Working class Scotland needs to be heard; despair, action and hope

A Working Class State of Mind, Colin Burnett, Pierpoint Press £9.99

Colin Burnett’s debut book, A Working Class State of Mind, is a series of interlinked short stories, set mostly in Leith. All the stories are told in first-person, in east coast Scots which, testament to Burnett’s skill with language, shifts subtly and consistently between different characters’ voices. Although the title speaks of ‘state of mind’ singular, we hear from multiple working class states of mind, variously expressing the full spectrum of human emotion, from joy to sorrow to pity to anger to the specific combination of all of these only experienced at Scottish lower league football matches. But it’s certainly class, and the material and mental challenges the class system adds to life when you’re on the wrong end of it, which is the uniting theme of the book. 

A Working Class State of Mind is part of an urban Scots literary tradition, with the work of Irvine Welsh being its most obvious kin as a portrayal of Leith and Edinburgh working class life. Burnett knows these comparisons will be made, and addresses them in the text, sometimes with a wry nod to the way that Welsh’s work feels like the only cultural representation of working class Edinburgh to have gained recognition beyond its own community. In ‘House of Horrors,’ Dougie encounters a middle class ‘class tourist’ in a bookies, reflecting “he probably only gits tae see boays like this oan the telly. Or hear aboot thum in an Irvine Welsh novel.” Elsewhere, Burnett responds to Welsh’s work when the character Steven Scott addresses that famous Renton quote: “Someboady yince said it’s shite bein Scottish but I honestly dinnae hink that. It’s no shite, it’s jist oaffy fuckin depressin.”

I found threads linking to older stories here, too. In the opening story – which shares a title with the book – we meet our first narrator, Chrissy, sitting in a state of despair in his manky flat, contemplating ending his life. He thinks about the reasons he has for losing hope, which are many, and shared by many – he’s been replaced by a machine at work, and it’s starting to look like jail is his best hope for regular meals. As he thinks, Chrissy watches a spider trying time and again to spin a web across his kitchen. The traditional legend of Bruce and the spider is a familiar one, but the way it’s handled here gives another dimension to the story – instead of merely being inspired by the spider’s perseverance (clearly a good Leith arachnid), Chrissy finds solidarity in their shared struggle, starting to think of the spider as ‘comrade’. Having someone say “Ah fuckin believe in ye, ma hairy little friend” can make all the difference sometimes. 

As well as the obvious Bruce link, this story put me in mind of another working class literary spider, the one invoked by poet William Thom in his 1844 poem ‘Whisperings for the Unwashed’. Thom would have had a lot to commiserate with Chrissy about. A handloom weaver who struggled to find work as the era of big factory looms dawned, Thom and his penniless family once walked from Dundee to Aberdeen in search of work, a journey during which his young daughter died after nights in the cold. 

‘Whisperings for the Unwashed’ is Thom’s best known poem, written to bring the woes of his fellow weavers to a wider audience, but also as a call to action. For Thom, the spider is a fellow weaver and symbol of perseverance, but also an inspiration for workers to claim the fruits of their own work: 

The nobler Spider weaves alone,

And feels the little web his own,

His hame, his fortress, foul or fair,

No factory whipper swaggers there.

Should ruffian wasp, or flaunting fly

Touch his lov’d lair, ‘TIS TOUCH AND DIE!

Thom’s spider marks a turning point from despair to action in the poem, and I felt an echo of this a hundred and fifty years later in Burnett’s opening story. It sets the tone for a book that does not shy away from the portraying the realities of living in a capitalist system which does not see the poor as fully human, but at its heart, believes in the real possibility of hope – but it’s a hope that needs, like Chrissy and the spider, “a plan ae action” to become any more than wishful thinking.

Maybe I’m indulging my own obsessions by bringing up the likes of William Thom here, but this longer history feels important to the context of Burnett’s book in a couple of ways. In Thom’s era, there was a model for Scottish working class writing success. It was no utopia – to succeed on the canon’s terms, there were sacrifices to be made, and often working class poets were portrayed as wonders of nature, whose work was as natural and untaught as the singing of a bird. Thom himself was feted as an example of this, and had his moment of fame. But he agonised over the artistic compromises he had to make to keep his patronage, and ended up suffering from alcohol dependency, once again destitute. 

