James Kelman is one of the most important living British novelists. If not the most important. Theo Tait interviewed him for the Guardian Review last Saturday (12 April 2008), and appears to have had a difficult time, I’m pleased to say (1). After cruising through an introductory paragraph in which Tait name checks Kelman’s ‘Glasgow-set’ (The Busconductor Hines (1984)), A Disaffection (1989) and of course the booker-winning How Late It Was, How Late (1994)), then tossing off the names of three writers influenced by Kelman – all Scottish, because you have to keep difficult writers within the parochial boundaries of their perceived influence, of course – the problems start: ‘At the rendezvous under the clock at Glasgow Station, fresh off the train from Euston, Kelman is punctual and polite’. As I understand it from what Tait has written here, Kelman has just arrived off the Euston train: yes? No, I don’t think we’re supposed to understand it like this: James Kelman is the Glaswegian, not Theo Tait; but then Tait seems to have a problem with understanding as well as writing, as his article reveals.
To skip a little of Tait’s argument for the moment, Tait seems to think that Kelman should in some way have something in common with Alan Sillitoe or Barry Hines, both of whom are also working-class writers. Tait ignores the fact that both Sillitoe and Hines would otherwise have little in common with Kelman, perhaps because he is unaware of it, and moves on to appear to be claiming to score points over Kelman because Kelman hasn’t read Sillitoe.
The really odd thing about Tait’s article is that he seems to believe that society has progressed from the days of Conservative Party rule, that it has moved towards a society that has more understanding of class problems and social issues in general, towards a more enlightened society. Kelman puts the record straight on this: ‘I would hope […] that people around the world don’t think of people in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales as being represented by the fucking Queen or something, or Gordon Brown or any of these fucking people – or as being supportive of a right-wing state like the Labour Party’s.’
Kelman’s argument is perfectly intelligible: since 1979 (OK, since the world began, but let's start with recent history) there have been increasing, and increasingly brutal, systematic attacks on the working class: Gordon Brown represents a relentless right-wing attack on the working class which began with Margaret Thatcher, continued with Tony Blair, and appears to be without end. The main difference between then and now is that Thatcher's government had an opposition: the Labour Party; the present New Labour government is not only imitative of the previous Conservative regime, but more ruthless because it can carry out right-wing atrocities that the previous Conservative government could only dream of. There is no opposition, there is only pretence. Even The Guardian, which during Thatcher's era supported the (admittedly increasingly right-wing) Labour Party, is now in general support of the full-blown right-wing New Labour Party. Is Kelman's anger at all surprising?
But Tait goes on to say that ‘all sense vanishes in [Kelman’s] exaggerations’, without clearly stating what these ‘exaggerations’ are. Previously, Tait stated, somewhat bemusedly, that Kelman regards himself as a post-colonial writer, as one writing within a field occupied by others: the bourgeoisie, of course. Tait attempts to refute this by illustrating – rather pathetically – ways in which he believes that Kelman had been assimilated into the world of bourgeois writing. In the end, Tait simply gives up trying to understand Kelman. If he had in fact read A Disaffection, he might have pointed to a weird and wonderful instance in which straightforward working-class speech meets bizarre middle-class speech. In disillusionment, the working-class protagonist of the novel, Patrick Doyle, abandons his job as a schoolteacher; in many ways he is tired of his current life, but above all he is tired of leading it according to the rules of the Establishment. As he parks his car on his way to visit his brother, something happens to the narrative voice:
‘He patted the car bonnet en route to the pavement where he proceeded to traverse the flagstones up the stairs and into the closemouth. Traversed the flagstones up the stairs and into the bloody closemouth. Is this fucking Mars! Traversed the fucking bastarn [sic] flagstones onto the planet fucking Vulcan for christ sake’ (2).
Patrick is depressed and angry, and becomes even angrier when he finds himself adopting the middle-class discourse, using expressions such as ‘en route to’ and ‘proceeded to traverse’. The comments that follow disrupt this artificiality or pretentiousness and introduce a working-class discourse into the narrative: in so doing, the movement is away from a world which to the narrator appears be on another (even non-existent) planet.
Kelman’s problems are not far removed from those of the forgotten working-class writer Lionel Britton, who fought for years to prevent any publisher from making any changes to what he had written. In the end, with Hunger and Love (1931), he succeeded in having a 700-page book published without the alteration of a single comma: perhaps unique for a first novel. But unlike Sillitoe, both Kelman and Britton write in a modernist style, and both are anarchists (although, like most anarchists, neither would agree with this generalisation).
Theo Tait finds James Kelman’s anger difficult to comprehend, as critics did Lionel Britton’s anger. Whose fault is this? In a review of Kelman's latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, Simon Kövesi – who has written a book on Kelman – remarks that 'Censorship of the tongue leads to a sense of a whole culture being suppressed' (3).
(1) Theo Tait, ‘In His Own Words’, Guardian Review, 12 April 2008, p. 11.
(2) James Kelman, A Disaffection (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989), p. 252.
(3) Simon Kövesi, 'Say Aye to Kelman's Best Yet', The Independent Arts & Books Review, 25 April 2008, p. 25; James Kelman, Kieron Smith, Boy (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008); Simon Kövesi, James Kelman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, c. 2007).