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3 Thirds

Gil Sans is not a typeface myself or anyone else would favour generally for book work. In this occasion I thought it might work well. Alasdair agreed and Agnes was leaving the matter to us, so we went ahead.
Other than that Alasdair did everything, as many versions and varieties of versions as were necessary. I met him one afternoon up in his old Kersland Street flat to conclude the decision making process. At the risk of sentimentalising the occasion, I had brought a half bottle of uisque. Alasdair had a full yin. He sketched and did paste-ups as we went, checking the colours and colour combinations. The finished result is near perfect. It is a sumptuous book. Short story collections can be ‘sumptuous’, I enjoy holding the Lean Tales hardback, the sight and smell of it, Alasdair’s drawings, his design and graphics, his and Agnes’s stories.

It was a surprise to me when Jonathan Cape Ltd, an imprint of Random House, remaindered the book. Their decision coincided with the sale of the French rights. I am glad to say that Lean Tales continues to exist as Histoires Maigres, and may be read in French. In English the collection has been broken irrecovably. Alasdair’s ‘Lean third’ became part of his collected stories while Agnes included her ‘Lean third’ in her Complete Short Stories published by Polygon Books in 2008 . She was then into her eighties.
In October 2014 Agnes died. She was a wonderful writer and we were friends for more than thirty five years. I see her strength as a female strength. It is there in the characters who inhabit her fictions. It is not that these women are survivors, and many do not survive, but they engage in a struggle which is virtually insurmountable. They fight tooth and claw towards an end. This ‘end’ is taken for granted by a society that expects them to do likewise and punishes them when they don’t. This ‘end’ is the survival, health and well being of their children and young people. In all this time I knew her she lacked the freedom to explore her art with consistency of practice. IMG_2605
Those in a position to support her through the public purse failed to act. She never seemed “to qualify”. Yet against the odds she created an art that will endure . Her best stories are on a par with any.
James Kelman – A Lean Third – Afterword – December 2014

Rising Trident

Rising Trident

It was not a plunging trident
That spiked your stride
Brought down by a gladiator
Played out by a younger child

It was not the poisoned blood
cut off by the snow and ice
coursing through determinedly
Diminished by the surgeons knife


It was not the fist of a bastard
That clenched on a Friday night
Whilst other ‘good men’ backslapped
The choice was to rise and fight

It was not the pain of the women
Their bruises, their cuts, their lives
The struggle to provide the refuge
Give comfort, support and life

It was not that the world is a fair place
Of that there was no naivety
To walk on is to simply allow
To fight on is of compassion and bravery

It was not fair you went away
Life and it’s twisted irony
The energy of you is here though
It’s presence and it’s vitality

So it will be a rising trident
Held up by the younger child
Of courage, love and ability,
To dance, to play, be wild

As Fast as the River Flows

As Fast as the River Flows

I want to see as much as the mountain knows
I want to whisper where the caveman goes
I want to shade you from the blinding glow
I want to run as fast as that river flows

We’ve cracked eggs and made the omlette
We’ve shut the gate, when the horse had gone
But it’s peaceful here, there is no talking
Empty shells just cracking on

We were never us, I never knew you
Your vivacious pace it raised my blood
You were always striding not far behind me
The way forward was as clear as mud

I want to see as much as the mountain knows
I want to whisper where the caveman goes
I want to shade you from the blinding glow
I want to run as fast as that river flows

The rhythm of your soul,beating heart
Crumbling leaves underfoot
The path, quite curvacous
Breathing heavy, voice in mute

Crossing that line, I felt the moist
Of your face, your lips, your tenderness
Shredding time, we have the choice
For that moment, to enjoy the rest

Sunrise running woman
I want to see as much as the mountain knows
I want to whisper where the caveman goes
I want to shade you from the sun that brightly glows
I want to run as fast as that river flows

Still Looking -Maria Miguens

Came across this at my Spanish lesson – Maria Miguens is nowhere to be found on the web, but did publish a book of poems


Todavía buscándola
en cascaras inciertas
Nadie ha vuelto a decirnos
que el unico infierno
es la certeza



Still looking for her

amongst uncertain left overs

no one has come back to tell us

that the only hell is certainty.

