Dundee’s Don Paterson has been hailed as one the world’s greatest poets. As his acclaimed memoir hits bookshops, he discusses the state of Scotland and what it means to be Scots with our Writer at Large


THERE are many truths to be learned on the long journey from the pit of hell that is mental illness, through the psychiatric ward, and back to recovery and sanity.

Don Paterson, hailed as one of the world’s greatest poets, trod that lonely road as a young man in Dundee. This week, his memoir is published and it tells that tale. As well as charting his collapse into religious mania, drug abuse and schizophrenia, Toy Fights is a love letter to working-class Scotland in the 1960s and 70s.

The literary world has already dubbed it a “future classic”. It’s a searing, raw read, alternatively laugh-out-loud funny, and heartbreakingly painful, shot through with rage at the treatment of the working class.

Paterson is at his Kirriemuir home when we speak. He is the antithesis of everything that defines the worst excesses of the modern world. There is no rush to opinion, no shooting from hip or lip.

He is measured, seeking balance in everything. His first instinct is empathy, not attack. Sometimes you can almost hear him think as he ruminates for just the right answer.

For all his astonishing successes – an internationally-acclaimed writer, weighed down with awards, professor of poetry at St Andrews University, and a renowned poetry editor who sculpted the work of writers like Clive James – Paterson is the embodiment of humility.

There’s no boasting. So he will doubtlessly find it utterly embarrassing – probably infuriating – that some see him as the reigning sage of Scottish letters, the writer charting the nation’s soul, following the death of Alasdair Gray.

Measured though he is, Paterson brims with thoughts on Scotland.

Independence, the SNP, the culture wars, the generation gap, the Scottish cringe, our relationship with England – all fall under his gimlet eye.

Yet for a man who thinks deeply and seriously, he’s very funny – that explains why his book, which so easily could have been just another Scottish “misery memoir”, is consistently upbeat despite its often brutal themes.

Kailyard

SCOTTISH writing, Paterson says, “still tends to default to kailyard 2.0”: sentimental, kitsch and mawkish. The market “encourages you to skew your writing in that direction. It’s forgivable as there’s a receptive audience for it”. Toy Fights, by contrast, is unsparingly honest.

So honest, in fact, it’s hard not to wonder how some of the book’s real-life characters will react. In places Paterson disguised identities, like the crooked Dundee councillor, or the Nurse Ratched in Ninewells Hospital. Libel meant he “had to be cautious”. Others are dead – like his “Nazi” uncle, leaving him free rein.

Paterson makes clear his book isn’t about growing up “poor” but growing up working-class. There’s a difference. “We never felt poor,” he says.


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“There was just no surplus money. Nobody takes pride in ‘poor’ as a description. Nobody wanted to call themselves poor. That’s what too many depictions of working-class life miss – it’s primarily aspirant, people don’t want to be in that situation.”

Today it’s different, though, Paterson feels. It’s harder to define what “working class” means, and those living in real poverty “now form miserably a clear category, a huge constituency It’s heartbreaking. I think we can talk about ‘the poor’ now”.

Identity

“DID you ever think you’d see the day where families with both parents working use f*****g foodbanks? Yet it’s normalised. The Tories say what a marvellous job foodbanks are doing – as if that’s a matter of pride. That’s why sometimes I get a bit shirty about the left.”

He feels the balance is wrong when it comes to what the left fights for – it’s not that Paterson opposes trans rights or addressing the legacy of slavery, he just feels that combating ingrained poverty should get equal weight.

“My issue isn’t with the causes themselves, which are often good and just, but with the extent to which the left is animated and preoccupied by them at the expense of less Instagrammable, Tweetable, T-shirt or flag-friendly sources of injustice that directly impact huge numbers of people: the unremunerated labour of women, the completely negligible conviction rate for rape … the falling of more and more ‘hardworking families’ – to use that disgusting phrase I now hear in the mouths of both Labour and Tory MPs – into absolute poverty.”

It’s about “proportionality”, Paterson says. “Don’t blame the cause, though – that’s ludicrous.”

Poverty

THE fate of the working class troubles him deeply. His anger at what the working class endure sparks on every page. Paterson worries about identity politics splitting the working class – when matters of race, sexuality and gender should, he feels, unite ordinary people.

Identifying people by race, sex or gender, “corrals them, essentially divides them from each other, when there’s so much more that connects them. If we’d used identity politics as a tool of connecting divided constituencies that would have been brilliant. I don’t think the left did that. I think they’ve used it to divide and rule … That’s why you need a centrist corrective”.

And he very much sees himself as centrist. “It’s possible to have a form of responsible, regulated capitalism,” he says. “At the same time, I believe in socialism for the poor. I don’t think there’s a contradiction. You don’t need to sign up for one ideology or another.”

He knows that today saying you’re centrist means “you’ll really get the piss taken out of you”. But perhaps, in the current climate, being centrist is the most radical position to take, he ponders.

