In 1984 double glazing company CR Smith became the first company to sponsor Glasgow’s Old Firm, openly admitting that they would only sponsor both, or neither. They believed, rightly, that if you chose to sponsor either Rangers or Celtic then hundreds of thousands of football fans would go out of their way not to buy your product. When McEwans Lager sponsored Rangers in the late 1980s and the 1990s I was working in bars in Glasgow and even some Rangers fans would refer to the beer as ‘Hun juice’. Celtic fans, and, indeed, any fans who did not support Rangers, would avoid it. Since then all sponsorship deals have included both teams.
I mention all of this to try and put into context how brave Alan Bissett has been in setting his latest novel Pack Men in Manchester on the 14th May 2008 when thousands of Rangers fans descended from Scotland to take over the city which was hosting the UEFA Cup Final. Considering the large part football, particularly the Old Firm and all the sectarian baggage that accompanies them, plays in many Scottish lives it is perhaps surprising that not more writers have dealt with the subject (Des Dillon and Alan Spence are notable exceptions). But then consider the sponsorship example. Not only does Bissett risk alienating non-Rangers fans (the cover, as you can see, has a Union Jack on it) but it was a day which is widely considered to be one which brought great shame on that club and those supporters who tore Manchester a new one. Those with Gers sympathies may not want to be reminded of that particular event.
But if people are fickle enough to let such things matter then hell mend them as Pack Men is not about football at all. It is about men and why the concept of ‘the gang’ seems to mean so much to so many of them. It examines the idea which was exemplified in Trainspotting when Franco Begbie’s outrageous behaviour is continually excused with the statement ‘He’s a mate’, as if that needs no other explanation. Bissett’s book is a return to the characters of his début novel Boyracers, and has Alvin, Frannie, Dolby and Dolby’s son Jack making the trip to Manchester with a group of fellow fans. The central character is once again Alvin, and it is clear from early on that he is way out of his comfort zone and that those bonds formed in early years are going to be sorely tested. Even in Boyracers Alvin was the outsider of the gang, being younger than the others and destined for further education. This gap has grown over the years, and his relationship with Frannie in particular is unbearably tense.
This is not a comfortable read at times as Bissett captures the feeling that violence could erupt at any moment, either between individuals or on mass. The songs which are sung on the bus and the casual sectarian banter will be familiar to many readers brought up in Scotland, particularly in the West, and Alvin’s dilemma whether to speak against it, which can only end badly, or keep schtum is a common one. It’s all very well to believe that for evil to triumph all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing, but arguing that point of view to a bus full of devout football fans is a dangerous strategy at best, and Bissett is aware that the problem of sectarianism is more complex than simple good versus evil. He could easily have gone straight to the usual default setting of simple condemnation of such songs and those who sing them, but instead examines the attitudes behind the words, and just how they are ingrained in the first place.
It is not only sectarianism that Bissett addresses in Pack Men. There is also that other thorny question of class, and particularly the idea of moving between classes, something that is intrinsically entangled with the notion of identity in Scotland. We learn, through a series of flashbacks, that Alvin eagerly embraced the middle-class world of university life, and lost meaningful contact with the other Boyracers. We see Alvin educated in many aspects of life, and emerging unsure as to where he is supposed to ‘belong’.
His confusion is similar to that of Patrick Doyle in James Kelman’s A Disaffection. At one point Doyle, another university graduate, reacts to his brother’s accusation that he has become a ‘middle-class wanker’ with the thought ‘Gavin was actually very out of order what he had said I mean you dont call your fucking young brother a middle-class wanker I mean fuck sake’. The inference here is that it is the accusation of being middle-class that burns Patrick rather than being a wanker. Such a move is seen as one of betrayal, of moving away from your ‘ain folk’, and is one which is at the heart of Pack Men.
As is the case with Kelman, it is Bissett’s subtle use of language that is telling. In A Disaffection, the rather formal statement that ‘Gavin was actually very out of order’ conflicts with the final ‘I mean fuck sake’. This linguistic struggle is symbolic and is something which Bissett understands. When Alvin is accused of talking ‘like that Graham Spiers’ you don’t have to be familiar with Scottish sports writers to know that this is an accusation with many layers. As the novel progresses his language adapts to those who surround him, and these linguistic shifts exemplify his internal struggle. The comparison with Kelman (who also confronted the roots and results of sectarianism in his last novel Kieron Smith, boy) is deliberate as Bissett is perhaps the only other contemporary Scottish writer who successfully considers questions of class and the nature of Scottish masculinity in such an incisive and insightful manner.
The main difference between the two is that Bissett embraces popular culture and references, something which I suspect Kelman would see as trivialising the political and social points that are being made. If he does feel this he is wrong, and it would be a mistake to think that Alan Bissett is anything other than deadly serious about what his writing addresses. What his prose does do is to reflect the interests and concerns of those he is writing about. Man cannot live by obsessing over political and social change alone. Sometimes we want to list our favourite Manchester bands, reference characters from Marvel comics, and, yes, obsess over football. Such matters don’t necessarily prevent serious conversation, although all too often they do. Perhaps these days men no longer put away childish things as they were once supposed to, and this is a modern aspect of masculinity that is rarely examined. Pack Men reminds us that there is more to life than books you know.
Pack Men is a hugely impressive novel, one which gives much more than you are initially led to believe. This is down to Bissett’s lightness of touch when dealing with important matters. There is a sense of humour and even handed-perspective which means that it is a more balanced novel than, considering what it deals with, you have any right to expect. Like Alvin, Bissett is trying to see the best in people, even when that best is well hidden. There are characters who initially feel like stereotypes but who prove to be complex and fascinating individuals. This is particularly true of the terrifying Cage and the effervescent Wee Wife, who is one of the best characters to feature in recent Scottish fiction. As the characterisations unfold there are surprises on almost every page as new and unlikely friendships are formed, and secrets revealed. Another positive aspect of the novel is that it deals with sex, and sexuality, in an intelligent and insightful manner, and it is heartening to see a Scottish writer discussing sex and the way it is an intrinsic and serious aspect of life, rather than using it to shock, titillate or humiliate.
I have to admit that I scrapped a full review of Pack Men and started anew on this one. This is because I made the mistake that I have warned everyone else of making, overly concentrating on the football/sectarian strand of the novel. It was only after reading the original back in full that I realised I was selling the novel short. Alan Bissett has once more held a mirror up to modern Scottish society and although what we see is sometimes cruel and ugly he seems to be suggesting that in the right light, after sober consideration about how we can make the most of what we have, we might just scrub up alright.