Culture Matters have published the second volume, Ghosts of the Early Shift – An anthology of radical prose from contemporary Scotland, following A Kist of Thistle – An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Scotland. These have both been edited by Jim Aitken. Here Mary MacGregor, following her review of the first volume, writes a review of the new volume.
GHOSTS OF THE EARLY MORNING SHIFT – An anthology of radical prose from contemporary Scotland
On receiving a copy of Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift, I was delighted to see on the front cover a painting by Dundee artist Pat Donachie from which the anthology takes its title. A bleak Dundee mill scene; women happed up against the cold ready for another day of thankless toil and wage slavery. Struggle for survival and struggle against the mill maisters. This anthology would be no kailyard depiction of Scotland . But whilst not skimming over the brutality of class oppression both past and present, it is an anthology filled with warmth compassion and hope and a fitting companion volume to A Kist of Thistles published in 2020.
The introduction by Jim Aitken is a comprehensive contextualisation. He sets the scene in a post Brexit “Disunited Kingdom”. Jim unequivocally champions the importance of culture in not just reflecting but in shaping the Scottish national consciousness of today. To quote from “Bread and Roses” which echoes throughout the volume, “Hearts starve as well as bodies”. Never should we underplay the importance of poets, writers and artists of all kinds in feeding the heart, in sustaining our humanity. Jim understands this perfectly and he introduces the works with that clarity of vision that helps us see where we’ve come from, where we are and where we could be going. Jim makes the links between the memoirs and the fiction and helps us to see the anthology as an important and comprehensive whole.
The first section of the volume entitled “Memoirs”, invites us to have a close personal experience of the writers.
Through these pieces, the Marxist and socialist ghosts of the past; Macdairmid, Mary Barbour, Mary Brooksbank, Helen Crawfurd, John Maclean fill us with their spirit and tenacity. The awakening of consciousness is our legacy from the struggles and culture of the past. Poets and activists, activist poets, volunteers and trade unionists, historians and philosophers, and nurses share their experience, filling us with inspiration in the present and hope for humanity’s future.
There is nothing insular about the memories here. It’s not “Here’s tae us Wha’s like us?” The international nature of 20th and 21st century Scotland is also addressed as is the ongoing struggle against racism and sectarianism. The flaws of our people are many and are not overlooked but the overwhelming sense from these pieces is of a people of conscience who will not tolerate injustice. That’s the Scotland that I recognise; flawed but striving for to make another Scotland and another world possible.
Their lifetimes of experience have been shaped by communist and socialist giants of the past and present fighting for a different world. Each contribution is characterised by a selflessness and a very Scottish modesty. They are just ordinary folk doing what needs to be done. All of them fight back against injustice and discrimination and it is a privilege to be part of their stories.
Their contributions catalogue the history of our social and political struggles in a way that feels inclusive and reflects the political landscape of Scotland that is recognisable and humane. They see a “wurld ill divided” and in each of their ways seek to heal that fracture.
Flash Fiction and Short Stories
The second section of the anthology is a call to action. The brutalisation of people under capitalism is portrayed as raw and sair. The stories have characters we “know” . We know them as neighbours who have a burning sense of injustice. We know them as beggars who are daily multiplying on our streets and are castigated and maligned. “The Man With The Plastic Cup” could be someone that Bill McKeraghan meets at his foodbank. The shame of Gary having to share shoes with his dad to attend a job interview in one of the richest countries in the world is palpable.
The horrors of violence and abuse against women and children are heart-breaking. So too is the violence done to men by a system that treats them too as commodities and distorts their capacity for human relationships.
The legacy of Scotland’s role in the Empire is not shied away from with an historical piece by Leela Soma and is brought completely into the present by Jean Rafferty in her story which mirrors the real life tragedy of Mercy Beguma.
These stories, however are not about despair. They ARE calls to action. The horrors are real and visceral but within each there is that flicker of light that says it need not be like this. Despite everything we are, as Vikki Carpenter says, “still standing strong”. Wee acts of rebellion, wee acts of kindness, wee acts of learning and understanding leading to action for change. “Cat Wumman “ gloriously fighting back!
This anthology is very powerful. It makes you want to spend time with the writers. They are oor folk. Whether you want to debate with Gerry Cairns and Allan Armstrong, discuss auto didacticism and Hugh Macdiarmid with Alistair Findlay or consider the role of flash fiction and the short story in stimulating political action with any of the fiction writers, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be time spent with oor folk. Folk with an understanding of class, of discrimination, of culture and heritage. Folk looking for answers and a way forward. Folk who will be part of the healing of our ill divided wurld.