2007 - 2022

A Radical Renaissance

A Radical Renaissance – Paisley Book Festival 2020

[20-29 February 2020]

More info at:


You only have to look at the Literature Alliance Scotland website to see how alive the book festival scene is in Scotland. This year, Paisley has added its name to the burgeoning list by hosting its first ever book festival, which gives a bit a bit of an intellectual twist to the less savoury aspects of the town’s reputation by adopting the theme of radicalism and rebellion.

The story of one particular rebellious Scot formed part of the fabric of my childhood, having grown up in Elderslie, famed as birthplace of Sir William Wallace. What I didn’t know at the time was that the story of Wallace was handed down through literature by travelling bard, Blind Harry, whose poem ‘The Wallace’ has been described as being worthy of Homer, and who was noted by many of Scotland’s finest poets, including William Dunbar and Robert Burns. In terms of Blind Harry’s significance to our national culture, I think the comparison is justified. It might also be said that in present-day Scotland, the connection between rebellion and literature is stronger than ever, and Paisley Book Festival has decided it is worthy of celebration.

Paisley has a tradition of radical writers, most notably the weaver poets, influenced by Romanticism and the ideals of liberty, equality and justice that sparked the French and American Revolutions. During this time, the poet Alexander Wilson’s (1776-1813) open criticism of mill owners and their treatment of workers landed him in prison. Rather than face the possibility of sedition charges, he emigrated to America where his studies on birds earned him the reputation of the father of American ornithology. During the same time, Robert Tannahill’s (1774-1810) musical drama, The Soldier’s Return, idealised love and humanity over enforced conscription and the horrors of war, and his romantic pastoral poems are a testament to Renfrewshire’s natural heritage and the importance of conservation and well-being. Marion Bernstein wrote no-holds-barred poems on marriage, domestic abuse and women’s right to vote, and, John Galt (1779-1839), from neighbouring Greenock, is often considered the first political novelist in the English language for his writing on the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on society.

Paisley Book Festival marks the bicentenary of the Radical Wars in Scotland when, in the spring of 1820, the country seemed on the brink of armed rebellion. Indeed, soldiers found men in Kilbarchan making homemade pikes, though, after a week of rioting, Paisley was under strict curfew to ensure no further rebellions took place. Wishful thinking when we take into account the subsequent Sma Shot protests of 1856, still celebrated annually by the town on 1 July, and the mill riots of 1907 when thousands of mill workers took to the streets protesting poor pay and conditions. Many of the mill girls were known big toe typists because they operated the twisting machines with their big toes, resulting in swelling and often amputation. Mill girl, Jean, in my novel, Blushing is for Sinners, recalls her grandmother being one of these women and showing her the purplish stumps.

By taking rebel voices as its theme, Paisley’s book festival is proudly announcing that the tradition of rebellious writing is not confined to the past. Paisley Writers’ Group, which used to meet in Paisley library, and which I joined twenty years ago as a fresh-faced new writer, has a strong connection with literary radicalism in both language and subject matter. Its first writer-in-residence was none other than the late Tom Leonard, whose poetry transformed the relationship between language, class and culture. His book, Radical Renfrew, anthologises much neglected dissenting voices in Renfrewshire literature from the French Revolution to the First World War. The list of luminaries goes on to include James Kelman, Suhayl Saadi, Ajay Close, Graham Fulton, Louise Turner and Dr Jim Ferguson, to name but a few whose work contributes to our understanding of the impact of significant developments in social history including Thatcherism, multiculturalism, feminism, the Suffragette movement, the American Civil War, and Medieval Renfrewshire, all of which has its fair share of – you guessed it – rebels.

Today, there is definitely a strong relationship between radicalism, activism and the arts. I’m often asked to write for organisations seeking to transform attitudes on issues ranging from mental health, addiction and recovery, refugees and modern slavery. Radical writers need original and creative ways of getting their work out there, and often these connections are driven by passion and the creative impulse to make a difference. For twelve years, I ran an eco-poetry quarterly from my front room, receiving contributions from around the world, and donating all the proceeds to conservation charity. The magazine collaborated with Paisley Hill Walking club in a sponsored poetry fundraiser, and Edwin Morgan was even so kind as to contribute an unpublished poem. Today, I am involved with Jenny’s Well Press, Paisley’s only indie publisher, run on a voluntary basis by a team of dedicated writers and editors. Indies often have to come up with radical ways of doing things, and this can lead to innovative alliances in the creation and distribution of books, for example, with charities and socially and environmentally conscious retail outlets. Every copy of my novel sold in Shelter helps fight homelessness.

