The story is suffused with a sense of dread, which its ambiguous ending does not relieve. The same dread is felt throughout Owens’ most anthologised story, ‘To the Lighthouse’, which features a girl and her little brother on a beach. A stranger (“she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to”) arouses fear in both the children and the reader, which Owens sustains until the final lines. The title, a prosaic adoption of Woolf’s rather longer story of a character who wishes to visit a lighthouse, seems far from accidental. Similarly, there are echoes of Waiting for Godot in ‘When Shankland Comes’ as cleaner Ivy reassures herself:

“Of course when Shankland came it was a different story.”

When the owner of the bar where she works fails to appear, however, and after Ivy learns she has lost her job, she goes to seek him out – no more waiting for her! She is, as one character says, “an awfy determined woman.” If Ivy is one example of the difficulties faced by a woman alone, we see another facet of this in ‘The Warehouse’. As with a number of the characters in the collection, Albert and Mavis are alcoholics. When Albert seems to have left her for another woman, Mavis begins to wonder if “life without Albert might not be so bad after all” but she soon realises that as a homeless woman, she is little more than a victim:

“…on her own she could scarcely walk two steps without somebody picking on her.”

‘Leonie’ presents the opposite case. When she goes to a memorial service for the Mayor, who has been killed by the Germans, her husband tells her, “You had no right to leave the house at such a late hour without my permission.” At the same time, he reveals his plan to leave her. As the story ends, she writes to an aunt having decided on her own escape plan. No longer controlled by her husband:

“She was so excited by her plan that she forgot to wait for the presence of her son.”

Her independence allows her to begin to overcome the grief she feels at her son’s death.

What stands out throughout these stories is Owen’s understanding of her characters, men, women and children. She writes about the lives of ordinary working-class people without either the humour or horror which is sometimes used by writers as an apology for bringing the poor into fiction. She was a key part of the incredible flourishing of Scottish writing throughout the eighties and nineties and deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated.

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6 Responses to “People Like That”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I recall you recommending this writer to me before, Grant, so it’s good to hear a littler more about her work via this review. Her focus on the domestic and the ‘everyday’ very much appeals to me. In many respects, the ways in which we deal with the small challenges in life can be very revealing…

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I love the sound of this collection, Grant – and it really does sound like she deserves rediscovery. I suspect she falls into a difficult period where her work is not old enough to be reprinted by the usual publishers like Persephone et al, but old enough to not be current. Her subject matter probably would preclude her from the kind of publisher who reprints older women writers too, but I’m drawn to the idea of her “awfy determined” women!

  3. lauratfrey Says:

    I’ve never heard of her, not surprising I suppose! These stories sound great. I haven’t read that many Scottish writer, period, let alone those who are unfairly forgotten.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s not surprising you haven’t heard of her, although her work was mainly published by UK rather than Scottish publishers. A good writer to discover as the most well known Scottish writers from that period are male.

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