January 17, 2010


by James Kelman
185 pages, Polygon 2007

Mate, kin ye spare two bob? by Pat Black.

Awright pal, ye’re lookin’ crackin’ so ye ur. Puttin’ the beef oan, eh? So, ye fancy mebbe a coupla bevvies n’ a game a cairds eh? Ye been doon the burroo? Get a fuckin’ round in then.**

Still with me? I’m not sure Microsoft Word is. It doesn’t like those kinds of sentences. Auto-correct feels it has to step in, clapping its hand on your shoulder like a doorman. There are lots of those squiggly red, green and blue lines under most of the words and phrases. It could be that my writing has the measles. Or possibly I’ve set the typeface to “Arial frown” by accident. Upon a quick scan, I’ve only just noticed that it automatically changed the word “doon” to “doom”, which tickles me - assuming I didn’t type the thing wrong with my sausage fingers anyway.

What would James Kelman make of this? A Glaswegian writer, he was publishing in the vernacular peculiar to his mither city long before Irvine Welsh was making it cool to be shite and Scottish in an east coast dialect. Without any formal education beyond his early teens and armed with nothing more than a love of books and a desire to write, he penned stories which the New York Times Magazine saw fit to call the “Scottish beat” style, following in the footsteps of Alexander Trocchi; tales of guys who were down to the fluff in their pockets, and sometimes even less than that, surviving on whatever crappy jobs they could get or what the labour exchange could provide them with. His language is their language, an authentic voice which is still used as a source of comedy by middle class English people these days – YouTube “Michael McIntyre + Scottish people” for an example of this. There are a lot of laughs in this book, but none of it comes from the use of dialect. Unless it’s at your expense. But more on ra banter later.

An Old Pub Near The Angel is Kelman’s first ever published work, a series of stripped-down short stories which originally appeared in 1973. In them, characters lose their jobs working on the buses and scrounge lifts back home. They scrape by through good fortune, feral cunning and the kindness of others. They do a runner from their lodgings in the middle of the night when they can’t afford the rent. Seasonal work on campsites in Jersey is about as exotic as things get. Their castles are dingy bedsits, their battlegrounds and debating chambers are damp old men’s pubs. But never in this collection is there a sense of despair. There’s existentialism aplenty here, but it’s without the angst. Even in a story entitled “Abject Misery”, where the rain collecting in puddles is seen as a weapon used by a hostile God to torment its unwashed, poverty-addled narrator, he manages to laugh in the face of his circumstances: “Who cares anyway? My feet were soaking already ha ha ha.”

In “Wednesday”, we get another example of this, where a guy in a bedsit goes on to have a wonderful day to himself, owing to what we might now label good karma. It opens with this poor man trying to perfect the technique of boiling an egg in a teapot – his last egg, too – and failing miserably. But life rewards him with boons after he refuses to take money which someone has left lying in some communal toilets. His convoluted path takes him to a free session with a buxom prostitute, leading him to reflect that things are looking up for a Wednesday morning. Kelman’s stories are littered with such gifts of nature and providence, ones accepted gratefully by those on their uppers.

Funnily enough, in his use of the word “Wednesday” itself, Kelman challenges us. His interpretation of it in the story “Nice To Be Nice” - “Wedinsday” - is a fly dig at the proper use of grammar and spelling in English. Wednesday sounds like it’s got a glottal stop, you see. That peculiarly Glaswegian verbal affliction, the scourge of many a thin-lipped elocution teacher. Some’n’s missin’, righ’ enough. So Kelman cheekily auto-corrects this omission from the written representation of commonly-used words and sounds. My own preferred method would be to toss a handful of apostrophes over the text (see my intro par), but no matter.

In his joke, there’s a serious point to be made about cultural elitism, prejudice in the way we read, and also the way we listen to people. As Kelman reflects, broadsheet newspaper columnists and arts show couch dwellers would launch attacks on his style, seemingly not considering the possibility that the working class men and women who would use such language as a matter of course would be reading the paper, watching the television or sharing in their cultural experience. His 1994 Booker Prize winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late, did cause a great fuss at the time (though the more cynical of us might point to the fact that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, old son). Told in Glaswegian dialect, it was completely traduced in some quarters as a somewhat unworthy winner of so well-respected an honour. In Kelman’s afterword to this collection he says that this attitude was present and correct even when he was starting out, 20 years earlier, with some critics saying he was “dragging language through the gutter”. The chairman of the Booker panel even threatened to resign over it. As he was then, Kelman is forthright in his defence of this method of representing language, eager to expose cultural snobbery and prejudice – I mean, a whole novel in Glaswegian! The very idea! – and more power to him for it.

