James Holden: Colin Barrett’s riot of language

Young SkinsAlthough I’m not getting much writing done myself at the moment, my commute to work means that I still have the time to read, and I’ve just finished reading Colin Barrett’s collection of short stories, Young Skins.

One of my favourite screenwriters is Paul Abbott, who wrote the tv series Shameless and No Offence, which were both a celebration of those who might be regarded as being on the fringes of society, but also language. His dialogue is always literate, well-observed, and funny, and it was Abbott that kept coming to mind when I was reading Young Skins.

Most of the stories in the book are in the fictional County Mayo town of Glanbeigh. The opening story in the collection describes the town:

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.

The “century of pubs” feature heavily in the stories, alongside heavy consumption of alcohol, drug taking and dealing, council estates and violence. It’s not a romantic view of Ireland, as a star review of the book on Amazon points out:

If I was the Irish Tourist Board (Bórd Fáilte), I would be thinking about getting this book banned because it paints a frightful picture of Ireland. Ireland is depicted as a place filled with lying, violent thugs, pig-ignorant half-wits and losers. Is the little green, misty island really like that nowadays? I’m not going over to check. I would be afraid to drive around rural Ireland – afraid of being mugged.

But in much the same way that Shameless was a celebration of the struggles faced by people living in England’s council estates, so Young Skins is a celebration of those “lying, violent thugs, pig-ignorant half-wits and losers”. Barrett does not judge his characters, but succeeds in creating a vibrant and touching book, pulling off the same trick Abbott did with Frank Gallagher and his clan.

Young Skins crackles with energy, and one way that Barrett pulls it off is with his language, which doesn’t just succeed in pulling the narratives along, but in also being incredibly engaging. Barrett deploys a wide range of adjectives and wonderfully conceived metaphors, but his writing never rises beyond the reach of the reader thanks to his use of slang and more casual language that helps root the stories in the communities he’s set the stories within. Throughout the book there are plenty of “naggins” and “daddy yokes”, references to “fanny”, “pissheads” and the eponymous “young skins”, and of course all fathers are “da”.

Barrett clearly loves language and this underpins the gritty and affectionate stories and characters that feature in the book. It helps to create a cracking collection that I imagine would be great to listen to as well as read, preferably at a performance in one of Glanbeigh’s pubs.

If you’re interested, you can find the book’s opening story, The Clancy Kid (which somehow manages to juggle three different plots in just 16 pages), online at: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-book-club-short-story-the-clancy-kid-by-colin-barrett-1.2120010


About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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