The Scottish traditional children’s song ‘Three Craws’ is a classic example of folk tradition being run through with dark themes. If you are unfamiliar with the fate of the birds then, depending on the version, one “canne find its maw”, one “fell and broke its jaw”, and the other “couldnae ca’ at a'”. Disney, it is not. However, nothing which befell those famed corbies matches the fates of the ‘three craws’ in James Yorkston’s novel of that name. If it’s a children’s lullaby you’re after, look away now.
Equal parts pitch-black comedy and tragedy, Yorkston’s Three Craws concentrates on the intertwining lives of Johnny, Stevie and Mikey. The first two are close childhood friends – bonded by the bad times more than the good. Johnny is returning home after trying and failing to make it in London as an artist. Home is Strathhillock in Fife, where Stevie, himself only recently returned due to the death of his aunt and uncle, has promised to give him a room should he want to visit. This is all the encouragement Johnny needs to leave a life of out-of date sandwiches and less than welcoming boozers behind.
As Johnny’s journey begins he meets Mikey, who has just had to ingest half of his stash of speed to avoid being done for dealing. This makes him a less than ideal travelling companion. Mikey proves to be more persistent than the stains on his “once blue jeans”. Claiming to be a friend of Johnny’s brother from school, he is a reminder made flesh that the past is not easily left behind, and there is instantly the feeling that Mikey is going to scupper any chances of a happy homecoming. This foreboding increases as the book unfolds and it becomes clear that three is definitely a crowd.
Mikey’s narrative voice is heard in short page-long chapters where he bemoans his lot in life, and cannot understand why everyone seems to distance themselves from him, while at the same time refusing to take the hint. Seen through the eyes of others we are in no doubt as to why he is shunned, but there is enough humanity there for the reader to feel sorry for him, while at the same time being appalled by his actions. It’s something that Irvine Welsh manages to do when he is at his best, and Yorkston pulls it off brilliantly here.
Anyone who was brought up in, or spent any length of time in, a Scottish small town will recognise the backdrop to Three Craws. It’s not just geographical but social. The book opens with a quote from Sunset Song, and there is the same sense that while people may be drawn to the place itself it’s the inhabitants that will cause you problems. The constant reminders of youthful indiscretions, the impossibility of keeping a secret, the threat of violence from those who may not share your opinions, musical tastes, or even haircuts – all of these seem heightened in a small town. In a city you can lose yourself, or get lost as Johnny discovered. In a small town everyone knows your name, and that is often more of a hinderance than it is a help. Not just a case of “I kent his faither”, but also, “..and his faither before that”.
There is a rich tradition in recent Scottish fiction which looks at those salad days (irony intended) of growing up in modern Scotland; books such as Alan Bissett’s Boyracers, Laura Hird’s Born Free and Gordon Legge’s The Shoe being three of the best. However, not many compare the promise of youth with what comes later in life, when often those early dreams have faded and the reality of adulthood proves to be a series of disappointments. Iain Banks did a fine line in such twisted nostalgia, with many of his characters carrying the scars of childhood traumas and tragedy – events which return to haunt the protagonists in later life. Three Craws is a superb example of this. Johnny, Stevie and Mikey don’t want to return home. For different reasons they have to. They have nowhere else to go. Yorkston captures the complex nature of this sort of homecoming; a sense of failure combined with the comfort of the familiar. Ridicule and reassurance.
As a songwriter, Yorkston is a master at telling tales, and is also well aware of the ballad tradition, so it should be no surprise that he writes as well as he does, or that his debut novel touches upon the themes that it does. There is a lyricism in his use of everyday language which is rare and believable, and he uses his musicians ear to master the phraseology not only of how his characters talk to each other, but how they ‘talk’ to themselves. It is this that allows the three voices to remain individual when there was a real danger they would not be distinctive enough. It allows the reader to comprehend what makes the three different, and what ties bind them. Three Craws is in some ways a ballad for modern rural life, but like the children’s song with which it shares its title, it’s one which isn’t afraid to show you the dark as well as the light. It also introduces Yorkston as a welcome new voice in Scottish fiction, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Here is James Yorkston, with Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan with ‘Broken Wave’ from their album Everything Sacred. I saw these three play live earlier this year and it was mesmeric, so don’t let it pass you by if you get the chance to do likewise:
James Yorkston will be at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside Tom Lanoye at 7-8pm, Sunday 28th August.
Three Craws is nominated for the EBIF First Book Award. You can vote here.
Below is the audio version of this review: