Perfect Songs for a Scabby Queen

21 Feb 2021

By Loretta Mulholland

What was so remarkable about Paisley Book Festival’s Songs For a Scabby Queen was the seamless way that Kirstin Innes and Outi Smith led us through the disparate stages of Innes’ protagonist’s life, through selected readings and songs that inspired the author’s writing of her second novel, Scabby Queen. Clio Campbell was a one hit wonder; a protest singer and activist, who rose to stardom in the turbulent early nineties and tragically ended her life almost three decades later. The character’s story was vividly brought to life in this magical pairing of literary and musical talent. Set against the backdrop of a whitewashed garden wall, ivy clad and decorated with colourful paper lanterns, these two talented women, cosily wrapped in feline fashion, created a relaxed environment that defied the chilly outdoors as they drew us into Clio’s shadowy world.

Scabby Queen is a dark tale, heightened by Thatcher’s decimation of Scotland’s heavy industries, revealing the remnants of working class women’s sense of pride and standards of appearance. Clio’s recollection from a Brixton squat, of her mother getting ready for a Saturday night out at the Labour Club was not unlike some of Douglas Stuart’s descriptions of Agnes Bain, with heavy blue eye shadow and back-combed beehive emulating the standard Liz Taylor look, emphasising the belief that you always had to look your best. I found myself imagining that very look as I hummed along to Outi’s jazzy version of Fairground Attraction’s Perfect.

After this we met Donald, Clio’s unofficial godfather. With Kirstin’s reading, I could imagine Clio as a little lass, left by her father, curled up on the floor, emitting soft wails, then howling, till her godfather picked her up and gave her a coal carry to the river because he had no shoes to fit her. Yet the day ended in such tender love and happiness, with the pair of them singing Green Grow the Rushes O and discussing Burns for two hours. The pathos was played out masterfully by Outi’s soulful version of Red, Red Rose performed in tones as soft as the waves of Clio’s flowing hair. It was perfect - the tinkling of single notes on the piano conjuring up the babbling of a burn and the start of a young girl’s love for music that was to last throughout her troubled lifetime.

Different viewpoints were seen and heard through passages and songs as diverse as Clio’s taste in men, and the next reading, illustrating the love that Neil, an emerging journalist, felt for the young songstress as he watched her perform, had a powerful effect. I found myself being transported back in time, with memories of Poll Tax Riots and Tommy Sheridan’s voice of defiance as Clio instigated the crowd with her Poll Tax rally cry, Rise Up, wearing lipstick resembling a scarlet ‘slash of solidarity’ across her face. Kirstin and Outi came up with a hybrid of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons and Patti Smith’s People Have the Power to fire up the sense of radicalism and hope for the future but by the mid 90’s, Clio’s career was in decline, and so was her life. Her struggles were encapsulated by Outi’s cover of Garbage’s Stupid Girl.

Kirstin cannily illustrated the benefits of the different voices that her pen wielded, by contrasting Clio’s theories of a single woman in her forties, with zero responsibilities, with those of her much younger Asian boyfriend, who remembers her singing Joni Mitchell to him on the day of their first argument. Outi then sang a version of the Joni Mitchell/James Taylor cocktail of melody and lyrics that movingly linked lost love with too much drink:

Oh I could drink a case of you, darling

And I would still be on my feet.

The final reading, from a gig in Oban in 1992, told through Neil’s eyes, was a crescendo that brought us back to Clio’s beginnings. The steady tap of a drum and the build up of For A’ That and A’ That, made this a fitting number to finish on and though Burns was in no way fashionable in 1990’s Scotland, Clio was as aware as we are today that Rabbie and all his passion would last ‘till a’ the seas gang dry’, and in the closing moments of the evening, Kirstin and Outi carried us back to that innocent little girl who got a puddie from her godfather and talked o’ Rabbie songs a’ day long to burn away her sorrows. It was the perfect ending!

If you missed Kirstin and Outi's Songs for a Scabby Queen you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Kirstin's books are all available here to purchase

There's still time to register for tickets for Paisley Book Festival events here