Chill with Agnes Owens – The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, by Agnes Owens

‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ said Megan to her brother Bobby playing on the beach with his pail and spade. ‘Let’s go to the lighthouse.’
‘I don’t want to,’ he said, without looking up. At three and a half years he had the face of an angel, but his appearance belied a strong determination to have everything his own way. So thought Megan, aged ten.
‘You can stay if you like,’ she said, ‘but I’m going and I just hope a monster doesn’t get you.’
At the mention of the word ‘monster’ he began to look over his shoulder. It was only recently she’d been telling him about monsters and how they ate children. She’d even shown him a picture of one in an animal book, which was actually that of a gorilla, but it had been enough to make him refuse to sleep with the light off and even with it on he would waken up screaming.
‘I don’t want to go to the lighthouse,’ he said, running over and butting her in the stomach with his head.
‘But I do,’ she said, skipping off lightly over the sand.
‘Wait for me,’ he called, picking up his pail and spade and trailing after her.
Together they walked along in a friendly way, going at a pace that suited them both. The day was warm but with a bit of wind. Megan almost felt happy. They came to a part of the shore that was deserted except for a woman walking her dog in the distance. Bobby stopped to gather shells.
Throw them away,’ said Megan. ‘You’ll get better ones at the lighthouse.’
He emptied his pail then asked if the lighthouse was over there, pointing to the sea wall.
‘Don’t be stupid. The lighthouse is miles away.’
He said emphatically, ‘Then I don’t want to go.’
Megan lost her temper. ‘If you don’t start moving I’ll slap your face.’
At that moment the woman with the dog passed by. ‘Is that big girl hitting you?’ she asked him.
Before he could speak, Megan had burst out, ‘He’s my brother and I’ll hit him if I want.’
The woman studied them through thoughtful, narrowed eyes. ‘Do your parents know you’re out here in this lonely place?’
When Megan said they did the woman walked on with the dog, muttering something under her breath which Megan suspected was some kind of threat aimed at her. She hissed to Bobby, ‘See what you’ve done. For all we know she could be going to report us to the police and you know what that means?’
‘Mummy and Daddy will be put in jail for neglecting us and I’ll have to watch you for ever.’
At that he let out a howl so loud she was forced to put her hand over his mouth.
‘Be quiet, you fool. Do you want that woman back?’ He quietened down when she promised to get him an ice-cream.
‘Where’s the van?’ he asked, looking around.
‘Over there,’ she said, pointing in the direction of the lighthouse. At first he believed this, running beside her eagerly, but when they went on for a considerable length without any signs of an ice-cream van he began to lag behind.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘or we’ll miss it.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Don’t ask me stupid questions,’ she snapped, thinking how it wasn’t fair that she had to be saddled with him all the time. ‘You’re a silly bugger anyway.’
‘I’m telling you swore.’
‘Tell if you want,’ said Megan, thinking her parents couldn’t say much considering the way they swore.
‘If you don’t come –’ she began, when he started walking again, and just when she thought he was going to act reasonably for once he stopped in front of a rock.
‘Look! There are fish in there,’ he said.
Grumbling, she went back to investigate. It was true. There were tiny fish darting about a pool of water within a crevice in the rock.
‘Aren’t they pretty?’ she said, just as he threw a stone into the pool causing them to disappear. She shook him by the shoulders.
‘You have to spoil everything, don’t you?’ she said, letting him go suddenly so that he sat down with a thud. But he was up on his feet quick enough when she said, walking backwards, ‘A monster’s going to get you one of these days, the way you carry on.’
After a good deal of tramping over dry sand that got into their shoes and made their feet sore, Megan suggested they climb up over the dunes on their right-hand side to see if there was a better and quicker path that would take them to the lighthouse. He didn’t answer. She suspected he was still brooding about the ice-cream, but he followed her, which was the main thing.
Climbing the sand dunes wasn’t easy. They kept sliding back down. Bobby did it deliberately thinking it was funny. Megan was glad to see him in a better mood. When they got to the top they found they were on a golf course stretching for miles with nobody on it but a man in a grey track suit. He saw them, came over and said, ‘Better watch out you don’t get hit with a golf ball. It’s not safe up here.’
Megan asked him if he was a golfer – she noticed he wasn’t carrying any clubs. When he told her he was just out for the day collecting golf balls, she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to.

