Zoe Strachan drags Irvine Welsh’s and Alan Warner’s writing from out of the closet…
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electric tin openers. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. But whatever you do, don’t choose homosexuality.
Traditionally, this has been the general feeling in Scottish fiction over the years. More recently, we have become familiar with the dull, thudding masculinity of Kelman, Sharp, McIlvanney, Gunn. Even these days, as Chris Whyte has highlighted, ‘to be gay and to be Scottish, it would seem, are still mutually exclusive conditions.” (Whyte, Gendering The Nation, 1995). Now, at the end of the millennium, we have hopefully moved on from our national literary stereotype of the tortured, lonely (heterosexual, probably homophobic) anti-hero. (Think Cuffee, Laidlaw, Finn, Doyle and so forth). We have left behind the good old days when women stayed in the kitchen, entrapping men then withholding their love, and potential queers were suitably pathetic, warped and unhappy. Yet still we cannot readily disagree with Berthold Schoene that, “Scotland is still waiting for the emergence and subsequent ‘coming out’ of a generation of angry young men who, unafraid of their own feelings, would dare contest the misogynous and homophobic rules of the ‘Emotional Establishment’ inside” (Schoene, “Angry Young Masculinity”, in Whyte ed., 1995). Yes, there are (finally) many female authors at the very forefront of Scottish literature. Yes, Scottish poetry boasts some of the best lesbian and gay writers. So how long must we wait for this heralded new breed of angry young man? And might there also be an angry young woman?
Perhaps we need not wait that long. Perhaps the picture is not as bleak as an unreconstructed (or should that be undeconstructed?) kailyard in winter. At the end of the nineteenth century the “kailyard” (literally, cabbage patch) was all the rage amongst Scottish writers such as J.M. Barrie, F.R. Crockett and Ian MacLaren. Kailyard literature painted a sentimental, highly romanticised picture of rural and small town life in Scotland, full of the local colour of the Scots tongue. The only problem was, it bore little resemblance to the often harsh reality of the time. The realisation that all in the garden wasn’t quite so lovely didn’t come until 1901, and the publication of The House With The Green Shutters by G. Douglas.
This time round however, the fin de siècle has seen the emergence of another new genre, one that seems set to catapult us into the next millennium with rather more truth, not to mention style – the “satanic kailyard” (the name comes from a forthcoming essay by Christopher Harvie entitled “Kelman, the Canon, and the Satanic Kailyard”). This wonderfully appropriate term describes contemporary texts by Scottish authors such as Welsh, Warner, Hird, Legge and so on; that is to say the new generation of Scottish authors writing about Scottish urban working class youth in all its dubious, depraved, or just plain deranged, glory. The old cabbage patch has become the new housing scheme. The characters are more likely to work the benefit system than the land, and would generally rather settle down to heroin and Temazepam than neeps and tatties. However, has there been an equivalent revolution in sexuality? The satanic kailyard texts that will be considered here are Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House and Alan Warner’s The Sopranos, although reference will also be made to their debut novels, Trainspotting and Morvern Callar respectively. In the light of these texts then, the question which springs to mind is: in contemporary Scottish literature, why is it suddenly cool to be queer?
One of the primary aspects of satanic kailyard in general which is important in this context is its relation to popular culture, something which hasn’t always been de rigeur in Scottish fiction to date. It is perhaps due to the relative youth of the authors themselves that the details of their characters tend to be just right – they wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, go to the right clubs, take the right drugs, and so on – for people in their situations. Therefore it is reasonable to extrapolate that they will also have the right attitudes, and, “homosexuality has become acceptably familiar, if not yet unremarkable, for a growing generation.” (Andy Medhurst, “Wish You Were Queer?”, The Face, Jan 1999). With this in mind, let us proceed to examine the texts in question, and their portrayal of homosexuality, in depth.
Out of the collection of stories which make up The Acid House it is undoubtedly the novella, “A Smart Cunt” which is the most interesting as regards homosexuality. Brian, the central character, is straight in the sense of being heterosexual. However, there is another, far more important sense of the word in which he tends to be far from ‘straight” – that pertaining to drug use. In any narrative by Welsh, this is how we must understand the term. Brian’s friend Denise, on the other hand, is gay, as it seems is Penman. In many respects Denise is stereotypically camp; he “pouts with a saucy wink,” ‘squeals excitedly” and “minces smartly.” Needless to say, these activities are never performed by a heterosexual male character. Despite his apparent effeminacy though, Denise is easily capable of the aggression typical of most other characters in Welsh. When one of his “young queens” annoys him his reaction is instant, “BATTER YIR FUCKIN CUNT IN, SON!” He is in no way ineffectual.
