She is the most unfairly neglected of our authors, from a Golden Age in Scottish literature. But with a proper 'thick' book of her work now available, Agnes Owens has lots to laugh about, she tells Chitra Ramaswamy
IN A small room in Agnes Owens' wooden council house near Balloch, the 81-year-old writer is telling me the story of her life. Like one of her own short stories, it takes surprising turns, is often hilarious in a tough, wicked way, and it sometimes makes you feel like you've just been punched in the guts. Owens is talking about how she became a writer, and why, after publishing her first book at the age of 58, she almost stopped altogether.
"It was an exciting time," she recalls of those years during the Eighties when she would be whisked away to Glasgow by the authors who discovered her at a writing group in Alexandria and pressed her to keep scribbling down her surreal, dark stories of working class life in Scotland, no matter what. Their names were Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead. "There were lots of parties in Glasgow with all the writers, then there would be trouble at home because I was going out a lot. But there was always trouble at home."
Owens had, by this time, seven children. Her first husband, with whom she had four children, had died at the age of 43 after returning to Scotland from Italy, where he fought during the Second World War. He was traumatised, couldn't bear the sound of fireworks, and drank too much, she says. "I was so busy I would come home and make chips with my coat on," she recalls. "My first husband was in hospital on the ward for alcoholics." It doesn't sound like the cheeriest of times, but Owens isn't one to feel sorry for herself or miss any opportunity to have a laugh. "That was my happiest time, going to visit him," she says, a smile deepening the wrinkles in her soft, lined face. She pauses to get the comic timing just so: "It meant I didn't have to put up with him back home."
A hearty laugh follows. I'm reminded of what Lochhead says of Owens in her introduction to her just published The Complete Short Stories, which contains 14 new tales written over the past two years and goes all the way back to her first one, 'Arabella', which she presented to Lochhead at that writing group back in 1978: "She still looks middle-aged, not old, and her mouth still turns down humorously at the corners," Lochhead writes. "Any of the quiet wee deadpan things she says are more than well worth listening to. One-to-one she is especially good company. She'd crack you up." Lochhead is right: the first thing I notice about Owens is her mouth, how poised to laugh it seems, how sharp she is. The second thing is how much laughing we do during the hours spent in that small room.
After the death of her first husband, Owens remarried and had another three children. Her writing career started to take off after publishing Gentlemen Of The West, an extraordinary collection of stories about a young brickie that she based on one of her sons. How did she find the time to do it, bringing up seven children while working as a typist, in factories or as a cleaner? "How did I find the time to go out and get drunk!" she retorts.
Then, three years later the unimaginable happened. Her youngest son was murdered. "He was stabbed," says Owens. "It was just before Christmas, 1987. He was 19. It took all your time just to get through the day. You weren't ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died." Owens had four daughters and one of her son-in-laws would take them out into the country to go walking and somehow try to leave the pain behind. "I always thought I was walking through the same wood, but it was different," she says absently, looking out at the garden. Rain lashes against the window as though someone is trying to get our attention by hurling bucketfuls of water at it. Beyond, Loch Lomond is a churning grey reflection of the sky.
Did she know who did it? "It was people he grew up with. The one who stabbed him got four years, and was out in two," she says. "It seems a long time ago. You don't forget that you've had a son but other things crop up and you can't carry on with that intensity. Sometimes I get sad that we don't talk about him, but what is there to say?"
One of the new stories that Owens has written for this latest collection, 'The Moneylender', is about her son. Told from the perspective of his sister, the final lines are classic Owens, a terrible and terrific release. "Still, I shouldn't complain," the girl remarks. "The social paid for the visit as well as the funeral. 'They're not bad that way at times,' says Mother."
Writing "went out of the window" for a while after her son was killed. Owens had contributed eight stories to a collection with Gray and Kelman, Lean Tales, and although she was dubbed "part of a Golden Age in Scottish literature" she never received the same recognition as her peers. Gray has called her "the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors", while Kelman says, "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've never been a sought-after writer," she remarks, and she honestly doesn't seem to care. "I never stood out like those other women writers who liked to dress up and be flamboyant. I had no money. Alasdair asked me why I wasn't better known once, and I said: 'Maybe it's because I'm old and ugly.' He said: 'Yes, but it's not only that.'" She roars with laughter. "One writer, who I really dislike, said to me I would have to get a leather jacket and a black skirt if I wanted to be taken seriously." As a matter of fact Owens has two leather jackets in her wardrobe, stolen she reckons, "though not by me".
Then there was her subject matter. "One publisher said people don't want that kind of writing… about poor people. All my stories are about building site workers, tramps, and alcoholics. They're the only people I have great knowledge of. I've lived with them and had husbands who took a good drink. I know the patter. I couldn't have written about anything else and I didn't want to talk about wealthy people. It's boring."
None of it matters to Owens because, she says, holding this hefty book in her hands, she feels for the first time like a writer. "This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do," she says. "It's what I've been striving for: a thick book!" With 13 grandchildren at the last count – though she reckons there are more – she lives with her husband, and spends her days watching television, going for walks, and reading books. She says she can't be bothered to write much now.
Mind you, Gray convinced her to sit down at her typewriter last time – she doesn't have anything to do with the internet – and I'm sure he will do so again. "I felt I was past that age of being useful to anyone except your husband, and half the time you don't even want to be useful to him," she says. "But Alasdair said, why don't you write more short stories. I showed one to him and he went squeaky with delight, like he does. So, I thought, maybe I'm not finished. Maybe I'll show you some more."
• Agnes Owens: The Complete Short Stories is out now, published by Polygon