Book Review: ‘Paper Cup’ by Karen Campbell

This article was first published in Bella Caledonia

The Kindness of Strangers

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns is referenced once, and once only, in Karen Campbell’s wonderful, empathetic, timely and moving new novel Paper Cup. But the truth is that while reading Karen’s book I couldn’t get him out of my head. The words on the dust cover say that your world will be a better place for reading this story. It may or may not be. But the novel is a reminder that, should we wish, it can be. We have choices. Agency.

I’ll declare an interest here – I’m a Portpatrick boy. The novel is based in Dumfries and Galloway – or more accurately the ancient Rhins, Machars and Stewartry counties. And with every page I shivered with love and warmth and nostalgia at every thinly veiled reference to the people and places that made me and, for all their paradoxes, informed my worldview.

The reference to Burns comes early in the novel, when Kelly, the homeless, tortured, alcoholic main character of the story, recalls being taken along as a teenager to a Burns Supper at Portpatrick Golf Club and enduring what sounded like a pretty dreich Immortal Memory from the club captain. Pished and gallus, and to her father’s embarrassment, she shouts: “Rabbie Burns was a filthy auld shagger!”. Kelly is already on a downward spiral that will wreck her health and damage her relationships, but the Burns Supper scene got me thinking.

Lord Byron once described Burns as the “antithetical mind”. I’ve always loved that line. The idea that you could choose to look at things from another perspective – to look through the glass from the other side and find empathy and truth there – seems to me liberating and empathetic. And, by allowing us to see the world from the dispossessed – but not beaten – Kelly, Karen Campbell reminds us that her main character is us, and we are her main character. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns.

I’m not sure if Kelly’s visit to the Portpatrick Golf Club Burns Supper included a recital of The Address to the Unco Guid, but the concluding verse, to me, epitomises Karen Campbell’s deep empathy for people, like Kelly, who are essentially just a couple of dodgy judgement calls – or a shit break – from ourselves. Kelly herself observes at one point that the reason folk are so mean to her as she holds her paper cup outside the art gallery is that they can’t face the all too possible version of themselves.

“Then at the balance let’s be mute / we never can adjust it / what’s done we partly may compute, but know not what’s resisted”.

As the story progresses, it’s clear that Kelly has tried – and failed – to resist one hell of a lot. And what Karen does brilliantly is to convey that struggle with real empathy. And Kelly is a raw and brilliant commentator on the terrible injustices inflicted on the voiceless and the faceless, not least when she shares a shelter with a couple, seeking asylum and expecting a child.

“Failed asylum seekers? Imagine failing at that. Just failing at asking for help. That has to be be pretty low. That’s why she rarely put themselves in the hands of others. Why let them unskin you more?”

It’s like that wonderful maxim of not judging a person until you walk a hundred miles in their shoes.

And Kelly does a lot of walking.

The novel sees Kelly walk from Portpatrick to Glenluce to Whithorn, on the pilgrim trail, en route to destiny. And Gatehouse. And atonement in the place she’d grown up in, before life took her down a darker road. On the road to Gatehouse, she’s picked up by a young dairy farmer who’s delivering milk along the A75.

“I cannae wait to get out of being up to my knees in shit” she says. Kelly can’t help but respond.

“Just don’t be in such a hurry to get away from here” she says. “Because you can’t recapture it once it’s gone”.

That’s probably true. But this novel is at its heart and soul a story about belonging and identity and second chances. It’s a love letter to Bonny Galloway, but it comes with caveats. Kirkcudbright is populated with “eco-warriors and retired ex-pats” writes Karen. “There are entire shops in Kirkcudbright devoted to the sale of red corduroy trousers”. I don’t know if that’s true. But, man, it should be. And anyone who lives here will recognise the retired army man whose “Land Rover was strident with Brittania: two union Jacks on the bumper and a Help for Heroes sticker on the window”. (Spoiler – he’s a complete prick).

But it’s never judgemental. The posh divorcee who feeds Kelly (and her dog) on her pilgrimage seems almost offended when asked why she did it.

“I helped you when you needed help. That’s it. Why complicate things? It’s an investment. Maybe it will be there when we need it. We all need kindness”.

Kelly reflects on the words she hears from the cold dead voice of the system. Sanctioned. Outcome. Zero hours. And she thinks: “you’d like a world where the words are kindness. Care. Maybe ‘listening’”. Wouldn’t we all.

An old English teacher of mine liked to quote that Tennessee Williams line from A Streetcar Named Desire. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”.

To turn an old John Major soundbite on its head, we should condemn a little less and understand a little more.

Tak tent o’ sma’ things. Tak tent o’ ither.

Ach, just read this book. I’ve never read anything that made me care so much. About anything. And whatever your journey, whatever your pilgrimage, remember to be kind to strangers. After all, it’s later than you think.

Keep safe good people. We’ll meet further on up the road.

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