Scottish Men and Scottish Women

Jenny Turner

  • The Burn by James Kelman
    Secker, 244 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 436 23286 3
  • Blood by Janice Galloway
    Secker, 179 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 436 20027 9

James Kelman was born in Glasgow in 1946. After spells in the US as a teenager, London as a young adult, he returned to Glasgow, where he now lives and works. Janice Galloway was born in Ayrshire in 1956. She worked in Ayrshire as a schoolteacher until recently, when she started making enough money from her writing to give up teaching and move to Glasgow. Kelman spotted Galloway’s first completed story, ‘It was’, in 1985, and encouraged her to submit it to Edinburgh Review, the quarterly magazine which publishes work-in-progress from Kelman and other Scottish writers. Galloway went on, as Kelman had before her, to publish her first big book, the 1990 novel The trick is to keep breathing, with Polygon, the small publisher of which Edinburgh Review is a part.

It is conventional, when discussing ‘the new Glasgow writing’, a movement taken to involve man of pairts Alasdair Gray and poet Tom Leonard as well as Kelman and Galloway, to open on a sort of pen-Polaroid of the city of Glasgow itself. But nothing could be more inappropriate to the spirit of the writing. Turn to the stories collected in The Burn and in Blood: a powerful sense of locality is everywhere, but virtually no place is given a ‘proper’, mappable name. A world-historical sense of living in Glasgow, qua Glasgow, media-friendly post-industrial wasteland and 1990 European City of Culture, is everywhere absent.

This isn’t accidental, and it isn’t a minor point, and it’s easily proven. In the whole of Kelman’s The Burn, the relationship of Scotland to England is alluded to only twice. In ‘events in yer life’, a man points out to his mate that it’s only Scots living in England who refer to such an entity as ‘Britain’; that the English themselves generally use ‘England’ to cover the whole jingbang. In ‘A Memory’, one of the funniest pieces in the book, a Scotsman just crossed the border cannot understand why the girl in the shop doesn’t know what square sausage is. And that’s it.

Both are valid yet incidental observations, as valid and incidental as loads of others on the book’s every page. The relationship with England is part of the way Scottish people place themselves, just as Brixtonites, without making a big deal of it unless provoked, place themselves south of ‘the river’ or Mancunians think of themselves as ‘the North’. Caught up or bogged down in duty and routine, one generally doesn’t turn out of, say, Gibson Street and into Woodlands Road to buy a pint of milk. The time, energy and self-importance needed to place oneself world-historically by resort to proper names is a time-wasting luxury activity. You just turn the corner and go down the road and, released from having to worry about your Place in the global sense, are free to notice more interesting things about your surroundings or thought-processes in the meantime.

If such a thing must really be defined, the special thing about contemporary West of Scotland writing has less to do with surface obviousnesses like ‘earthiness’, ‘grimness’ or ‘humour’ than with this scepticism towards easy, conventional ways of representing things in writing. This scepticism is epistemological, aesthetic and political all at once. ‘On Reclaiming the Local’, an essay published by Tom Leonard in Edinburgh Review, explains what is held to be at stake. ‘An address to a city ... anthropomorphises beyond the personal conflict on which urban trade is actually based,’ and ‘does so by leaving the streets clear of those whose opinions, if actually listened to, might spoil the image of a healthy and unified “body” politic ... the poet is a spectator at someone else’s experience, be that someone else a he, she, “they”, or the “I” of former [!] working-class days.’ The existential attitudes struck by Kelman and Galloway are designed, by diverse means, not so much to close this voyeuristic gap as to ensure it is never allowed to appear in the first place. So shall the voices of dissent – the voices which, as the work of both writers shows, have the power to tear even a single head apart – be allowed their space.

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