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Karl Miller

  • A Disaffection by James Kelman
    Secker, 344 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 436 23284 7
  • The Book of Sandy Stewart edited by Roger Leitch
    Scottish Academic Press, 168 pp, £15.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0560 8

Studying the West Coast of Scotland from the yacht Britannia, the Queen is said to have remarked, not long ago, that the people there didn’t seem to have much of a life. James Kelman’s stories make clear what life is like in Glasgow,[*] and what James Kelman’s life is like. They are not going to change the royal mind. This is the queen who was greeted, on a visit to a Scottish university, by the sight of a student emptying down his throat, at top speed, the contents of a bottle of alcohol.

One of Kelman’s stories, ‘Greyhound for Breakfast’, the last in the collection of that name which appeared in 1987, is, to my mind, a masterpiece. It’s about a fellow called Ronnie who dumps down the notes for a greyhound, and, to the derision of his friends in the pub, gives his heart to it. He takes it for walks – a ritual activity, time out of mind, of the country’s more optimistic male poor, the dog more expensively jacketed than the chap. ‘It stopped for a piss. Ronnie could have done with one himself but he would have got arrested.’ The discovery is made that its withers will never win the prizes Ronnie is hoping for, and the story ends with a long defeated, dark-thoughted walk, from which he is reluctant to return to his wife and children. The story is wonderfully funny and depressing; the stroller’s speech and soliloquy are perfectly gauged. Ronnie, I think, could be held to be a precursor of P for Patrick Doyle in the new novel, A Disaffection. Both works end on a possible return, on what might look like a bleak diminuendo but is really an anxiety state.

There are important differences, though. Kelman stands much closer to the new hero, and much more of the story happens in that hero’s head. The new book is funny and depressing at considerable length, and there are moments when a wee terror comes of its expanded universe. A Disaffection is a problematical book – partly because of this closeness, the avoidance of developed perspectives on Doyle from those who surround him, those with whom he has his tender and abrasive dealings, with whom he airs his invectives and bitter ironies, with whom he conducts his antagonisms and ingratiations. But for all that, I feel that the book is pretty terrific, both truly challenging and nearly always very diverting.

Doyle – ‘Patrick’ to his author – is of the bittersweet, fantastic-depressive Scots-Irish clan. He is a schoolteacher, 29 years old – the age of Christ at Calvary, whose name is often in his mouth, averse though he is to ‘deities’, and of Hamlet, whose words enter the novel. Doyle’s greyhound is a pair of electricians’ cardboard pipes, which he lights upon, paints and plays, producing a doleful sound that soothes him – it is like mumbling your mantra or telling your beads. He badly needs soothing. He has passed into crisis. He is lonely. His aged parents bore him (‘Are all parents boring?’). His brother Gavin frets him, and he has a longing for Gavin’s wife, together with a more urgent one for a teacher at the school, Alison Houston, who could be felt to lead him on a bit but doesn’t want to have a ‘relationship’ with him. With Doyle it’s ‘fucking’ this and ‘fucking’ that and the system this and the system that. He is against ‘Greatbritain’, with its aristocratic capitalists, its MI5 and its MI6. Society is a stench. Shite is everywhere. Crassness is everywhere. He is a schlemiel of the subject.

In such a setting his work as a teacher, to which he can often seem devoted, can only be betrayed. His work as a teacher doesn’t involve much in the way of teaching. Homework is a thing of the past. His classes are soliloquies and Socratic teases in which his interest in Classical Antiquity, in Pythagoras and Heraclitus, and in Hölderlin, Hegel and Marx, and in James Hogg, is imparted to the young ones. He is the sort of Sixties dominie who keeps saying ‘fuck’ in class and inveighing against the system. His relationship with the kids is one between equals, but they also seem to expect him to be a wise man, and this is what he sometimes expects of himself. The kids are presented as decent and thoughtful, and there’s an Arcadian absence of the stress and violence which some might look for in a class where the teacher free-associates and says ‘fuck’, and throws up and bunks off into the bargain. If the Queen’s telescope were ever to reach into Patrick’s classroom, there would be a surprise in store for her – but not for Patrick, who at least affects to believe the story that Orwellian minders are peering at the punters from the screens of the punters’ television sets.

Kelman makes Doyle charming, and it is impossible to read the book without gaining the sense of a fully-developed authorial fellow-feeling. Not that Doyle isn’t taxing and maddening too. His consciousness delivers paranoid images of aggression and hostility. He is against racism and sexism, but is capable of reflecting: ‘He was in love with Alison Houston. And he wanted to grab a hold of her.’ His crisis is precipitated by word of his transfer to another school; he staggers towards resigning from the school he’s at, and maybe from the profession, and then bunks off for a long afternoon’s superlager, homebrew and whisky with his brother, who is on the dole, and two of his brother’s mates. Eventually, stone-cold-sober-seeming but perhaps too drunk to drive, he treks off through the dubs of a drizzle (Thales said the world was made of water, the ‘primary element’, and he hadni even been to Glasgow) back to his bachelor’s tenement flat (Coelebs still in search of a wife). On the way, he is chased, or fancies he is chased, by Police who hate him. Kelman projects Doyle’s state of mind virtually without framing or critique. The Queen will certainly need a glossary, but even then she may well be uncertain as to just how much Kelman likes his unlikely lad.

This kind of thing has been said about Hamlet, to whom, as I say, Kelman alludes. At one point, ‘all he sought was death,’ and the next paragraph has him aching to be ‘out the road of trouble and strife and all things rotten and putrefied and shitey’. Later he reproves himself for an impulse to be rude to a ‘good auld guy’ encountered during his terminal search for a bus, and we think of the prating ‘good old man’ Polonius. And on the facing page, debating whether or not to go back to his brother’s place, he utters some more of Shakespeare’s words: ‘To return to Gavin’s or not. Whether it is nobler.’ Whether or not he is sober enough to go back and fetch his fucking car. Hamlet kills his good old guy, makes mistakes and causes havoc, in pursuit of the right course. So does Doyle.

A high point in the novel is an altercation and huff with Gavin and his mates about the long holidays teachers get, or don’t get, about the homework they withhold, and about the rights of weans – children – and the rights of parents.

   Patrick said: Do you know what I tell parents Arthur? I tell them to go and fuck themselves. Patrick held both hands up in a gesture of peace, he smiled for a moment; I’m no trying to get at you personally but I just fucking feel that you cant expect the teacher to be the everything, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

   Arthur stared at him.

   Know what I mean, I’m just being honest with ye. I dont think ye should expect the teacher to do everything. If you want your weans to get homework then give it to them your fucking self.

   Gavin said: That actually sounds quite right-wing ye know.

   Well it’s meant to be the fucking opposite and it is the fucking opposite.

   Gavin nodded.

Then:

   Gavin gazed at him, then laughed briefly. He looked at Pat but Pat looked away. Nor was Pat going to say anything further because he was fucking off home as soon as he swallowed what he had lying. There was no point sitting here yapping to a bunch of fucking prejudiced rightwing bastards. And Gavin turned on him once more: What d’you mean ye deny ye get long holidays?

   I deny I get long holidays, that’s what I mean.

   Back it up.

   What d’you mean back it up?

   Show me what you’re talking about?

   Naw. You show me what you’re talking about.

   I think I know what Paddy means, said Davie.

   Good, tell me, replied Gavin.

   I think I know what you mean Paddy.

   Pat nodded.

   Ye dont think ye get long holidays because when you’re off from the school you’re still doing other things connected with it, making up timetables and all that.

   Patrick nodded.

By the end of it you’re no all that sure whether teachers get long holidays or no (they do, though most of them have to work hard for it), and whether parents should go and fuck themselves. Soon after this we learn that Doyle believes he has sold his rights by serving the system as a teacher for ‘a large wheen of pennies’: ‘He was an article that was corrupt ... corruptio optimi pessima ...’ This, as he recognises, is a form of self-praise. Throughout, Patrick is both the ‘King of the World’ that he wants to be – Glasgow belongs to him – and an abject sinner.

The rage of the novel’s males would be enough to put the wind up Margaret Thatcher if it weren’t so often the rage of those who believe themselves permanently beaten and cheated. The women are the vessels of a better spirit; the injury to them is greater, and it is from their own men that some of that injury has been sustained. Patrick rages and scorns in proportion to his frustration: Hamlet’s ‘weakness’ has its counterpart here. ‘Patrick couldni find a pen. It is most odd indeed how objects disappear in rooms wherein the only moveable entity is oneself.’ (He slides into English here for a laugh.) Objects disappear, and for a man of 29 he seems to have grabbed hold of very little of anything except a glass and a book. Drink figures in the novel, in precisely rendered scenes, as a bastion of the culture which is also a slow death. And yet this man is very far from useless. What we are reading is the Book of Patrick Doyle. Whether or not it can be seen as Kelman’s self-portrait, it is the portrait of an artist.

The shortest stories in Greyhound for Breakfast owe a lot to Kafka’s briefer parables, though they are apt to be more difficult to understand; and there can be no doubt that Beckett’s solipsistic tramps have left an impression on the earlier writings. These influences, however, would appear to have receded, or to have been digested. The speech of Glasgow people is the big thing in the new novel. This is a good Scots which is at once distinctly literary and faithful to the speech of the city. The deferred ‘but’ as in ‘There again but’ is a particular pleasure. There are many such verbatim effects, and indeed the oral dimension of the novel is very important. This can be reckoned to contain the succession of anecdotes that occurs and the fine detail of working-class life that is provided. Doyle, for instance, is in the flat which he has inherited from his family, and he thinks to himself a Scottish thought: ‘Would his grandparents ever have had sexual activity in the parlour?’ Elsewhere, ‘he put a teaspoonful-and-a-half of coffee granules into his mug and exactly the same into hers.’ The measure expresses a mean between saving and lashing-out, and it has remained a feature of my own Scots-Irish domestic economy which I would bet is widespread in northern parts.

There is good Scots, too, in The Book of Sandy Stewart, which contrasts poignantly with the Book of Patrick Doyle. Stewart is a traveller, one of the people of the road – among them, tinkers, pipers and folk-singers – in whom an oral culture has survived to the present day. Here, too, there is an antiquity to be aware of. One of the photographs in the book shows a handsome, winsome pair of parents hauling through the byways of Aberdeenshire a cart on which sit three children, the oldest struggling with a pair of bagpipes. The book comes hung about with ethnological notes, with glossaries, with laudations from academic professionals: it is as if we have to be told. But the real telling, of course, is Stewart’s. The book is a succession of anecdotes carefully transcribed in fidelity to his broad Scots, and they are very interesting anecdotes. A story that would appeal to Kelman concerns some killer donkeys. One of these creatures once slew a butler whose toff gear had proved a red rag – quite a smack at the system.

This gentleman bocht the donkey fae MacGreigor – it wes afore my day though – an it wes two or three days in the field at the front door. This day the butler went oot tae gie it a piece an it tore him doon wae its feets an mooth. They say that it wes the different claes that done it – the way the butler dressed – an it hed looked at the claes an taen a bad wey o the claes. It hed run intae him an tore him at yinst. An they say the butler wes gaithert up intae a white sheet aff the field.

Kelman’s work forms part of a flowering of talent which has come about in the urban Scotland of the last few years. Their books and plays reveal a humanity which surmounts, as has been said, the hardship and brutality they describe – surmounts it, as a rule, by laughing at it. The Glasgow they evoke is a very hard and a very lively place. And yet Stewart’s small wandering world is the richer of the two. There isn’t in his reminiscences the psychological inwardness that Kelman can manage in his fiction; much depends on the turn of the tale. But the tales indicate that there was more for these people to do, and talk about, that there was more fun, than there is now in some parts of urban Scotland. It can almost appear that paranoia is something that happens someplace else. And yet they have had to defend themselves against an inveterate hostility and cruelty.

I remember these nomads myself, from a long while ago in Scotland. I remember dark, solemn and suspicious looks, as a travelling family was given tea in the back-garden of a house in the country. I peered at them round the end of the house. They could not be let into it, but there was a duty to entertain them, and, as I was told, not to stare. They were like spirits, and I loved them.

[*] An earlier Kelman novel, The Busconductor Hines, has been issued in paperback (Dent, 237 pp., £3.95, 1985, 0 460 02292 X).