Radicalism is defined as beliefs or actions that advocate complete political or social reform, and Paisley Book Festival is celebrating the tradition of rebellion by hosting literary events that recognise where contemporary change is taking place, including disabled and low income access to publishing, stories of rebel women, queer identities, the #MeToo movement and BAME writing. It features contributions from some of contemporary literature’s most radical voices like Jenni Fagan, Jackie Kay, Alan Bissett, Chris McQueer, and Mara Menzies, as well as exploring fictional rebels and Tom Leonard’s Radical Renfrew thirty years on. So, switch aff yer Netflix, and find yer inner rebel at Paisley’s Book Festival. They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom, and our books!


Comments (13)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    Hi Tracy,

    You rightly mention James Kelman, he was, to the best my of knowledge Paisley’s first writer-in-residence and was followed in that post by Tom Leonard. In the early 1980s Kelman organised readings in Paisley Town Hall: which, I’m told, was the first major literary event in the venue since Yeats had given a recital there.

  2. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Where in Paisley and when exactly in 2020? I need to know. By-the-way: Alasdair Gray held classes in Paisley, too.

  3. Fay Kennedy says:

    Wish I could be there but alas a long way away in Oz. I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Tom Leonard whenever I managed a visit to Glasgow. It’s great to know the radical tradition is continuing for it’s so needed. All success to you and keep the rage aflame.

  4. Alan Bissett says:

    Fuckin yaaaaaas.
    Brilliant essay, steeped in Paisley. Thanks, Tracy. Very glad to be involved.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    I have read Ajay Close’s A Petrol-Scented Spring. It is not the kind of novel I usually read (it was a recommendation by someone on a course, I think), and I was a bit uneasy about a historical romance being so closely based on real characters (what was from the record, what was pure fiction?). Still, it was eye-opening account of Scottish suffragettes, and particularly their treatment in a Scottish prison.

    I have not heard of the 1820 Radical War, which seems to have followed on from events after the Napoleonic Wars including the Peterloo Massacre (1819) of peaceful pro-democracy supports by pro-aristocracy cavalry in Britain’s prequel to Tianamen Square. Thinking about sedition and lèse-majesté and the church power that persisted through Scotland’s ‘Enlightenment’, I think that blasphemy might have still been a capital offence at the time.

    Anyway, good luck.

    1. Legerwood says:

      The punishment of death for blasphemy was last carried out in the 1690s. An Act passed in the 1820s changed the punishment for blasphemy to a fine and/or prison.

  6. Angus says:

    Tom Leonard despised nationalism …. just sayin ….

    1. The Stroller says:

      He did Angus, but you must remember that the EU is a firewall against nationalism. You can’t build a nationalist state in the EU. For precisely that reason, the Brexiters wanted to exit the European Union.

      How does the EU act as a firewall against nationalism? In at least three ways. A) Charter of fundamental rights of all EU citizens, you can’t discriminate against citizens from other EU countries. This dates from Treaty of Nice at least and prevents even mild ethnic nationalism (British jobs for British workers etc)
      B) Freedom of movement which ensures diverse European societies and
      C) EU competition and trade rules which makes it impossible to favour national industries over other EU ones. So, no “economic nationalism”.

      So, the EU is a project built to prevent the nationalist State in Europe. If the SNP advocate EU membership, by definition theirs cannot be a nationalist project my friend…

      Boris is going to do all the above mentioned things the EU prevents, and he’s going to come for our Parliament too. Folk need to wise up fast….

      1. The Stroller says:

        …folk need to wise up fast, friends, because we are in very different terrain to where we were two months ago. The coordinates of Britain and Scotland’s place on it have just changed completely, maybe for a whole generation…

        We’re now going to see adverts on the paper for British workers only for example. We’re going to see London pouring money into strategically important industries, like high tech Britain. They may even just legislate the Scottish parliament out of existence. They can do that too according to the UK supreme court. Nicola going on about indie ref II will make no difference.

