Kelman gets a sense of humour

June 3, 2004

Let us consider James Kelman. Not the real one, the other one. The growler, “literary savage” and purveyor of “crap”. Mister f***ing up to high doh, sworn foe of RP and English cultural imperialism. A one-man mission to fill the shelves of our public libraries with drunks, down-and-outs and breadline desperation… It’s a complicated thing, a public image. A combination of selective truth, willful misunderstanding, projection, intimidation, and juvenile humour. In the early 1990s The Other James Kelman was a great addition to that consolation prize of the stateless nation, the national comedy. It was mostly a media in-joke, but it trickled down to the streets.

We meet in a vegetarian cafe in Glasgow, a middle-class sort of place if you believe to be working class is to subsist on a diet of saturated fats and stewed tea, but he hates that sort of pigeonholing. He shakes my hand warmly. For a time we shared the same publisher. He’s always been open and supportive with me, gentle is the word that comes to mind. And the funny thing is, despite this, the questions I’ve prepared are tailored to someone else, a prickly character who’ll challenge the elitist assumptions behind my every word. I’ve spent hours steeped in his press cuttings: I’m primed to meet The Other James Kelman.

We’re here to talk about the new novel, his sixth. He’s no stranger to literary awards, having won the Cheltenham Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker. You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free reads like another winner. It’s a pub crawl in the company of Jeremiah Brown, ex-barman, ex-security guard, ex of Glasgow, now living in the US. Jeremiah has a runaway tongue, a roving eye, a broken heart, the self-sabotaging/life-affirming streak often found in Kelman’s characters, and the precarious immigration status of a Red Card (third class).

The book began as a short story 12 years ago. It wasn’t even set in America, but there was a life about the character that hasn’t changed. Three years ago everything clicked. “It was much more straightforward for me than other novels, even in terms of time: it’s not one I’ve been working on for years.”

But straightforward is not the same as effortless. Tell him that Jeremiah’s voice really takes flight and he’ll pull a rueful grin. “It’s a difficult thing for me to do, to take flight. It takes a lot of bloody work.” The challenge was to be dramatic within the inherently undramatic structure of a first-person narrative recalling past events. Discussing the difficulties, he alludes to Goethe, Kafka, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Cézanne and Gertrude Stein. “These are the perennial problems for artists: time and movement.”

Abroad, Kelman is recognised as a writer of world stature, a 21st century Modern (though he grimaces at such labels) whose work connects with that of Beckett, Joyce, Kafka and Camus among others. In the UK, his decision to write in the language of the Glasgow working class has occasionally led to him being mistaken for a one-draft wonder, a “savage” with a dictaphone and the gift of the gab. These days he can smile about it.

Some will see You Have to Be Careful… as a post-9/11 book, with its depiction of an America phobic about foreigners and national security. It can also be read as a satire on capitalism and class and the way authority divides and rules. But ask the author about this and he balks, steering the conversation back to the difficulties of the literary form.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about Jim Kelman. To look at his libertarian socialist convictions and see the fiction as an extension of his political campaigning. The truth is more subtle. There are explicitly political dimensions to his writing, in the literary language he has forged and in the way he sees the world. Translated Accounts, a difficult and harrowing novel written in the voices of the tortured and oppressed, was a blatantly political book. But he is first and foremost an Artist, and refers to himself as such. When he’s writing, his commitment is to the work.

IT WAS THE ROW over How Late It Was, How Late winning the Booker Prize in 1994 which established The Other James Kelman as a UK-wide figure. Two of the judging panel disagreed with the decision: journalist Simon Jenkins, who made the “illiterate savage” remark, and Rabbi Julia Neuberger (“frankly, it’s crap”). Others climbed on the bandwagon. Kelman used the winner’s speech to mount a fierce defence of his right to use the language of his class and culture, pointing out the fine line between elitism and racism. To the casual television viewer he appeared to be biting the hand that had just given him the highest literary honour in the land.

The affair didn’t dent his confidence, he says, but it damaged his ability to earn. “It’s like taking away your living: I’ve a literary reputation, but people don’t think you can sell books. None of the peripheral stuff ever comes your way. You stop getting invitations, I’ve never been asked on a radio panel in my life. I don’t know what it is, whether they think I’d be swearing…”

His face creases into a grin as he launches into an impression of The Other James Kelman turning the airwaves blue, and I laugh, but it’s compromised laughter. It’s too simple to dismiss his notorious doppelganger as purely a media phantasm. He played a part in creating it. You only have to read his polemic: given a choice between cock-up and conspiracy theories (or between what used to be called “the system” and individual deliberate acts of censorship), he’s generally plumped for the latter, and sometimes he’s been wrong.

