Patrick MacGill - Children of the Dead End (1914)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Patrick MacGill’s autobiographical novel roams from the tenant farms of Ireland and the grinding poverty of Dermod Flynn’s childhood, to the byways and backroads of Scotland and the navvying life. Leaving home at the age of 12 to seek work ‘beyond the hills’, Dermod is barely shod and fed, worked to exhaustion by a series of indifferent tenant farmers, and runs away to join the emigrants headed for Scotland in the hope of catching up with his sweetheart Norah Ryan. It is here, tramping between the model lodging houses of Paisley and Glasgow and work at the building of the Kinlochleven Dam that he first encounters Moleskin Joe and Carroty Dan, a man so quick-tempered that upon their first encounter Dermod is forced to thrash him into insensibility.
Taken under the wing of Moleskin, Dermod soon learns the navvies’ ways, and were it not for a nascent literary talent, would likely have lived and died on ‘the dead end’. An existence of Sisyphean struggle, the life the navvy can expect is nasty, brutish and short. Writing for the London papers presents an exit for Dermod, yet he is uncomfortable among the middle-classes, barely able to use a knife and fork, and still dreams of finding his love Norah somewhere on the Glasgow streets. Tiring of journalism and men who ‘played with ideas’ Dermod heads once more for Scotland to find Norah. The novel is, therefore, also a moving tale of lost love.
Like his contemporary Jack London, MacGill’s early experiences engendered in him a loathing of injustice, and politically radicalised him at a time when British socialism was still in its infancy. Raw, lyrical, angry, Children of the Dead End still retains its affecting power.
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