Categories
Culture Literature

Embracing vulnerability: reimagining masculinity in Scottish fiction

The 2021 online edition of the Paisley Book Festival has managed to be as magical as last year’s in-person events. The Festival is in its second year and has been developed as part of Future Paisley: a radical, wide-ranging programme of events and activities that make the most of the town’s unique and significant cultural story. While I couldn’t travel to Paisley physically, the festival’s Scottish Masculinities event transported me to the grand auditorium of the Paisley Arts Center, where I tuned in to a culturally significant conversation between three great Scottish male authors: Graeme Armstrong, Douglas Stuart, and Andrew O’Hagan. The event took its spectators on a short trip just over a fifty-mile, forty-year radius. 

The books discussed were Armstrong’s 2020 novel on gang culture and sectarian violence, The Young Team, Stuart’s Booker-winning Shuggie Bain, and O’Hagan’s Mayflies, which made headlines last year for its sensitive and honest portrayal of friendship. That’s three boyhoods in three brilliant, autobiographically inspired novels. Together, they signal that the discussion on men, class, and masculinity in Scotland is far from over. 

The books’ three protagonists evolve against a prescribed version of what it is to be a man and masculine in the West Coast of Scotland. After an arduous process of heartache and self-hate, all three boys end up rejecting the tribal masculinity that had sustained the narrative until that point. Stuart’s protagonist goes from taking advice from his brother (‘Well, first never say “common” again. Wee boys shouldn’t talk like old women. And you should try to watch how you walk. Try not to be so swishy. It only puts a target on your back.’) to not caring one bit about the bullies. Armstrong’s Azzy reconciles his gang identity with his vulnerability. And O’Hagan’s Tully spends the whole novel fighting the status quo.

O’Hagan explained that the reason movements like punk were so important on the West Coast was because they were an absolute ‘finger in the face of conformity’. Pop culture and raves created a wholly different sense of male intimacy and friendship. They were drunk, high, responding to music, and it was in the corner of clubs that men started hugging each other and talking about their feelings. 

They each recommended a book that helped them through their struggles in their youth. Armstrong’s was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which made him realize of all that he could achieve regardless of class. O’Hagan said the poems of Robert Burns put him in contact with his sensitivity. And A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines inspired Stuart to accept himself.

When asked if they were hopeful about masculinity in 2021, Stuart replied that he was. Scotland, he believes, has opened the spectrum of masculinity to embrace vulnerability. There’s still some way to go, undoubtedly. But, as Armstrong puts it, it’s up to all of us to ‘smash stigma’ together. 

Image: Sasha Freemind via Unsplash

Image depicts a lone man looking out a window, from behind