Interview - Alan Bissett
Writer tackles Scotland’s sectarian shame in fourth novel Pack Men
This article is from 2011.
Alan Bissett tells Doug Johnstone that the time was right for him to tackle Scotland’s sectarian shame. But he wonders just who will pick up his new novel
With the rivalry between the Old Firm reaching dangerously manic levels recently, you’d think that sectarianism would be reflected in our nation’s fiction, but it’s hard to think of many novels that examine our unique bigotry. Step forward Alan Bissett, one of the leading lights of his generation of writers, who tackles the subject head on with Pack Men, his fourth novel and a loose sequel to his energised debut of ten years ago, Boyracers.
‘Scottish writers haven’t looked directly at sectarianism much,’ he says. ‘Irvine Welsh said to me that you’ve got all these great Glasgow writers and every single one of them has shat it about writing about sectarianism. You could read all these novels about Glasgow and barely be aware that the problem exists, but for ninety percent of people in Glasgow, Rangers and Celtic are absolutely right at the front of their lives.’
The novel takes place in Manchester around the 2008 UEFA Cup final between Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg, where a reputed 150,000 Rangers fans descended on the city in an evening which ended in disappointment for their team who lost 2-0, and was scarred by violent rioting across the city. Into this cauldron Bissett throws Alvin, the focal point of Boyracers, now in his twenties and graduated from university, along with his old pals who have all drifted their separate ways. Alvin is both repulsed by and drawn towards the animalistic camaraderie on display, a conflict that reflects Bissett’s own experience of being in Manchester on the day in question.
‘You have to look at why men are attracted to that world,’ he says. ‘It’s to do with surrendering your individuality to something larger than yourself. When I came back from Manchester that day I was disgusted with the rioting in the same way everyone else in Scotland was disgusted, and I was like, I’m gonnae take these guys down. But it was only when I was in the thick of it that I realised that was quite lazy characterisation, if I just depict them as knuckle-dragging monkeys, that’s not really doing the novelist’s job properly.’
Is he worried about the reaction Pack Men might receive in some quarters? ‘Yeah I am, because at this moment I don’t know which side is going to adopt this book. Celtic fans are unlikely to buy it because it’s got a massive fucking Union Jack on the front cover, but at the same time, when I’ve spoken to Rangers fans about it, they’re worried about how I depict them.’
In fact, Pack Men should be required reading for both sets of supporters, as well as anyone interested in 21st century Scottish culture and society. Along with the sectarian backdrop, Bissett tackles questions of personal identity, male bonding, sexuality and above all class in a narrative that sneaks much of that subject matter under the surface of a blistering, adrenaline-fuelled romp.
Bissett handles it all expertly, managing to pull off the high wire act of balancing his prose between judging his characters and soft-peddling on their actions, which are sometimes difficult to swallow. ‘I tried really hard to look at the complexity of that situation, not just say that football fans are pigshit-thick guys who need to grow up a bit. Sometimes I do think that, but that’s not the full story. With my last novel Death of a Ladies Man, I really wanted to hurt men, that was a “men are shit” book. But I couldn’t write that book again, I had to find my way back to why men are attracted to the company of each other, and what’s good about it. So this is a partial apology for Death of a Ladies Man.’
Like all Bissett’s work, Pack Men has a fluidity to it that comes from his experience as a live performer. As well as being an acclaimed novelist, Bissett is a highly-skilled actor and playwright, and says he’s looking to concentrate on theatre work for a while after what he describes as the exhausting business of writing novels. ‘Eventually, though, a new book will demand to be written.’ Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.
Pack Men is published by Hachette, Wed 7 Sep; Alan Bissett and Doug Johnstone appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Fri 26 Aug, 7pm, £7 (£5).