Now – although in theory we live in a ‘meritocracy’ where anyone can make it in the arts – many cultural representations of working class people have gone beyond patronising and into full on sneering, especially reality TV shows that, in Chrissy’s words, “kin only be described as propaganda against the workin class.” And the idea of what it means to be a working class writer in twenty-first century Scotland is the focus of another story, ‘Sebastian the Great.’

The narrator, Callum, makes a cameo appearance for this story, so in some ways it is a departure from the main flow of the narrative. But I’m glad it was included. Callum finds himself as the only Scots speaker and poor person at an event for emerging writers. Listening to an established author drone on about how the young hopefuls’ first commission might make “only” five thousand pounds, he reflects “It really is bams like him who make me yearn fur the days when the upper classes lived in fear o the common man.” The scene where he reads his own work to the assembled crowd explores not just the struggles of writing and getting heard in the first place, but of retaining control over your own voice once it’s out there, in the ears of a privileged literary establishment who don’t particularly want to have to re-examine their worldview. 

A Working Class State of Mind is a book very much about Scotland now, to the extent that the last few stories bring us into the pandemic and post-Covid world, but it is rooted in a sense of history as well as place. How we got to where we are is most thoroughly dealt with in ‘Sheep Without A Shepherd,’ in which Steven Scott remembers his father’s stories of the old Leith and the Henry Robb shipyard. Scott tells us how his father protested the closing of the yard in Thatcher’s eighties, holding a sign reading “Dinnae bring back the thirties.” The eighties felt like the thirties, which probably reminded older folk of the industrial disputes of the eighteen-seventies, and the bad times then likely recalled tales of the despair William Thom and his contemporaries felt in the eighteen-thirties. In human terms, these pasts aren’t far away, and it is – to recall a phrase from earlier – awffy fuckin depressin to think about these cycles of human harm at the whims of the economy. Because allowing these harms to be done – the starvation, the homelessness, the unemployment and foodbanks – is always, has always been, an ideological choice rather than an unavoidable reality.

Steven Scott is thirty, a couple of years younger than me, part of the generation where Thatcher – “and her annoyin, smug puss” – is ever-present not as a direct memory but as the architect of the specific kind of economic hell we have found ourselves making our lives in. The shipyards of Leith were long gone before I knew the place. But I remember the construction of the shiny edifice of Ocean Terminal in the 2000s, hailed as a source of regeneration, glamour and, crucially, employment (which it did provide, including to me, through many of my formative years.) Now – like so many centres of its kind – it echoes with empty units, another broken promise.

Although the sociological themes in A Working Class State of Mind are strong – and the stories which are closest to polemic are some of the strongest in the collection – it’s also an enjoyable read, thanks to its strong sense of character and plenty of great lines. The most memorable of Burnett’s characters is Aldo – a Muslim hard man and grade-A bampot, who perhaps at first appears to be a source of comic relief but soon grows into more of an intriguing contradiction.

The final tale in the collection is an origin story, explaining how the primary characters Dougie, Craig and Aldo met at school, and the picture of young Aldo we leave with is deftly drawn and more than a little psychologically terrifying. And although it’s got its fair share of bleak realism, it’s a very funny book too. If you’re going to survive these times, you have to laugh. ‘The Glory Hunter,’ set in the ever-fruitful world of local football, is an excellent black comedy account of the central trio, all Leith Star fans, trying to sabotage their rivals Bonnyrigg Rose in a big game. It does not go entirely according to plan. 

Finishing A Working Class State of Mind left me looking forward to reading more by Burnett, a strong new voice in Scots and Scottish literature, who demands working class voices be heard and read on their own terms. Mair power to his elbow.




Comments (18)

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  1. Chris Connolly* says:

    I’m sorry but I think “A Working Class State of Mind” depicts Scottish working class men as savages and losers. it’s well written, but the author has made the mistake of finding Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” characters likeable which, apart from kind-hearted Spud, they are not. For all that we laugh at their antics, they are a bunch of parasites.

    One of the things I prefer about Scotland is that working class folk, in the main, are not afraid to show their intelligence. In England they tend to behave in a way that suggests they are more stupid than they really are; they have low expectations and are content not to attempt anything better. I really don’t think that’s so in Scotland and although “Trainspotting” is a great piece of work, it has led to imitators trying to make heroes out of selfish, sexist thugs.

