The Paranoid Sublime

Andrew O’Hagan

  • How late it was, how late by James Kelman
    Secker, 374 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 436 23292 8

It was getting dark one sulphurous evening in Glasgow in the winter of 1990, when a pop-eyed cultural apparatchik – almost breathlessly ripe from a Chinese paper-lantern parade she’d just led through the naked streets of Carntyne – sat down beside me in a bar to the side of the City Chambers, to gab about the glories and horrors of Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture for that year. The city’s better writers, it seemed, would have nothing to do with it. The £50 million jamboree, led by the municipal council, set its sights on ridding the city once and for ever of its razor-slashing, wife-battering, whisky-guzzling image; all to be blown away during a year-long bonanza; of painting and singing and exotic tumbling; with street-sweeping Bolivian choristers at the crack of dawn; with face-painting schools and afternoons of community theatre on Glasgow Green; and an evening of carry-on in the company of Pavarotti at 75 quid a throw. My bar companion flushed as she coasted through the vodkas, saying how pointless and infuriating it was that the better writers – whom we may as well call James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard among others – wouldn’t join in on the song. ‘It’s their loss,’ she said. ‘I mean, what do they want?’

A fairly good idea of what they wanted could be gleaned at that time from a visit to the Scotia Bar in Stockwell Street, where the dissidents met now and then to read their work and shout down the official festival. The group adopted the name Workers’ City – which spelled out their opposition to that recently developed area around Blackfriars and Ingram Street known as Merchant City – and set about picketing some events and speaking and writing against them, convinced that most were a costly irrelevance and an insult to the real cultural and economic concerns of the majority of people living in the city. The producers of ‘Glasgow’s Glasgow’, a hi-tech exhibition intended to celebrate Glasgow’s social history, erected video displays in neon-lit cabinets, voice-responsive computers and the like, and installed them in a warren of renovated arches under a railway bridge by Central Station.

Workers’ City reserved particular scorn for this place (which proved in the end to be a financial fiasco) and saw it only as an attempt by the Labour-run council to paint out Glasgow’s less glossy history, the history, and actual situation, of most of its population. For their part, the festival organisers – like my tottering friend on the bar stool – came to believe the inhabitants of Workers’ City were just unruly bores, spoil-sports and pains-in-the-arse; James Kelman later noted how he and his pals were described as ‘misfits, dilettanti, well-heeled authors and critics; professional whingers, crypto-communists, self-proclaimed anarchists’ and so on.

This animus is never unusual in Glasgow. In fact it’s rather typical there – many of the worlds within Glasgow have spun, and continue to spin, on popular resentments to do with what kind of team you prefer or school you went to or street you live in or jumper you wear. And James Kelman, in his fiction, has concentrated on lives fully burdened with as many constantly disabling dislikes. But Glaswegian animus is not his subject; he would appear to have bigger fritters to fry.

Kelman’s sense – his public position, if you like – is that his people, the particular underclass he writes about and has been part of, is a class of people whose internal differences melt away under the one Great Anglo-American Conglomerate of Establishment-and-Institutionally-Vested-Interests on Behalf of Imperialism, Racism and Associated Bad-Eggery. The message has been constantly, and often magically, clear: what the ex-working classes do to each other is one thing and bad enough – but nothing could ever match for badness what the big ‘They’ do to all of us together. Kafka’s notion of the omnipotent state which could dispense with the nameless as a matter of whim, seems almost cosily camp next to Kelman’s brutal Conspiracy of Universal Authorities bent on oppressing the Glasgow poor.

Sammy, the semi-wino whose person and consciousness lie at the centre of Kelman’s new novel, wakes up in a police cell with a pounding head, a bruised one that carries no memory of how he got there and what the hell happened to his shoes. And he’s stone blind. He sort of remembers a slippery scene, some altercation, out in the street, where he belted a copper (‘a beautiful left cross man he fucking onered him one’); the coppers got a hold of him, and they most probably cuffed him and beat him, though he’s not so sure of that. He knows he’s lost a complete day, all day Saturday, since he went out on the razzle on Friday and was jailed Friday night. Once released, he starts groping his way down the road, slapping the walls with his palms to get some sense of where things are, though he has no clear idea of how to get home. He can hear, he thinks he can hear, people gibbering as they walk past:

Mutter mutter. Somebody next to him. People going by. Fuck the people going by.

Dear o dear he was stranded he was just bloody stranded. Bastards. Fucking bastards. Fucking joke. Fucking bastards. Sodjer fucking bastards. Sammy knew the fucking score. He knew the fucking score. He gulped; his mouth was dry, he coughed; catarrh; he bent his head and let it spill out his mouth to the pavement. He was still leaning against the window, now he pushed himself away. A groaning sound from the glass. He stepped sideways. He needed a fucking smoke, he needed a seat, a rest. This was crazy man it was fucking diabolical.

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[*] AK Press, 91pp., £4.50, 1992, 1 873171 80 5.