The Scabby Queen of Innes’ title is a designation of some capacity; it expands as things get unfolded and the past gets explained in the present, to acquire meaning in triplicate. First (and most superficially) it connotes queenliness – magnetism, glamour, aristocratic command of an adoring populace. Second (and more significantly) it tells of a seamy underbelly to this first quality – a scabbiness. And third, it folds the first two meanings into one another to denote, in composite, a card game, a Scottish derivative of Old Maid, constructed around a schema of shuffling relationships and a single, slippery queen.
When we first encounter eponymous royalty Clio Campbell it’s via the eyes and words of a softboi male music journo whose profile of her for Q magazine slobbers around the edges; his is the first heterosexual male prism amongst a fair number through which Clio is spectacularised. She’s served up to us on his plate as a sexy political agitator-cum-pop star, songstress behind the ‘catchy anti-Poll Tax stomp Rise Up‘; the salient details he selects to proffer his reader pertain to the brevity of her skirt, her red lipstick and red hair, and her hyperbolic (and also phallic) ‘piercing beauty’ – all details constructing a Clio fit for consumption, not comprehension. The activism supercharging her artistry is given short shrift, dismissed as merely an offshoot of her sexiness: his disparagement is that it’s ‘the truly earnest passion only a young, beautiful woman can get away with’. Clio’s made queenly by his construction, queenly in the sense that her ‘swaggering charisma’ commands his randy vassalage, and in this way Scabby Queen begins its life as honorific as opposed to epithet, with the emphasis on Queen rather than on Scab. The scabby portion of the title functions as evocative of context and political clime, but not as an adjective which conducts any definitive function on its noun – Clio, because she sings for those the Poll Tax hit hardest, is Queen of the Poll Tax Scabs, maybe, but is herself not scabby; her voice performs advocacy for the common good, not against it.
Clio-as-queen is a recognisable figure – center stage, spotlit, enshrined with her guitar above a crowd of upturned faces, drinking in the rising fug of adulation. She’s red-headed like Tudor royalty, and like such, she collects suitors variously fawning or devoted, and handmaidens dedicated to the Court of Clio. However, if the ways in which Clio performs queenliness are obvious, they’re also obviously banal – her ascension to her title dependent on the vagaries of glamour and sexual adulation, it’s a crown (and she’s a queen) forged in large part of smoke and glass. The ways, alternately, in which Clio performs scabbiness are far more wickedly and thickly ambivalent – and end up being far more grimly symptomatic of the originary traumas of childhood and adolescence than any of her glitzy charisma.
Scab [skab], noun: a protective incrustation of dead skin formed across an open wound; also, a derogatory term used to denounce picket line-crossers during a worker’s strike. Synonymous, in the common lexicon of contempt, with the idea of a class traitor, and possibly also sharing some etymological heritage with the Middle Dutch schabbe, which is a sexual insult: slut. When appended to the noun queen, as in scabby queen, it amalgamates royalty and shabbiness in a new composite: a card game, a derivative of Old Maid. Said card game’s objective is to speedily and surreptitiously pass around the sole queen in an otherwise full deck so that when the game winds down – when all the other cards (which, unlike the queen, haven’t been excised from their quadruplets) end up in pairs – you’re not the sucker left with the unpaired, lonely queen in your hand. If this is the case your punishment is to be whipped across the knuckles with the rest of the deck (fat and wicked-edged with all the other smugly coupled-up cards) which leaves you with a set of (soon-to-be scabby) papercuts.
