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Nal Brady
James Kelman, man.
Scotland and Language in Literary ART Form

“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand? Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned? The answer, my friend , is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Bob Dylan

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Oscar Wilde

How many successful novels; short stories; essays; must a man write before he is recognised as a bonafide artist of words and narrative? In literary terms what is the definition of art? How does language play a part in what is perceived as art? How does a booker prize winning novel cause controversy? And why is it a small word like fuck can provoke such reactions in people that you become labelled as illiterate? The answer my friends is blowin in the wind…

James Kelman, born June 1946. Into a place called Govan, situated on the outskirts of Glasgow. He was born and bred in working class surroundings. Lived a ‘normal’ life. At the age of 22 he began to write. Kelman decide that he would draw from his own encounters and past as a basis for his stories. “The stories I wanted to write would derive from my own background, my own socio-cultural experience. I wanted to write as one of my own people, I wanted to write and remain a member of my own community.” As all aspiring writers are taught, Kelman stuck to ‘writing what you know’ and it was with that thesis in mind he went on to write numerous anthologies of short stories and no less than seven novels- one of which honoured (dishonoured?) him with the title of Man Booker prize (1994) and granted him a whole heap of controversy to boot.

A few weeks ago I attended a reading of Kelman’s new book ‘Keiron Smith, boy‘. He appeared just as I imagined him to be; dressed down in jeans and a smart jacket. Articulate and witty with a strong Glaswegian accent, Abrupt and sharp spoken (mainly to a photographer who took too many photographs of him as he read) and passionate about his writing. He talked about his new book. Talked about his politics. (He is renowned for talking about his political views and opinions and probably just as famous for them as he is a writer {a}). He spoke a little about his approach to writing, Of His signature style whereby an inner monologue voice replaces that of a third person ‘God’ voice. Occasionally while speaking he would throw in a use of the f-word- triggering a few gasps from the audience in the process; Which incidentally was made up of educated middle- late aged men and women (I was the youngest in attendance). But that is Kelman’s style, to shock, to provoke, and as the man himself said: profanity is “A Scottish term of endearment”.
In 1994, James Kelman had the fortune to receive the Man Booker prize for his novel ‘How late it was, how late’. And the misfortune to create such a controversial reaction from both his critics and fellow Scots. His book told the story of ‘yer man Sammy’, a thief and a hooligan who after a night of heavy drinking and a violent encounter with a policeman wakes in a police cell only to discover he is blind. The story is told in a first person narrative, using only Sammy’s psyche to convey the plot and premise of the tale. It is written in Scots tongue, using the vernacular of a Glaswegian ‘ned’. The lack of, or absence even, of proper ‘English’ and the central character being of low morals and a social outcast is what led to Kelman being called ‘illiterate’ and unworthy of such a distinguished honour as the Booker. One of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, called the book "a disgrace", and said it was "crap, frankly". Simon Jenkins described him as "an illiterate savage" in the Times, saying that he had done no more than "transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk". Even some of the Glasgow Boroughs turned against him, claiming that Kelman was giving Glasgow a ‘bad name’. Kelman left the country feeling defeated and let down by Scotland. He felt as though he had become subject to a “Racist attack” from writing about a down-on-his-luck, anti-social, working-class Scotsman. An anti-hero; with a strong voice and a tale to tell, through his own stream of consciousness- not in an English ‘voice’ but in a Scottish one.

So how do we define art in literature? What makes a ‘masterpiece’ of fiction? Who has the right to say what is Art and what is lies? Who gets to decide?

In Scotland we have our own dictionary of Scots language and vocabulary. We use a dialect derived from old Norse English roots which became known as Scots. Standard English is spoken but with a different usage of grammar and vocabulary, and with an identifiably Scottish accent. Words such as aye (yes), weans (children), lassie (girl), and wee (small) are known throughout the world and more than that- they are recognised. We are not taught Scottish writing or speaking in our schools so there is no correct way in which to speak Scottish. Each region has their own dialect and use of words and Scots is also a generational and ‘family’ influence. Often suggestions are made that we are socially inept because we don’t speak using RP, but that is simply not true. We use words that are known to us, a part of us. In our blood, in our culture. We speak Scottish simply because we are Scottish.

