James Kelman: The Beloved Vandal of British Literature

Bethany Stuart

In 1994, Scottish writer James Kelman divided a Booker Prize judging panel with his novel How Late it Was, How Late. Rabbi Julia Neuberger was the first to oppose Kelman’s work, muttering ‘over my dead body’ before leaving the scene of what she considered the murder of literature. The Times editor during this period, Simon Jenkins, leapt to her defence by describing the novel as ‘an act of literary vandalism’. For others however, Kelman represented the voice of an oppressed nation. We take a look at the bad-boy of British Literature.

Kelman was born in Govan on 9 June 1946 and raised in Drumchapel, an area associated with a particularly antisocial housing estate developed in the 1950s as part of the Glasgow council’s ‘overspill’ policy, which was home to over 35,000 people. Kelman describes his upbringing as ‘as normal or abnormal as anyone else’s’ – one of four sons to a hard-working tradesman and his wife. Though his career has led him to become a multi-award winning writer, Kelman has never lost sight of his humble roots – indeed, if anything, they are the very foundations from which he has built his success. He states: ‘the stories I wanted to write would derive from my own background, my own socio-cultural experience. I wanted to write as one of my own people, I wanted to write and remain a member of my own community’. It is this voice which ignites part of the controversy surrounding his work. When Kelman gives a voice to this Glaswegian community, he does so quite literally, using a demotic vernacular to give shape to his largely working-class narrators. He has been described as spearheading the ‘new’ Scottish renaissance of the last few decades of the 20th century, a literary movement which re-emerged in response to the development of Capitalism and discussed Scotland’s position in the global economy via its population’s urban experience. One of his early works, A Disaffection (1989), particularly showcases these characteristics and preoccupations, following the stream of consciousness from 29-year-old schoolteacher Patrick Doyle for one week. In just this short space of time, the reader experiences his failed romantic advances, his struggles with drink and his resentment for the system which his job dictates he maintains. In his review of the novel for the London Review of Books in 1989, Karl Miller comments: ‘with Doyle it’s ‘fucking’ this and ‘fucking’ that and the system this and the system that. He is against ‘Greatbritain’, with its aristocratic capitalists, its MI5 and its MI6. Society is a stench. Shite is everywhere. Crassness is everywhere. He is a schlemiel of the subject.’ He continues by reflecting that ‘James Kelman’s stories make clear what life is like in Glasgow’. One cannot help paralleling Kelman’s style with that of the Irish writer James Joyce: his use of free indirect discourse, socio-political lens and liberal use of the ‘f’ word being just a few comparisons. Indeed, Joyce himself was not without controversy, his own collection of short stories Dubliners (1914), though originally being written in 1905, were rejected by 15 separate publishers and pages were even burned for its presentation of life in the Irish capital. Writing in the wake of the Irish Literary Revival, Joyce described the collection as his ‘nicely polished looking glass’, examining life as it really was. The initial reception of the collection of stories, much like Kelman’s, may be said to serve only to solidify the idea that the truth is hard to stomach for an English literary elite,that the repressed minority cultures of Scotland and Ireland must indeed demand to be heard. These writers force their readers to take a long, hard, unsettling look in the ‘nicely polished looking [glasses]’ they provide. How Late It Is, How Late is another novel which takes the form of a stream of consciousness. This time, we follow that of shoplifter and ex-convict Sammy who, upon waking in a police cell, discovers he is blind and must come to terms with his disability. When receiving the 1994 Booker Prize Award for this work, Kelman took to the stage and firmly stated ‘my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.’ With this in mind, it is interesting to note that panellist Simon Jenkins, Birmingham born and Oxford educated, described Kelman himself as ‘an illiterate savage’, criticising beyond the text to its author and suggesting his inability, and ineligibility, to write. Fellow panellist James Wood stated in a recent retrospective article for The New Yorker that ‘the overwrought response to the Booker win seemed to justify Kelman’s extremity’ and that by denouncing his work, they had missed the point. This is because ‘proximity of impersonation is his goal, he is unafraid of boredom, banality, digression, repetition, and verbal impoverishment. His experiments in vernacular Scots push and twist the language, sometimes to breaking points.’ His work is therefore, certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. His is a political diction, opposing the silencing of his vernacular by an elitist view of what is ‘proper’ speech. His words are weapons, they go to war with the likes of Neuberger and Jenkins who attempt to stifle them.
By Bethany Stuart

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