    We’re better than that.

    1. Trevor Swistchew says:

      Hi Chris I found your post interesting and it says you are a person who tells it as he sees it. To a point I agree with you certainly that glorifying defiance is common in many fictionalised works but I think Colin Burnett is to be commended for his first novel. As a writer myself I know it is no easy thing to put a story together and one that you trust will find its audience. No published work ever gets 100% approval because Readers think differently and have personal likes and dislikes about what they read as I am sure you will know after showing your obvious skills in writing a review of your own view of Colin Burnetts work. A Working Class State Of Mind though does “connect” with how Leithers think I know this because I lived in Leith for years and knew many locals who actually compared with many of Colins characters. His work will find its audience and like all writers Colin will go on to write more books and find his own way of style. That is why writers evolve and why Scotland has produced many of the literary greats. Thank You for reading it though and remember there aint no such thing as a bad review.Everthing is Opinion. Peace friend.

      1. Mons Meg says:

        I agree. And hopefully, the feedback his first novel has received will help to make the next one better. Onward and upward!

      2. Chris Connolly* says:

        Thanks for a kind response, Trevor. Love & peace to you too, and, while I’m about it, to everybody else also.

    2. Mons Meg says:

      My reading is that Colin redefines ‘working class’ as that subsection of society that experiences cultural, economic, and social poverty as a structural effect of global capitalism (the wretched of the earth) and away from the couthy wee proletarian moral exemplars of romantic 20th-century socialist folklore (decent, morally superior folk – the salt of the earth – who have ‘right’ on their side). This redefinition is progressive and a good thing in that it revalues the tired old regressive leftist cliché of ‘the working class’.

      My criticism of the book is that its ‘working class’ narrator doesn’t come across as culturally impoverished (i.e. particularly ‘working class’) despite that voice having been written in the ‘East Coast’ vernacular. Indeed, he comes across as someone who has considerable cultural capital to draw on in the narrating of his experience. This makes the narrator less believable as a character and represents a major flaw in the writing.

      1. Chris Connolly* says:

        Your comment helps make my point, MM. Being working class is not synonymous with being culturally impoverished.

        The only problem I have with Colin’s actual style (as opposed to the low expectations of his characters) is his eccentric use of punctuation, with full stops appearing in the middle of sentences for no evident reason. That he is otherwise eloquent doesn’t detract from his working class credentials at all.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Well, what it is or isn’t synonymous with depends on the criteria you used to define ‘working class’. These has never been entirely fixed and have undergone considerable revision over the past 40-odd years. The definition I gave, and which Colin’s novel presumes, (‘that subsection of society that experiences cultural, economic, and social poverty as a structural effect of global capitalism’) is that which is endorsed by the British Sociological Association. I believe Colin’s academic background is in sociology, which perhaps explains why his novel and its characters (with the unfortunate exception – as I said – of the narrator) are informed by this particular definition.

        2. Mons Meg says:

          It’s also the definition that was used in the Great British Class Survey of 2013, the findings of which were published in the book, Social Class in the 21st Century, by Mike Savage, Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, et al.

        3. Colin Burnett says:

          Hi Chris, I really do appreciate you taking the time to read and give a review of my book. Obviously, I know my writing won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and I respect every opinion of AWCSOM good or bad. With the punctuation I agree it is a bit eccentric but I’m dyslexic and I don’t pretend my use of punctuation is great. With the actual book I would say the message of the book is that the working class don’t lack ambition, it’s the system that lacks ambition in the working class. The message I hope the book sends is that the working class aren’t fickle but it’s the system and conditions the working class are placed in restrain them from achieving more and it’s not a personal choice of w/c people. And another point of the book is that education is the gateway to the working class obtaining aa brighter future which was shown in the Sheep Without A Shepherd story. Even Aldo has a sharp mind and can see how the world works and I don’t potray him as some mindless sociopath and his caring side is introduced when we meets Bruce.

          Some of the characters are sexists but that was done for a reason. We can pretend sexism isn’t an issue in society or within working class culture or we can address it. Which is something I use to do as sometimes you need to shock people for them to sit up and take notice of an issue and talk about it. But thanks again for reading my book I really do appreciate it

          1. Chris Connolly* says:

            It’s very kind of you to take the trouble to respond, Colin. Anybody, a working class author especially, who can write well enough to get a book published deserves respect. For the sake of perspective, I only like about 1 in 10 of the books I read, and your stories are much more accessible and real to me than the books regularly churned out by the Metropolitan writers that the Sunday editors love so much.