The word profanity derives from the Latin for ‘in front of or outside the temple’, meaning that of something that does not belong in church. It is a global way of communication. In Steven Pinkers’ book ’The Stuff Of Thought’ he breaks the use of profanity down into five categories. 1) Dysphemistic swearing - The exact opposite of euphemism, It forces the listener to think about negative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. 2) Abusive swearing - for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others. 3) Idiomatic swearing - swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. 4) Emphatic swearing - to emphasise something with swearing. 5) Cathartic swearing - when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you're undergoing a negative emotion. Pinkers theory gives reasoning as to why such language is spoken and thereby gives motive for its use in every day speech. Swearing is such a wide-spread language that there are books written about it and several types and definitions. Kelman uses expletives to parallel the inner thoughts and objectives of his protagonists. If it is part of the characters every day speech then why shouldn’t it be used in literary terms? If the character is Scottish and he swears and the story is told from his point of view should it not then be integral and vital to use his own vocabulary to convey his thought and feelings? Is the ‘truth’ in a piece of writing not what transcends it into ‘art’? Shakespeare was revered as being an artist of words and truths. His scripts held the attention, not only of the masses but of the Queen. Of royalty. He is celebrated and considered as intelligent. His works are taught in educational establishments all around the world. But did you know that not only did Shakespeare write in his own dialects, but also his plays; Hamlet, Henry V and Twelfth Night all hinted the word cunt? Hamlet makes reference to "country matters" when he tries to lay his head in Ophelia’s lap; Malvolio has the salacious line "These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus she makes her great p's"; Even though the word cunt was known as a euphemism in the 16th century, by today’s standards it’s probably the worst. Yet Shakespeare is still an artist. And Kelman is still widely considered ‘illiterate’. I know it may seem somewhat ridiculous to draw comparisons between Shakespeare and James Kelman, but the truth is they are both, in each own way masters of their art. They are both writers, who write or (wrote) about the times in which they live (lived), they portray(ed) their own culture through the use of language and vocabulary. The majority of Shakespeare’s centre protagonists were rogues. Most of them had blood on their hands and murder on their minds; ruthless men and women, stopping at nothing to gain the power they desire. Yet it is still literary, and regarded as art with the highest of grandeur and applause.

Kelman’s characters however, are seen as social outcasts; men living at the edge of society, low on morals and social understanding. Men who are anti-authoritarian, work shy; don’t want to live by any set rules or standards. The truth is, people like ‘Sammy’ exist- even in a minority. The voice of ‘Sammy’ is strong and relevant to the character and the society that Kelman was attempting to portray.

In my opinion it is simply not true that Kelman or indeed any other person born of Scotland is ’illiterate’ because of our use of language. Kelman used his own voice as writer to narrate his story as his character ’Sammy’. The story of ’How late it was, how late’ is a work of fiction, a construction of Kelman’s imagination. It is not an aspersion on Scottish peoples’ characters. It is not a stereotypical view of Scots. It’s one man, one character. Written and created by one man’s imagination. It is just a story. As for those people inferring that the language used within his book is catachrestic or synonymous with lack of education, this is quite frankly an insult. The Scots who fear Kelman giving them bad press should be more afraid and concerned that there are people in this world who think that communication in Scots is a product of lack of education and knowledge, when in fact it is our natural heritage. James Kelman won the 1994 Man Booker prize and with it he became notorious through controversy. That controversy is the very ingredient that will keep his novel alive and fresh for years to come. It is why this book can be classed as Art and Kelman its artist. As art promotes reaction. Reaction a disturbance. And Disturbance- historical value.

Art comes from within, and it just so happens that within James Kelman lies a Scotsman. With a Scottish tongue and a foul mouth.

{a} Kelman is a well-known cultural & political activist. He was a prominent member of the worker’s city group and a campaigner notably in issues of social justice and traditional left wing causes. He is resolutely not a party man and remains at his heart , a libertarian Socialist Anarchist.


How Late It was, How late and Keiron smith, boy are available to buy from Polygon books now.

(All of James Kelman’s books are celebrating a new release featuring brand new cover art and for the first time, being supported by Polygon- a Scottish publishing house.)




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