‘Bobby,’ she said loudly, ‘we’d better go back. Mummy and Daddy will be looking for us.’
‘But I thought –’ he began and was cut off by Megan pulling him back down the sandy slope. When he got to the bottom he said that he’d wanted to stay up there.
‘It’s not safe,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ Then, as if it had nothing to do with anything, he let out a tremendous wail.
‘In the name of God, what is it now?’ she said, in the same tone her mother used when totally exasperated.
‘I’ve left my pail and spade,’ he said, pointing up at the sand dunes.
She felt like strangling him. ‘Well, I’m not going for them,’ but when he began to wail loud enough to split the rocks, she said she would go if he came with her to the lighthouse.
‘I don’t want to,’ he said, stamping his feet in temper. ‘I want to go back to that other beach where Mummy left us.’
It was then she decided she’d had enough of his tantrums. ‘Go then,’ she said, giving him a shove so that he tottered on blindly for a few steps. ‘I don’t want to ever see you again.’
When he turned round she was racing along the beach at a fair speed. He called on her to come back, though it was doubtful she heard him above the cries of the seagulls, but even if she had, she probably wouldn’t have stopped anyway.
On arriving at the lighthouse, she saw there was no way to get close to it as it was surrounded by water, not unless she waited until the tide went out, and that would take hours. Sullenly, she looked up at its round turreted shape thinking it was much more boring from this angle than it had seemed from a distance. She wished she’d never come. The sea was stormy now with the waves lashing over the rocks. The whole venture had been a complete waste of time and energy, she decided. Suddenly her attention was riveted to what looked like a body in the water. For a split second she thought it was Bobby, which would have been quite impossible considering the distance she’d come. Nevertheless, it was a great relief to discover this was only a mooring buoy. She laughed at her mistake then began to feel uneasy. She could picture him stumbling into the sea for a paddle thinking it was all shallow water. It was the kind of stupid thing he was liable to do. Panic swept over her. What if something terrible happened to him? She should never have left him like that. Without another thought for the lighthouse or anything but Bobby, she began running back to where she’d left him, praying that he’d be all right.
From a distance she saw him hunkered down, digging in the sand. He must have gone up the sand dunes to get his pail and spade after all, she thought. She slowed down, her legs tired and aching, then to her dismay she saw the man they’d met on the golf course. He was hovering a few yards behind Bobby poking some debris on the shore with a stick.
‘Bobby!’ she called out sharply. ‘Come over to me at once.’
He either didn’t hear this or pretended not to, but the man did. He looked up at her and began to walk smartly in their direction. Galvanised into taking some kind of action, she ran forward to reach Bobby first. In fact she’d almost got to him when she slipped on a stone covered in seaweed and went down, the back of her head hitting off its sharp edge.
Her eyes were staring up at the sky as the man and Bobby crouched beside her. Bobby said, ‘You shouldn’t have left me. I’m telling Mummy.’
The man pulled him back. ‘Leave her alone. She’s in bad enough shape.’ Then he put his lips close to her ear. ‘Can you hear me?’
When her eyes flickered he put his hand over her mouth and nose and held it there for a considerable time. After that he turned to Bobby saying, ‘We’ll have to get an ambulance. You can come with me.’
Bobby said he didn’t want to get an ambulance. He wanted to go back to the other beach.
‘All right,’ said the man, taking him by the hand and dragging him towards the sand dunes with Bobby protesting all the way. His cries died down when they vanished over the top.
Later that afternoon, a strong breeze sprang up along the shore, lifting clouds of sand into the air as well as the strands of Megan’s hair drifting across her race. Seagulls came down to stand on her and poke her with their beaks, then, as if not liking what they found, they flew off to the horizon whilst imperceptibly and gradually her body sank into the sand, making a groove for itself. A passer-by might have thought she was asleep, she looked so peaceful. But no one came by that day, and in the evening when the sun went down she was gone with the tide.

