Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence

Corgi, 1987, 238 p.

Its Colours They Are Fine cover

Called “A vivid portrayal of Glasgow life” in the title box on its front cover Its Colours They Are Fine is divided onto three sections – each itself made up of five, five and three connected stories respectively.

Section One illustrates the young life of Aleck, growing up in the crowded conditions of Govan before the slum clearances. Tinsel relates the boredom of a pre-Christmas trip to the Steamie and contrasts it with the fulfilment of putting up seasonal decorations. Sheaves finds Aleck at the Harvest Festival at his Sunday School, one of a crop of souls destined for Christ. The Ferry deals with the exoticism and fear of an adventure across the Clyde to Partick. Gypsy tells of the delights and otherwise of the Kelvin Hall carnival and the mutually mistrustful relationship of Govan folk with those they call Gypsies, the people of the travelling shows. Silver in the Lamplight describes life in the back courts and games such as KDRF (Kick Door Run Fast.)

Part Two is more diffuse, featuring episodes from different stages of life. Its Colours They Are Fine recounts the anticipation of and satisfaction from taking part in an Orange Walk. Brilliant repeats this for an evening out, tribalism – of a more parochial sort – being again in evidence. The Rain Dance relates the immediate precursors to and the events on the day of a “mixed” wedding (ie between a Catholic and a Protestant.) Neither family is best pleased. The Palace sees an older man, now jobless but with little prospect of new employment, make a human connection in the Kibble Palace. The chimes of an ice-cream van in Greensleeves lead a retired widow living on the twenty-second floor of a tower block to reflect on her isolation.

Section Three is the most elegiac in tone. In Changes a man returns from a New Year spent in London visiting friends pondering on the fullness and transitoriness of little lives. Auld Lang Syne describes the events of a quiet Hogmanay (for the narrator) but one who is still bound by the traditions attaching to it. All meanings ofBlue, as in the colour of Rangers shirts, and of the Virgin Mary in Art, its associations with sadness and a patch of sky caught between clouds, resonate in the narrator’s memory of the day his mother died.

Glasgow life is here to be sure; working class Glasgow life especially. Its attitudes and habits, its prejudices, the odd casual violence, but also the camaraderie, the fellow feeling. The book in total has become something of a series of snapshots of the past though. Many of the circumstances that led to the sorts of lives portrayed here are gone now – though some will remain – but still Spence has peopled his tales with recognisable characters with full inner lives and descriptions of the Glasgow urban environment to match those of the countryside of other Scottish authors. The prose is written in straightforward English but the dialogue is in an uncompromising Glaswegian.

For those of a sensitive disposition note that the word ‘darkies’ is used twice. (In Glasgow in the days Spence is writing about, though, its use was mainly descriptive and usually not meant derogatorily.)

Pedant’s corner:- Little star of Bethlehem (later given as Little Star of Bethlehem,) a missing end quote, a Roman thumbs up said to mean survival, thumbs down to mean death (this was a common belief at the time these stories are set but I’ve since read that gladiators’ fates were determined the opposite way.) “On the platform were a number” (was a number,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3.)

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