“Bobby is a 30 something Glaswegian who plays pool for money. He finds himself waking up in an Edinburgh hospital and tries to piece his life back together. In doing so he uncovers the underbelly of post-industrial Scotland.”
Dr Jim Ferguson has been on the scene for a long time. He’s a great dramatic reader of his own material and always worth seeing, and was one of the main attractions at Craig Duffy’s Hello Poetry tours in Scotland in 2012. He’s not a mainstreamer, and has no fondness for the mainstream, or at least it seems that way — and I expect the mainstream will treat of his debut novel as it does of other locally published work, and ignore it. That will be a pity, because there’s a lifetime of experience in Punk Fiddle, which is a cult novel in the making, and a vital blast of prose that will ping like a plucked violin string in the hearts of Scots readers, espcially those down in the central belt and familiar with the radgedy goings-on of working class Glaswegians and their Edinburgh neighbours.
The trick to fiction has always been to ensure that the details are nailed, and if this achieved — as it is in Punk Fiddle — the rest of the created world will explode into being. Punk Fiddle does well on both counts — it shows its hero Bobby at work in his local pool hall, playing for cash, his only income other than the dole, but best of all we step in and out of his mind, which is a constantly turning whirl of questions, observations and word associations. The pool scenes are great, and described with an authority that may indicate a mispent youth on the part of the author, but it’s the internals of Bobby’s head that fascinate. This is best captured, as it always has been since high modernism sprang stream of consciousness upon us, by use of poetic tropes and styles, and there are many employed in Punk Fiddle, and all to fine effect.
Like the protagonists of its novelistic precursors, the hero of Punk Fiddle is a victim. This has long been a device in Scots working class fiction — the hero as victim — and it says something about how we view ourselves. The characters in James Kelman’s books, like those of Irvine Welsh , are generally victims — victims of the state, of drink, of ill-health, of employers, of drugs — the list is long. Bobby of Punk Fiddle fame is also one such victim, a victim of drink, of poverty and of women.
Where Jim Ferguson manages to achieve new expressive heights is in Punk Fiddle’s stream of consciousness, which turns off and on without warning — it’s an incredibly effective technique. To capture a city, a country or in this case a physical and mental decline, stream of consciousness is efficient. Only using this technique can you throw together a mash of ideas, phrases and words, blasting the reader with a picture way bigger than any prosaic description.
Being a novel of the central belt, Punk Fiddle doesn’t manage to sidestep the Glasgow vs Edinburgh banter, and it lands squarely on the Glasgow side. There is an episode of Taggart in which the posse of Glasgow cops head to Edinburgh, and Mark MacManus has a physical reaction to the city, gagging and feeling unwell until he can get back once more to the honest lands of Glaswegia. In a later incarnation of Taggart, Alex Norton also goes to Edinburgh, where he seems unable to find a drink, choking once more at the idea of ‘tea’ — as if they would never touch the stuff in the west. Most of this amounts to pretty cheap jibes, but in Punk Fidle it’s turned to decent effect, after a rather amusing start, with Edinburgh being summed up as ‘nothing but a Christmas cake full of shite.’
What makes you race through Punk Fiddle though is Jim Ferguson’s ever-changing style, which is conversational one minute, deep the next, and sometimes. Just. Punctuated. You’re inside Bobby’s head on one line and soaring out of it a moment later, and depressed as he may be by his situation, Bobby has a real appetite for life, even though life is pretty much trying to shaft him. It’s a fine expression of that optimistic Glaswegian style of being — cynical and yet always entertaining. Bobby comes across as more acted upon as acting (like I say — ever the victim) and he bounces like a pinball from hazard to hazard, dodging his way through a bunch of encounters — till he drops down the black hole of his mind into a lengthy period of unconsciousness, the waking from which is painfully described.
Powerful as the internal monologue of Bobby’s illness, decline and blackouts are, it is still his actions that constitute the more varied side of Punk Fiddle. Although his own explorations as to what may be happening to him are virtually confined to these often strange and always extremely poetic moments, its Bobby’s movements and relationships that are important. The loan sharks, drunks and prostitutes of Glasgow are all foils to Bobby’s own predicament, as are the doctors and nurses of Edinburgh — and then there is the fiddle itself. The punk fiddle of the title is one of two aspirations Bobby carries with him — the other being his dream of living by the sea, or having a boat, not unlike the character in the Deacon Blue song ‘Dignity’.
Bobby doesn’t play the fiddle as such, you see — but he would like to — and that is key. Wherever Bobby goes, he usually takes his fiddle with him as a sort of talisman. Bobby’s generation is punk, and as he reminds us, punk is something simple, untamed and easy to relate to. And this is a punk novel too, dismissive of convention, energetic and in yer face.
So just because Punk Fiddle is not available in your local Tesco, this does not mean it is something you should not read. It is in fact something you should read, because you will enjoy yourself, and you’ll feel way more refreshed than you did after the last ‘must read’ shite you purchased at the behest of some massive media outlet. That’s Punk Fiddle through and through — eneregtic, savvy, random and with a fast beating heart of Glaswegian gold.
“He took the fiddle out the case and had a look at it. A busker would be a fine thing to be. That would be a great job for the likes of him. Money for auld tunes, no questions asked. Yepp. Very cool. He could change his name to Poch Malone – Live, Jive, Ho Down, Low Down, Lowpin, Punk Fiddler.”