Since I finished Scabby Queen, the second novel by Kirstin Innes following debut Fishnet, I’ve found myself thinking on several occasions, “What Would Clio Do?”
The story of Scottish singer and activist Clio Campbell, distinguished by her flame-red hair, lipstick to match and untempered passion for a cause, is told in the memories of those left behind after her unexpected suicide aged 51. Too free for the reserved Highlands community she grew up in, and consequently estranged from her family, Clio moves to the Central Belt as a young woman, hits it big with Poll Tax protest song Rise Up, and fast builds a fanbase at rallies across the country. She is offered up to the crowd by a fictionalised Tommy Sheridan, hand on the small of her back, who introduces her as “a very talented young lady”.
Catapulted by word-of-mouth success to number two in the charts, Clio makes an iconic appearance on Top of the Pops, where she strips off a paisley waistcoat, revealing a t-shirt with the words “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay”. The sight is seared into the memories of a generation who wanted to be her or be with her. Welcomed into the starry mainstream for only as long as her rage chimed with the zeitgeist, she soon returns to the protest circuit. Later, she warns newcomers of the sharks who circle young women. She knows her innate musical talent wasn’t given its due, but is savvy to the business. Audience numbers dwindle and Londoners are perplexed by her comeback album of remixed Scottish folk songs, but protest is where Clio’s heart lies.
A couple of decades later, what has changed over time? The battle against the Poll Tax was won, but what of the war? Some of the same diehard activists from Clio’s youth, now battered by life and cynicism, are still out there, having marched through the era of Bush and Blair and onto the Scottish referendum. Others burned out and turned towards a quieter life, shunning politics altogether.
Scabby Queen asks whether the hope and heartbreak is all worth it, but concedes that some, like Clio with her strong sense of justice, can only live by striving for what they believe in. She is propelled by her passions. She is steely in a way that can unnerve others. In many ways the book is about endurance, balancing belief in a better world with life’s setbacks and unfairness.
For all that Clio flits around her network of activists, musicians and the media, she never quite finds a home. In the squat where she lives with a ragtag bunch of anti-capitalists and hippies, women complain that the men won’t contribute to tidying in readyness for party guests. Instead, they lounge around replicating the unequal division of labour in the “outside world” they claim to stand against. Here, Innes wryly parodies leftie men who claim only class matters, while steadfastly ignoring the gendered inequalities they perpetuate. Unsurprisingly, the freshened atmosphere proves much more conducive to winning new converts to the squat’s cause.
An even bigger rift develops between Clio and a woman who is critical of make-up, accusing Clio of “modifying her face to please the masters”. Innes writes class into the old feminist debate over make-up, showing why Clio has an attachment to painting her face in one of the most moving, personally resonant passages of the novel.
“Listen, let me tell you something. In the town where I grew up, the women were glamorous. I’d watch my mum getting ready for the Labour club, the same place she went to every Saturday night, sat in the same seats in the lounge, drank the same gin out of the same glass, probably. And she treated it like, I don’t know, the Oscars or something, mate.” She describes magic in the ritual of her mother putting curlers in the hair, her dress hanging in the kitchen by the kettle, as her stepdad put on a fresh tie and extended his arm. “They were all, by the power of these potions, by mutual agreement, transforming this place, where people worked hard jobs for never-enough money, where everything was functional and ugly, into Hollywood, or Las Vegas, some projection of what they’d seen in the movies.”
Not only transformative, Clio describes the make-up as a brave face for hard situations. “Youse don’t get to tell a working class woman that her lipstick isny feminist, because it’s a signal of solidarity... No offence, doll, but going make-up free is a luxury for bougie women... You don’t need it to convince the world you’re more than it thinks you are.”
Interspersed throughout the book are press clippings, many seedy and sexualised, charting Clio’s success and, later, her death. There is something vaguely familiar in the figure of arts journalist Neil, hounded by his click-chasing boss at a troubled Scottish newspaper to cover his old friend’s death in tawdry, tabloid fashion. In awe of Clio since their days as young up and comers, the affection he carries for her eventually sours into resentment. In a subtle, clever piece of writing, a never repeated one-night stand told solely from his perspective is filled with Clio’s unspoken dejection.
Scabby Queen is a great contribution to modern Scottish literature, a snapshot of the politics of the last few decades and spearing misogynist hostility to women in art and politics.
Scottish women have not been served well by books about historic or recent political movements. Even after 2014, books describing the referendum gave short shift to Women for Independence, minimising or entirely overlooking their contribution to grassroots work. Although the fictional Clio exists only in the patchwork memories of others, Kirstin Innes conjures a vivid portrait of a creative, determined, fiery working-class woman. So what would Clio do? Stay savvy, stay true to herself and never give up, that’s what.
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