Today we lost one of Scotland’s greatest writers of recent times in Agnes Owens, and I don’t make that claim lightly. One of the most important books in my life has been the 1985 short story collection Lean Tales, which saw Owens joined by James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. It was to become one of those books which, for many, would define a generation of writers and which would inspire the next.
I had just discovered James Kelman through a copy of The Busconductor Hines which was published in 1984, and I was desperate for more. With Lean Tales, not only did I get that, but here were another two writers who said something to me about my life. Every story in the collection is a gem, and I still force it upon people to this day. From then on Scottish writing took priority over all others for me (apart from my regular flings with those Russians). Owens, Gray and Kelman, (alongside Iain Banks) are responsible for pretty much everything that has happened in my life since, in one way or another.
Back in 2011, in an Indelible Ink column looking at Owens’ brilliant novella Bad Attitudes, I wrote:
“There are a few Scottish novelists I would recommend to any aspiring writers who are looking for inspiration in terms of style and technique. These include A.L Kennedy, James Kelman, Alan Warner and Ali Smith. But top of that list would be Agnes Owens. If you want an example of how to tell stories simply and effectively then this is where Owens excels. Her writing is constructed using short sentences, avoiding florid language or flights of fancy, and her style is reminiscent of Robin Jenkins, and even, at a stretch, Ernest Hemingway. No word is wasted, and this allows the reader direct access to the characters’ thoughts and deeds. You are right there with them.”
Today, upon learning of her passing, I was asking myself just what set her apart from her fellow tellers of Lean Tales. She was as gifted in capturing character as Gray and could be as brief yet incisive with a sentence as Kelman. My conclusion is that it was her dry, and often dark, humour, as well as a rare and underestimated ability to remove herself from her writing, that made her stories stand apart, and they were often simply more enjoyable to read. Alasdair Gray certainly thought her perhaps the pick of three, someone who should be as well known as her contemporaries Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Gray himself. In The Scottish Review of Books in 2006 he wrote:
“Agnes Owens’ work has been recognised by reviewers. Beryl Bainbridge, the only English writer who compares with her, called A Working Mother “A remarkable book, funny and sinister.” When Lean Tales by Kelman, Owens and Gray was published in paperback the Irish Times asked why so little had recently been heard of Agnes Owens, because “she is the best of them”. Is she still left out of nearly every survey of modern fiction because all her novels are short? Then a good publisher should treat them like the great novels of Nathaniel West and publish them in one volume, for if literacy lasts they will be read a century hence when most longer books are forgotten.”
In 2008 Polygon Books took Gray’s advice and published Agnes Owens: The Complete Short Stories and The Complete Novellas, and if you have never read any of her work I would suggest that these are where to start. James Kelman once stated that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives. This is what Owens excelled at, writing every day dramas in an extraordinary fashion, and with a wry humour that Kelman, for all his literary brilliance, could never hope to match. I said at the beginning she was one of Scotland’s greatest writers, but I also know she was hugely admired and greatly loved by those who knew her and worked with her. As brave, humorous and modest in her life as she was in her writing, she will be sadly missed and fondly remembered.