The Write Stuff: Three Craws by James Yorkston

James Yorkston
James Yorkston
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WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from James Yorkston’s Three Craws

Sweethope Cottage

Burnoch Farm


3 May 1994

Johnny, I got your address from your mother who asked I’d say hello. I hope everything is going well for you. I’m back in Fife now, my uncle and aunt both dead, maybe you heard, maybe you didn’t so. I have their cottage. I was going to sell but thought I may live there a while. I have room for a visit if you ever should fancy a muster. It’d be good to see you. Stevie

And that was all it took to shoogle my shallow London roots and lead me ambling back home. London was just a bridge from a then to a now. Sure, I’ve had my adventures and made a few memories, but mostly those memories involve struggling to get to Art College on time, struggling to stay awake when I arrived and then struggling to work enough hours through the evening and into the night to keep out of debt. Just for it all to begin again the following day.

When Stevie left Fife originally, it was the final push for me too. He’d warned me of his plans and I could see myself being stuck with my mother in our tiny, rented but ’n’ ben cottage. I began looking for an escape, somewhere I could go, something I could do. Since my father had swanned off years before and my elder brother Rab a few years after – what, when I was ten or so? Well, my mother’s once exuberant, socialite life had slowly constricted and boiled down to a thick broth of sadness and gossip, short temper and regret. But who can I blame for that?

She would always paint though, and through her skills, I learnt the same. But I was – I am – a lazy painter. I wouldn’t even use the word artist. I’m just a guy who can do pictures, that’s all. It didn’t interest me, not much anyhow, but see at school? I was good enough that I could just sit in the corner of an art lesson and scratch away, enjoy a few hours of peace in the week, serenity amongst the rumbustious nature of the remainder of my otherwise oppressive school day. With my mother’s help – she saw Art College as a result, perhaps as a fuck you to my more money-fixated distant memory of a father – we managed to get me accepted down here. I was just delighted to be leaving Fife, and Art College in London, well it sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds good leaving her lips and snaking round the coffee mornings of the East Neuk. It sounds better than stacking shelves or even, dare I say it, staying on at the farm.

I’ve fitted in okay here, wasn’t the worst, there was no great collapse of confidence. I drew things reasonably well, followed the coursework, played my part – but it didn’t excite me. The college itself was a 1950s new build with huge glass windows that magnified the sun’s rays and slowly boiled me alive. There was no historical glamour here, no romance, no architectural wonder. The other students I was more comfortable amongst. Sure, there were eejits there whose work I couldn’t understand, feather-haired and rebellious, creating cows clothed with pictures of dead servicemen, swathes of black canvas accurately displaying their inner souls or more commonly, naked pictures of themselves, blown up and magnified, titillating and on display to their delighted colleagues, visiting parents and grinning tutors. But there were others, also. Like me, just drifting through their years.

For the exhibition of my final exam, I pencil-drew a cow. Very detailed, but just a cow, in a field. Not too big, not too small. It warranted a passing glance and a pass mark. I got my BA (Hons) in Fine Art. A waste of time if there ever was one, a scrap of paper informing the world I am average at the scribble business.

I did actually miss the college when we left. There was an inbuilt comradery with the other students, even with the tutors themselves. I had friends, nodding acquaintances. When we discussed art I switched off a little, but there was plenty more – music, some literature even. Humour. The humour of the collected outsiders, the artists, the people who don’t really know what to do, sent here in desperation by concerned parents, as if Art was a thing to be valued, a thing with any actual use. And as a youth my mother had forced a few library books onto me – she thought my secondary school was terrible, made it very clear I’d be somewhere better if my father hadn’t flitted... So I could talk Chekov or Pinter. Not to a huge depth, mind, but I knew how to pronounce their names and sometimes that is enough. Mostly, though, it was a relief just to be in a room with people who’d listen to something beyond whatever crap was playing on Radio 1. Or worse, Radio Tay.

Come the final term and I could feel those bonds slowly loosening, people pairing together or cutting themselves off, making plans for their next big steps. And that spring, nobody paired off with me. I fell the other way, I asked for more hours in the bars and in the hotels I was working. And then when the ludicrous bubble of Art College burst I quickly became stuck in either a tiny bedroom or behind a tiny bar, a captive mouse scurrying on a wheel, somehow helping to keep the bright lights of London burning.

I kept my final exhibition cow picture, as no-one deigned to buy it. For a few years I had it on display in my various bedrooms – not on the walls, just down at floor level, but certainly facing outwards. Eventually, with successive flat moves, the glass became cracked, the mounting loose and the cow upped and left its frame, its preferred position being stuffed behind radiators where it crinkled, dried up and finally became nuisance debris. Looking the other way one morn, I scrunched it into a ball and threw it into an egg-soiled, jam-sticky, tea-stained bin.

• James Yorkston is an acclaimed singer-songwriter and a key member of Fife’s fabled Fence Collective. His first novel, Three Craws is published by Freight, £9.99