Agnes Owens’ Where Poppies Bloom

Where Poppies Bloom

Beneath me the earth is cold
And cruel with jutting jagged stones
Seeped in blood from my gaping wounds,
My life is ebbing fast.

I see the stretcher bearers pass,
they do not hear my cries for help
am I condemned to die on this
land where birds don’t fly
or sing their song,
surrounded by dead flesh and bones
a meal for the carrion crows.


But as I lie and long for death
angels revive me with their breath,
the stretcher bearers have returned
to heal my wounds and send me home.

Although I’ve lived
to tell this tale it’s not
been easy and to no avail for
I have squandered everything I’ve owned,
for drink and cards I have sold my soul
and often wished just like my friends
that I’d died with them on foreign fields
where poppies bloom and wave their head
as they dance beside the longtime dead,
each one a hero though unsung
God make my ashes into dung
so that I became with them as one,
where poppies bloom

Agnes Owens

Agnes Owens’ father lost a leg during the Battle of the Somme

A Strong Fighting Woman – Agnes Owens

This is the text of the Obituary, about Agnes Owens, written by her good friend James Kelman in the Herald Friday 24th October 2014
Agnes Owens – Writer
Born: May 1926;
Died: October 2014

AGNES OWENS had a strength I see as a female strength. It is there in the characters who inhabit her fictions.
It is not that these women are survivors, and many do not survive, but they engage in a struggle that is virtually insurmountable. They fight tooth and claw towards an end.
This “end” is taken for granted by a society that expects them to do likewise and punishes them when they don’t. This “end” is the survival, health and wellbeing of their children and young people. Society denies that reality.
The pretence is maintained not only by its custodians but the ones who fail to engage in the struggle. In much of her fiction the menfolk not only capitulate they do not support their female partners, and some never forgive them for fighting on. That very fight illustrates their own shortcomings; perhaps also their cowardice.
A sentence from the last of Agnes’s Complete Short Stories comes to mind: “We both kicked and struggled and I believe I would’ve got the better of her, if a strange man hadn’t come in, got hold of us, and pushed us into a van as though we were dogs being taken to the dog pound.”
The first person narrator is a young girl, alongside her wee brother. Thematic elements include the absence of responsible parents and the fight to survive at all costs; the female as “lead” protagonist in a mixed gender relationship, and a mysterious all-powerful male figure who either has the backing and blessing of society, or is able to act as though that is the case. The story is entitled The Dysfunctional Family, written by Agnes in her eighties. It echoes The Lighthouse, a wonderful story she wrote years earlier.
The characters she created confront the day-to-day at a level of nightmare that horrifies many. Society denies the truth and turns from it.
Yes people are required; not as citizens but shareholders. Each shareholder has a right to vote and the vote of each will count. Unfortunately, not everyone holds a share and multiple shares may be held by a tiny few people who can make them count in whatever way they choose. It is their right to pursue their own individual interest to the last breath in their body. Thus vast inequalities of wealth are created.
Not content with hoarding and securing the extreme riches of this small minority, society’s custodians inflict upon the poor an ethical and cultural value system that helps smash them further into the ground. The moral life becomes the good life; a confused morass of religious obligation, etiquette and keeping up with the Joneses. There is no justice. No common good. Only “grab” what ye can while ye can.
The work of Agnes Owens reveals society as a swindle whose custodians perpetuate the swindle through diverse propaganda, disinformation and its battalions of paid servants and security operatives. There may well be a “moral imperative” but whether or not individuals live by this is “their right”. Nobody is forced to live morally, especially the rich and powerful.
Empathy becomes a hunt for universals. We all want sex and need a doctor when ill or call a police officer when an acquaintance is murdered. This is reflected in the creative work society rewards. Those rewarded create ever more examples of these universals.
Agnes had no option but to work, and work she did, in factories and cleaning the homes of wealthy individuals. She experienced tragedy: the death of her first husband at the age of 43, the murder of a 19-year-old son; the death earlier this year of one daughter.
She was a shop steward and remained a socialist to the end of her days. She was into her eighties when Polygon Books published her collected stories in 2008. I did events with her at the book festivals in Edinburgh and Milngavie, the town of her girlhood. There was a tremendous warmth towards her from both audiences.
“Agnes”, I said, “People love ye, they just love ye.” She gave me that beautiful smile, the one that makes me greet now. Her realisation of the truth, quickly undercut by that laconic grin, “Well Jim,” … and whatever she said then, I cannot recollect.
In the 35 years I knew her she lacked the freedom to explore her art with consistency of practice. Those in a position to support her through the public purse failed to act. She never seemed “to qualify”.

