Agnes Owens’ Like Birds in the Wilderness (now available in Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas) is about a 23-year-old working class kid in Scotland named Mac, who faces shut doors, hard times and bureaucratic indifference no matter which way he turns. He falls in love with a 23-year-old typist from a slightly higher level of the working class and has to figure out how to keep her while fighting off anxiety, depression and alcoholism and stubbornly groping his way to his own code of morality.
As the novel opens, Mac, a skilled bricklayer, has left home, where there are no jobs, and traveled to a strange city where the unemployment rate is just as bad, but where he had heard (incorrectly) that there was a boom going on.
All day I had tramped the streets of this strange city in a fruitless search for work, head bent against the wind and lugging my shabby holdall. Already my money was spent on scrappy meals and fags. The only thing I possessed to the good was an address for a lodging house obtained from the local Department of Health and Social Security, but since they were unwilling to advance me the rent I had slight hope of being accepted. All the same, I decided to try it. I was cold, tired and hungry. One night’s kip was my present notion of paradise.
He actually talks his way into a room in a boarding house where no drinking or women are allowed, or anything else that might provide some enjoyment or release during his time off from work, except sleeping. And through another of the boarders there he then actually manages to land a job doing what he likes best—laying brick. He drinks too much and works too hard, and tries to court his girl Nancy, and the description of their relationship has to be one of the best depictions of real-world young love ever written.
When Mac first sees Nancy, she gives him a cool nod, and he describes her as skinny, tall, and “passable looking in a snooty way.” He’s so insecure that he’s constantly perceiving slights in her offhand remarks, only to be suffused with joy when she throws him a compliment or smiles at him or takes his arm or lets him kiss her.
Then his mood plummets again with the next perceived slight. Mac is uncouth, scared, and clueless when it comes to romance (in other words, a classic 23-year-old guy), and immediately completely distracted by any woman who shows the slightest hint of sexual interest in him, even if he’s with his girl, whom he loves. He says: “I only cared about Nancy, and felt dismally aware of how little I had to offer her.”
Because neither of them can afford a place where he or she can take the other, their sex life takes place outside wherever they can find a bit of privacy—a doorway on a quiet street, or in the middle of some shrubs in the public park. Every time he sees Nancy, his description of her changes as she looks more and more beautiful to him.
They end up tramping around the Scottish Northern Highlands together as he tries to follow up on a tentative offer of work. They get cold, hungry, weary, thorn-scratched and bug-bitten, have a couple of close calls, and finally Nancy gives up on Mac and goes home. Mac still hopes to land the job up North that would win her back, but he rejects a couple of shady types who are considering him for a paid role in a scheme meant to entrap other working people who may be inclined—with a little prompting—to fight back with violence against the political forces making their lives so bleak.
The title of this novel comes from a children’s song about children waiting like birds in the wilderness for their soup, their bread, their meat, their dessert. The young people in Owens’ story are waiting for their soup, bread, meat and dessert as well, but the reader knows it’s never coming. Through most of this story you’re reading with a grimace on your face, watching Mac make the normal mistakes of youth when you know any false step could finish him. It’s like watching Hurstwood come apart in Sister Carrie, only this Hurstwood is only 23 and still buoyed up by the hopefulness of the young.
At the end of the novel, Mac has found another job, though not in the skilled trade he loves and even lower-paying than the last job. But he’ll be driving a truck and he starts to consider the possibilities.
For instance, I could be sent up to the northern coast. It was possible I might bump into Nancy. It’s a small world and this is a small country. I could even make a point of looking her up, come to that, all spruced up, the owner of a caravan and earning a weekly wage. She could only be impressed and overjoyed to see me again. As I strode rapidly along the road I laughed aloud at the extravagance of my thoughts. A woman passing, wearing a headscarf and carrying a bag of messages, gave me a startled look.
‘It’s a fine day for a chinge, missus,’ I said.
Her face softened as she said, ‘Aye, it’s no’ bad at a’, son. We canny complain.’
Agnes Owens was born in a small town near Glasgow in 1926. Like her characters Mac and Nancy, she went through a grueling period of her early married life traveling around the Highlands of Scotland with husband and baby looking for work, sleeping in a tent or squatting in condemned buildings for shelter. After that she worked a series of intermittent jobs (intermittent because of layoffs, not by choice) as a typist, factory worker, and maid.
Her son was murdered at age 19, her husband died at age 43, and she began writing fiction at age 47. Her first novel, Gentlemen of the West, also about a frustrated bricklayer, was published in 1984. Like Birds in the Wilderness was first published in 1987. Owens has published a short autobiography, “Marching into the Highlands and into the Unknown,” in her book People Like That.
In an interview with Jane Gray, Owens said about her fiction: “I would say I want to convey people that are condemned in a better light than what people would think, you know, or maybe to make people think, well, these people are human.”
Alasdair Gray has called Like Birds in the Wilderness “a moving picture of a hard, surprising world which is forcing a young man to understand both it and himself.” The novel was ignored by critics when it was published, and found very few readers. Owens has said that two female hosts of a radio fiction-review show mentioned it once, and their comments were along the lines of “What office girl would ever date a bricklayer?” Then they laughed and that was all they said about it.
Since then Alasdair Gray has dedicated his short story collection, The Ends of Our Tethers (see my review), to Agnes Owens, calling her “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors,” and saying “Perhaps she is ignored by publicists because they cannot believe a creative intelligence can thrive long in a council housing estate.” After that the British critics, who knew how to jump on a bandwagon, have been quick to review her works and call her a genius.
Of course, what they’re really doing (now that it’s safe) is trying to align themselves with Gray as geniuses who can discern undiscovered genius.
Better late than never, but even so, I’ve noticed that most reviewers don’t really seem to get Owens’ work. As with Larry Fondation’s Fish, Soap and Bonds (review), I’m struck by the way reviewers focus on the characters’ flaws—the fact that they drink too much, or are losing it mentally—and never on why they’re drinking too much, or what’s causing them to lose it mentally. I’ve seen Mac described by a reviewer as “insouciant,” when he’s not carefree at all—he’s constantly aware of how the society sees him, and how little control he has over his life. He’s afraid.
These reviewers just don’t seem to see how hard Mac the bricklayer is trying, how much he cares for Nancy, his strong attraction to honest work and a skilled trade, or his humor or boldness or courage or morality. They don’t see the depression he’s struggling with and his victories over it. All they see is that he’s drinking too much.
Sometimes you can be poor and depressed because the world is just that difficult, or you can be poor and depressed because you live by a code of ethics that you can’t set aside, even for money you want desperately. I think these reviewers must not live by a code of ethics like that. Middle class people want to believe that it could never happen to them, no matter what’s going on around them. They still think that as long as you keep your house tidy and don’t drink you’ll be all right.
Owens is right, it’s a very hard world out there.
Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas