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.

Once back in his flat, Sammy gets to grips with his new condition quicker than you might expect. (But then his demands are few: he maps out in his head the journeys he will have to make: ‘the minimarket, the betting shop, the chemist. All the necessities. The local boozer stood by itself round the corner from there.’) His girlfriend Helen is nowhere to be seen, and there’s no sign of her even at the novel’s end. He plays country tapes when feeling sorry for himself, makes a blind stick by cutting the head off a mop; still talking to himself in the old familiar way, he gasps for a fag, thinks of bumming one off his neighbour, hears music coming through the ceiling.

This stuff is close to perfect: Kelman identifies with characters like Sammy, he always has done, and he can slip first-person perceptions and psychological tics into a third-person narrative in an astonishing way. For someone who’s made such a palaver about ways of talking, about speech I mean, he’s actually not so very good at dialogue (not when you think of Peter McDougall or Roddy Doyle). It’s the way people talk to themselves that he gets so brilliantly, so matchlessly. While the peripheral characters in his stories often exchange words in a pretty featureless manner, his central characters have always had a wonderful way with words, with parts of words and myriad inflections of the same word, as they form themselves inside their own heads.

The best bits of How late it was, how late contain a kind of mental vaudeville that brings Kelman’s way with interior monologue to a point of precision beyond any he has reached before. Those who see what he does as a continuation of a European and existentialist tradition of fiction-writing will find the evidence for it here, among the talking mirrors embedded in those parts of the narrative most closely to do with Sammy’s mind:

He lay there all warm and comfy, the world gone, all the trials and tribulations, out the fucking window, just him existing in the middle of a massive big ocean, a wee toty island, just lying there, a whale drifting by, the mind getting set off by the music, it was some kind of christian thing for christ sake that was the fucking problem with country man it was like the sally army ye had to put up with god for a fucking half hour, ye heard good fiddles and banjos and it turned out to be a jesus-love-me effort

never mind, never mind; ye let it go and ye stop fucking

ye stop

Aaahhh – the only problem being how ye’re so vulnerable, just so relaxed, the ideal time for some cunt to reach ye – how easy it was, the ideal time, the ideal place, and he didnay have one weapon to hand; not one.

The narrator in Kelman’s story ‘By the Burn’, a man on his way to an interview who stops on the bank of a stream and just stands staring, overcome by a cold tremor which brings to him the memory of his daughter, who died in a sandpit over by the other bank, is not unlike Sammy. Nor is Tammas, the signing-on gambler and lover and leaver in Kelman’s second novel, A Chancer, or Patrick Doyle, the floundering schoolteacher in A Disaffection, who blows into a pair of industrial pipes he finds at the back of a club, captivated and comforted by their moaning. Like all these others, Sammy is the kind of man Kelman can commune with unreservedly – a very particular kind of Scottish man, of Kelman’s age (48) or somewhere near it, who might steep his feet, then cut his toenails onto newspaper laid out on the living-room carpet; someone who will place a bet; who’ll drink halves of whisky mixed with water, sometimes pints; one who’ll be proud, who’ll be on the dole or else hate the work they do; who’ll loathe the police; who’ll roll their own; who’ll be good with money when they’ve got it, like Charles Donald in ‘An Old Pub near the Angel’, who gets some unexpected back-money from the broo and goes off smiling and waving to everyone, and buying them drink. It is the kind of man many of us grew up beside: one who’s cantankerously knowing about what he knows, who’s scornful of what he doesn’t, and who never tires of telling people – especially people who also happen to be the wife – about the nature of other people’s stupidity. Helen, who’d been giving Sammy the silent treatment before getting off her mark and leaving him, was, you might imagine, the kind of woman who has lived exclusively in step with her man’s moods, habits and prejudices, one of those women whose lives are constituted by the paranoid behaviour of their men.

The Kelman man is a regular type, a person from Glasgow life, who comes to embody his author’s political concerns. Both the type and the concerns are specific: they don’t stand, as they’re often called upon to do, for any contemporary group or new universality. Kelman has long been imagined, and has sometimes imagined himself, to represent and give voice to a whole class of the poor, located in Glasgow, who’d never effectively made it into fiction before. As far as such a thing suggests the kind of man I’ve been talking about, that is certainly true: Kelman has found a way into those heads in sometimes frighteningly original ways.

But Kelman-man is a working man from the days when the working classes could find work. Though his characters might also be out of work, and often hate what they do, the ‘out of work’ culture is clearly something quite different from what people leaving school now in Glasgow’s housing schemes could recognise. Kelman brings to his writing priorities from another time, a time when working-class people worried about trade unions and over time, demarcation and the futility of the work that they did. He mostly writes about a quite particular man of his own generation, someone who grows detached, gets disaffected, who might drink in the old way (who might even drink the old thing, like the infamous ‘vino collapso’ Lanny). He’s a person who remembers the not-so-far-off days when hating your job and fucking off to Australia were the two biggest preoccupations you had.

Since 1980 (four years before the publication of Kelman’s first novel, one year into Thatcher), drug-taking in housing schemes around Possilpark and Drumchapel – the very places you might find in Kelman’s writing – has gone up by 700 per cent. Drugs are there to be seen, or got, in the playgrounds of some Glasgow schools. The growth of Aids in those places, the run of repossessions, the gangsterism, are all things that don’t exist in the Glasgow of Kelman’s underclass. The Glasgow housing schemes, and those which spread out around Glasgow, are not really the places of his writing, though they’re generally thought to be. The experience of people who never expect to work again, of people, indeed, who leave school never having known what it’s like to expect a job – these are people for whom Kelman’s workerist lament might seem idealistic and alien even in the modes of its regret. Of course, no writer’s to be blamed for their failure to write of things that don’t concern or interest them. But Kelman in his paranoid essays, and his champions in their delirious reviews, too often deal in generalities when they speak of the denizens of working-class Glasgow: there is something spuriously lumpen about the groupings Kelman refers to, and something inattentive in his reckoning of their needs as far as he chooses to address them. It’s not that he misrepresents the new non-workers or renders them in clichés as some writers do, it’s simply that he doesn’t see them in his fiction, though he chooses to speak on their behalf in his essays.

Some of the polemical dullness, at its most paranoid and ill-written in Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political,[*] unfortunately finds room in the novels. An indiscriminate loathing and distrust of officialdom, of inspectors and doctors, in The Bus Conductor Hines is very funny and very much part of the way the character Hines speaks in general, the way he describes himself and the world, especially when speaking to his son. But the DSS spooks, headmasters, pen-pushers and anyone-in-a-tie in his most recent fiction have been less and less funny, mere stooges, illustrations of an authorly idea. In How late it was, how late, Sammy – who comes loaded with nuance as one of Kelman’s multi-dimensional traditional men – encounters a number of bureaucrats, all of whom are inordinately and absurdly irritating and unhelpful. He feels he’s under surveillance since his mysterious doing-over by the police, someone might be keeping tabs on him, he may be bugged, the DSS bureaucrats note down everything he says – as does his doctor, a cardboard cut-out of a character whom Kelman figures as a kind of baby-eating monster from the CIA.

Sammy might have a claim for damages if he can prove he lost his sight in the police cells. He’s pursued by a weirdo even more paranoid (again, with slightly less life) than himself, a guy with some typically vague way of obtaining private information, who aims to represent Sammy’s claim against the dark knights of the state. The difference between Kafka’s view of the state, or William Burroughs’ or even George Orwell’s, and that of James Kelman, is that Kelman believes his fiction offers a more or less literal depiction of how the state operates – it’s not a surreal thing or a symbolic thing or a thing in the mind, for him it’s an actuality. All the conspiratorial business in the new novel (the cover reproduces the sign you see on motorways to indicate that police cameras are in operation) takes us away time and again from Sammy’s inner life and the way it alters and inflects the worlds around him.

Kelman wants to characterise the political antagonisms, the unknown powers, which oppress Sammy, but he can’t come near to doing it convincingly, since Sammy’s mysterious opponents are not people, not in the way he is; they are not from Glasgow or from anywhere else. They are deadening, posh-sounding caricatures, emanations from some malignant conglomeration of oppressive authorities. There is no energy or detail in the way they’re represented – an absence the more remarkable in a novel where these things are so splendidly in evidence elsewhere. Kelman would appear to believe that his enemies, who are naturally the enemies of his central characters, are too inhumane to be rendered as regular humans committing inhumane acts.