Denise and Brian grew up together on the same housing scheme, a place to which Denise says he will never return. With the additional knowledge of narrator, Brian explains, “Denise never really fitted in back there. Too camp; too much of a superiority complex.” Obviously, Denise did not fit in primarily because he was gay, but it is interesting that the narrator doesn’t exactly say that. Instead, he gives us other options to add to our unspoken assumption of prejudice. This is borne out by the fact that even when Denise moved away from the scheme into the gay scene of central Edinburgh he did not find acceptance: “Gay punters that hang around Chapps, The Blue Moon and The Duck hate Denise. His stereotypical queen stuff embarrasses most homosexuals.” So in effect Denise is a double outsider – rejected both by scheme and scene alike. This is not as bleak as it may at first seem though; we learn that Denise “loves to be hated.” Although he actively chooses to be disliked he manages to retain a wide circle of loyal (and often heterosexual) friends.
Denise is not the only character with a penchant for camp; Brian himself engages in camp banter with his heterosexual friends, “Raymie sighs . . . then puts his tongue in my ear. I peck him on the cheek and pat his arse – You’re raw sex, Raymie, raw fuckin sex man, I tell him.” The emphasis on camp throughout “A Smart Cunt” may have a significant function in the text, apart from providing humour. Marty Roth quotes Andrew Britton as saying that the over-the-top performance of camp requires a ‘sense of perversity in relation to bourgeois norms” as well as resulting in ‘the frisson of transgression” (Roth, “Homosexual Expression and Homophobic Censorship: The Situation of the Text,” in Bergman ed., Camp Grounds, 1993). These two qualities tend to be possessed both by Welsh’s writing and by his characters; in this case the use of camp helps to create this sense of transgression.
The key point about “A Smart Cunt” in this context is found in the narrator’s attitude to his gay associates, Denise and Penman. They are his friends, their sexuality is not an issue for him, or indeed for others in the group such as Veitchy, Raymie and Spud. Brain has a sound knowledge of the gay scene and the gay lexicon. For example, he recognises when Denise is choosing to act like a stereotype, and he appreciates who is a queen and that the term does not apply to all homosexuals. This very aware attitude is thrown into relief by his diatribe against the crème de la crème of Scottish masculinity, the Hardman (actually a “big sensitive blouse”), ‘the Scottish Hardman chips a nail, so he head-butts some poor fucker.” In Brian’s schema it is the Hardman , not the homosexual, that is the “other”. The reverse tends to be true in his society; at one point he is beaten up merely for his association with Denise. This fits in with Jonathan Dollimore’s suggestion that, “homosexuality is so strangely integral to the selfsame heterosexual cultures which denounce it” (Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence, 1991). After all, where would the Hardman be without the gay man? In much of Scottish society, as in Scottish literature, the Hardman, or even just the heterosexual man, feels constantly obliged to strive against being mistaken for a poof.
It is a woman, Olly, who actually vocalises homophobic sentiments. To her, Denise is a “fuckin sick queer,” or a ‘sick poof.” Unlike Brian, she fears being damned by association, “I’m no fuckin fag hag.” Naturally, Brian springs to Denise’s defence, “he’s my friend . . . stop aw this homophobic shite: it’s a total drag.” This is rather ironic given Brian’s attitude to women, for example, ‘the main reason I was here was that it was full of fanny and I hadn’t had a shag in five months.”
One final positive characteristic of Brian, rare in Scottish literary males, is his ability to indulge in homosocial activity without the traditional angst. Schoene has commented on the phenomenon displayed by, but by no means limited to, Alan Sharp’s male characters:
The fear of being mistaken for a “queer” is so great that the manly courage of angry young men dwindles drastically when they come to realise the “dubious” intensity of their own emotional attachment to other men . . . natural enthusiasm for homosocial contacts . . . might be interpreted as the expression of a latent . . . homosexual desire.” (Schoene in Whyte ed., 1995)
Brian does not suffer from such insecurities about his own sexuality. On a night out with Penman, apparently a gay man, he explains, “I’d never felt so close to anyone, well, not another man, as I did to Penman that night. It was a lovers-without-the-shagging type scene.” Then, after meeting ex-lover Olly, “I went over and held Penman in my arms for a long time.” However, just as we become excited and let ourselves believe that Brian might be about to jump out of the closet we remember that he is, at this time, under the influence of Ecstasy. It seems that in a drug altered state intimate male bonding is more acceptable, and feelings can be acknowledged more readily.