This book was first published two years before a weird-looking ex-Clydeside shipyard worker with long hair, a beard and a funny accent called Billy Connolly appeared on the Michael Parkinson show in the UK, changing comedy forever. Kelman’s voice and attitude is broadly similar that of the younger, less caustic version of the world’s favourite former welder. They are the Scots baby boomers, growing up in the 1960s and slowly shedding that damned Presbyterian outlook, learning to laugh at whatever life throws at them instead of slowly sinking under its weight, and looking beyond the unceasingly grim reality of life for working class people in that once great industrial city. There were others about at this time, too; Archie Hind, Alasdair Gray – working class artists, encroaching into strange territory. It seems to have been an unusually fertile time for the city in terms of its literature.

Kelman’s tone grows dark in the collection’s best story, “Nice To Be Nice”. In it, a kindly (if naive) older man looking out for his friends and neighbours finally loses his temper with the social security services and its bureaucracy after they attempt to throw a young woman and her children out on the streets for rent arrears. This is the only story where the Glaswegian dialogue is consistent throughout the text, and I don’t think it’s an accident that this goes hand in hand with the terrible sense of social injustice boiling within our narrator when faced with the indifference of a guy in a suit sitting behind a desk. In showing a decent, mild-mannered man railing against the authorities, Kelman reveals a sense of social conscience and basic good nature which transcends our ideas of law and order and the structure of society; and it’s here that he hits us hardest.

This new edition’s longest piece is the lengthy Afterword, a mini autobiography where Kelman addresses his themes, chronicles his development as an author and raises a few smiles. There’s one section where he jokes – one hopes – about having Asbestos sandwiches with brown sauce at the deadly-sounding Lancastrian fibre manufacturer he once worked at. In this and other recounted true-life tales, he acknowledges that the engine room of stories are in their depiction of people; Kelman is happy to explain where a lot of the ideas and inspiration came from, revealing the spark provided by real-life stories and characters, and the magic of kindling this into a story. Those precious snapshots of life.

There’s also a mention of his close connection with Glaswegian literary contemporaries, Alasdair Gray and Liz Lochhead, the poet Tom Leonard (last year, Kelman made a case for Leonard being awarded the Nobel Prize), and the Gaelic writer Aonghas MacNeachall. They had their own literary salons and artistic brainstorming sessions, in the flats of benevolent academics; a kind of Parisian set-up, except that instead of pissing about in cafes, guzzling wine, they hid themselves away in tenement flats, producing art in a curiously shy way – even someone as strident and insouciant as Kelman.

There’s something about Glasgow that sort of shies away from the idea of the written word as art; it’s a place where a terrifying amount of technological concepts and scientific discoveries were made. You know, useful things, like bicycles, the stuff of real life, not literature. You have to head east along the M8 if you want to find the great Scots writers. Back in Glasgow, there’s that very Calvinist shame about someone trying to do something for a living that doesn’t involve you breaking your back. As another great Glaswegian author, Archie Hind, notes: even with half the population being Catholic, in many ways Glasgow remains one of the world’s most Calvinist cities.

I’m reminded of my dad’s frank appraisal of short stories I would pen as a young boy. “That’s good. What book did you copy that out of? I don’t know why you bother with that rubbish.”

I wonder if there’s some sort of residual cultural guilt still dragging down the Weedgies; a shameful acknowledgement that writing a book is not, and never will be, equated with digging a road. Even nowadays, despite the fact it has such a wonderful Art School that makes waves across the world, Glasgow is a city that doesn’t like its children to get ideas above its station. What, you think you’re some kind of smart arse, eh? By Christ, you’ll be made to regret it. You’ll laugh on the other side of your face. Away and work.

Speaking of which. This book was the last one I ever bought out of my favourite bookshop, a thriving place always stuffed with people which had fallen foul of the financial climate and its effect on a parent group. The store closed two days before Christmas and discharged its staff onto the burroo. It also disposed of a silly hope I’d harboured that one day I’d go in there and see my own books on its shelves.

“Everything must go”, said the signs – and indeed it did. There was something very sad about the place when I walked past it the other day, the shelves completely bare, the walls and staircases and cash desks stripped naked, the escalators stilled. I’m thinking there may be a story hiding in there somewhere.

**Translated: Hello my good man, you’re looking well I must say. You do not appear to be quite so skinny as the last time I saw you, if I may be so bold. What would you say to an ale or two and a hand of canasta down at the gentleman’s club? I notice you appear to have come into an inheritance of some sort – surely you wouldn’t be so parsimonious as to deny your old friend a drink now that your circumstances are less reduced?

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