This device names and frames Clio, organises for the reader a perspective on her haphazard maneuverings – how she shuffles, static-slippery, at times slyly, through the pack, forming attachments by the luck of the deal. She ricochets from Top of the Pops to a Brixton squat to a yoga retreat in recession-era Greece, restless, nomadic, and, most times, a bad omen. It’s scabby, this impermanence; it means never sticking around to say you’re sorry – it gives license for a style of emotional drive-by shooting wherein the perpetrator can wreak low-grade (or in Clio’s case, occasionally quite acute) upheaval and then slip free of the ties that would demand a reckoning with the consequences. Interlocking, criss-crossing, time-hopping perspectives from the consortium of actors who’ve been in contact with Clio’s force-field combine to give us a bird’s-eye view of a patchwork of damage. There’s Sammi, baby of the loose ecology of Brixton-based proto-anarchists whose good graces Clio wriggles her way into – Clio ends up fucking Sammi’s boyfriend, repeatedly and duplicitously, and then up-ending Sammi’s adult life 13 years down the line by re-surfacing with the revelation that said boyfriend was an undercover policeman, and both women thus casualties of ‘state-sanctioned rape’. There’s also Ruth, friend-cum-caregiver, to whose home and kind custody Clio retreats in times of great unravelling – and turns, callously, into a mausoleum, when she offs herself in the guest room, leaving her splayed corpse for Ruth to find. And Eileen, Clio’s mother – estranged, stricken by dementia and packed away in a care home, functionally divorced of all entanglement with her daughter apart from a brief reconciliation at Clio’s wedding. This is a life singularly barren of lasting personal attachment, yet maximally charged with all the voltage of political devotion.
In a weed-infused first encounter with Sammi, Clio speaks of something important, obliquely – a clue – the ‘something, or someone, that starts you off’, the Ur-moment that ‘fires you up and makes it impossible for you to live any other way’. She references radicalisation, of the political sort, but with Clio, radical politics (the fight, the cause, the tribe – the virtuous rebellion) is a defence mechanism warding off the yawn of a personal void, a substitute for the familial or romantic or social belongings she’s torched or left behind. We know Clio’s Ur-moment, her big formative trauma, what made her Scabby Queen of the pack, only at the end – here stop reading if you’d rather reserve discovery for yourself – and it’s simple, sad, and as much or more to do with gender-based alienation and violence as it is to do with the structural dispossessions of class. In brief, Clio fucks a scab, at the height of Thatcher’s brutal crackdown on working people – she fucks over her community, too, in so fucking, in indiscriminate fucking, in a fucking that fails, fatally, to distinguish between scab and non-scab cock. And she’s exiled, called a ‘hoor’ and banished, after which she can’t settle, can only ricochet from cause to cause, the perennial outcast, perennially and hopelessly searching, in self-exculpatory mode, for something to undo her alienation.
It’s unclear whether Innes, here, doesn’t unwittingly drop into a variation of the sensibility she accords most of her heterosexist male characters with regards to Clio: that which automatically routes all considerations of personality through the prism of Clio’s womanhood, boiling all of Clio’s complexities down to a deterministic substrate of gender. If the grand reveal lays bare Clio’s wild – read: unconstrained by community norms – sexuality as the epicentre from which all her subsequent wanderings and sufferings stem, then doesn’t Innes do Clio essentially the same disservice? Doesn’t all of Clio’s dubious anguished shilly-shallying reduce, then, to a sex drive penalised as nonconformist, i.e., to an expression of female sexuality that’s an affront because unbound, unfettered by sexual norms, that’s historically always anathema to those that set and abide by these norms? Wouldn’t it be less trite, more fascinating and involute, to have Clio’s deviance from and incompatibility with regular modes of relationality spring from a source not associated with her gender? Isn’t saying she’s a scab because of sex (sex as aberrance; sex as perversion) the same as saying she’s queenly because of sex (sex as charisma; sex as allure)? Don’t both these equations derive from the age-old operation of reductionism that explains away all that’s fraught or dazzling about a woman by pointing dumbly – doh! – at her womanhood? Innes’ formulation of Clio as both scab and queen, i.e., a creature vast enough to be located simultaneously on the farthest reaches of the spectrum, whom the same gesture can crown and despoil, all at once, is a recognition of, and a reckoning with, Clio’s multifariousness. And that this multifariousness, this colossal dimensionality, incorporates and feeds off of a nucleus of sex isn’t so much an over-determination of Clio as a larger-than-life reflection of a nonetheless true state of affairs – to be woman, to desire as woman, is always-already to be locked into the processual surgings of power that scrutinise, colonise, and endlessly recast what it means to be so.
Jessica Lee is a Women’s Studies graduate who writes about feminism, bodies and their entanglement, and affect. She’s based in London and you can find her here: @jesslee1_.