Peter Bennett’s debut novel is part crime thriller, part family drama and part depiction of working-class life in Shettleston, in the East End of Glasgow, during the late 1990s. This is not to say the novel does not have bright spots, far from it. There are many laugh-out-loud comedic moments involving the antics and situations of which different characters find themselves in the midst, with such capers jarring effectively with the gravity of the situations.
Liberties has three principal characters: Arthur Coyle, a retired widower in his seventies; his friend Tam O’Henry; and Danny Coyle, Arthur’s twenty-year-old grandson about whom he is fiercely protective and has high hopes for the future.
The novel is written in contemporary Glaswegian Scots and follows a tradition of urban poetry that has become both characteristic of and a notable emergent trend in particular strands of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Scottish fiction. Bennett states that he is a massive fan of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh for ‘being champions and propagators of writing in Scottish working-class demotic’1 and that, in this instance, the characters came before the overall narrative. Bennett’s intention is to ‘give a voice to the kind of characters that are grossly marginalised in literature’, and this is a memorable start.
The text itself derived from two early chapters that Bennett had abandoned on a flash drive for ten years and then reprised during the pandemic. Only independent publishers received a submission, and it was having several extracts accepted by various publications – ‘Stovies’ appeared in New Writing Scotland 40: nobody remembers the birdman – that gave Bennett the confidence to send the finished manuscript for review. As Bennett notes, ‘Given I don’t have an agent and it’s predominantly written in contemporary Glaswegian Scots, I didn’t see the point trying with the big publishing houses. It’s a closed shop’.2 His publishing strategy – distilled into this disparaging but ultimately accurate reflection of the attitudes held by major companies in the industry – emphasises why the work of Rymour, among others, is vital for allowing a talent such as Bennett’s to flourish.
The ‘liberties’ of the title are multifarious. For Arthur it’s the representation of the freedoms that he has worked for and should be able to enjoy during his retirement. For Harry Mullin, gangster and loan shark, it’s the disrespectful attitude shown towards him by those he employs – Stevie McShane, to name but one – whom he feels should have a better understanding of their place in the hierarchy. For Danny himself, it’s that which he seeks from his work with Joe, a way out of the financial inequality in life and attempting to progress in the world in order to remove himself from the situation in which he has found himself trapped.
At the outset, the reader is introduced to two characters whose car has broken down in the middle of a rain storm as they attempt to travel to the sanctity of their caravan. Scanlon and Stevie McShane, two small-time criminals, secure money towards repaying a debt to Harry Mullin through casual agency work. The plan is to buy drugs locally and sell for a profit in order to escape the hold that Mullin has over McShane, but after procuring the produce the pair end up on a three-day partying jag. The environment of financial control over individuals by the criminal fraternity, the reliance upon temporary labour to generate quick cash and the perpetuation of this servitude through choices made by McShane and Scanlon is a familiar scenario in scenes of working-class life, not to mention the tension between a genuine threat to life for not repaying Mullin and the feckless attitudes displayed when money is finally secured.
This vignette sets the tone for the remainder of the novel. Danny Coyle is twenty years old and still lives at home with his widowed mother. He is the first member of his family to attend university, albeit only for a short time before he drops out. Danny’s friends make it clear they don’t expect him to stay the course and he soon returns to his old haunts and lack of prospects following his disillusionment with academia. Facing a life on the dole, Danny is taken on at a local labouring site by Joe, his employer and replacement father-figure. In one notable scene, Joe takes Danny and his friends to the football for the Old Firm derby. After encountering a group of Celtic fans, Danny’s friend McDade slashes one of the ‘enemy’ with a knife for taking a ‘liberty’. This moment typifies the wider cultural context of the novel – identity politics expressed through football rivalries and the violence which is meted out as punishment. Later in the novel, this is examined through the mechanisms and dangers of trying to play different criminal families and individuals against one another in order to secure an escape from their servitude.
Tam O’Henry, a friend of Danny’s grandfather Arthur, finds himself in hock to Harry Mullin whose other business interests include acting as a loan shark for those who find themselves in financial difficulties. Arthur offers Tam money to clear the debt but is turned down on principle – a core belief that you do not ask friends for favours. When Mullin calls for the repayments, O’Henry is unable to meet the demand and is hospitalised for his troubles. Money acts once more as a perpetuator of difficulty and a method of control that does not discriminate against generations and Mullin’s actions are seen as a necessary response for someone who has taken a ‘liberty’ – a failure to punish would be damaging reputationally for the gangster.
To discuss the plot further would reveal too much critical detail, but the entanglements and developments make for a page-turner that is compelling to the last and leaves the reader wanting more. Bennett has stated that he is currently writing a collection of short stories and has an idea that may well be suited to the novella form. I am greatly looking forward to reading Bennett’s next work and seeing the direction in which his burgeoning career progresses.
Liberties is published by Rymour Books
- Peter Bennett – Q&A | Big Bearded Bookseller (2022)