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!

No sooner is the style exalted than it deflates itself with a rueful, shrugging, yet not offhand remark. So the philosophising is anchored, the large idea caught as a movement in the head of an ordinary person as he lives. There is a quirk of humour in it: ‘it makes yer head go’ – it’s all a bit much, this deep thinking. ‘But come on!’ – you know it’s true ... Few styles known to me are so sure in their ranging from the heartfelt to the casual, from the momentaneous to the deep-seated and the longstanding. Many of Kelman’s resonances are from the disenchanted area of Modernist sensibility. ‘They give birth astride of a grave’ (Beckett); ‘I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only’ (Eliot); ‘Ye looked at that skyline and ye wanted the fuck out, wheres the mountains’ (Kelman). He can sound such notes in the midst of a domestic narrative about killing time in a bar, or browsing in a charity shop, or being awkwardly part of a threesome in a bedsit.

Kelman’s characters wouldn’t necessarily repudiate this fairly intellectual reading of their lives. Many of them are shown grappling with ideas. In ‘Gardens go on forever’ one of three workmen setting off in a Transit for the day’s stint takes a book from his pocket and opens it at random. He reads a sentence: ‘However, in typical finite experience the dimensions of temporality lack such wholeness and are usually in a state of imbalance.’ This is a characteristically pawky Kelman device: he’s subverting our assumption that manual workers don’t read theoretical texts. Of course the man’s mates take the piss. Jake, who ‘has an inquisitive mind’, asks him what the book’s about. After hearing a sample, he remarks, ‘You read this stuff a lot dont ye?’ and the narrator-character replies, ‘Well no all the time, sometimes I go to the cludgie. Having said that, I usually take it with me. But there’s nay law against reading books in cludgies,’ to which Jake ripostes: ‘There is if folk are waiting to get in.’

So the badinage crackles on until work takes over and the narrator sinks into his ‘world of daydreams’, which run from ‘annoyance at multi-millionaire dental surgeons and niggardly bosses through horrific excruciating nightmares, mounting excitement, the sensation of eureka, sexual arousement, fantasy deaths in the family, revolutionary practices towards laying the foundation to a genuine workers’ republic right here in good old bonny Scotland’. I was reminded of a friend, also a revolutionary socialist, a Sinhalese who worked nights in the Bournville factory in Birmingham and talked about the mental tricks the men used to get through eight hours under tubelights weighing boxes of chocolates and inserting milk-chocolate ‘envelopes’ in every box that was a touch below standard. Some swore continuously, others poured out waking dreams of smashing things. Another friend described how maddened printers in Preston would tear the belt of newsprint coming off the rollers just for the change, the relief, the retaliation. Another, from Illinois, described how the word would run down the auto assembly line that the overhead crane driver was about to ‘drop a car’, for the relief, the retaliation, the change ...

So Kelman taps into the mainstream of working life: never to render it inertly, by way of naturalism, always to dramatise a phase or moment where character declares itself in the teeth of the humdrum. ‘I was asking a question too’ is particularly fine in its evocation of a person trying to make sense of things by reading: ‘I stuck things up on the wall, things from the books I was reading, pithy little sayings and ... just statements; but sometimes they were hard going, a lot of them were.’ The blinks and fidgets of the man’s mind are caught in the finesse of the punctuation (of which Kelman is a master). His painful lack of the analytic language he craves is touched on by that stammer from ‘sayings’ to ‘statements’, the fumble from ‘sometimes’ to ‘a lot of them’. This strand in the story comes to its finest point in the central joke, if it is a joke: ‘I set all this into the notepad. Needless to say religion was not part of my thoughts although you might have thought so.’ The laughable contradiction between the first and last parts of the sentence encloses the solid assumption, the humanist or secular affirmation, that here is somebody who, as Engels put it in 1844, has ‘purely and simply finished with religion’ and is ‘striving to make himself at home in the world’.

In comparison with The Good Times, or even considered on its own, Gordon Legge’s Near Neighbours gave me the feeling of listening to a tone-deaf pianist plonking away, or of looking at pictures painted by numbers with the broadest brush. On the cover Duncan McLean makes a strenuous effort to enlist Legge in the brother and sisterhood of the Scottish New Wave (Warner, Galloway, Welsh) by crediting him with the subtlety of Chekhov. Subtlety is the last thing McLean should have claimed for him. Legge tells his anecdotes in a sort of blustering, buttonholing voice – a version of the many Legge (and Kelman) characters who spend hours blethering in bars. His characters repeat themselves, his characters repeat themselves ad nauseam, his characters repeat themselves until your brain feels pounded numb by a trillion typewriter keys. ‘Choosing’ is a story about some men who spend their nights trying to find out whether a friend of theirs is really the (transvestite) girlfriend of another friend of theirs:

Anyway, fuck it, it was time to do or it was time to die, it was time to go for it or it was time to go home, it was time to put up or it was time to shut up, it was time to broach my subject: the subject of Troy, Danny Lamb and the mysterious – nay, extraordinary – duplicating that went by the name of Danielle.

