A tribute to Agnes Owens – a pioneer of women’s writing

Agnes headshot

Agnes Owens

24th May 1926- 13 October 2014

Agnes Owens nee McLearie the Vale of Leven’s own “writer in residence” has died at the age of 88 near her home in Balloch. Born in Milngavie, Agnes’ writing was steeped in what has been described as a “tough, social realism” which reflected the woman she was and the life she led.

Described by teachers as ” a hopeless case”, her parents, determined to educate Agnes who was equally determined to work in the local paper mill, sent her off to learn shorthand and typing – a skill she later admitted was very helpful when she started writing many years later.

Agnes married her first husband Sam Crosbie in 1949. Due to the acute post-war housing shortage, the couple travelled to Garve in the Highlands with their two month old baby daughter Ann, looking for work and somewhere to live. Travelling around the Highlands, sometimes living in tents or squatting, they settled for a short time in a condemned building in Keith in 1950 where their son Bill was born. Agnes and Sam went on to have two more children, Irene and John. Sam died from thrombosis in 1963 and Agnes later remarried.  Agnes and her second husband Pat Owens settled in the Vale of Leven in 1964 and had three children, Catherine, Margaret and Patrick.

Life was tough for Agnes as a young married woman. Bringing up seven children with Pat working in the building trade, she worked as a cleaner, typist and in the Westclox factory to make ends meet. Her children remember her rushing in from work and cooking the dinner with her coat still on.

Agnes began attending a Vale of Leven writing group organised by the University of Glasgow Extra-Mural Department in 1978, “just to get out the house”. What went on around her began to be reflected in Agnes’ writing.   To her tutors, Liz Lochead, Jim Kelman and Alistair Gray her talent was obvious from her very first short story ‘Arabella’ based on a character she met back in that condemned building in Keith. When asked what made her write that story, she answered, “Spite”.                                                                                                                                                gentlemen of the west

Agnes published her first novel ‘Gentlemen of the West’ in 1984 when she was 58. Writing about the lives of hard drinking west of Scotland building workers came easily to Agnes – both her husband and son John were brickies. ‘Lean Tales’, co-written with James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, followed in 1985 but at that time she was still cleaning houses because ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”.

Agnes Owens young picture                                                       ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”

A week before Christmas in 1987 Agnes’ youngest son Patrick was stabbed to death outside her home. She was at his side trying to resuscitate him as he lay dying on the street. Only a few days later, her family remember her shopping at the local co-operative, still resolutely doing what had to be done.   In an interview later in life, Agnes described herself during that period ‘You weren’t ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died.”.   This was a devastating time for the whole family who recall her strength throughout the murder trial. Patrick’s attackers were indicted on a reduced charge and served a reduced sentence.   A furious Agnes challenged the judicial system and wrote to Margaret Thatcher seeking justice for her son. Writing “went out of the window” for a while after Patrick was killed but Agnes eventually returned to writing as a way of coping with the tragedy. A play co-written with Liz Lochead – a comedy called ‘Them Through the Wall’ –  was performed by Cumbernauld Theatre Company. One of the characters in the play was based on her son Patrick.

Agnes was never too impressed by academics analysing her work. When one critic described her novel – A Working Mother published in 1994 – as “the most important book about alcoholism that he had ever read”, Agnes remarked dryly that she didn’t know she had written a book about alcoholism! On another occasion, at a reading, she was asked how she structured her day around writing. “Probably between doing the washings and making dinners!” she replied. As her family grew up and left home, and with more time for writing, Agnes published another novel For the Love of Willie, which was shortlisted for the Stakis Prize 1998, and continued with a number of short story collections and novellas . Agnes seemed finally to believe her own value as a writer when her Complete Short Stories were published in one volume in 2008. She remarked, “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

complete novellas       “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

Agnes Owens’ hallmarks as a writer have been described as ‘a frank irony, a deadpan gothic quality and a down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people’s normality.’ These also accurately reflect Agnes Owens the woman. She has been described by many critics and peers as a neglected and under-celebrated writer. Her close friend Alasdair Gray once described her as the “most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. However, her modesty, pragmatism, humanity strength and dry wit will endure in people’s memory alongside her written legacy.

  “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”

Alasdair Gray

Her children describe Agnes as a mother who was always there for them, not a ‘touchy feely’ Mother, but a strong and resolute individual,  who allowed them to make their own mistakes but who was protective at the right time. A survivor of tough times, Agnes was, on the surface, like many working class women of her generation.   Unlike them she broke through the everyday demands on her energy, attention and emotions and found time to write and to write very, very well. Alistair Gray described Agnes’ talent as ‘too tough to be killed by learning that writing was not a full, free life but another sort of working life that she had known since childhood.”

Agnes Owens

Agnes will be remembered for all that she was as a woman, as a strong socialist, and as a writer. Focussing on the lives of ordinary people she gave them life through the art of her imagination and her clean, razor sharp way with words.   Agnes leaves a lasting legacy as a pioneer of the new wave of late twentieth century Scottish women’s writing. Her large and loving extended family are immensely proud of her.  Agnes’ daughter Irene sadly died in 2013 but she is survived by her remaining children Ann, Bill, John, Catherine and Margaret, husband Pat, and by her many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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