Pack Men by Alan Bissett
If Scotland’s father of working class consciousness James Kelman had a literary son it might be Alan Bissett. Doubtless the uncompromising Kelman would dismiss his offspring’s fey metrosexuality, a capitalist affectation. He’d be exasperated at the love of naff mor, u2 and ‘The Floyd’: opium for the masses. Would he appreciate the hedonism – the hash and coke – that litter Bissett’s books? I doubt it. But as Bissett matures as a writer the more like the old man he gets.
Pack Men, Bissett’s fourth novel and notional sequel to his cult debut Boyracers, follows the misadventures of Alvin and his Rangers supporting mates on a oncein- a-lifetime trip to the uefa Cup Final in Manchester in 2008.
Like Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Alvin has gone to “the good school”, in this case Stirling University, escaping from hometown Falkirk but losing touch with his pals and his roots in the process. The trip to Manchester is an opportunity not only to re-bond with Dolby and Frannie (Brian having flown the coop to California) and a motley crew on the bus they travel in, but to re-engage with the working class identity he so easily shed.
Alvin is horrified by the ugly sectarianism of his companions but is soon put in his place by The Cage, a manmountain of Sectarian prejudice: ‘I’m sickay this “Scotland’s Shame” business. Ye’re allowed to rip the pish out the English all ye like, but the minute it’s the Old Firm there’s a steward’s enquiry. I’ll stop singin “The Billy Boys” when them Tartan Army wanks stop
singin “Floweray fuckin Scotland”’. While Bissett is no apologist for bigotry he probes at the heart of the problem: “Ye can jump up and doon in a pub in the Gallowgate glorifying ira atrocities and folk’ll pass it off as “the craic”… But the second anyone sticks “The Sash My Father Wore” on the karaoke, a folk ballad… ye’re as popular as Freddy Krueger in a primary school.” This isn’t about perceived inconsistencies in treatment across the Clyde but about the absence of accurate representations (warts and all) of Protestant working class life. While immigrant Irish Catholicism has always been articulate, Bissett is rare in his loving but balanced portrayal of
But for those with no interest in sectarianism or fitbaw, Pack Men is much, much more. Bissett’s real focus is the dichotomy in Alvin’s personality, his repulsion / attraction to everything the Manchester debacle represents. His working class identity equals misogyny, homophobia, bitterness, paranoia, powerlessness; but also honesty, camaraderie, defiance of authority, acceptance, a tension mirrored in his equally confused sexuality.
For Bissett, like Kelman in Kieron Smith, Boy, language is the heart of the struggle. Young Alvin speaks in unfettered “Fawkurt”, while adult Alvin flits between middle class R.P. and his childhood brogue, unable to locate his true voice. As in his previous novels, and doubtless part of his burgeoning success as a playwright, Bissett’s command of the rhythms of vernacular is pitch perfect, his dialogue whizzing and exploding like beer bottles thrown through the air.
Kelman consistently refers to himself as a post-colonial writer, giving voice to a working-class ignored and oppressed by an imperialist literary establishment. In Pack Men Bissett creates an unsentimental, honest and wholly believable working class consciousness in crisis. But this is no worthy piece of agitprop, it’s also funny, irreverent and moving. Let’s hope it gets the readership and recognition it deserves.
Hachette Scotland, rrp £12•99 192pp