Friday, 8 April, 2022 in Book Reviews, Books

Into Books Review: A Working Class State of Mind by Colin Burnett

Book: A Working Class State of Mind
Author: Colin Burnett
Publisher: Pierpoint Press (2021)

Colin Burnett is a Midlothian based short-story writer, who has an inherent belief in the importance of Scottish culture, language and history.  In this striking debut collection, he combines this passion with his education in sociology, to lead us into the depths of contemporary Scottish working-class culture.  Burnett is in excellent company with Pierpoint Press, an independent Edinburgh publisher, which has promoted and celebrated other Scottish authors such as Euan Gault and Stuart MacGregor. 

Sitting alongside works like Graeme Armstrong’s brilliantly evocative, The Young Team, and Ely Percy’s Duck Feet, A Working Class State of Mind adds to the range of exciting new writing hailing from Scotland’s proletarian roots.  In this collection of shifting voices, wrapped in a powerful East Coast narrative, we are treated to a chilling yet entertaining history of Thatcher’s poverty-stricken children as they grow up in a state of deprivation and hopelessness in Leith.

The title story describes narrator Christopher’s contemplation of suicide through a lethal vodka and pills cocktail but his monologue on poverty captures the essence of what a dearth of opportunity feels like, as he raises a toast to his new wee companion, a spider reaching towards a shelf:

Poverty does that tae yae.  It isnae jist a word fur politicians tae throw aboot tae git oor vote.  It’s an illness ae the mind, boady and soul.

Chrissy begins to wonder, however, if the ‘wee guy’ is ‘oot tae prove me wrong’, as he ponders on his plight of no social mobility and aspirations being continually crushed:

Yae see, it’s in oor DNA tae fail, whether it be me or the spider, we alweys end up dain what’s expected aw us.  Which is tae come up shoart … it takes aloat aw blood, sweat, and tears tae git where ah um …

Lead protagonist, Dougie, has a zero contract hours job at an old people’s home, we discover in ‘House of Horrors’.  The story, like most in the collection, is told using unusual syntax, a representation of the spoken word and something which at first takes a little getting used to.  Some small editorial errors also threaten to get in the way at times, but fortunately do not impact on the flow of these entertaining stories of the quotidian.  The misogynistic and sexist culture of the bookies is an underlying theme of this story, but, like the rest of the collection, it is told through comedic language and the powerful portrayal and reflections of our key protagonists, as when we meet Dougie’s best mate:

Ah love the guy, ken? but Aldo scares the shite oot ae me …

‘The Great Sebastian’ is a Kafkaesque departure from the underclass world of Aldo and Dougie.  Callum, another outsider, a cameo of Burnett himself, is about to receive an award, for writing a short story.  We feel his pain in the unfamiliar world of Embra’s literati but his reading of the catastrophe that Boris Johnstone wakes up to has his audience greetin wi laughter, as I was too.  ‘The Sleeping Gentleman’ is a story of love, loss, class difference and male bonding.  Aldo and Dougie’s other best mate Craig, make a team for the pub quiz but nobody reckons on Craig’s lack of knowledge about the Cincinnati Kid!  The dead-pan voice of the narrator makes this, and every other story reel with humour, despite Dougie’s pathos at the class divisions which arise between him and the love of his life.

‘Sheep and Shepherd’ is a powerful monologue on class and identity for the generation after Thatcher’s hatchet hits Britain. Steven, another Leith lad, laments the lost sense of community amongst shipyard workers and miners that had existed in his father’s generation. He recognises a pride in his dad and his sense of family values that is hard to replicate in the world of poverty and unemployment, seeing education as the only escape route, highlighting the changing sense of what it means to be British.  Or not.

In stories like ‘Glory Hunters’ Burnett excels in his use of contemporary and original similes and metaphors:

It didneae matter whether it wis pishin doon wae rain and no even the sight ae he four horsemen oan the horizon wid deter oor support fur the team …

Dialogue is another of Burnett’s strong points.  The conversation between Craig and Dougie about why Aldo kicked the shite out of Santa for his ho ho ho being too festive is hilarious, revealing Aldo’s religious beliefs, though these have nothing to do with Santa getting a doin’.  Aldo’s newly found support for local team, the Leith Stars, for a chance to get on TV turns philosophical as Dougie’s Asian friend compares theirs lives to Groundhog Day but as usual, Aldo takes things too far …

In the remaining stories, Burnett’s realism relentlessly combines humour with depression as protagonists’ jobs and relationships are threatened by inequity in society and at times the only way to feel good is to make others feel bad, as in ‘Ordinary Criminals’ and ‘From Wuhan to Leith’.  But in ‘Lost and Found’, we see the softer side of Aldo emerge, after he rescues his new wee best friend, Bruce.  This reluctant relationship between Aldo and his puppy builds gradually but reaches new heights in the penultimate story, ‘Funny Money’ as Aldo’s empathetic explanations to Brucie about why they can’t have ‘a boys night in’ watching Breaking Bad are hilarious, matched only by his descriptions of the characters at Craig’s Engagement Party.  This story feels like the build-up to a supreme climax and leaves you feeling connected to our three protagonists in a way that might surprise you.

The final story, ‘Takeover’ doesn’t follow through on the emotional charge that is lit by ‘Funny Money.’  Instead, it is, appropriately, the backstory, told when Dougie is presumably moving on in life.  A photo makes him reflect on his first day at Ainslie Park High School with Craigy, and how he meets a ‘shy and timid’ Asian boy, who changes the moment the teacher leaves the room, and this same lad asks his classmates for protection money.  Burnett’s use of voice is exceptional in capturing the youthful innocence of Dougie and Craig and their terror at starting ‘Leith Penitentiary’, with references to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, mingled with descriptions of how his ‘baws droap’ at certain points of tension, but the story relates the start of friendships that last into adulthood, and create bonds that bind.

There are obvious influences of Welsh, Kelman and perhaps Warner too in this compelling debut collection, and like these mentors, Burnett brings what feels like lived experience to his writing.  His protagonists are full of life in all their frightening brutality, dark humour and ultimate humanity and it is the sheer believability of them and their exploits that places this fresh new voice in Scottish working-class literature at the top of the ever-blossoming tree.

L M Mulholland

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