Scottish Men and Scottish Women
- 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.
This view of writing has more affinity with early 20th-century Modernism – with North American imagism in particular – and with the international avant-garde, than it has with most contemporary British, and certainly mainstream Scottish, literature. The writing, the thinking behind it and the demands it places on the reader are intellectually and emotionally intense. This intensity explains why both Kelman and Galloway take the short-fiction form more seriously than do most of their contemporaries, and probably against the advice of their accountants. There’s a depressing, self-defeating assumption abroad these days that writing short stories is a low-profile ancillary to the real business of generating Big Novels. Hacks do it, amateurs do it, and Big Novelists do it a couple of times a year to make a quick buck. Yet Chekhov did it, and Sherwood Anderson, and Kafka and Kleist and Henry James; all of them did other things as well, but it was their short stories that fleshed out a well-rounded body of work. Out of the nine books Kelman has published since 1983, four have been collections of short fiction (and one, the recently published Hardie and Baird, a collection of plays). His novels of course are great, but it’s in the shorter form that he’s most free, most at home.
Reading the stories in The Burn is like studying philosophy, or like looking at paintings, or like listening to music: like anything rather than reading in the what-happens-next, drink-in-the-description, spot-the-epi-phany way one conventionally reads short stories in English. To use a whimsical metaphor that Kelman wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, you feel you can almost touch images and feelings as they emerge on the page; the writing, the way it organises itself through line and rhythm, is all. By keeping, give or take some interesting experimental studies, rigorously to the discipline that sentences and paragraphs impose, words associate, combine and bounce against each other in fresh new ways. Kelman may or may not be a scholar of Latin rhetoric, but he’s well up on all its tricks. Just look at this sentence: ‘Fucking bogging mud man a swamp, an actual swamp, it was fucking a joke’ (from ‘The Burn’). In standard literary English it’s a nonsense. Heard in a Glasgow voice, it carries meaning and feeling perfectly. And as an instance of how Kelman’s colloquial-intellectual idiolect works itself out, it is astonishingly beautiful and exciting.
Kelman’s way with language in general is gobsmacking. It’s generally the use of profanity and of Glasgow dialect that strikes Scots readers first: written as spoken, yet heightened and reflected back, enriching and enlivening the culture they came from. But the investigations – and the experiments in The Burn are so various and controlled, ‘investigations’ is the best word for them – go much further. Some pieces, the appalling ‘Naval History’, for example, in which ‘Jim’ is accosted by a couple of Glasgow ghouls intent on finding out if he’s ‘no still writing his wee stories with a working-class theme’, are carried along by dint only of their own inexorable momentum. Others, like ‘Margaret’s gone away’, say so little about what really seems to be troubling the narrator that they become disturbingly diffuse.
In closing the gap between experience and idea, narrator and event, Kelman has left himself a narrative space that is almost unbearably tight. But he uses this space with the sort of resource that can fit a whole family onto a single sofabed, framing worry inside worry, memory in memory, with a deeply personal but scrupulously disciplined sense of logic. In the astonishing ‘A Situation’, words and ideas are orchestrated almost symphonically. A toty wee insect with a toty wee brain all snug in a toty wee cavity gives way to the thought of A4 folders and trade brochures, that life is but a series of them. The narrator has just slept with his girlfriend’s sister; ‘a fresh old lady who had never had a bad thought in her life’ appears from down the stair. An old man is intent on confessing something terrible; there’s ‘a fuisty smell of shit which suggests this old bloke needs his bum wiped’. It transpires that at some point in the past a spanner has been tossed. The rendition of such facts is deadpanly realistic. Yet the way they emerge, one from the other, has a strange and awful significance that recalls the structuring of Freud’s case-histories.
In thematic matter, The Burn advances on earlier Kelman in that he is able now to write about women, not as things to want or fear or worry about, but as entities in and of themselves. Where women are incidental to the main drive of a story, Kelman is still capable of sharp, affectionate observations of the sort that feministically correct attitudes all too often suppress: ‘But they obviously didnt know this lassie who was a warrior, a fucking warrior. She quite liked wearing short miniskirts but only to suit herself. If she wanted to wear them she would wear them, but it was only for her own pleasure, she would please herself’ (from ‘Pictures’). ‘Her figure was something to behold, it drove ye fucking potty with that shirt blouse thing tied at the ends and her waist so slender and then the beautiful hips and the tight creases under her bum and at the front too like it would cause her extreme discomfort vagina-wise ...’ (from ‘it’s the ins and outs’). And hand in hand with this ability to deal with women comes the ability to write sensitively about the male insecurities women engender. Talking about the first time he managed to get off with a woman, ‘that lovely wee feeling when ye press up and ye actually get in for the first time, all snug’, Fin in ‘events in yer life’ remembers hallucinating that she turned into an ugly old crone. ‘I used to think there was something up with any female that liked me, I mean if she didni get bored with my company, there had to be something up with her.’
And if women wonder – and we all do, don’t we? – what men really want out of life and our sweet selves, they could do worse than read ‘Lassies are trained that way’, a painfully honest study of a man in a bar who wants to talk, freely and decently, to the young woman standing next to him.
He gave her a smile but she ignored it. He didnt want to feel hurt because it would have been stupid. Not only stupid but ridiculous. She hadnt ignored him at all. She had just no seen him. But she was no seeing anybody. Which is what lassies do in pubs. It’s part of how they have to act. He had a daughter himself.
her eyes were smallish, brown, nice. He liked her looks. Okay. What is there to that? There can be strong feelings between the sexes. Fine.
