Not Not While the Giro
Born in Glasgow in 1946, James Kelman has written numerous novels, short stories and essays and might be seen as an especially important writer of the eighties and nineties, part of a renaissance in the arts in Scotland: in music (Deacon Blue, Simple Minds, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cocteau Twins) art (Adrian Wiszniewski, Steven Campbell Ken Currie, Peter Howson) and literature (Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, Agnes Owens, Tom Leonard). Few writers more than Kelman though astutely capture a post-industrial Scotland where work is scarce, anger pertinent and Margaret Thatcher omnipresent. Kelman may have said long after the Conservative, Thatcher era that "the Blair [Labour]" government is blatantly racist and more right-wing authoritarian than Thatcher's" (Barcelona Review). But Kelman's work isn't shadowed by Blair in the same way it was by the PM from 1979 to 1990, and by the Conservatives who were still in power until 1997. Yet even here Kelman is wary of individualising blame. The term Thatcherism was not useful, Kelman, believed: "The prime minister is simply a cog in a much larger machine. The world of capital is more sophisticated than the use of the term implies." (And the Judges Said...)
However, most of Kelman's key work was written during this 18-year period of Conservative rule, and Thatcherism became a term much bigger than its contemporaneous moment. Works including The Busconductor Hines, A Chancer, A Disaffection and the story collections, Not Not While the Giro, Greyhounds for Breakfast and The Burn were all published between 1979 and 1997, and for some the neo-liberal model the Tory leader proposed attached itself to her leadership more than to anybody else's. During these years Kelman's influence was important for several reasons. Cairns Craig commenting on these texts collectively reckoned that Kelman "has had an enormous influence on the nature of writing in Scotland in three crucial areas: the representation of working-class life, the treatment of 'voice' and the construction of narrative." (The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies) Kelman consistently explored during this period a post-industrial landscape, a world in the wake of the Opec oil crisis and the decline of Scotland's heavy industry. He was determined to represent the working class west coast often made unemployed by geo-political shifts and Thatcherite changes, but at the same time insisted on the interiority of characterisation that resisted obvious politicisation. Rather than narratives of an oppressed class, self-determined and finding emancipation, Kelman often showed the interior contradictions in character. This wouldn't rest on Kelman hiding his politics; more that literature is the exploration of literary problems even if they cannot be extricated from wider social demands.
"What is a cliche", Kelman says, " but a conventional way of looking, a conventional way of perceiving?" (Some Recent Attacks) Kelman's purpose is to explore working-class life from the inside, in all its complexity and its subtle class gradations, but the inside of lived experience is what matters. Whether it is The Busconductor Hines where the title character is stuck in a small one-bedroom apartment with his wife and child, while working on the buses, or the central character Pat in A Disaffection, who has an apartment to himself and a job as a schoolteacher, Kelman contextualises his work within a broader milieu than a person's immediate social class, sometimes showing how within the same family people may find themselves in different economic circumstances.
The fiction, though, is almost always rooted in Glasgow, and rarely moves too far away from the working people, even what might be deemed the underclass too. In A Disaffection, Patrick might be now more or less middle-class but his parents are proletarian and his brother unemployed. While he might yearn for a relationship with fellow teacher Alison (who is married and perhaps more middle-class in her background), she seems to believe in or at least to accept a social and educational system that Patrick hardly tolerates and cannot contain his anger towards clearly evident in a scene with the school-kids where Patrick isn't shy of a few choice words. He may have left the working class but he hasn't lost a belligerent sympathy that manifests itself in the school, attacking the class system in the classroom. But what is he to do? Better to discuss with it the kids in a dereliction of pedagogy than let it rattle around in his head. As he talks about his predicament, one of the kids asks about Pat's transfer to another school. "And you don't want to leave either." "Yes" But you canni stay?" "Aye, that it." "Suicide?" Yep ya bastard, ye, well done."
The situation would be enough to get Pat sacked rather than transferred as he cusses and curses but he is also engaging the pupils in an enquiry greater than they would usually experience in a school situation. "Okay, I first considered suicide at the age of twelve, the same year i gave up believing in deities. It's a good age for it. I suppose all my teachings are based on that. I regard the wee first-yearers as imminent suicides and if they areni they fucking should be, and I try to convey that to them." There Pat is a secondary school teacher wondering why the first-years aren't at least thinking of topping themselves, and conveying this to those a few years older but still his pupils. It takes the novel into the realm of the absurd, even the surreal, but it is also rooted in a plausible world once we accept the conceit of a teacher who wants to create an honest dialogue with his students rather than a hierarchical relationship with knowledge.
If the book is all about a man trying to be honest with himself and others, however convoluted a process, then the pupils deserve this honesty too even if he insists he isn't much of a teacher. "Ach, I'm a bad teacher, Alison, being honest about it. I get too worked up about everything" Then he gets depressed "and the classes all know. They can tell." If they can tell, then better to tell them, at least the subtext has been removed even if from a professional perspective he is failing in his duties. But this notion of duty is a troublesome one for Pat, and his duty is finally towards a questioning of pedagogy and not its oblivious continuation. Is Pat ranting? Perhaps, but a rant suggests the monomaniacal and when he talks with the kids he offers the dialogical.
Kelman has never been one to retreat from rants of his own, without at all creating in his fiction the certitude he will offer in his essays. "During the rant I further declared how interesting it was that ordinary Scottish accents were apparent only by their absence at this so-called open forum in this so-called capital city." (And the Judges Said...) Kelman was talking in 1987 about a lecture he gave at an Edinburgh Fringe Forum and he may still have had in mind remarks made by Richard Cobb when The Busconductor Hines was entered for the Booker Prize in 1984. "The Busconductor Hines, Kelman's first published novel did not reach the Booker Prize shortlist. However, Richard Cobb (the chairman of the judges), did express his shock that 'one of the novels seemed to be written entirely in Glaswegian' as if that was enough to pass judgement on it." (Variant) When Kelman did win, for How Late it Was, How Late, ten years later, journalist Simon Jenkins called him an "illiterate savage". (The Times) Kelman's rants are clearly not without a basis. With remarks so ignorant who wouldn't want be a little forceful in the retort?
Jenkins also insisted that Kelman had done no more than "transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk." No doubt he would have thought much the same of 'Not Not While the Giro', a story that opens with an 'illiterate quote' from Tom Leonard, starts with a mid-sentence preposition, and offers a final sentence that doesn't only remain unfinished but includes "shite" as its second-last word.
Yet let us make clear that Kelman is of course very far removed from the illiteracy Jenkins insists upon and also much more nuanced than the writer who rants in interviews, talks and sometimes in his essays. These are great rants but his fiction often shows characters for whom assertiveness is hard to come by, self-contradiction frequent, and what Kelman often does is find a technique to register states of consciousness. His work may be grounded in a depressed Glasgow and beyond, but what his fiction illustrates is the tension in this milieu, and the consequences for the characters upon whom he focuses. Today we will pay special attention to the narrator in 'Not Not While the Giro' and show how Kelman creates a work of fiction very close and at the same time very far away from the non-fictional rants and what Jenkins believed were rambling transcriptions. Here we follow an unemployed man's thoughts rather than his actions. It is the text of an isolated individual but hardly a tale of self-pity. "I talk not at all, am confined to quarters, have no friends. I often refer to persons as friends in order to beg more easily from said persons in order that I may be the less guilty.|" It is Kelman at his best and his character at his worst, with few writers better than Kelman at exploring a rattling interiority that leaves little room for the conventional development of narrative possibilities. It makes the work as exhausting as Beckett's but with a more grounded sense of place, a way of making the Beckettian more specific, without losing the Irish writer's genius for metaphysical despair. The character is not not while the giro [the unemployment cheque] keeps coming, but this isn't much of a step up, and perhaps a step down, from Beckett's claim in Malone Dies: what matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot. These are the poles. When the money comes through, the two poles can continue.
© Tony McKibbin