Love - Softened a Lot of Hard Guys
23 Feb 2021
By Didi Miller
Scottish Masculinities with Douglas Stuart, Andrew O'Hagan and Graeme Armstrong has proven over the last few days to be a favourite event of many. The event was led by the talented Kirstin Innes, author of Scabby Queen. Kirstin, having recently re-read all three books just prior to the event, was able to highlight connections she found throughout all three stories.
The conversation opened on the subject of conformity. Booker Prize winner and author of Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart explained that practicing conformity for his character, Shuggie, was a means of survival. Shuggie's sense-of-being brought him isolation. He harboured so much self-hate which left him feeling fundamentally broken. Conforming was about finding peace. Andrew O'Hagan, author of Mayflies, continued with a point which is relatable to so many Western Scots no matter their generation: "There's different ways of being a man and actually the notion in Scotland that existed when I was young was that there was one way to be a man - yer da's way."
Andrew then tied his thoughts in with all three novels, "the novels are sort of in the cracks and spaces of change here - they're not driving change necessarily - but they're offering people a different vision of priorities when it comes to men." There is no denying that conformity plays a large role in the expectations that society puts on our men growing up. It's the force that pulls young boys into a direction that is not their choice. It's one of the strongest urges we need to help them fight by allowing them to be fully themselves.
Kirstin followed up with a question of place and time and whether that is a large influence on masculinity. Graeme offered an insight to where his book, The Young Team, takes place, "we were right on the edge of the town. Glasgow. We were right on the edge of the country. But we never got the sole benefit of either. We were stuck in a nightmarish carousel." What a vivid and relatable depiction for so many of us who grew up in similar areas of Scotland!
Andrew, focusing on era and generation, stated, "what happened after 88' was that young men started dancing on their own and dancing with their mates. You just had a whole different sense of male intimacy and friendship." We don't realise just how recent these changes were to this area of Scotland. Men today in their teens and twenties who are struggling with the ideas and pressures of masculinity don't fully understand the expectations of their parents and grandparents generations. The change happens so quickly and often times is so vastly different that it is hard for older men to adapt and appreciate.
Each author could relate when Kirstin started talking about how fashion, style and appearance play a role in masculinity. Graeme said, "the cultural camouflage and the uniform of the Scottish ned was absolutely fundamental". He explained what a testament it is to these communities that parents would and still do pull together £200 or more to buy a brand so that their child can fit in. Andrew made us laugh by saying, "my fathers idea of a beauty product was a metal comb." There's so much truth to that statement which again just shows how fast the understanding of masculinity changes.
In reference to Shuggie Bain, Douglas makes a cracking point towards the expectations of readers versus the reality of his life experience, "even living in poverty - Agnus and Shuggie take such pride in their appearance. Their appearance means so much to them. I think readers sometimes assume a poverty book would be really grimey and gritty. But I've known the less money you have the more you would spend on your appearance." Such a true and touching reminder that poverty is a financial state and not a definition of character.
When thinking of masculinity we can sometimes manage to pit it against femininity. Listening to these men who have had very different experiences in similar societal landscapes we learn that women are a part of the fabric of masculinity. Whether it be family members or teachers these men include women in their personal and written stories. Graeme gives a short but strong message when he shares "love - softened a lot of hard guys." Andrew touched on the powerful women that are such a huge part of our history as a community, "my mother - her sister - my granny. They were all powerful women. It's often brought in as a sort of cliché as if there should always be these powerful women. These women kept it together not only for the children but for each other."
Douglas bluntly said " Women save Shuggies life in the book. He continued "I wanted to write a book that places feminine spirits at the centre of a man's world. Shuggies path to self-love comes through these friendships - his friendships with these women are his safe harbour."
These authors have been able to reach across societies boundaries and the restrictions placed on men to offer a light to others. Their words have sparked self-acceptance and encouraged personal-growth and hope. They have educated young men on mental health and the importance of being vulnerable. This event was so honest and real. It continues to be a captivating experience when men come together to share emotions and thoughts. With 1,000 online attendees this discussion was able to enter the homes of those who may not have access to these ideas and stories.
It's virtually impossible to capture the energy that these four authors created while speaking about a topic that needs to be spoken about more often. We, as a community, have learned that when men are smothered emotionally by expected silence it only manifests pain. As Graeme summed up "we know if we don't support young men they take their own lives and they take other people's lives."
I encourage you to watch this talk whether you are a woman or a man. Understanding breeds compassion. Masculinity is not a single definition. We need to remember this and allow for our young men to take up space in any direction.
The evening was rich with quotes and content. Douglas Stuart stated, "we still have to embrace our vulnerability. Our fears and our weaknesses. And be alright in sharing that." Andrew O'Hagan observed, "we learnt quite a lot from feminism. One of the things we learned is to stop talking as if there was only one masculinity. Just as there is not only one feminism - there are feminisms." "Masculinity evolves over time," exclaimed Graeme Armstrong. Kirstin Innes reminded us at the end of that Tom Leonard quote that, "all living language is sacred." With so much significant discussion, camaraderie and humour amongst all four authors, it was an event that felt special to the thousand that were fortunate enough to spend a Saturday with these icons of Scottish literature.
If you missed Scottish Masculinities you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Kirstin, Andrew, Douglas and Graeme's books are all available here to purchase
There's still time to register for tickets for Paisley Book Festival events here