Book review: Three Craws by James Yorkston

Musician James Yorkston's debut novel shows you can go home again, writes Roger Cox

James Yorkston. Picture: Steve Gullick

Three Craws by James Yorkston | Freight Books, 210pp, £9.99

For his 2013 book about the phenomenally fertile Fife music scene and the various late 20th and early 21st-century success stories it’s spawned, Vic Galloway chose the title Songs in the Key of Fife. It’s a clever opening gambit, not least because it begs the question: is there really such a thing as a key of Fife? And if so, how best to define it, when the artists in question are so diverse?

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The subtitle of Galloway’s book, “The intertwining stories of the Beta Band, King Creosote, KT Tunstall, James Yorkston and the Fence Collective,” gives an indication of the range of musical styles that have emanated from this decidedly non-metropolitan part of the world in the recent past. So what, apart from geography, do they all have in common? As anyone who attended one of the Fence Collective’s Homegame festivals in Anstruther will tell you, the most striking thing about the performers, the common thread that seemed to bind them all together, was their ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek modesty, their anti-swagger, and this endearing air of twinkly self-deprecation has been evident in the careers of every major artist referenced in Galloway’s book, from KT Tunstall reportedly keeping her gold discs hidden in a cupboard because to put them on display would make her feel like a “champion wanker” to King Creosote “wading through reviews I don’t deserve” in Coast On By.

The same can be said of acclaimed singer-songwriter James Yorkston, whose attempts to catch the eye of a barmaid in Woozy With Cider are wonderfully undercut by the line: “I bet she’d change her tune / If I told her my album had peaked at number 172”. Three Craws, his debut novel, doesn’t have anything to do with music, but there’s a sense in which it may have a lot to do with that elusive key of Fife.

A dark, melancholy portrait of a failed artist as a young man, the book focuses on Fife-raised Johnny, whose attempts to make it in the London art world have come to nothing. Once the “ludicrous bubble of Art College burst” he tells us, he found himself “stuck in either a tiny bedroom or behind a tiny bar, a captive mouse scurrying on a wheel”. Having come to terms with the fact that his art career is over, he finally decides to head home to Fife, but not before meeting an ex-pat Scot in his local boozer who tells him: “Folk will be happy to see ye crawling hame. Thing is Johnny – just the getting away, that’s success. Staying up there and rotting – that’s the failure. And that’s why they’ll’ve wanted you to’ve failed. So they feel better.”

Could this perception of small-town small-mindedness be linked to the modest demeanour of some of Fife’s greatest musical exports? Is the best way to defeat tall poppy syndrome to act like a short poppy? Either way, Three Craws is a subtle, insightful and occasionally very funny look at the way small rural communities can sometimes smother their own, pushing people away while simultaneously pulling them back, demanding success while at the same time secretly hoping for failure. As Johnny moves in with his old friend Stevie, finds a job and sets about trying to mend his strained relationship with his mother, it seems there’s a chance he might be able to make peace with his past. First, though, he must deal with troublesome interloper Mikey, who seems to follow him like a bad smell.

Yorkston has written a House With the Green Shutters for our times; in the coming weeks he may find he has to crank the modesty up to 11.