The chaos, rage and polarisation of social media appals him. “It was a desperately irresponsible experiment to just set up, run, and see what happens. Total insanity. It’s a disaster to have this unregulated.”

Social media is proof, he feels, that humanity’s technological genius way outstrips our emotional intelligence. “We came off the savannah far too soon,” he adds.

“We just weren’t ready.” It leaves him feeling desperately pessimistic about the future. “It’s hard to maintain much hope.”

Narcissism

HUMANITY’S worst trait, he says, is “narcissism”. Why, Paterson wonders, do we gravitate to those “with the most strongly narcissistic tendencies? We enable them. Why didn’t we get a handle on this so Trumps and Putins never get a hold”.

He’s inherently distrustful of the concept of leadership. To survive, humanity needs “a hellish corrective, though probably the Earth will decide before we have the opportunity”. He jokes darkly that “a good bird flu” might make the planet’s population “more manageable”, adding: “Humanity needs to see itself contiguous with its home, not the master of it.”

Despite his pessimism, it’s really love which motivates Paterson, not anger. Unlike many memoirs, his celebrates the unconditional love he received from his family, something he took for granted until he found himself moving economically upwards and saw that for his “middle class friends that wasn’t their experience at all”.

Paterson’s father, who recently died of dementia, is a huge presence in the book. His love of music sculpted Paterson, who is a respected jazz musician. He’s somewhat nervous of what his mother will make of Toy Fights, which doesn’t hold back on sex and swearing. “I may have to bowdlerise some bits.”

He did the same with his first poetry book for his grandfather, editing out material likely to offend. “I took a razor to it,” he laughs. “Mum might be getting a similar expurgated version.”

Snowflakes

ALTHOUGH the book gently mocks millennial concerns like “triggering”, he is very accepting of the young, who have been “insufficiently protected” from social media. “If they’re snowflakes, it’s our fault, not theirs … One should be cautious about taking the piss out of them, as one is occasionally inclined to. We can’t know what it’s like to have to navigate an interconnected social world where people have an opinion on everything you do. We don’t fully understand those pressures.”

Sometimes his children worry he’ll say something and get “cancelled”, underscoring how hard it is “to live in that world where every single gesture comes under scrutiny. We should hold back before we call them a bunch of snowflakes because we didn’t have to navigate this”.

This all ties into Paterson’s take on the lost experience of childhood in the 1960s and 70s, when kids played outside unsupervised all day. There were risks, clearly, like stranger danger – which Paterson makes apparent in his book. But the passing of those days is also “really depressing”, he says.

“There’s a fundamental distrust of each other at the root of it.”


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He believes we’re yet to fully comprehend “the consequences of the social experiment which meant folk don’t allow kids to play in the street anymore. It doesn’t strike me as likely to go well”.

In fact, this may explain why the older generation consider the young “snowflakes”, he thinks. We “overprotected” our children, “denied them autonomy early on that allowed kids to be kids”. He adds: “Of course, kids need oversight, but we don’t always have to introduce our adult fears and political priorities into their world.”

Permissive

AT the opposite end of the spectrum, parents in the 1960s and 70s were “far too permissive and derelict in oversight”. Paterson’s book recounts the risks kids faced when parents let them go “completely wild”.

“The best you can hope is the next generation finds a more sensible middle way with their own kids,” he adds.

Paterson notes the bitter irony of young people being so much more open about mental health problems than his generation, while simultaneously creating huge psychological hurdles for themselves through social media. “That young women perceive their bodies purely as a result of TikTok is infinitely depressing. In America, between 20 and 40, one in 10 men have no friends, their engagement is purely online. There’s whole new categories of mental distress we’ve managed to create.”

Madness

PATERSON’S account of his own descent into “madness” is harrowing. In his teens he lapsed into “religious mania” then experienced a “schizophrenic episode” requiring hospitalisation. He has been fine for years, but adds: “I’ve always had problems with depression, and occasionally it gets clinical.”

He believes his excessive teenage drug use played a role in his breakdown. He smoked cannabis heavily. Although no advocate of the war on drugs, cannabis use by the young worries him greatly, given his own experiences.

The legal position of drugs needs to be “maturely navigated”, he says, “which is something the likes of [UK Home Secretary] Suella Braverman wouldn’t even understand”. If cannabis was “legalised”, he adds, “you could regulate its strength, and keep it out of the hands of kids. There’s an argument for legalisation and regulation”.

He feels it's “bonkers”, though, to outlaw naturally-occurring psychoactives like psilocybin – commonly found in magic mushrooms. Paterson doesn’t use drugs now and only “drinks a bit” but says he’s “increasingly looking at psychoactives and thinking would it be worth microdosing again”.

There is debate within psychiatry today about microdoses of psychoactive drugs alleviating conditions like depression.

“Problems with mental health are far more prevalent among creatives than folk with sensible jobs,” he says.

“Writers are worst, and poets the worst of the writers. We tend to die 10 years younger than the national average. You can’t just say ‘you have to be mad to write’, but it’s probably the case that people who are a bit mad are disinhibited in a way that allows them to connect things in a way not everybody else would.”