Mark Renton in Trainspotting, perhaps Welsh’s most (in)famous creation, is not dissimilar in attitude to Brian, as is particularly apparent in the “London Crawling” section of the book. Chris Whyte says of this novel, “in a faithfulness to older paradigms which verges on the touching, Welsh’s only acknowledged gay character is a double outsider, an Italian immigrant encountered in London.” This is undeniable (with the exception of two lesbians who are introduced in “Feeling Free”), but again we can argue that it is Renton’s attitude towards Giovanni which is revealing. In fact, he is surprisingly benign – given that Giovanni first of all makes a pass at him in a dodgy cinema, and then abuses him as he sleeps (in a particularly unpleasant way!). Certainly, Renton is angry at first, but he soon ends up comforting and hugging the older man, feeling genuine sympathy for him, and in the end takes him to a party. Very charitable indeed. At the end of the night he muses, “ah might end up whappin it up the wee cunt’s choc-box yit.” Whyte quotes this as an especially damning comment, showing just how little Welsh has diverged from older paradigms. However, another reading might say that within the social and sexual register of Welsh it is a perfectly acceptable comment; considering the manner in which characters talk about women they fancy, or indeed love.
Besides, how often in Scottish literature do we find the “male lead” admitting to picking up a “gorgeous young queen” and taking him home for a bit of oral sex? Renton recalls this incident rather fondly – perhaps with amusement – but definitely without shame. Despite this event, Renton isn’t even bisexual, never mind gay. He did it because in London normal conventions don’t apply, “Ye can be freer here, no because it’s London, but because it isnae Leith.” It seems that being in London is a more potent, more liberating, altered state than being on Ecstasy is for Brian. The encounter with Giovanni also provokes Renton to consider his own sexuality again, “How the fuck dae ah ken ah’m no a homosexual if ah’ve nivir been wi another guy?.” Obviously for Renton gay sex must include anal sex to be “proper” – the “gorgeous young queen” doesn’t quite count. This is disappointing, after all, in the real world no such condition applies for gay men. Perhaps it is because anal sex is virtually essential in heterosexual relationships in Welsh’s writing that it is seen as absolutely essential in homosexual ones. Unsurprisingly, in the end Renton concludes that he is only really attracted to women, but comments, “It’s aw aboot aesthetics, fuck all tae dae with morality.” Mark Renton is no homophobe, and goes through a very normal and rational questioning of his own sexual preference. In comparison to someone like Begbie, for instance, he is positively enlightened.
Thus far we have only considered male homosexuality. What of lesbianism? It is true that we seem to be experiencing something of a backlash in the wake of the “lesbian chic” of the past couple of years. As Medhurst puts it in The Face, “dykes are yesterday’s news.” Not so for Alan Warner, especially in his latest novel, The Sopranos. The first clue we are given as to what the future holds for Fionnula (‘the Cooler”) comes when her friend Chell notes, ‘she’s been queerer and queerer lately, the crazy chick.” No author can seriously believe that readers these days will only take “queer” to mean strange or odd, so we instantly wonder just how queer Fionnula is going to become.
At first, she seems to have the same concerns as the other Sopranos – clothes, make up, drinking, and, of course, sailors. However, when she reaches the big city, Edinburgh, she experiences some of the slackening of normal constraints which Renton noticed in London. Initially, she considers her relationship with her best friend, Manda, ‘she just does all these really funny things that make me smile and smile, och, those sort of things make ya almost fall in love wi someone.” There are echoes of Brian in “A Smart Cunt” and his closeness to Penman, but in this case the examination of same sex friendship marks Fionnula’s first tentative step towards identifying her developing sexuality. Later on, she comments, “ah’ve always known, soon as I’m out of Our Lady’s am away fro the Port an down here in a jiffy.” One wonders if Fionnula, in her Wonderbra and high heels, would find any more acceptance in the gay scene than Denise.
The crucial moment for Fionnula comes when she discovers that Kay has had a lesbian experience; that she is not alone in her attraction to other women. However, Kay’s experience was not entirely homosexual, in that she ended up in menage à trois with a man and a woman, and indeed became pregnant as a result of it. On the one hand this is interesting as it acknowledges that sexuality isn’t necessarily clear cut; both Kay and Catriona could be described as bisexual. However, it also serves to blunt the impact of what Kay has done. The fact that a man was involved at all makes it less radical (perhaps for a predominantly heterosexual readership) than if she and Catriona had been alone together. Kay herself says immediately, “Catriona isn’t lesbian! Just that bit bi.” When Fionnula asks her how she feels about it she isn’t terribly enthusiastic: “I was really drunk that night and it just happened” and “It’s really good, Kay says in a way that sounded to Fionnula as if she might be talking about a bowl of soup or a drink.” Nevertheless this perhaps does not reflect her attitude so much as her narrative function at this stage – she is there to provide an “out” for Fionnula’s sexuality – and she does at least treat it as a very normal activity.
The implication which is made by both Fionnula and the narrator is that Kay can afford to experiment; she lives outside the Port, she is middle class, she is not a Soprano. Fionnula says, “you have a bit of space an got away wi that scot-free but someone would be sure an clipe on me.” She is painfully aware of the social reaction she is likely to get. However this also results in a pleasing irony; if anything Kay is a triple outsider, and her friendship with Fionnula is the only reason she is accepted by the sopranos in the first place.
Fionnula’s reaction to Kay’s news is not simply one of interest or relief that she is not alone. Already attracted to Kay, it provokes strong sexual excitement, “downwards Fionnula’s stomach dived and simultaneous a jellyfish sting, right in her fanny, and up, in an awful wonder came it’s warm spreadingness.” Warner tends to acknowledge and depict female desire very effectively, but this does make us ask why this is an awful wonder; because it is new to Fionnula or because it is homosexual in nature? In the end, Fionnula’s coming out is scarcely a coming out at all as such, “It’s just. Fionnula shook her head, Ah think ah like girls as much as boys. She paused a long time, Maybe more.” Fionnula at no point refers to herself as lesbian, even in a hypothetical sense. This could be an example of the trend towards “sex without labels” which Andy Medhurst envisages, or, “the arbitrary nature of sexual definition, the extent to which our sexualities are shaped by the larger social discourse” (Martin, “Roland Barthes: Toward An Ecriture Gaie”, in Bergman ed., 1993). Or, in Warner’s narrative, as in the Port, lesbianism might really be the Love that dare not speak its name.
The Port for Fionnula is similar to Leith for Renton, or the scheme for Denise, in that it is a place where the taboo on homosexuality remains firmly in place. As Andy Medhurst notes, “the ‘normalisation’ of homosexuality is a very recent development . . . there are still plenty of places where queers have to operate in virtually pre-War secrecy.” As we have seen, these places are often the very places that Warner and Welsh set their narratives, small towns and the housing schemes which surround big cities (effectively small towns in themselves). Given these settings it would be unrealistic to expect an “out and proud” attitude from all the characters. This does not, on the other hand, mean that Scottish fiction as a whole must behave as a small town where homosexuality is concerned.
However, in The Sopranos Fionnula and Kay ultimately present a challenge to everyone who is gathered for the finale in the Mantrap, or ‘the Night Fionnula McConnel Slow danced Wi Kay Clarke” – unfortunately to the rather twee accompaniment of There Are Worse Things I Could Do. At first they aren’t ‘star attraction” as “Kylah spun onto the floor doing a pretty good waltz, with her arms wrapped passionately round the sanny bin.” If that had been how things had stayed then a sense of perspective on the situation would have been retained. In the Mantrap, however, the act of two girls dancing together is a very big deal indeed. Although their friends are watching, the main audience is of men, who move nearer to get a better look. Indeed, in one sense Fionnula and Kay embody an exceptionally clichéd male fantasy – not only lesbian, but Catholic, and schoolgirls as well! Hence it is quite a relief that when they do actually have sex Warner does not dwell too much upon the scene, and emphasises the fact that Fionnula feels as if she’s falling in love.
This marks quite a departure from Morvern Callar, where the strong homoerotic subtext between Morvern and her best friend Lanna is played out in a series of rather exploitative scenes. In some cases a male character is present to assume the role of voyeur, at other times it is left up to the reader to do so. For example, Lanna tends to help Morvern to get changed, always “biting her lip,” apparently an indication of scarcely concealed lust. When Morvern puts on her supermarket uniform, Lanna, ‘smoothed the nylon onto me with her palms.” Lanna also fastens Morvern’s suspenders before a night out, then later on unrolls Morvern’s stockings to reveal her glittery knee to the men in the pub. “Everyone was watching,” and some men whistle at her exposed thigh. When they finally end up at a party, they decide, somewhat bizarrely, to have a shower together, “as per usual . . . to save time.” This (naturally) allows plenty of opportunity for soaping each other and so on. It is hardly a surprise when at the end of the night a game of strip poker turns into a menage à quatre. At first Morvern just watches, but soon she joins in as well, “I let them do anything to me and tried to make each as satisfied as I could.” Although Morvern Callar is unusual and progressive (for Scottish fiction) in that it has a first person female narrator yet is written by a man, Warner goes even further with The Sopranos; moving from subtext to actually encompassing homosexuality within the plot.
