‘The Old Haunts’, by Allan Radcliffe

Front cover of The Old Haunts by Allan Radcliffe: image shows two people walking down a path lined with fir trees.

Allan Radcliffe’s debut novel, The Old Haunts, is a moving exploration of how regret, mourning, self-discovery, and muted hope can shape one’s life. The protagonist and narrator, Jamie, is a Scottish schoolteacher from Edinburgh who has recently experienced the loss of both his parents and moved to London with his newly found actor boyfriend, Alex. The novel begins with the couple staying at a rented apartment in the heart of Scotland, located in rural Perthshire, where Jamie seeks to find, unsuccessfully, a childhood vacation home he used to visit with his parents. Here, Jamie grapples with the weight of his profound loss, pushing him to reflect on his closeted adolescence and the ensuing unresolved feelings toward his parents. Radcliffe continuously interweaves past and present storylines, showing how recollections about missed opportunities come to haunt possible futures unless they are reconsidered and unravelled in the present.

The novel’s focus on childhood memories is firmly connected to a sense of place. The rural Scottish setting and the narrative’s storytelling style powerfully evoke a rich tradition of folktales and fairytales. Radcliffe, who is already known as a successful short story writer, showcases the streamlined resourcefulness of his writing in the novel’s short sections. The suggestiveness of the prose combines seamlessly with the fantastical quality of the Scottish landscape, further contributing both to the novel’s celebration of fairytale lore and its blurring of timelines. The forest surrounding the holiday apartment, personified as it sighs, and the palpable darkness of the night resurface the childhood anxieties and feelings of loneliness that once haunted Jamie’s mind at the thought of the flimsiness of his parents’ lives.

Radcliffe further crafts his evocative language around Jamie’s realisation of his sexuality, the process of coming out, and the sense of duty he feels toward his parents. The absence of a tangled plot provides ample space for deeper insights into Jamie’s development as a queer man. The episode of his coming out to his mother is only hinted at, as Jamie ‘began’, ‘making strings of words, out-of-body’, to which she replies, ‘Your life will be hard. You’ll be lonely. People will laugh at you’. By contrast, Alex’s upbringing within a larger family allows him to be more self-accepting of his sexuality, which also transpires in his pursuit of a dream acting career.

Set against the backdrop of Jamie’s teenage years is the context of Section 28, a discriminatory series of laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 to prevent schools and educators from advancing materials that acknowledged homosexuality as tolerable or as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual relations. Jamie recollects an article that came out in his final year at school in the Evening News about Councillor Waddell being caught performing sexual acts with another man, which coincided with the row over the repeal of Section 28.1 The episode reveals not only a broad cultural understanding of homosexuality as sinful, but also how such a collective mindset is shared by Jamie’s mother. He vividly remembers when she had called Waddell a ‘rotten bugger’ and had referred to a pop star on television as a ‘poof’ with his father’s backing, which strikes Jamie right in the chest.

In a similar fashion to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (2020), the novel illustrates the prejudice that surrounds growing up queer and working class in Scotland during the 1980s and 1990s. This ranges from the fear of bullying in school to the homophobic slurs voiced by Jamie’s parents within their household. The Conservative government’s legislation alongside wider social attitudes toward homosexuality force Jamie to be self-conscious about his appearance and attributes such as ‘creative, sensible, artistic’, which push him to blend in until he deems it safe to reveal his truth. 

Radcliffe’s bitter humour comes to surface when remarking that Scots ‘measured success as being in direct proportion to the number of miles a person put between themselves and their homeland’. Once Jamie moves to college and starts living as an openly gay man away from Scotland and his parents, he becomes an activist, marching against Section 28 and in favour of civil partnerships and equal marriage. Nonetheless, Jamie still falls into a spiral of regret and fear of failure for not having been authentic with his family and for the choices he has made as a result. The feeling of shame at his future prospects as a gay man and the financial pressures on the arts sector as a working-class individual drive Jamie to become an art teacher, which simultaneously allows him to satisfy his parents’ wish, almost as ‘a way of atoning’.

Radcliffe is able to effortlessly convey a sense of domestic inexpressiveness, a working-class inferiority complex, and a Scottish cultural undercurrent of shame associated with sexuality. Graeme Woolaston refers to a ‘simple prudery, a basic sense of shame about the body’ that is an ‘extraordinary surviving feature of modern Scotland’.2 Jamie’s inarticulacy in openly expressing his feelings is both a strategy of self-protection and an inheritance from his parents in suppressing emotions. ‘You just keep your head down, Jamie’ says his mother. It is a reminder for Jamie, who had since then lived his sexuality spontaneously in London, to tone himself down, wear muted colours and tame his hair. In retrospect, Jamie pictures the potential challenges that his parents might have faced when they first started dating, finding some empathy and reassurance in an image of tentative hope.

The Old Haunts has the ability to generate understanding, care and introspection. The complicated workings of grief and loss during mourning are explored as they bring to surface past traumas and reshape missed opportunities into fears for future hardships. At the same time, Radcliffe’s considerate prose skilfully conveys images of love in simple snapshots such as ‘the lively crown of hair, the nape of his [Alex’s] neck’ and it is similarly capable of crafting tender moments that never happened.

The Old Haunts is published by Fairlight Books


End Notes

  1. Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000, followed by England and Wales in 2003.
  2. Graeme Woolaston, ‘Lesbians and Gays in the Scottish Republic’, in The Crazy Jig: Gay and Lesbian writing from Scotland 2, ed. by Joanne Winning (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992), pp. 33–39 (p. 38).
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Domenico Di Rosa

Domenico Di Rosa is a PhD researcher in Modern and Contemporary Queer Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.

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