As a fan of the books of Alasdair Gray and Robin Jenkins, I always hope I can find another Scottish author to read, so when I came across the name Agnes Owens, I decided to try one of her books. This led me to Bad Attitudes–a book that includes two unconnected novellas: Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party. I read some reviews that praised one of the novellas while finding the other tale lacking. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and while the stories were quite different, they also shared some common characteristics.
There’s something a little off about the characters in Owens’ grim, darkly funny stories, and if you like the novels of Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark (I’m a fan of both), then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy Owens. Although, Owens’ characters are working class–not quite the genteel crowd you might expect to find in a Muriel Spark novel.
Even though Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party are novellas and not full novels, the characters are very well developed, larger than life, strong, and distinct people. The most disturbing feature of the stories is that these characters–a little off, a little strange, all varying degrees of antisocial–seem very real and could very well be people who live next door or very like people you know. But more of that later….
In Bad Attitudes, the Dawson family is relocated from a slum scheduled for demolition to a new block of flats. This is, I suppose, a process of gentrification as the Dawsons are moved from the slum to a bright new shiny upstairs flat, but according to the fussy, nosy elderly Mrs Webb who claims she hasn’t had a “minute’s peace” since the family moved in, the Dawsons have a “seedy, untrustworthy look.” The Dawsons–mother Rita , father Harry and two sons: Peter and Jim really just want to mind their own business and be left alone, but Mrs Webb begins gathering complaints against the family. In her vendetta against the Dawsons, Mrs Webb looks for support from a neighbour named Frances. But according to Mrs Webb, Frances remains blissfully unaware (or chooses to remain unaware) of any wrongdoing on the part of the Dawsons.
Unfortunately, Mrs Webb’s persistent complaints pay off, and the Dawson’s dog is the first victim of gentrification. This sets off a nasty chain of events as Peter Dawson begins ditching school to visit his old neighbourhood and Shanky Devine, an old neighbour who refuses to leave the derelict building. Meanwhile the Dawson’s marriage, now subject to a number of new pressures begins to collapse, and Mrs Dawson, desperate to leave her husband, needs a different roof over her head. This leads Rita Dawson into the lecherous schemes of an opportunistic, unscrupulous councillor–a man who fancies himself as Marlon Brando and whose wife isn’t quite as dull and stupid as he imagines.
In Jen’s Party,13-year-old Jen Boulting lives with her mother Maude and her derelict Aunt Belle. With Jen’s 14 th birthday on the horizon, Aunt Belle decides to organize a party for her niece. Both Maude and Jen should know that any party ‘organised’ by Aunt Belle is going to be at best–haphazard–at worst–a total disaster, but fueled by excitement and hope, Jen prepares for the best birthday party of her life….
In a different world, Aunt Belle would be a Mary Poppins type who makes magical things happen for her unpopular, dumpy niece, but here in Agnes Owen’s poverty-stricken working class world, Aunt Belle is a bizarre, middle aged delinquent who shoplifts, and sometimes trades sex for numerous favours:
“Everything had seemed so cheerful when Belle arrived on the doorstep like a plump gaudy fairy bestowing gifts such as cheap perfume and hand cream. It had been like Christmas for weeks on end with wine on the table as regular as sauce bottles and Jen listening to them both as they reminisced, mainly the laughable bits for the past hadn’t been wonderful. She preferred not to think of scenes in the months that followed , particularly the one with the policeman standing in the kitchen and accusing Belle of shoplifting. It was even better to forget how Belle had managed to pay the fines that were always cropping up. Maude visualised her going round the supermarket and filling her bag straight from the shelves. So far she’d got away with that, which wasn’t so bad, and the tins of salmon came in handy, but it still wasn’t right. Even now she could be arguing with the manager in broken French which she usually assumed to get out of a hole. Then like an apparition she was suddenly present, jarring Maude’s sense with her orange hair and purple eye shadow.”
At the same time, there is something wonderful about Aunt Belle’s unorthodox approach to life–she does makes things happen and she isn’t hampered by the same worries as her much more conventional sister. While Maude worries about what the neighbours might think, Belle isn’t troubled by such “petty bourgeois” concerns. In one scene in the novella, Aunt Belle charges over to the home of the snotty, pretentious Mrs Woods, and convinces her–through an Oscar-worthy acting performance that appeals to Mrs Woods’s snobbery–to allow her daughter to attend Jen’s Party.
The stories are the stuff of everyday life. Owens’ characters don’t worry about the underlying meaning of existence. They are too bogged down in the everyday petty concerns of life: nosy neighbours, paying the rent, dodging government officials, and putting food on the table. Here hypocrisy joins forces with pettiness, poverty aligns with reality and women are subject to the vagaries of the men in their lives. Owens leaves no corner of privacy for her characters to hide in, and by including very real bickering exchanges, some of the scenes recreate the gossipy claustrophobia of living in poverty–where nothing is private and everyone knows everyone else’s business. In one brilliantly funny scene, social worker Tom goes to the Dawson’s flat to investigate why Peter isn’t attending school, and at first the Dawsons are hostile and uncommunicative. But then Harry and Rita Dawson both sense a potential ally and drag Tom into their simmering domestic dispute:
“Tom decided to intervene. ‘I don’t think belting solves anything. What you both should do is sit down with Peter and find out why he stays off school. Perhaps he’s getting bullied, or perhaps being a new pupil he feels left out of things. I know it can be difficult but -‘
‘You’re bloody right, it can be difficult,’ said Harry. ‘I’ve tried talking to him but he doesn’t listen. His eyes go blank and he stares into the distance. He’s supposed to be my son but I sometimes wonder.’
‘He doesn’t listen because all you do is nark,’ said Rita.
‘And what do you do, give him money for fags so as you can go to bingo.’ He looked at Tom. ‘Do you know, nearly every night she goes to bingo. That’s a lot worse than narking.’ “
Even the characters’ sex lives are not sacrosanct and this creates a sort of humourous, undesirable intimacy with some of the unpleasanter facts of life–when Mr Dawson, for example, reestablishes his rights by repetitive reclamation sex.
This was my first Agnes Owens and what a delightful, marvellous and wickedly funny discovery.