James Kelman’s most effective political act was, and is, his singular adaptation of the prose sentence to meet the demands of place and speech and, to a limited extent, economic reality on the west coast of Scotland. That’s what he does best. At his worst, he indulges a series of paranoid fantasies – vague generalities which draw credibility from cases of negligence, fraud, mis-diagnosis, censorship and the like, all of which have firm bases in reality, but no relation to each other. He brings together any number of these institutional horror stories and fuck-ups, and banalises them to death. All this is done, we’re to trust, on behalf of one or other of his favoured groupings, and done without much clear understanding of the evil institutions’specific natures or procedures or functions. You might be hard pushed to find anyone these days who didn’t think the DSS and Scotland Yard and the BBC and the Times and the Department of Health, to name a few, are sometimes corrupt and irresponsible, but that’s not the same as imagining them all to be in cahoots with each other, keen to oppress and flagellate and disenfranchise. This conspiracy guff – much like the habit of lumping a city’s poor under one heading to be uniformly spoken for – comes about through a lazy Philistinism and an illusion of subversion where the detail doesn’t matter because it’s all for the liberation of something good in the end. These broadsides, which Kelman drags out of his polemical essays and into his novels, contribute to a diminution of the complex lives actually being glanced off. This is from an essay titled ‘English Literature and the Small Coterie’, where Kelman writes of the failings of Salman Rushdie, in a way which might cause us to pause on his own technique:

In a literary context one of the limited ways of using the stereotype technique creatively is to turn a prejudice on its head: the ‘stereotyped’ character is then revealed as an ordinary human being, with the specific qualities thereby demanded. Here the author of The Satanic Verses seems to me to fail too often for comfort and a case for ‘insult’ if not ‘outrage’ might conceivably be made by Afro-Caribbean black people, white working class people, people who have never received the benefits of higher education, people who ‘do not speak properly’ and people who look ‘rat-faced’ or ‘piggy’. The work therefore contains a number of the stock characters and situations any politicised student of the English literary canon is well used to, and it places the novel in this mainstream. At schools and colleges and universities, in general, our students are taught not to question that such is the stuff of art. And if we genuinely demand free expression in our society then such stuff very often will be ‘art’. It is within these terms that The Satanic Verses can he described as a good novel; perhaps ultimately, some would say, even a great one.

  ... Apart from those who have described the novel as ‘excellent’, ‘major’, ‘terrific’, ‘important’, ‘boring’, ‘bad’, ‘unreadable’ etc, very little was heard from the literary establishment apart from spurious stuff to do with need to protect ‘freedom of speech and expression’. This unwillingness or inability to examine the work in public is nothing short of pathetic. Yet it is quite understandable and not at all surprising. By implication such an undertaking would have been to examine not only the very ordinary human prejudice of the critics themselves, it would have been to expose the endemic racism, class bias and general élitism at the English end of the Anglo-American literary tradition.

At least when Hugh MacDiarmid published his late, late laments he could see the funny side, and had the good taste to call them things like ‘England is our Enemy’.

The most interesting ‘small coterie’, incidentally, currently boiling its mighty stock in the literary hell-fires of London and Glasgow and Edinburgh, is the one which serves to promote Scottish writing. The much-hated ‘literary establishment’ could doubtless learn a thing or two about how to look after its own from the small crew of Scottish of Scots-loving novelists, poets, critics, publishers, journalists, booksellers and the rest, who enjoy nothing more than to pipe for their pals, with a wee blurb here and a dedication there (and don’t be stuck if you need something drawn up for the cover, doll).

Kelman exists in close proximity to the people he sees himself writing about: he shares, as far as he can, in their struggles and speaks as they do. That’s the kind of writer he is. So Kelman, you might think, is one who would recognise the folly in trying to shadow his people’s sorry relationship with their non-elected government, in trying to shadow it, as he does, by claiming himself to be marginalised and excluded by a Literary and Cultural Government he neither knows nor sees, except when its derided representatives stand up to offer him prizes or praise. A writer who is compared, by all manner of people, to Beckett and Dostoevsky and Zola, who is nominated for literary prizes and published by main stream publishers; who is on reading lists in universities all over the place; who’d be welcomed on many a cultural platform and be published by any good paper – such a writer, you might think, pays little respect to the reality of marginalised lives, to say nothing of censored artists, by so easily claiming for himself the status of underdog and enemy.

I recently took part in a television production devoted to Kelman’s work. I arrived at the Glasgow production office when the film was more or less ready. There was a young woman there who was red-eyed and depleted from weeks of work on the programme; she’d clearly knocked her pan in trying to get it into some sort of decent shape, under the usual pressures. As I looked at her scurrying and typing and phoning and thinking, a guy told me of how they’d been fighting the executive, who’d only allow 17 ‘fucks’ to be aired in the show. The tired woman and her colleagues had clearly fought for every one of them.

Then he told me of Mr Kelman, who gave the impression he was annoyed by the number of non-Scots working in the production office; so to save any trouble a Glaswegian boy was brought from downstairs, from another office, said my informer, just to sit and answer the phone in case He rang. Sometimes, when you ponder the power of the marginalised artist in this down-treading kingdom of ours, you have to laugh.

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