Yet against the odds she created an art that will endure. Her best stories are on a par with any. Shout it from the rooftops: Agnes Owens was a bloody great writer and a great woman, a strong fighting woman.


As I was saying…


Porcelain you are, delicate,
Coconut white and desiccated
Arenite I am, disambiguated
World weary and percentage weighted.

Rudimentary notions intact
Solutions lacking tact
Sedimentary consolidation
Erudite trepidation never was debated

Rock solid I am, igneous
Coconut white and complicated
Quartzite you are, crystallised
Fine fine grains, and idolized

Inanimate we are. Prostrate
Guardians with a pact
No elementary consideration
Impolite metamorphosis will be negated

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Tiree, Irene and Me


Settting off at 3.00 am  to catch the 7.00am Tiree ferry, I felt particularly awake. My Tesco £7 Ryanair friendly suitcase was suitably overpacked for it’s one night stay on the distant island.

The weather forecast was not good and had been deteriorating by the minute over the last three days, initially living up to it’s well-known title as the Hawaii of the north to it’s other well known title –A place you widnae put a tree oot in, when it’s pishin.

I had managed to get a room booked in the Scarinish Hotel and threw caution to the wind along with my camping reservation. The Scarinish was not highly rated on Trip Advisor, referring to the lady in charge as nippy and sullen, well, that would make two of us I reckoned.



Of course it doesn’t take long to suddenly realise why I am heading of to Tiree to run in it’s half–marathon event, and as I drive down the spectacular west coastline, listening to the twilight radio, playing music of the recent past, it is easy to become melancholy and wishing my inspiration for doing it, was for any other reason.

At that time of the morning the nocturnal activity of the rabbits, hares, badgers and deer is disturbed by me in my car as I confidently drive on the centre of the road listening to Gary Numan singing about my Seat Toledo and I have the windows down so those animals can hear me coming.

I arrive in Oban in plenty of time, parking at the Atlantis Leisure Centre, this also advised by Trip Advisor.

The sun is up and the sky looked dull as it lightened and at the ferry I seek out other people who look as if they run. I find them.

It is quite a set up now at Oban, with the new terminal, like an airport, except the cattle at this departure point are mooing in a lorry.

I get a good seat and am joined by other sleep hungry folks.

No matter what running event, runners are going to, the night before they never sleep., most will tell you that, so expecting to somehow to catch a sleep on the ferry as was the intention, was not do-able, especially as people on the boat have dogs and kids. Dogs and Kids, ridiculous, don’t they know we are runners and we need sleep and have to have full access to all toilets at all times….?

….Travelling by boat is the way to go though, plenty leg room, big cafeteria, lounges, games room, shop, toilets, and sitting on the deck, what happened to boats, boats are good.

The bad forecast was not wrong , most of the way, although approaching Tiree, the wall to wall sky was suddenly blue.


The Scarinish Hotel was  fine, it wasn’t pretending to be something other than it was, a run down establishment, battered badly by years of a North Atlantic onslaught. It was clean and healthy, it had some issues, then again, don’t we all, but I liked it’s honesty.

