IAN Pattison’s latest novel uses a character with plenty of black humour to get at deeper truths.
‘There’s something about a death, even if it is only your own mother, that has you reaching into the past.” That’s Ian Pattison, the Glasgow writer who will forever be known as the creator of Rab C Nesbitt, in a novel he wrote a decade ago.
Let’s leave that word “only” hanging for a while. It can stay suspended while he walks into bar at Oran Mor and for the first half hour of our interview. He is wearing “one of those long scarves with horizontal stripes, the sort you knot in an artful way around your black-coated neck – the type of scarf which, once on, puts you in resolute denial that you are a bogus, pretentious prick.”
That quote is from Pattison’s latest novel, Unhappy Go Lucky. Wearing the long, stripy scarf is probably just Pattison’s way of checking up how closely I have read it. In the novel, the scarf is worn by Ivan Moss, a middle-aged writer, once a working-class lad from Glasgow, who now lives in a faintly bohemian apartment in the city’s West End. He has “made good money from the television racket”, has already written three novels, and is now working on his fourth.
So when I ask Govan-born Ian Pattison, who lives in the West End, has also written three novels, done well out of writing for television, and wears a long stripy, scarf knotted around his black-coated neck, whether Unhappy Go Lucky is his most autobiographical work yet, I’ve got a fair suspicion that he’s going to admit that yes, indeed it is.
Yes indeed it is, he admits. Naturally, being a writer, he’s going to add all that guff about how you have to “take the pellet of personal experience and try to make it grow luxuriant tendrils and become the exotic plant you see before you, a mixture of lies and truth.” Which he does.
In the novel, Ivan Moss’s mother has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He knows he hasn’t got her for long, and that when she’s dead, he won’t be able to find out the details of her young life – what way the wind was blowing the night she first went out with his father, whether it was raining, what they were wearing, little things like that. For one thing, getting her to talk about the past might make it easier to get round the long silences and embarrassments of terminal care. For another, who knows – there might even be a book in it. You’re right: he is that selfish.
We know this from the first two pages. We know that he’s not a likeable character, because he’s cagey about accepting an invitation to go along for a night out with his old schoolfriends. We know it because we follow his mental gaze when he spots a pregnant neighbour, “one of those exhausted, endlessly lactating middle-class breeding sows”. And just in case we haven’t already got the message that Ivan isn’t cheeriness personified, we know it because we overhear such thoughts as this: “My mother, the bitch, refused to die.”
So now it’s probably a good time to metaphorically reach up and drag down that “only” word from the first paragraph. Or not only “only”: let’s put “sow” and “my mother, the bitch” along with it from the last one. Why did Pattison make Ivan Moss so deliberately unlikeable? Why does he subvert sentimentality almost at every turn? Is that really what Scottish humour is, the bleakest and blackest in the world?
Whoa. Big questions for a little lunchtime table at Oran Mor. Let’s start off with the one about Ivan calling his dying mother a bitch. “There’s a tongue-in-cheek element,” says Pattison. “He may be a selfish bastard, but at least he is there, looking after his mother and trying to make the best of it. But all of those things are undoubtedly what he feels. I challenge anyone to say you haven’t gone into your mother’s house and within two minutes your teeth aren’t grinding at her habits.”
OK then: “middle-class breeding sows”? “There’s no contract that says that the character has to be likeable. In fact, there’s nothing more dislikeable than someone who is setting out to be likeable. See someone like that? You’d just want to punch them in the face, surely you would?”
I must admit that at this point I am playing devil’s advocate, because I too heartily get sick of people who judge novels not according to the quality of the writing but according to whether or not they happen to like its characters. But I keep quiet about that – and about what a radical change in direction this novel marks in his work – because it’s more fun to sit back and watch Pattison gently simmer.
So when I point out that many of my feminist friends would take umbrage at Ivan’s misogyny, I am rewarded by – well, not a Rab C Nesbitt, finger-wagging “I will tell you this” rant, but by its politer, West End counterpart. “They might not be my readers anyway,” Pattison begins, “if one sentence is what they take to condemn a whole book. What do you do as a writer? Do you rein it all in? Do you put your manuscript before a focus group? Do you say, ‘Ladies, would you like this book? What should I take out and what should I put in? Write your own f***ing book if that’s what that you think. Try and do it and get it out there and then you can say what you want.