Reading through past interviews it’s clear that many of those sent to question him have been little short of terrified. The first few paragraphs pass in a swoon of relief that he’s not biting the heads off babies (middle-class English ones, of course). He has various theories about why this might be. His own defensiveness, built up over years of attacks, showing itself in body language and force of argument. The intimidating effect of his commitment to the work. (“At what point does it become a single-track mind or a pathology?”) But also attitudes the interviewers brought to the table: university-educated unease at meeting a novelist accustomed to doing manual work, a tendency to confuse him with his characters…

There was a time when he refused to be interviewed by the Scottish press. “The reviews were fine: it’s the other constant attacks. You become a kind of Aunt Sally figure. You’re trotted out in these stupid articles about so-called Scottish culture and literature, whether it’s myself or Tom Leonard or Irvine Welsh… you get kind of sick of it.” Yet here he is, talking to The Scotsman? “This hostility and stuff is part of your working experience, you have to develop ways of handling it.”

At this point I should mention the most striking feature of his new novel: it’s a rollicking good read, his most enjoyable book to date. He’s always been a funny writer, though the laughter was mostly dark. You Have to be Careful... has its share of gallows humour, but there’s exuberance too, a comic gusto in the language, whether he’s bemoaning the uselessness of American toilet paper or exposing nature documentaries as right-wing propaganda tracts. To the author it has the feel of a first novel. “It’s allowed me to have some fun with invention, have some fun with the politics. That’s been good to do. Some of the things the character says are kind of outrageous politically – ‘outrageous’ isnae the right word: fairly overtly political. It’s not a typical Scottish novel in that sense.” To have that humour and playfulness you need to feel confident and relaxed, he says. “Scotland’s a fairly dreich place these days. Devolution has scuppered so many people’s hopes. It’s kind of deadened it, seeing the timidity of the politicians, seeing the lickspittle nature: it’s turned a lot of people off.”

Fun, playful, relaxed: something has happened to Kelman over recent years. He resists the suggestion that it’s the sunnier attitude to life in the States, where he spent three years teaching at the University of Texas, but he doesn’t reject the idea that he’s mellowed. A couple of times in the past I’ve seen him wound up: bitterly, laceratingly enraged. There’s none of that today. Even when I try to trigger it. He says he’s still angry – “there’s a lot to be angry about” – but even when he’s lambasting the intellectually debased nature of Scottish politics or the way we kowtow to English literary mediocrity, that rueful smile is never far away.

SO WHAT’S changed him? Some of it may be down to age but, with any artist, the crucial factor is the work. “I’m not a believer in the idea of the Great American Novel, the Great Scottish Novel: that to me is real nonsense. The only thing that matters is the body of work. Once you get into that way of thinking you don’t panic so much about when you get a novel out, what age are you, what age are your contemporaries that you see as rivals. You get to things in your own time. As long as you work at your art as consistently as you can, as regularly and seriously as you can, you’ll get to things.”

The change of scene also helped. “It was really nice and natural to be away from Scotland,” he says. He feels comfortable in America: one of his brothers has lived there 40 years and his wife, Marie, has family in Canada. He didn’t have to worry about scraping a living, and he was treated as a writer. “In parts of Scotland we get treated as writers, but often the burden of proof is still on us.” He doesn’t want any kind of special privileges, but nor does he want to have to prove it all the time: “You get reviewed as if it’s your first book, here. The fact that I’ve published 12 books counts for nothing.”

Coming back was a mistake. He was offered a chair in creative writing at Glasgow University, in a job-share with Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard, but the post wasn’t what he expected. Various reasons, he says. A major part of the problem seems to have been the burden of administration that fell on his shoulders. (“Why get us names in to do all this clerical work?”) He quit last July. The birth of his first grandchild makes returning to Texas less attractive as an option. “But financially I will have to look for something to do.”

For much of his life Kelman has juggled three jobs: whatever was bringing in the money at the time, writing and campaigning. He worked for Clydeside Action on Asbestos, was involved in the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign, chaired the People’s Tribunal on Racial Violence and Harassment in Hounslow, and has given time to many other causes in the UK, while speaking out for imprisoned and censored writers worldwide. But these days he’s not politically active.

“I don’t know if it’s the energy or what it is: I don’t feel any need. I’m kind of happy with the work I’m doing. I don’t have any time for anything else, and I don’t feel it’s an absence.” He’s coming up to 58: there are only so many years left to accomplish everything he wants to as a writer. He’s taking care of himself these days: not smoking, drinking less. Moderation is the new watchword. “I’m trying to get into that mellow condition that happens in middle age. You want to stay as fit as you can. I do kind of fancy being able to carry on working.”

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications