Biography

A writer of novels, short stories and plays, James Kelman was born in Glasgow in 1946. He left school at the age of fifteen to undertake a six-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Having also worked in Govan, driving buses, he began to write when he worked in the Barbican Centre, in London. 

In 1971 Kelman joined a creative writing evening class under the direction of Philip Hobsbaum. It was here that he met Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard, whose work would later appear alongside his own.

His collection of short stories, An Old Pub Near the Angel, was published in Maine, USA in 1973. His first novel, The Busconductor Hines was published in 1984. The depiction of working-class life in Scotland and the use of local vernacular became a characteristic feature of his work. Later work received much critical acclaim and he won the Cheltenham Prize (1987) for Greyhound for Breakfast and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Disaffection (1989), which was also short-listed for the Booker Prize. His fourth novel, How Late it was, How Late, the story of an unemployed Glaswegian builder and petty criminal who has been lifted by the police, won the Booker Prize in 1994. More accolades were received when his short story collection The Good Times (1999) won the Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year. He is the author of a television screenplay, The Return (1991), and has written many plays for radio and theatre. 

Kelman is vocal about the need for writers to be part of University staff. As a result he took up a position at the University of Texas teaching creative writing for three semesters (1998, 1999 and 2001). He later took up positions at the Goldsmiths College London and the University of Glasgow, where he taught creative writing.

He sees no worth in class hierarchies and reappraises notions of what it is to be Scottish or British through his existential protagonists. The ‘Eng Lit’ taught in schools and universities is viewed by Kelman as a means of control by England and the upper classes. His writing continually rejects ideas of a ‘Great Literary Tradition’ and instead concentrates on issues that are immediate and relevant, moving from issues of class speech to a general concern with political freedom of speech.

(Last updated in September 2004)

Works

The short stories that appear in Kelman’s first major collection, Not Not While the Giro (1983), are populated with existential outsiders and social misfits. Kelman lifts the stories from the mundane by the occasional and clever use of amusing or dramatic events. Most of the stories feature young men in whose lives the highlight is receiving their dole money or a new job (which is never very good). They are equally deflated when they have no money, landlord problems, or generally nothing to do. There are moments of drama in the collection as when a boy falls into a vat of acid only to be pushed under by his father with the reasoning that he was dead anyway. Nevertheless these moments are rare and it is to Kelman’s credit that he manages to make non-dramatic events appear just as significant and important. These events include the narrator of Not Not While the Giro sucking his thumb in the hopes of getting some traces of nicotine. His desperation is portrayed in such manner that it is both comic and tragic. The title of the collection indicates the dark humour behind Kelman. As long as the Giro cheques keep coming, life will continue and suicide can be delayed. What emerges from reading Kelman’s short stories is that they are all concerned with, and champion, the underclass.

Honestly, there’s nothing else apart from that. To obliterate the narrator, get rid of the artist, so all that’s left is the story.
James Kelman

Kelman challenges the idea of swearing as taboo language. His protagonists use speech considered ‘working class.’ The stories give this underclass the right to speak, as a counter to the prevailing middle-class voice which Kelman rebels against. They are true to life and there is the sense that these characters’ lives will continue after the story ends.

The values of the ‘Everyman’ main character in The Bus Conductor Hines, represent Kelman’s war against cultural imperialism and the false identities, values and heritage forced upon his predominantly working-class protagonists.

Robert Hines is an extension of the protagonists found in the short stories. While Hines represents the underclass, he is also an outsider to that class because of his higher level of intelligence and irony. He dislikes the economic situation of his family, living in their tenement in Maryhill. However, he could have gained Highers at school but chose not to. He chose a profession where his income would be limited. He is a man locked in a cycle.

The question, which is hinted at and never answered, is whether the protagonists are products of their environment and upbringing, or whether they are individually responsible for their faults and actions. Could Hines break out of the cycle if he wanted to? There is a dark hint that Hines may not be so much in a circle as in a downward spiral when he returns to the notion of getting a gun. It is not clear why. Is it for criminal purposes or suicide? He had the ability and the intelligence to do something else with his life but he chose not to.

A Disaffection portrays an alcoholic teacher adrift from society. Patrick Doyle is a 29-year-old teacher in an ordinary school. It is an often amusing presentation of a man whose lonely self-examinations reveal his frustration and the way in which he is increasingly bitter at the system he is employed to maintain. Patrick begins his rebellion, fuelled by drink and his passionate, unrequited love for a fellow teacher. He is unable to communicate with his friends or family and beneath the surface of the teacher who often shirks his responsibilities, he is a tragically disillusioned figure.

The Good Times is a collection of twenty short stories which could be seen as twenty fragments of people’s lives overheard. They are left without conclusion, leaving the reader waiting and wondering what will happen next. There is a sense of familiarity in the conversational tone of most of the stories and we are often privy to interior monologues.

There are lighthearted stories within this collection. ‘The Northwest Reaches’ features a doting husband who has so much fun with his wife that he decides to miss work. In Kelman’s work, few are happy for long without fate intervening and this story is to be savoured. 

How Late It Was, How Late is a depiction of Glaswegian life through the eyes of Sammy, an ex-convict, about forty years old. Sammy is blind after a weekend drinking heavily ended in violence. The police found him and knowing his history, subjected him to a brutal beating. Unsympathetic doctors, DSS officials and ‘friends’ who avoid him after his run in with the police refuse Sammy help. Sammy copes with his blindness, which leads to the reader’s admiration as he courageously battles on. He is still blind at the end of the novel, but there is anticipation as he escapes in the taxi, to travel to England, perhaps to a better life.

(Last updated in September 2004)