James Kelman is justly celebrated as a major European novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Yet crucially his “artistry, authenticity and a voice of singular power” (Independent) flow from being an engaged writer and a cultural and political activist. In this collection of essays, polemics, and talks, Kelman directs his linguistic craftsmanship and scathing humor at the racism, class bias, and elitism of the English literary scene, the Labour Party’s establishment role, the treatment of asbestos victims, the media, and other political and cultural questions. Essays include ‘Artists and Value, ‘Some Recent Attacks on the Rights of the People,’ and ‘The Importance of Glasgow in My Work.’
Out of print
Year of Publication
This book can be purchased or ordered from your local independent bookshop or from Waterstones
The following excerpt is from the essay entitled ‘The Importance of Glasgow in My Work’:
pp82-4, AK Press paperback edition (1992)
How do you recognise a Glaswegian in English literature? He – bearing in mind that in English literature you don’t get female Glaswegians, not even the women – he’s the cut-out figure who wields a razor blade, gets moroculous drunk and never has a single solitary ‘thought’ in his entire life. He beats his wife and beats his kids and beats his next door neighbour. And another striking thing: everybody from a Glaswegian or working-class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain – none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpotch of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling – unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English hero (occasionally Scottish but with no linguistic variation) whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it. The place where thought and spiritual life exists. Nobody outwith the parameters of their socio-cultural setting had a spiritual life. We all stumbled along in a series of behaviouristic activity; automatons, cardboard cut-outs, folk who could be scrutinised, whose existence could be verified in a sociological or anthropological context. In other words, in the society that is English Literature, some 80 to 85 percent of the population simply did not exist as ordinary human beings.
As a young writer there were no literary models I could look to from my own culture. There was nothing whatsoever. I’m not saying these models didn’t exist. But if they did then I couldn’t find them. It was only later on, after I had started writing, that I had the good luck to meet up with folk like Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and others, through getting involved with a writers’ group led by poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum, now Professor at Glasgow University, who at that time tutored an extra-mural class. I was about 25/26 by that time, but I was already writing and my first collection of stories was essentially completed prior to that. I’m speaking of what was generally available to readers, whether in bookshops or public libraries. As some of you will be aware, these literary models do exist but you have to root them out. Tom Leonard has published an anthology of poetry entitled Radical Renfrew, written by ordinary men and women from the old Renfrewshire area (which included parts of Glasgow) from the French Revolution to the first world war – the vast majority of which is either rejected outright or gets no acknowledgment in mainstream literary circles. Tom Leonard had to excavate it. The old story: the prime effect of censorship and oppression is silence. Some mainstream critics want to argue that such poetry is of little merit. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. But who or what group of individuals makes that decision? And by what authority?
So because of this dearth of home-grown literary models I had to look elsewhere. As I say, there was nothing at all in English literature, but in English language literature – well, I came upon a few American writers. I found folk whom I regarded as ordinary; here they were existing in stories, not as clichés, not as stereotypes. I was also discovering foreign language literature through translation; the Russians, the Germans, the French and others. I found literary models. I found ways into writing stories that I wanted to write; I could realize the freedom I had. I mean just the freedom other writers seemed to take for granted, the freedom to write from their own experience. Now I could create stories based on things I knew about; snooker halls and betting shops and pubs and DHSS offices and waiting in the queue at the Council Housing office; I could write stories about my friends and relations and neighbours and family and whatever I wanted. The whole world became available. Quite a heady experience.
It was after that came the other problems. Things weren’t as straightforward as I thought. It hadn’t dawned on me that there might be very good reason why these literary models didn’t exist in my own backyard; yes, censorship and suppression. I quickly bumped against it through the elementary matter of my chosen artform, language.
You can’t write a short story without language. That seems an odd statement. Yet received wisdom in this society demands it. Yes, they say, go and write whatever story you want, but don’t use whatever language is necessary. Go and write a story for X amount of pounds; any story at all, providing you stay within the bounds. Not the bounds of decency or propriety or anything tangible; because that isn’t the way it works. Nobody issues such instructions. It’s all carried out by a series of nudges and winks and tacit agreements.
Go and write a story about a bunch of guys who stand talking in a pub all day but if you have them talking then don’t have them talking the language they talk. Pardon?
© James Kelman