A decade on, I can’t quite remember where I first met Moira Bell, working-class matriarch, ageing good-time girl, occasional street-fighter and everyday philosopher. I don’t think it was at Glasgow’s Aye Write! festival in 2009, where she was first glimpsed; but it might have been at the premier of The Moira Monologues later that year in Hallglen, the area of Falkirk where Alan Bissett grew up in the 1980s. Best known as a novelist and playwright, Bissett is also no mean performer; and when he takes to the stage as the comely Moira, perpetual cigarette in hand and glass of voddy nearby, he is immediately transformed into a woman who is both instantly recognisable – as the kind of working-class mother who has had to get tough to survive – and constantly surprising, in the sheer sharpness of her insights into the struggling society around her, and the mercurial quality of her responses to it, which can range from outright violence, to sudden startling moments of pure wisdom and kindness.
In my 2009 review of The Moira Monologues, I described how many members of the audience were “literally shouting with laughter”; and Bissett, as Moira, truly is that funny, and that perceptive about the skewed and economically divided world in which we live. Since 2009, the monologues have toured extensively across Scotland, and appeared as a double bill with Bissett’s play The Ching Room at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and the Royal Exchange, Manchester; then in 2017, first at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow and then during the Edinburgh Fringe, Moira appeared again, in (More) Moira Monologues, enthusiastically puffing fag smoke into the face of her much-loved baby grandson, and celebrating her new status as a granny with a few more vodkas. This time, she has new political concerns to consider, in the aftermath of Scotland’s independence referendum; and in this extract, on a train north to visit her sister, she meets an Englishman who asks her straight out which way she voted, with hilarious and, as usual, surprising results.
Bissett was born in Falkirk in 1975, and – after wining a first class degree in English and Education at Stirling University – began to emerge around the turn of the new millennium as a writer of award-winning short stories. His debut novel, Boyracers, was published in 2001, and was followed by The Incredible Adam Spark (2005), Death Of A Ladies’ Man (2009), and in 2011 by the Boyracers sequel Pack Men. He has also written at least a dozen short plays, including The Ching Room and Turbo Folk for A Play, A Pie And A Pint, the disturbing insect monologue The Red Hourglass, Ban This Filth about the anti-porn campaigner Andrea Dworkin, and It Wisnae Me, about Scotland’s colonial past. His latest novella, Lazy Susan – also written in a contemporary Scottish female voice – was published last month by Speculative Books, and he has also written episodes for the Glasgow-based television drama River City.
None of Bissett’s characters, though, have won a wider or more appreciative live audience than Moira, whose wit, insouciance and occasional gallantry in the face of life’s cruelties and absurdities is frankly irresistible. Moira is the figure through which the audience are able to see, at a glance, both why Bissett is so widely acclaimed as a writer, and why he is so sought after as a live performer; and also, in this larger-than-life tribute to the strong women of his home town, how true it is that you can take the man out of Falkirk, but never, ever, take Falkirk out of the man.
For more details of Alan Bissett’s work, and another extract from The Moira Monologues, see https://alanbissett.com
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