        It seems to me now that we lost two very important referendum campaigns. We didn’t do enough, we didn’t make our case clearly enough. Few have any idea about what the EU even is. We assumed Remain would win in a referendum in which every single vote counted. We fcked up.

        We’re in some major shit in my opinion, and we need a new resistance strategy.

        As for Tom Leonard, well he particularly disliked Scottish bourgeois cultural nationalists and petty nationalism. He discovered how all those radical Renfrew poets had been suppressed by the Burns brigade in 19th century Scotland. He was a poet of great wit and intelligence. He would surely have been appalled by Boris and his English nationalist project. As would Edwin Morgan.

        Boy do we miss their voices… What would Edwin say about all this?

        1. The Stroller says:

          Tom Leonard was essentially THE poet of the west coast Scottish working class, and he was not slow either to see the language predicament of the Scottish working class and how it relates to the peculiarities of the patois of other peoples of the Empire.

          So while it is true he was an anti-nationalist he was also an anti-imperialist…one gets the feeling he loathed the Burns club mentality and never forgave them for their classist outlook and servile arse-licking, their snobbery and their wretched sanctification, emasculation and commodification of Burns and his endless imitators at the expense of the radical voices which were suppressed in 19th century Scotland and later. ..tho I haven’t read the anthology he edited of their work.

          As for Edwin Morgan, one can almost hear bones churning in the grave. He was the great Scottish translator of the 20th century, a man who brought the great names of European poetry to a Scottish readership, especially the Russians. He was also an outstanding scholar, essayist and poet in his own right. As a figure, he is simply irreplaceable….

          The word poet is bandied about a little too easily perhaps these days. Both Leonard and Morgan were poets of great intellectual weight and they knew the tradition inside out…they’re surely the two names for Scottish poets to aspire to, the Scottish working class poet and the Scottish internationalist…

          1. The Stroller says:

            As for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership, we need a shake up. Maybe Nicola should go, I don’t know. I think she has done a good job, and I like her, but she has lost credibility by promising referendums she can’t deliver. You can’t keep doing that.

            As for the SNP leadership, it’s not been good enough. We’ve not been good enough either, but the SNP have completely failed to make the link between the model of Britain which is shared by the people behind Brexit and how EU membership was a very potent antidote to that new Britain about to be foisted on us.

            No one in the SNP leadership made that link, and if they had, the indie Scottish brexit vote might have been much lower…. Voting for Brexit was maybe voting for the abolishment of the Scottish parliament and in any case the centralisation of power in London…Brexit was always an extreme Brit nat project…

            People like Neal Ascherson saw that link years ago….

            We need new blood in the SNP, at the top…

          2. The Stroller says:

            Or the famous Spanish veto of Scotland in the EU….

            I don’t get paid to work for a politician like Alyn Smith or any other SNP MEP, but how is it possible nobody in 7 years has run the numbers on Spain’s financial contribution to the EU and compared it to Scotland’s?

            If they had done so, they would have killed the Spanish veto stone dead years ago because it turns out Spain is not a net contributor to EU budgets yet, and never has been, while Scottish tax payers have been paying in for 50 years…

            Scotland is a net contributor to the EU, Spain is a net recipient…. we’ve been paying Spanish infrastructure projects for decades for Christ sake…

            How is it possible the SNP failed to do their homework in this and other issues…?

  7. Tracy Patrick says:

    Thanks for the informed debate below. I had no idea that Yeats read at Paisley Town Hall, Jim, I must look that up in the local news of the time. The Paisley Writers’ Group has a fascinating history. After Ajay Close, there was one more writer in residence, Paul Houghton, then the funding was withdrawn, and membership fell away. It’s a shame, I learned so much from that group. Gerry Carruthers and Alan Bissett hosted a brilliant event about Tom Leonard’s Radical Renfrew at the Paisley Book Festival. It proved to be a really popular festival, the first in Paisley, but hopefully not the last…

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.