We have referenced the Chemical Generation of writers a few times on Indelible Ink, and featured the best of their work with Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’, Duncan McLean’s ‘The Bunker Man’ and Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’. This month we feature the fifth entry into what I consider the Top Five Chemical Generation texts; Laura Hird’s ‘Born Free’.
These novels give us a wonderfully evocative picture of a time when Scotland was politically impotent and compulsively introspective, and they are all, in their own way, a comment on that culture and society as their protagonists switch off and drop out, losing themselves in simple, and often destructive, pleasures. Carefully crafted, and sharing a commitment to writing that is often under appreciated, these are not just some of the best Scottish novels of the last 20 years; they stand as equals with those classics from the ages.
Hird’s 1999 novel shares with the other novels mentioned a brutal honesty as she sets out a vivid portrayal of lives that are never straightforward; lives which are challenging for those who are living them, and which often are for the reader as well. There is teenage/underage sex, pornography, alcoholism, domestic abuse, bullying, adultery, and just about every other betrayal you can think of. Oddly enough, and a sign of the times, one of the most shocking scenes is when one character thinks nothing of driving home absolutely hammered. This is not only because this is something which society has deemed more unacceptable today than it was in the ‘90s, but is also because sex and abuse, and sexual abuse, have become more ‘mainstream’ in the ways they are covered in the media and arts. It was interesting to note, after reading the novel for the first time in 15 years, what has come to be, if not exactly acceptable, then accepted, and what has not.
‘Born Free’ concentrates on one family consisting of Vic, Angie, Joni and Jake, and the individual chapters are narrated by each one of them in turn in a similar manner to Anne Donovan’s ‘Buddha Da’. Each of the family members stand alone, and all are speaking a different language to the others. This is especially true between the generations as the parents and children have very different ideas as to what it means to be a child, and to how children should behave. All of them use each other to try and gain the upper hand, and familial secrets and lies come to define their lives.
There are many things to recommend ‘Born Free’, such as Hind’s ear for everyday language and believable characterisation, but the real triumph is her ability to remind the reader of just how heartfelt, painful and confusing being young is. It’s become a cliché to say that there is no crueller place than the school playground, but Hird is a master at recalling exactly how brutal this time of life can be. She nails the language, sets out clearly what is important to teenagers, and what isn’t, and it can be shocking to be reminded of this. Perhaps that’s the problem; it’s not that we can’t remember clearly the uglier moments of childhood, it’s that we don’t want to.
I also have to mention the depiction of mum Angie and her alcoholism, which is mercilessly honest as it destroys her relationships and removes reality from her life. She epitomises what makes Hird’s characters so memorable. None of them are heroes, but there is a humanity to each one which makes you care for them even when they display the most appalling behaviour and decision making, and once you look past their actions, words and deeds you can still perceive the love they have for each other which is just about surviving through it all.
And now for our musical interlude. There are some nice, nostalgic, music references throughout the book, but I’ve chosen ‘Glory Days’ by Pulp from the ‘This Is Hardcore’ album, a record which shares a dark, bleakly comic, even ironic, tone with ‘Born Free’, and which Hird quotes from at the beginning of the book.
The more sensational aspects surrounding The Chemical Generation have tended to overshadow just how good a lot of the writing was. The references to sex and drugs, the links to Britpop and dance music, and the fondness for the movement in the style magazines of the day, meant that many critics overlooked the quality and commitment of the best writers. I would suggest that when you ignore the hype you have to accept what an important time in Scottish writing this was; one to rival the more critically regarded 20th century literary renaissances of the ‘20s and ‘70s.
The writers displayed an almost pathological need to tell their truths, and this was just what was needed at the time. Just as Gray, Kelman, Lochhead and Leonard inspired Welsh, Warner, McLean and Hird, so they in turn would inspire the next generation of Scottish writers, something which can be clearly seen in the work of Alan Bissett, Allan Wilson, Jenni Fagan and Vicki Jarrett. Some critics may not like to admit it, but their legacy is one of huge importance to Scottish writing and culture as a whole.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Andrew Raymond Drennan becomes the first writer to appear for a second time on the pages of Indelible Ink, but I make no excuses for this as his latest novel, ‘The Limits Of The World’, is perfect for the Dear Scotland readership.
Set in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, Drennan looks at censorship, freedom and the power of the written word, and it delivers on the promise of his earlier work in spades. Few writers would attempt a novel of this scope and ambition, but Andrew Raymond Drennan once again proves he is no ordinary writer.