            I’m sure you know the ones I mean!

            If I missed some nuances in AWCSOM, and it looks as if I did, I apologise. Congratulations on the sales and good reviews.

            All the best with your future writing and life.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I knew someone who worked with the Workers Education Association taking literature classes, and they were quite clear that such skills should be taught rather than left to some kind of cultural osmosis. There is nothing about being ‘working class’ that should necessarily limit one’s mind. I reflect on Carl Sagan’s description of his childhood, the wonder and skepticism he says his parents imbued him with, his childhood use of public libraries and museums.
    I spent some time in an underclass which was materially poorer than working class, where people often experienced significant stresses but generally had access to rich social resources. Of course, these resources and supports tend to face some kind of threat or degradation.

    However, since the spider has reappeared, perhaps the fixation on the spider as an individual is small-minded, compared to the pattern of interactions represented by an actor, object and environment as it repeatedly attempts to build a web (of sufficient quality). It is vital for people negatively impacted by allegedly ‘laissez-faire’ policies (as Thatcher often claimed to employ) to see that actually the government of the day was actively and secretly snipping away at the threads holding society together. Successful resistance requires upping the collective game.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘There is nothing about being ‘working class’ that should necessarily limit one’s mind.’

      Indeed, it has always been part of capitalist ideology that members of the working class can always climb out of their cultural, economic, and social poverty through ‘self-improvement’; that’s the premise upon which charities like the WEA were founded.

      This is to discount the structural nature of that poverty, however, and to ascribe it instead to a moral ‘lack’ (of effort, of discipline) in the impoverished themselves. This latter account of poverty is classic ‘false consciousness’.

      1. Mons Meg says:

        Basically, our economic, educational, and social institutions (‘structures’) function to keep the poor economically, culturally, and socially impoverished and in positions of inferiority. That they exceptionally pass out a few ‘white masks’ to ‘black faces’ (to borrow Frantz Fanon’s metaphor) only confirms the rule.

        1. Chris Connolly* says:

          …which is all the more reason not to collaborate with those institutions by living down to the expectations we are born with and which are assigned to us.

          It’s important to note that most working class* people reject the likes of Aldo and his mates because, while unashamed of their own lack of ethics and self-respect, they make like more unpleasant for their neighbours too. The characters in AWCSOM are, in my opinion, Uncle Toms (there, I’ve gone and said it again!) behaving in exactly the manner they are expected to by the Telegraph readers in the more well-off parts of town.

          * Definition of working class. There’s a big clue in the name. If you come from a household where your parent(s) were workers as opposed to managers or business people, and you go/went to state schools, then I suggest that Occam’s Razor can be applied and you are working class.

          1. Chris Connolly* says:

            Sorry. Obviously that should read “They make LIFE more unpleasant…”

          2. Mons Meg says:

            ‘…which is all the more reason not to collaborate with those institutions by living down to the expectations we are born with and which are assigned to us.’

            Indeed! The economically, culturally, and socially impoverished should refuse to be complicit in ‘the violence of the coloniser’ (Fanon again) through collaboration with those institutions and, instead, engage in ‘the violence of the colonised’ by engaging in ‘anticolonial struggle’ against those institutions to retrieve the dignity, sense of self, and history of which they have been robbed. The impetus to decolonise our schools and universities, for example, as well as other public spaces, is part of this ‘anticolonial struggle’ by a working-class conceived as the wretched of the earth.

            But if you prefer to categorise ‘the working-class’ exclusively by the twin criteria of whether or not a body’s parents had ‘blue-collar’ status and whether or not that body went to a state school, then by all means so categorise it: there’s nothing to stop you; these definitions are not set in stone. I’m just not sure how useful such a categorisation is as a progressive tool in the 21st century.

    2. Trevor Swistchew says:

      Agree100% Great Post.

  3. DaveL says:

    Many thanks, Erin, enjoyed the review, and the book’s on my list. And also thanks for the pointer to William Thom, I’ve just spent an enjoyable few hours reading his Rhymes and Recollections of a Hand-loom Weaver – notes and footnotes especially!

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