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
Appreciation

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.
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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.

JAMES KELMAN

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