By the time I got changed and set out running the 5 miles from the hotel to the race event, the air was cooler and a wind had got up. On the horizon cloud was gathering.

I never ran long before a native ex-serviceman, who had been in the tank regiment for 22 years stopped and ordered me into his van. He was a plasterer now, and had been in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, before he recently returned home to Tiree with his family. He reckoned me running to the start line was too much to do as well as the half-marathon.  He was doing the 10k and I took his advice.

I arrived at An Talla Community Hall which was also, seemingly, a Baptist Chuch, to register, too early and now with over two hours to kill.

I was on my own and somewhat aware of it, but fellow runners didn’t take long to surround me and kick off with the usual injury conversations over a coffee and healthy two-inch thick flapjack, which once devoured, resulted in one  more jobbie check being required.

Eventually we all headed to the start line, and after sitting in the comfort of the hall, stepping outside into a newly mustered strong wind, the blue sky, now replaced with a thunderous looking horizon, it was cold.

The gun was fired and setting off on a spectacular white sanded beach was quite a buzz to be in amongst.


Running into the wind was sore at first, and soon it was secondary to the impressive route along the Tiree coast. The island is seven miles long and three miles wide, so there was a bit out and back before the half marathon hardcore were directed out into the desolation of the heart of the island. Mostly flat, the wind was now behind us, and given my apprehension of how tired I felt at the start, I was now running , and feeling strong, helped, I reckoned, by the push of the Atlantic gusts.

Disaster struck, half way round as my music died on me due to over use of my iphone, from checking facebook for likes on the journey over.  No matter, I soldiered on.

Since I started this challenge, of which everything up to now has been a precursor, for what is the first of my 5 Scottish Island half marathons, I do tune in to the catalyst for this, my sister Irene, and I can get quite emotional and cry a bit, which is ok,  no one notices, as usually there is snot and sweat flying off my face anyway.

I think of her, though, and I home in, as best as I can, to how she was, to who she was, in her last days and in her life. I tap into that strength, that courage, that love and it is not just the wind that lifts me, I like to think, it is her.

I think too her of her work, and what she was in amongst and how she brought love and grace to many awful situations, I only know of this, because the women she worked with and grew to love, told me more about that. So it’s for my sister Irene, I do this, in memory of all that was wonderful about her and I do it for me too.


Eventually the rain came on heavy as promised, but the run was more than half done, so it actually was quite refreshing to feel the cool downpour.

The finish involved running back onto the soft shifting sand of the shore and as I ran to the line, a couple that I had shared the facts of  my challenge with over that earlier flapjack, were cheering me on, shouting Go Irene, Go Irene.

I received my Mars bar and water, with special Tiree Half Marathon T-shirt, and headed back to the hall for a de-briefing with the throng.

After I headed back to the hotel and settled in for the night at the bar with the locals, (fishermen and craftswomen) discussing things of a Tiree relevance over a few drinks.


All in all, a very enjoyable wee adventure.

I Sang Soprano in the Prison Choir

Two aces, that night,  were dealt from the pack

By that black-hearted padre, whose life I would wreck.

Amongst the whiskey, the gambling, the whores and the scalps,

that godfearing prairie dog was my whispering pal.


But my amigo, Juan Madrez, that night was to die

I wanted to kill him, as I looked in his eye

He had tasted my woman in a shit filled latrine

No gringo would live if they stunk of my queen


He had been poking my woman, my Apache had said,

and when smoking the pipe, in my dream he lay dead

So when those black spots were turned, for the cash in the hat

Four bullets went in him, and two in his brat.



But the bastard bambino, stuck a blade in my throat,

his scrawny little neck, I quickly broke.

And that was the thing, that made the judge rage.

Killin’ that dirty muchacho at such a young age.


And for that, the judge said, I was to hang

next Friday, at noon, in the town of Duran.

and breakin’ these rocks, my palms were raw meat

The hole in my throat continued to weep.

The loop of the noose hugged tight round my neck.

as the hangman gripped tightly on the lever of death

Slaves all around prayed to God for Hellfire

and I sang soprano in the new prison choir.