Although any action between Morvern and Lanna is heavily veiled, Fionnula and Kay first kiss in full view of everyone in the Mantrap, in “clear and vivid” light. Kylah gives Fionnula a chance to pretend nothing has happened, “when yur wasted enough , you’ll snog, that’s the way it goes, I’ve near snogged ma brother out of boredom when ah’ve been pissed enough,” the implication being that a same sex kiss is along the same lines as an incestuous kiss. “If Fionnula and Kay had been willin to leave it at that, they might of had the whole thing forgot, an put down to another drunken night,” but it isn’t just another drunken night, it is a huge stepping stone on Fionnula’s path to self-discovery. She decides, “If You’re gonna burn your bridges burn them,” and goes home with Kay.
Fionnula’s best friend Manda is the only one who reacts badly to the situation, “Fionnula, ya can’t go around doin that, people’ll think you were lezzie,” also trying to deal with the information about Catriona, “ma oh-so-fantastic sister is a pervy lesbian.” The next day, Orla suggests that Manda is, “just jealous” and even says to Fionnula, “telling you, she would go for it with you now.” Then the other sopranos turn up and Fionnula’s news is soon lost amid all the other things that have happened; Orla losing her virginity and getting ill again, Manda and the bouncer, the reprieve on being expelled. Even Manda now behaves as though nothing untoward has happened; her initial homophobia appears to have been conquered.
So, in these examples of “satanic kailyard” we have seen a gay man with a female name and a violent streak, a male central character with lots of gay friends, another who has had a homosexual experience, a female main character coming out and several women with blurred sexual identities. These are the new angry young men and women. Not bad for Scottish fiction. None of these are anywhere near being homosexual texts, after all, “A text is not homosexual because there are homosexual characters, even less because two boys get married at the end: such texts are only the transposition of traditional heterosexual narration” (Martin, in Bergman ed., 1993). Warner and Welsh may be cult reading, but a Scottish Dennis Cooper has not yet appeared on the literary scene. These texts do however go some way towards normalising homosexuality, by acknowledging that it has a place in mainstream texts as well as in exclusively gay literature.
Earlier on we asked why this normalisation of homosexuality was becoming apparent in these texts, and concluded that it was a necessary reflection of changed attitudes within the society which they depict (which of course includes the readers who buy these books). This is certainly true. There is however another important function of this phenomenon – subversion. In Scottish fiction it is apparent that, as Schoene says, “heterosexual masculinity is still commonly regarded as ‘the normative gender’ and heterosexual men are still widely believed to be the only adequate representatives of our species . . . straight masculinity is a given that has hitherto remained undefined.” Warner blatantly rejects this ridiculous, yet tenacious, notion by having a female narrator in Morvern Callar, and an almost exclusively female cast of characters, including a lesbian central character, in The Sopranos. Welsh subverts it more subtly. At first glance, Renton and Brian might seem to follow the norm of heterosexual masculinity. On closer inspection, as we have seen, this is not the case. By giving Brian gay friends, or by allowing Renton a homosexual encounter, Welsh is in fact undermining this traditional notion of undefined straight masculinity. Both authors have therefore challenged the heterosexual male stereotype so beloved of Scottish writing.
This is part of the reason why these texts are so important. They do not nod towards any politicised notion of homosexuality because they have their roots in a society where people recognise their unequivocal right to be gay, or to not bother defining their sexuality at all. Many Scottish authors remain rooted in a time or place where homosexuality is somehow unacceptable. That time is over, that place has almost disappeared, but for the most part Scottish fiction has not caught up. This is 1999, and, according to Andy Medhurst, “the days of homosexuality-as-issue are drawing to a close,” and about time too. In Scottish poetry, this is old news, as poets such as Jackie Kay and David Kinloch have proved. Is the prose world waiting for an Edwin Morgan of its own to hammer home the point that it’s okay to be gay, even in Scotland?
It’s time for Scottish fiction to get a grip. Come out of the closet. Choose the future.