Arguably Scotland’s two greatest literary exports are poetry and crime so it makes sense for someone to combine the two. For anyone familiar with Scottish poetry over the last decade it will come as little surprise that the writer to do so would be Stephen Watt.
This is a poet who has turned his considerable talents to writing about football (he is Dumbarton FC’s poet-in-residence) music (the collection MCSTAPE was ‘released’ on the record label Last Night From Glasgow – right), and all other aspects of life (see collections Spit and Optograms) winning many prizes and plaudits while doing so. Scottish poetry is vibrant and vital at the moment, and Stephen Watt is at the heart of it.
But for all his variety of interests, themes and subjects writing a ‘crime novel in verse’ was still going to be a demanding challenge. We take our crime fiction seriously in this country and any hint that Watt was simply ticking a box or visiting a genre would soon be called out as such. Any doubters need not have worried. The resulting publication is Fairy Rock and boy does it leave an impression – once read, never forgotten.
Watt takes many of the characters, tropes, and stereotypes of Clydeside crime in particular and plays with them, while always remaining respectful. The result is a deadly-serious crime novel written by someone with a deep knowledge and love of the subject, as well as of the place and the people who feature. It just wouldn’t work otherwise. This is poetry red in tooth and claw. From the arresting opening, (and I use that word advisedly – your heart rate will increase from the get-go) you become aware that you are entering a world where bad things happen whether people deserve it or not.
Of course this is a land of cops v robbers, but also one of criminal dynasties, gangland grudges, sectarian disharmony, inventive torture, as well as sex and drugs and well-fired rolls. Set mainly in and around Glasgow’s east end, Watt intertwines the lives of his central characters as they try and survive beyond their youth and into what promises to be the unwelcome arms of adulthood. The pace of Watt’s poetry suits the subject matter as scenes unfold with little or no fuss, his command of the form meaning he can convey meaning and emotion in only a few words or lines.
It’s interesting, and notable, how little this part of Glasgow has moved on in literature, or film and TV. While the west, and the rest, of the city’s image has changed enough for it to be regularly named among the best places to visit by some of the more influential websites and magazines, the dark mythology of Glasgow’s east end endures. Fairy Rock is set on the streets where Peter Manuel and Bible John walked and stalked in the ’50s & ’60s, where criminal godfathers still make their homes, where The Digger is sold in numbers, and the mythology of razor gangs, the Tongs, the Toi, and the Billy Boys, first took hold. From H. Kingsley Long’s legendary 1935 novel No Mean City to Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker (which won last year’s McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year), it is a place which cannot shake this particular legacy.
But it was another book of poetry that I kept thinking of while reading Fairy Rock. In 1874 Scottish poet James Thomson published his poem ‘The City Of Dreadful Night’, and its title, and relentlessly bleak and unforgiving tone, is one which has echoes here. Watt’s Glasgow, like Thomson’s London, is one where the harsh reality of the urban landscape is reflected in the lives of those who reside there – a dark psychogeographic journey of the soul where people and place are not easily separated. Even when you think you’re out, it pulls you back in.
Like Thomson, it is Watt’s eloquence and love of language which raises Fairy Rock from being inordinately grim, gritty, and gratuitous, with hope found in the words on the page – in the poetry itself – at times offering glimpses of beauty in even the darkest corners. The violence is visceral and shocking, as it should be – this is not a book to pull its punches, and acts as a reminder of the hardships visited on the lives of others. Watt is depicting the reality behind the fictionalisation of crime while using it to make social commentary, forcing readers to confront the ugliest of truths, and also asking questions about the genre itself. Do not make the mistake of dismissing Fairy Rock as a one-off rarity or novelty – it could just be the best crime novel you read this year.