Hm. Nothing in the world is more impossible than for a man to talk, freely and decently, to a strange woman in a pub. Lassies are just trained that way. And so, to the greater tragedy of us all, are guys. Aye, first it’s the economics, and then it’s the economics again.
Kelman has never been a hard man. Even his earliest stories virtually never fall into empty macho posturing: the relationship between Hines and his wife in Kelman’s first published novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984), is one of the most sensitive depictions of marital relations ever attempted. Rather, his work is all, in as direct and unaffected a way as he can manage, about what it is like to be male. I can think of no other writer – with the sole exception of compatriot and close associate Alasdair Gray – brave enough to try this.
Collectively, the stories in Janice Galloway’s second book Blood add up to a sort of phenomenology of contemporary femininity, informed throughout by mystery and fear. As an adult looking back on childhood, her voice is desperate to collect and order things precisely as they were, to hold onto self by holding onto her past. As a modern woman out walking the streets, her voice is a bit like that of a child pressing her nose up against the window of a stonking-posh restaurant:
And men? I have to be careful here. I belonged to the world of women and children on two counts, so I never had access to their private thoughts voiced in private places: the bookie’s, the barber’s, the pub. Maybe they said things in there I can have no conception of.
Alone and contemplating the mirror, she is taken up with the sense of self spilling out and breaking through: as hair, as clumsiness, as sex, as the (for Galloway) oppressive, unbearable sense of getting old.
A schoolteacher when she started writing, Galloway brings with her the ace communicator’s knack for rendering information exciting by breaking it down into well-organised parts. ‘A Week with Uncle Felix’, a close, subtle examination of the stresses to which an adolescent girl is subjected by the adult expectations and desires hemming her in, is rendered as a standard-English short story, cutting from illuminating scene to scene; but elsewhere forms are more fluid. If the expression of violent feeling is aided by breaking into fantasy, Galloway breaks into fantasy. Where what interests her are the constituent elements of social situations, an old lady and a social worker, father initiating son, a young man at work and play, she foregrounds her voyeurism by turning the experience into a play, complete with stage directions and props tips. A character is caught deep in thought? Signify it with a ‘thinks balloon’. Anything striking to get the point across.
Where Kelman is a ripplingly tight-knit classicist, Galloway is more of a romantic writer, generating tension and release by sometimes adhering to, sometimes flouting, her expected forms. She has a marvellously strong ear for the warring rhythms of language, thought and feeling, which she orchestrates into syntheses and epiphanies via a bold use of mimetic form:
She was WHERE
outside the supermarket. Here with her back to the fountain
in the precinct and she was WHAT WAS IT
waiting for Charles. She was meeting with Charles here at the
fountain: Friday ritual of shopping at the end of the week
then take the bags home in Charles’s car. That was it. She
was meeting Charles. WHEN
In the imaginations of its citizens at least, Scotland is a small, self-contained polity of a place. Public culture is centred on the twin metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh and on the forty-minute train journey between them. Concentrated in so small a space, affiliations and emotions run hot and high. The devotion and gratitude Scottish readers feel for the writers who have emerged from their bosoms over the last decade – Kelman, Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, and now Janice Galloway too – may be hard for non-Scottish, non-working-class readers to understand, but it is immense. The gratitude comes, first and foremost, for the way their writing affirms a culture of words, living-situations, and emotions and family ties which mainstream English literature has hitherto ignored, even despised. This affirmative theme Galloway’s work almost parodies in the funny, stupendously accurate mise-en-scènes of her story-plays: ‘The fireplace ... has a wide surround of sand-coloured tiles and a prominent mantelpiece on which are displayed a china figurine, a small stag head in brass, a football trophy and a very ornate, heavy wrought-iron clock. On the lower part of the surround are a poker and a tongs with thistle tops and a matchbox. Right at the edge, a folded copy of the Sunday Post with the Broons visible on top.’
But the very close-knitness of the Scottish literary community means that younger writers have a terrible burden to bear. If such creatures as Harold Bloom’s ‘strong’ writers, writers of such originality and confidence that they instil Oedipal ‘anxieties of influence’ among their successors, ever exist, Kelman has succeeded Hugh MacDiarmid as Scotland’s ‘strong’ writer of the century.
Affirmation of the culture is one thing – and inasmuch as it invests writers with confidence and pride, a very good thing. But to move beyond mere affirmation and into artistic synthesis involves recognising the uncompromising literariness of what Kelman is up to. Without such craft, writing which merely affirms flops, a dusty museum of speech, notions, dirty realism, with no internal dynamic of its own. The latest edition of Edinburgh Review, wittily entitled ‘SCOTPAC – NEW WRITING FROM SCOTTISH MEN’, encapsulates the problem, and some interesting solutions-in-progress. All the fiction in it is good, but Stephen McKee’s ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, a totally relaxed and unselfconscious excursus into adolescent male fantasy, is brilliant. And on the evidence of SCOTPAC, the most exciting new things in Scotland are coming from poets. Its Jim Ferguson has a mean, hard voice of great rigour and beauty.
A recent Edinburgh Review also contains a long essay by Kelman, on Noam Chomsky and the sceptical-democratic tradition in Scottish philosophy. Its intellectual eclecticism and passion for ideas in all shapes and forms should tip everybody off that there’s more to realism than getting the dialect right. I understand that Edinburgh Review is now working on a Women’s Issue; word on the ground is that younger women prose-writers now take Janice Galloway as their model. Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’ is an extremely male way of thinking literature; Scotland, for all that it is changing, has still a massively macho culture. It should be interesting to see what Edinburgh Review comes up with.