Obituary: Agnes Owens, author

Agnes Owens: Revered chronicler of working-class life with a dark wit and keen eye for the surreal. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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Born: 24 May, 1926, in Milngavie. Died: 13 October, 2014, in Vale of Leven, aged 88

In the late Seventies, a trio of Scotland’s most celebrated writers – Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead – paid a visit to an unremarkable leisure centre in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. There, at a local writers’ group, they discovered a legend. A middle-aged woman who had started attending the class “to get out of the house”.

She had lived as hard as she liked to laugh and wrote the darkest and most brutally hilarious stories of working-class life in Scotland they had ever encountered.

She was, of course, Agnes Owens, who died earlier this month following a long illness, and whom Gray famously described as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

In 2008 I had the privilege of interviewing Owens at her home in Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond: a modest wooden-framed council house where she lived with her second husband, bashing out the occasional short story on an ancient typewriter that she took pride in showing me.

The interview had been tricky to set up, which wasn’t surprising as Owens couldn’t be bothered with such troublesome things as journalists.

I kept phoning her on her landline to arrange a time and she would answer promptly, only to tell me with a certain amount of satisfaction that she probably wouldn’t be around when I turned up. “If I’m not in,” she said rather vaguely, “I’ll be somewhere nearby.”

When I did pitch up, it was the dreariest of spring days – the kind of weather you’d find in an Agnes Owens story. Great sheets of rain closed over Loch Lomond, almost obliterating the view. Outside her house I paused to admire a crop of daffodils standing tall in the garden. Before I knew it, the door had swung open and there was Owens, who had clearly been spying on me. The first thing she did was make me promise not to mention the daffodils in my article.

“I’ve had it with journalists comparing the sunniness of my flowers with the darkness of my stories,” she said, rolling eyes that flashed with mischief. At 81 years old she was sharp as a tack, and I was reminded of Lochhead’s description of her: “She still looks middle-aged, not old, and her mouth still turns down humorously at the corners . . . Any of the quiet wee deadpan things she says are more than well worth listening to.”

Lochhead was right (and I never mentioned the daffodils . . . until now). That day, Owens told me the extraordinary story of her life. She was a wickedly funny and occasionally heartbreaking raconteur with the softest of voices and the sharpest of wits.

Her own life was like one of her stories, replete with tragedy, drink, violent men, poverty, flashes of black-hearted humour, and rare moments of kindness that could kill you.

She told her life story like one of her characters too: unsentimentally, economically, and with punchlines in the most painful places. I remember thinking as the afternoon wore on, the room grew darker, and the rain fell heavier, that there was enough material for a brilliant memoir.

Owens was born in 1926 in Milngavie just outside Glasgow. Her father, who lost a leg in the First World War, worked in a local paper mill. The family was poor, but not uncommonly so and, despite Owens being described as a “hopeless case” at school, they insisted she go to college to learn typing. She never ended up using the skills she acquired. Instead, she married a man recently returned from the Second World War and they had four children together.

A man broken by war, her husband couldn’t stand fireworks, drank too much, and frequently ended up on the ward for alcoholics. “That was my happiest time, going to visit him,” she said, before the killer punchline: “It meant I didn’t have to put up with him back home.”

He died at the age of 43 and Owens remarried and had another three children. In between bringing up her large family, working as a typist, in factories and cleaning, she began to write.

Her first novel, Gentlemen of The West, was a collection of stories about a young brickie, based on one of her sons.

In a bizarre stroke of luck, Owens was told by a publisher that if she could get Billy Connolly to endorse the book, they would take it on. She sent it to the comedian and, of course, he never read it. But then fate intervened and she got a job cleaning his house. She stole the manuscript back. By the time it was published she was 58.

Owens was never a prolific writer and never received the recognition she deserved, despite being dubbed part of a golden age in Scottish literature. Part of it was her subject matter: one publisher told her they weren’t interested in writing about poor people. None of this deterred Owens, who continued to write under the most challenging of circumstances. One year after her first novel was published in 1984 she contributed eight stories to Lean Tales, a collection co-written with Kelman and Gray.

Then life intervened in the most tragic of ways. In the winter of 1987 her youngest son Patrick was murdered. At the age of just 19 he was stabbed to death outside the family home. “It took all your time to get through the day,” Owens told me that day in Balloch, some 20 years later. “You weren’t ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died.”

Writing went out of the window but eventually she returned to her typewriter. In 1994 Owens published A Working Mother, an excoriating novel about being married to an alcoholic, which Beryl Bainbridge called “a remarkable book, funny and sinister”. In 1998 For The Love of Willie was shortlisted for the Stakis Prize.

Owens, for those who knew about her, was this country’s Flannery O’Connor, a tough, minimalist chronicler of what could be called a kind of Scottish western gothic. The writer Ali Smith praised her “frank irony . . . and down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people’s normality”. Kelman wrote that, “when she saw the squeak of a chance she grabbed it and produced those great stories we know. How much more could it have been?”

I met Owens when her Complete Short Stories were about to be published. She told me that, at the age of 81, she felt like a writer for the first time. She held up the book in her hands, revelling in its heft. She flashed me one of her crafty, girlish smiles. “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she said triumphantly. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

Owens is survived by her husband Patrick and her children Ann, Bill, John, Catherine and Margaret. Her daughter Irene died in September 2013 and her son Patrick was killed in 1987.

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