All artists – writers, musicians, actors – get used to dividing an audience. I’ve long since grown accustomed to the five-star review on Amazon being followed up by a one-star scather, or someone being moved by a play that someone else responds to with a baffled shrug, or a newspaper columnist being outraged by the politics of a poem that others feel represents them. It’s part of the gig, and a healthy thing, as it never allows you to believe you’re either brilliant or awful.
But in my sixteen years as a writer – a period which includes four novels, thirteen plays and numerous short-stories – only one thing I’ve ever written has been received enthusiastically by absolutely everyone who has seen it.
The Moira Monologues, my ‘one-woman show’ from 2009, directed by Sacha Kyle, which I’ve toured around Scotland and the North of England since, was my attempt to convey onstage the experiences of the women who brought me up, in a way which avoided ‘drag act’ theatrical clichés.
My Dad worked away on the rigs when I was wee, and my Mum was a housewife, which made her my primary influence. She had three sisters, my Dad had four – Aunty Kay, Aunty Joyce, Aunty Tracey, Aunty Brenda, Aunty Liz, Aunty Marlene, Aunty June – and all of them helped with the child-care in one way or another. My Gran, at the head of my Mum’s family, exuded the same sort of doughty authority as Marlon Brando in The Godfather, but female. With a vodka.
I grew up in a matriarchy.
My Mum’s side of the family were talkers. All of them. They did not stop talking for one second. They talked rapidly, at the same time as each other, over the top of each other, but were completely intelligible to each other. They were hard as fuck. They seemed to be afraid of nothing and nobody. One of them usually had a story to tell about some guy in the toon they’d battered (who always deserved it, by the way). They had daughters in their own image, who in turn had daughters in their own image. By the time this younger generation were twelve, I could hear them at wedding receptions and anniversaries emulating the speech patterns and attitudes of my Gran and her sisters, two generations above them. My Mum’s family grew up in Slamannan, a mining village halfway between Falkirk and Airdrie, and every get-together would end with a chorus of the Slamannan Songs, written on air and passed down through decades of boozy parties: ‘Barlinnie Hotel’, ‘I’m Leaving Slamannan the Morra’, ‘I Ken Whaur I’m Gawin’, ‘Goodbye Horse’, ‘Aw the Aipples Fell on Me’, songs known only to my family but as familiar to us as Queen’s Greatest Hits.
They could tell you a story about making a cup of tea and it would crack your sides open. Stick them in front of a mic in the Tron and they’d freeze, but on the stage of their own couches they were all Dorothy Pauls, Elaine C Smiths, Billy Connollys. They’d never think of themselves in this way, but they are living repositories of a folk tradition that is slowly dying out, in the face of a myriad of TV channels, Hollywood franchises, an infinite internet, almost none of it featuring the accents which they themselves speak. In spoken language resides the memory of an entire class of people, of a locale – generations of stories and songs.
My Gran is gone. Cancer got Aunty Brenda and Aunty Marlene. Some of my other aunties, now transitioning from middle- to old-age, don’t keep too well. But I still remember them in their prime. Getting cunts telt.
The reason audiences like The Moira Monologues – and, hopefully, its new follow-up (More) Moira Monologues, which premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe this August – is because it is not a story about a plucky prole struggling to escape the detritus around them into higher education, the arts or sporting triumph. I’ve written those stories, and certainly believed in that journey when I wrote it.
But Moira is different.
She’s a single mother of two boys, a cleaner in a local high school, a chronic weed-smoker, a reality-TV addict, and the best pal of her long-suffering side-kick Babs, to whom she narrates her monologues. She’s got no time for bullshitters and fakers. She’s not desperate to get out of the scheme in Falkirk where she lives. She’s proud of where she comes from. She doesn’t understand compromise or the concept of feeling ‘inferior’. She’s a middle-aged working-class woman with zero education who refuses to dilute who she is. The Moiras of this world are almost completely written out of our cultural life, but are the ones emptying the bins in offices and schools up and down the land, with experiences and feelings as deep, rich and complex as any Shakespeare heroine.
The reason The Moira Monologues is the most well-received of all the things I’ve written is because, in a sense, I didn’t write it. I opened my mouth and the women in my family spoke, it’s as simple as that. Moira is unadulterated, unapologetic, not giving one fuck what you think of her. And that’s why you’ll love her.
Alan Bissett’s (More) Moira Monologues, directed by Sacha Kyle, is running at the Edinburgh Fringe from 2-28 Aug, 7pm at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile. Tickets available here.