It makes yer head go

David Craig

  • The Good Times by James Kelman
    Secker, 246 pp, £14.99, July 1998, ISBN 0 436 41215 2
  • Near Neighbours by Gordon Legge
    Cape, 218 pp, £9.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 224 05120 2

James Kelman’s style is so mesmerising that after a few hours’ immersion I find myself thinking in it – an experience which is both intriguing and infuriating, although the former prevails. The voice which chats and muses and reasons, and girns and deaves, and argues and contradicts itself throughout these stories, reaching us like the grumbling and bubbling of a burn flowing under grass or heather, is not a transcript of Glasgow speech, or not only that. It is an amazingly subtle vehicle for an intent brooding on the way we live, under the most usual circumstances, in situations and states of mind that are always mundane, complex and unsettling.

In ‘Joe laughed’ a boy who is adept at climbing the walls of buildings is suddenly fed up with football and card-games, fed up with his life so far, and perches precariously on a derelict factory roof, resolving to be independent and free from this on out: ‘I didnay care, that was how they called for me, well they could call for me all their life, that was how long they could call, that was from now on, cause I was finished with it; I wasnay sure what I was gony do, no from now on, I maybe no even do nothing, it would just depend.’

The touch here is perfect, the most delicate blend of tones and emotions. The boy is free, free as air, with life before him, with a drop below him, he is defiant and aimless and powerful and uncertain. He is as caught and as fancy-free as Vladimir and Estragon at the close of Godot (‘ “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move’), with the added poignancy of both the setting – the physical difficulty of the climb has been exquisitely evoked – and of that echoing clause, ‘they could call for me all their life.’ As this is repeated, with tiny variations, it creates a vista of all those other lives across the town, waiting for him, ignoring him, stretching away in many directions. Without any forcing the moment becomes significant.

Kelman’s openings are as good as his endings. They enter each situation at a point so unexpectedly chosen and are couched in phrasing so fresh that it is like wakening suddenly inside someone else’s head. ‘Oh my darling’ is about a married couple out shopping on a Saturday. He is more interested in his own thoughts than in her, she can’t believe he really wants to be there with her, he thinks that he does. In a charity shop she disappears ‘between a rack of dresses and skirts, in mingling with other women’ while he decides to ‘have a look at the books and records, I feel like browsing’. The nicely observed, quite workaday tale of marital unease starts like this:

And the sun was shining! Out from between the mighty clouds! Just for that one fraction, the sun it shone from a great height. It seemed clear that this height was great. It was not something ye should have taken for granted at the outset.

  And even then, so they say, about the sun ...

  Cause yet we continue. All of our lives. That is what we do, we continue. We really have to keep on being alert to this fact, because this is what it is, an actual fact.

  It makes yer head go.

  And so the thought gets forced off into the nothing, the big blank. Because at the same time there is the coldness, the chill, it is still there, it doesnay go away because ye demand it, ye might want to demand it. But come on!

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