Wed, Jul

'Pack Men' by Alan Bissett

The Blue Library
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A number of years ago I found myself in the Polo Lounge, at the time one of Glasgow’s gay nightclubs. It was the first time I’d ever been in a specifically gay club, but I was in mixed company, I wasn’t the only straight person in the group, and whilst not my first choice venue I was comfortable enough to go.

It was a revelation. I’d never been ‘chatted up’ by a woman before far less a man, I’d no idea it’s so annoying. After one rather persistent guy seemed unable to take ‘no thanks, I’m really not interested’ for an answer I found myself starting to lose my temper. I finally lost it when someone had a feel of my arse as I walked to the bar. He hadn’t even bought me a drink first! One of the girls with me saw my discomfort and potential combustion and had a quiet word. The two things she said have stuck with me. Firstly she pointed out that for the first time in my white, male, English speaking, heterosexual life I was discovering what it was like to be a disempowered minority, or indeed a female, and secondly that I simply didn’t belong there, despite being the same age, speaking the same language and coming from the same city as pretty much everyone else in that club; I was the odd one out; it wasn’t their fault, it was mine.

Pack Men is, at its heart, a book about personal identity and peer group acceptance.

The 14th of May 2008, is a date pretty much every Rangers fan can tell you where they were, mainly because most of us were in Manchester for the UEFA Cup Final. The author of this book, and its main protagonists, were too.

But Pack Men is fiction, it’s a story, a novel not an actual account of the day, although many of the events described will be familiar to most of us. However it would be misleading to suggest this is a story about Rangers it isn’t, it’s a story about men, most of who happen to be Rangers fans.

It’s the story of four friends from Falkirk, three of who, along with various other characters, travel to Manchester for the game. The fourth is only ever referred too having emigrated some years before. School friends initially, adult life has led to them drifting apart. One, Frannie, remains the man about town, DJ to the fleshpots of Falkirk of a weekend, surprisingly loyal Tesco drone worker during the week. Another, Dolby, is the separated father of a young boy, who also joins the bus south, still in love with his estranged wife, protective and doting to his son. The third and main character is Alvin. Named after a 70s glam rocker, Alvin is the one who got away, albeit he only made it as far as Edinburgh via Stirling University. An English Literature graduate Alvin has left Falkirk, both actually and intellectually, or so he thinks. Ironically Alvin isn’t really a bluenose, he belongs to the Rangers family almost be default, born a central Scotland ‘Prod’, being pretty much his only qualification. He’s only going to Manchester because his old friends are.

The story begins on the supporters bus south. Stereotypes are entered into quite quickly, most of them negative. There is the shaven headed, bull necked, loud mouth bigot, with a constant undercurrent of violence about him. The annoying female, still trading on looks long faded, bitter about what she no longer has and rather fond of alcohol. Indeed the only two characters who aren’t initially portrayed as racist, poorly educated, homophobic or bigoted, or indeed a mixture of all of them, are Alvin and Dolby, both of who are the least interested in Rangers. You can’t help but feel the author wants us to know those events are related. However as the story unfolds all of the characters become more nuanced, stereotypes are challenged, back stories emerge and the challenges of the day cast altering light on all of them.

If the story has a hero it’s Alvin. He narrates, it’s his story really, his search for identity. Whether you ever root for Alvin though will depend on your personal viewpoint, many Rangers fans will relate far more closely to Frannie, or indeed ‘Cage’ the apparent villain of the piece.

I was drawn to the book because of its Rangers connection, so while churlish it seems only right to correct the lyrics on ‘Every Other Saturday’ (various ‘Rangers’ song lyrics are reproduced in the book), my wee pal Joe and I walked down the Copland Road not the Paisley Road. That aside the Rangers related aspects of this novel start clichéd but don’t remain that way. The support is portrayed as broad, misunderstood and at times badly treated. However it pulls no punches either, our warts are exposed for all to see.

It’s a well-written book, the story carries you along at a good pace, all of the characters feel genuine, the author clearly understands them. It has a modern style, despite its many references to 70s and 80s music, the language and typography used in the book has a contemporary feel. It attempts to deal with some big topics; alcoholism, bigotry, disempowerment, unemployment, class, masculinity and sexuality. They are all explored in a non-patronising way, no mean feat. Indeed parallels could be drawn with this book and ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching at the Somme’ or much of the work of Gary Mitchell.

Towards the end there are two scenes, one of love and one of violence. Many of us will be more disturbed by the love than the violence. I think the author is hoping to challenge us on this. Violence should disgust us, yet I’ve a feeling some will find the love scene far harder to stomach. If literature is supposed to make us think, to question, then Pack Men succeeds on that score.

This is not a book about Rangers, we’re simply the back story, the glue that holds the narrative and brings the various characters together. Often today Rangers supporters are portrayed as either comedic bigots or sinister bigots, Pack Men starts that way too. However in the end in Pack Men working class Scots are a diverse group and some of them are Rangers fans, that’s a more accurate portrayal.

This book won’t be for everyone, there are few laughs and you’ll learn little new about Rangers, but it’s a good book, well written and a welcome addition to the rather small genre of Rangers related novels.