“This is how my character speaks. This is what he does. By the end of page one we know he is selfish, but it becomes clear he is not only a selfish man. And it’s this ‘not only’ that helps us to go on his journey with him. You can’t have a kneejerk response. Sometimes people use humour to deflect because they don’t want to let you under their guard. So people will be barbed to protect themselves – and it’s the job of the reader to get under the skin of the characters.”
Typing those two paragraphs, I notice an anger in them than I didn’t detect at the time, because they were delivered with smiling charm not venom. Indeed, when I came away from the interview, the two words I wrote in my notebook were “polite” and “precise” – probably because they’re the opposite of what one might expect from the creator of Rab C, that great, enduring (his first standalone show screened back in 1987, two days after the Lockerbie disaster), Vesuvius of Weegie rant.
We haven’t, he reveals, seen the last of Rab C: there’ll be a one-off special this year, most likely in the run-up to Christmas. Then in September the Pavilion is staging I, Tommy, his play about Tommy Sheridan (“sharp popular comedy written in bracingly confident Glaswegian vernacular, stuffed with terrific one-liners” – Joyce McMillan) that lit up the Fringe last year. He may have come late to writing for the stage (he has also written two plays for Oran Mor’s A Pie and A Pint series), but his enjoyment of the process is palpable.
Pattison’s sense of humour has a robustly Scottish bleakness, but there’s an honesty about it too. Explaining the first, he couldn’t be pithier. “Climate wet, humour dry,” he grins across the table. As for emotional honesty, there’s a wonderfully written scene in his new novel that captures it perfectly. Ivan is in a hospital waiting area with his mother when an elderly woman, pale, bone-thin and asleep, is wheeled in on a trolley by two porters. A nurse comes in behind them, and tries to wake her. “Christine,” she calls out. And Ivan looks at this woman, near the end of her life, in the privacy of her bed, in this most public of spaces. He imagines her parents crouching over her crib all those decades ago, “two long dead people maybe trying out names and discarding them before they found the right one, the perfect fit that stuck: Christine. Was she alive? She was alive all right, but on a different plane from the rest of us. She was in that place we all intuit sometimes, when we wake alone in the small hours, heebie jeebied and terrified.”
Only the previous day, I tell him, I’d seen something similar myself. “That actually happened,” he says. “There’s a confederacy of souls in that position, it’s almost like another tier of existence that takes place outside our own peripheral vision. It’s only when you are sucked into it through your own misfortunes or those of someone close to you that you get a little glimpse of the reality. And that is bone-shuddering.”
It is also just about as far away from comedy as it is possible to get. But that’s why, I guess, Pattison wanted to go there in the first place. Because in some way if you can drag all of life’s sorrows and at least put it through a filter of humour, then you have some kind of mastery over it. That’s why he doesn’t write about success. “Failure is far more interesting. Failure is a character test you have to sit every day while success is a form of happiness and happiness, as we all know, writes white.”
Another example. There’s a scene when Ivan’s mother remembers her own mother telling her that this young man she’d brought back, whom she would later marry was “strictly a DFN”. “Was I a Do For Now?” her father asks. “You still are,” his wife shoots back.
In Pattison’s novel, marriages are like that. They’re DFN or they break apart. Childhood memories aren’t sugared with sentiment or seen through rose-tinted lenses. Ivan behaves badly, thinks mainly of himself. But that’s what we’re like, most of us, most of the time, and it’s a writer’s job to be honest about it. So while this book is full of comic riches, it’s full of deeper truths too. Some of them link us. When Pattison wrote: “There’s something about death, even if it is only of one’s own mother, that has you reaching into the past,” the word “only” has enormous, very bleak and very Scottish comic weight. Why? Because “only” connects.
• Unhappy Go Lucky by Ian Pattison is published by Tindal Street Press, price £11.99. Pattison will appear at Aye Write! on 18 April at 6pm, tickets £8.