Independence

WRITING gives Paterson the dispassionate distance needed to assess his own country. He turns his eye to the infamous Scottish “cringe”, saying: “It’s exquisitely baked into the psyche. You’re simultaneously encouraged, then when you’ve made it, you get the ‘ah ken your faither’ stuff.” There’s a big irony here: Paterson didn’t go to university, yet ended up a professor.

The cringe isn’t for him, though, artistically or politically. He supports independence. “I’d just like to be governed by the people we vote for,” he says. “Westminster seems increasingly indifferent – that includes Labour, unfortunately. They’ve absolutely lost the plot which is heartbreaking as I was a Labour guy for years … It’s increasingly apparent the union isn’t voluntary. That’s not sustainable if we keep returning pro-independence parties.”

HeraldScotland: 'It’s increasingly apparent the union isn’t voluntary. That’s not sustainable if we keep returning pro-independence parties''It’s increasingly apparent the union isn’t voluntary. That’s not sustainable if we keep returning pro-independence parties' (Image: Gordon Terris)

He joined the SNP after the 2014 referendum but isn’t highly partisan. He “admires” Nicola Sturgeon but doesn’t agree with everything the party does. “I’m not happy with the lack of serious opposition. A healthy government needs healthy opposition – that would sharpen the SNP’s game considerably. But you can hardly blame them for that. There isn’t even an intelligent dialogue in Scottish politics. You don’t want to live in a one-party state, for God’s sake.”

Paterson loathes political division in Scotland, however. “I’m very much on the hug-a-unionist side of the SNP, sort of ‘some of my best friends are unionists’.” He feels the sense of stasis in Scottish politics contributes to “people getting more entrenched, and that just leads to utter rancour”.

England

HE doesn’t shy away from what he sees as the now clear difference between so-called “English and Scottish values”. “It’s self-evident in the kind of government we’re returning that we want a different polity. That must be reflective of a pretty fundamental difference.” Stressing that he’s not a “Scottish exceptionalist”, he feels English politics has “destroyed any real sense of community … They’ve turned folk selfish”.

In Scotland, he believes, there’s a sense that “family and community is scalable up to the level of the country”, adding: “I don’t think that idea has a grip on the English political imagination at all.” He also feels that Scotland, culturally, “has always been outward looking”. Brexit, he says, “was an absolutely disgusting bluff, off the scale”.

Aside from “tartanisation”, Paterson sees the Scottish arts as relatively healthy. However, he worries that poetry – his great love along with jazz – has been infected by the internet. “It’s become a kind of proxy war for swapping tribal allegiance and identity. It’s gone from being an art of linguistic nuance to something that’s more like a gesture or token that has political or tribal significance … People are now primarily writing for immediate approval.”


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Music, however, has prospered, as it uses the online world “collaboratively and educationally”. He says he doesn’t even know “what film is for anymore”, although television hasn’t fallen into the “same self-consciousness” and so remains “marvellous and fascinating”.

However, as a man of balance, he adds: “But I’m always cautious about sounding like an old bastard. That’s what old folk sounded like to me when I was 30 – like they didn’t understand what kids were writing about. It may just be the natural cycle of things. Maybe I am just another baffled old guy.”

Gaelic

AS someone devoted to language, Paterson finds the political attacks on Gaelic absurd. “I don’t think we should even dignify it, it’s such an embarrassment. I mean, just shut up.” On the thorny issue of the place of the Scots language, Paterson says he’s “very Scots-positive”, but we have to accept that Scots “just isn’t in the rock-solid position of Gaelic in terms of its legitimacy”, primarily as there are “umpteen different” versions and no agreement on “basic vocabulary”.

“The most important first step is for Scots to feel a lot more comfortable speaking it among themselves in more formal circumstances.” People who abuse Scots speakers are “idiots in the grip of a particularly ugly and self-hating version of the Scottish cringe … It’s something we should take a simple pride in”.

It’s “inevitable”, Paterson says, that the middle class and privately educated have come to dominate the arts today. “It’s a feature of when things get economically dire.” The “brew” – dole money – allowed him to become an artist and if we want more working-class participation in the arts then “that’s a massive argument for universal basic income”.

Thankfully, he feels, Scottish culture has lost its machismo. It’s “impossible” to imagine William McIlvanney’s The Big Man being published today. “And that’s not to diss McIlvanney,” he stresses. Such books were a “political corrective” when they emerged, to the lack of working-class voices in literature. Times have changed, though. And he celebrates that. Paterson feels his generation – born in 1963 he’s either the last of the baby boomers, or very early Gen X – “was a pretty poor intake”.

He says: “We let the planet burn. Look at the precariat we made of the younger generation. It’s atrocious. We’ve little to be proud of. My generation should be doing nothing but introspection right now.”

And what greater form of introspection than a memoir examining your soul and the soul of your nation.