Working Class Lives in Fiction

25 Feb 2021

By Joe Smith

If anyone was in need of a breath of fresh air, Working Class Lives in Fiction with Ely Percy and Julie Rea, was a deeply inhaled lung-full of sharp, cold, wind blown right off the top of the Byres Hill.

I have attended and indeed blogged about some spectacularly good literary events this year, but Ely’s readings, from their new book Duck Feet, perfectly encapsulated the ‘Paisley’ part of the Paisley Book Festival and what it is all about.

As Julie Rea pointed out, it is great to hear the Scots vernacular read in a voice that doesn’t originate from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Ely pointed out that there was no homogenous Renfrew dialect, there are in fact many accents within Renfrew. This was something they were acutely aware of and so tried to ensure that no two characters spoke in the same way. A key technical device Ely used to achieve this was to give each character their own quirky phrase or way of speaking (for example Charlene always says ‘hink’). When discussing the regional variations in language between proximate places like Renfrew and Glasgow, Ely used as an example the word ‘tolt’ which is Renfrew(shire) dialect is distinct from the Glaswegian ‘telt’.

The discussion moved quickly to matters of ‘legitimacy’ and the challenges this presented for getting published when writing in the Scots vernacular. I for one was glad that there was universal agreement of the importance of the vernacular in written fiction, itself a breath of fresh air after recent social media spats from the ‘cringe-mongers’ who deny the very existence of Scots as a language.

Ely was asked by the audience about their favourite Scots language books. Among the many they listed were Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes, the first book they read in the vernacular. That was followed by Trainspotting, but then pointed out their favourite Irvine Welsh novel was Glue, which confided that they thought would be about glue-sniffing, but it turned out to be about the glue that holds friendships together. They admire Kelman, their very favourite book of his being A Chancer, loved for its energy and good humour. When asked if they could recommend a book that should be compulsory reading for all school children, they suggested one of the wonderful books by Ross Sayers, writer of young adult fiction.

This led the conversation on to the serious subject of funding and grants, as both Ely and Ross were recipients of the Scots Language Publication Grant. The Scottish dialect (I don’t like namedropping, but Kelman once corrected me in a pub for talking about Kurdish ‘dialects’, he disapproves of the word, so I should perhaps just say ‘the vernacular’) already suffers from exclusion and marginalisation at the hands of those who lay claim to the dominant forms of language in the UK. We compound this disadvantage when we are unable to financially support working-class writers who require the funded time to be able to produce work that doesn’t otherwise attract lucrative contracts from the major publishing houses in London.

That said, the audience did, in a unified act of solidarity in the comments section, call for an audio book to be produced, read by the author themselves (a la Graeme Armstrong). The people have spoken!

The only regrettable thing about this event was that it only lasted an hour. That said, it is yet more solid evidence that working-class literature is thriving in Scotland. There is no doubt that it’s alive and well in Paisley and Renfrew, and stories are getting ‘tolt’, in the rich and expressive style mastered by the likes of Ely Percy. Bravo!

If you missed Working Class Lives in Fiction with Ely Percy and Julie Rea you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Ely's Duck Feet is available here to pre-order

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