Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

4th Estate, 2020, 395 p.

Like the best murder mysteries, we start with a body. But this isn’t a crime story. (Not in the conventional sense anyway – and the crimes it touches on are, or were, not usually considered as such.) It is, instead, a mosaic of a life, that of Cliodhna Jean Campbell (known as Clio,) who in January 2018 has committed suicide at her friend Ruth’s house in Kilbarchan, leaving no note in the house, and left Ruth to find her body. It is a novel about its times, our times, political commitment and hope.

Except we don’t actually start with the body. First there is a newspaper article from June 1990, a profile of Clio as her first album is about to be released following her successful but unconventional appearance on Top of the Pops the previous March, where she pointedly refused to mime while promoting her anti-Poll Tax single ‘Rise Up’ and ‘provocatively’ revealed an anti-poll tax T-shirt. Newspaper extracts like these appear intermittently between chapters (the next is a heartfelt but subsequently misconstrued obituary) and chart her swift rise, slower fall and occasional re-emergence to the public eye. One of these is a particularly barbed review of her album of Burns songs, The Northern Lass by a reviewer totally unsympathetic to its subject matter. The meat of the novel however, is in the unfolding of Clio’s life revealed, in non-linear order, by chapters dealing with incidents or stages in her life.

Astutely on the author’s part, we never see events from Clio’s perspective, only from people whose paths she crossed, was affected by, or affected, in one way or another: fourteen different viewpoint characters helpfully noted on a page labelled Some People inserted between the epigraph and page one. Listed in alphabetical order of their given names these are: Adele, a nurse; Danny Mansfield, a tour manager, a husband; Donald Bain, a godfather (unofficial;) Eileen Johnstone, a mother; Hamza Hussain, a boyfriend; Ida Edwards, a woman on a train; Jess Blake, a comrade; Malcolm Campbell, a father; Neil Munro, a journalist; Ruth Jones, a friend; Sammi Smith, a girl who lives in a squat; Shiv West, a popular musician; Simon Carruthers, a man at a wedding; Xanthe Christos, a former comrade. Taken in all they present a picture of a caring individual, who is at times blinkered to the ripples of her wake but is more sinned against than sinning.

Clio was brought up in an Ayrshire mining village by her mother and stepfather. (Her less than adequate father, also a musician, kicked out by Clio’s mother, had left to make a career in the US.) The 1980s miners’ strike left its legacy on Clio and through her life she remained a tireless advocate for the working-class cause, leading to not only that one hit song, but involvement in various political causes including a squat in Brixton, and devastation at the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The journalist, Neil Munro, carries an unrequited torch for her and reflects somewhat jealously on her relationship with Danny Mansfield, “Beautiful women take lovers. He’d just never worked out why the lovers they took had to be such total arseholes.” One chapter set in the squat gives us Xanthe’s scathing verdict on lefties, “all of them so sure that their rollies, their pouches and their papers were another way of sticking it to corporate culture.” Another includes an explanation of the card game Scabby Queen, where there is only one queen in the deck. The card gets passed around as quickly as possible since the person left with her at the end loses and suffers a forfeit. (If this is supposed to be a metaphor for Clio’s life it doesn’t quite work.)

In the squat a man called Mark Carr had sex with most of the female activists. Clio later discovers he was an undercover policeman and therefore they had been “raped by the state”. The exposure of Carr, seeking justice against him and his superiors for his actions, becomes one of Clio’s causes, one she single-mindedly follows to the hilt despite the potential wreckage this pursuit could cause to the lives of others who were in the squat.

Ruth remembers her outlining all the good that could have flowed from an independent Scotland, including “amazing Scandinavian education” plus “an oil fund underpinning a citizen’s income and putting money into green energy programmes and all those beautiful things we were going to do,” how that would have confounded the sceptics. She hoped, “That they’d see then.”

But, given the ‘No’ vote, she laments, “Nothing I do or you do will ever make the slightest bit of difference …. They knew most of the country was fearty little boys like them, making snidey jokes because they’re afraid to believe in anything …. It’s why anyone from here who goes away and does well, we start laughing at them when they come back again …. There’s always some wee Scottish gremlin sitting there on yer shoulder, whispering its mantra. Naw. Naw. Naw.”

The suicide was Clio’s last act of political theatre, her final grab for attention and validation. In a note released to the press days after her death she says, “The codes that this modern world was built on are breaking down, allowing the worst bits of ourselves to rampage.”

Neil’s anguish over writing Clio’s obituary, “How did you use words, black on white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?” are belied by the story we are reading. This novel shows exactly how you use words to describe a life.

Scabby Queen is brilliant. A superb portrait not only of a complicated, contrary character, an embodiment of Caledonian anti-syzygy, but also of the society she lived in and the times she passed through.

Pedant’s corner:- snuck (sneaked, but snuck may have been in character,) “one wee Fife village” (it was Clackmannan which is not in Fife, and actually it was not the village but Clackmannanshire as a whole.)

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