Notice that the narrative gist enveloped in these sawing, hammering repetitions and wall-to-wall clichés is just a spelling-out of what all readers know full well, as though Legge was trying to make his prose idiot-proof. And what is that bookish parenthesis doing in a style that strives to mimic the speech of people who left school at 16?

The close of ‘Choosing’ hobbles in the same way: ‘You’ve maybe seen us sometimes. To be honest, these days, Danny’s just about near enough my best mate. Funny, when you come to think about it, though, eh. Mean funny how sometimes you choose your mates.’ The lameness is no doubt deliberate. Legge wants to be ‘true to’ people with a fairly small vocabulary, whose speech is littered with bits and pieces of wording which keep the flow going while saying nothing very much – ‘know what I mean’, ‘though, eh’, ‘mind you’, ‘like I say’, ‘to be honest’, ‘right?’, ‘like, ken that’. His style approximates to an unedited transcript of recorded speech. It could provide linguistic evidence of a sort, making the point that BBC English and Received Standard Pronunciation are by no means the only language available to us. Such evidence and such a point offer only a sparse diet for the imagination if they come to us in the medium of stories that labour their messages and signal their punchlines and summarise crucial episodes in stories that should have been told on camera if we were to be offered more than plot.

‘Shafting Auntie Catherine’, which lasts for nearly forty pages, is a comedy about the efforts of some football-playing workers for the Port Authority to give Catherine Ferryman from the pay office ‘a good seeing to’. They’re galled that she is content to spend her Tuesday nights with an unimpressive character called Raisins. A bodybuilder called Melons is determined to get Catherine into bed, and failing that to commit GBH on Raisins during the final of the J.B. Fowlie & Sons Memorial Trophy. ‘Enter’, as Legge would say, the Chief Inspector of Police, who mysteriously manages to keep order during the match and gets Melons to behave like a lamb when all about him expect mayhem to break out. ‘Surprised?’ as Legge does actually say. ‘You bet they were.’

Nothing that matters in this story is seen close to, let alone inwardly. Raisin’s happy nights with Catherine, her feelings for him, the Chief Inspector’s crucial negotiations with the rampant Melons, whatever it is in Catherine that allows her suddenly to switch her favours to the policeman during the last roguish paragraph – all this is off-camera, archly summarised and imparted to us in the kind of prose which mistakes an out-of-date longwindedness for wit: ‘Not being one to court unwanted publicity, the brown-trousered refereeing Fire Officer said he would see what he could do’; ‘With all the subtlety of an outraged Exocet, Catherine stormed in’; ‘Adopting a gait that brought to mind none other than Maureen O’Hara striding it out in The Quiet Man, she proceeded to make her way round the course.’

Legge probably has a project – to substitute a fiction grounded in ordinary lives and the more popular media for the ‘sensitive’, the literary, the highbrow. Some of his titles are clues: ‘Life on a Scottish Council Estate Vol. 3, Chap. 1’, ‘Pop Life’ and so on. This, I am sure, is Kelman’s project as well – one of his stories is called ‘Comic Cuts’. (I used to buy the original Comic Cuts, in the late Thirties and early Forties. It was printed on green paper, if I remember, and featured strip cartoons of Laurel and Hardy, Flanagan and Allen, Arthur Askey, and Old Mother Riley the female impersonator.) I support this project, and I want it to be carried out skilfully, not clumsily. (‘Comic Cuts’ is an amazingly inventive account of a marathon drunken conversation, almost wholly in direct speech, in which the hilarious joking and bizarre flights of fancy stream past us like smoke-rings blown by a virtuoso.)

The project matters because it can refresh our literature by reopening it, as happens every so often over the centuries, to the styles and mindsets, the languages and experiences, of the not-privileged and the non-powerful. Donald Dewar, boss-designate of autonomous Scotland, has come down heavily against the Scottish New Wave, describing it as ‘workerist’ – strange that a member of the Labour Party should see this as a fault. He says the image of Scotland it offers is not one that he favours – like the resort town mayor in Jaws who objects to letting it be known that Great Whites are lurking near his beach because it could give the place a bad name, or the town councillors in An Enemy of the People who hate the man who insists on revealing that their water supply is polluted. Dewar should be welcoming the exposure by these writers of the conditions in which most crimes committed in Edinburgh are to pay for drugs, in which unemployment stands chronically at over a million and so many boys ‘seem like men with bad manners and violent ways’ and the girls seem ‘oh so bloody fucking vulnerable, vulnerable’, as Kelman says in his title story.

‘But they had come too quickly to adulthood,’ the story continues, ‘they had been forced to recognise their own limitations, they werent going to play for Rangers, they werent going to play for anybody; and they werent getting the good job, they werent getting this that or anything.’ A politician who resists such insights is attempting to silence those who will not whitewash the state of their country, who insist on the sufferings and struggles of the underdogs and who cannot conceal their belief that, as Kelman says, ‘the powers-that-be are fuckpigs.’