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James Kelman Biography

James Kelman comments:

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 1946. Education: Greenfield School, Stonedyke School, and Hyndland School, all Glasgow, 1951-61. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1975-78, 1981-82. Career: Has worked at a variety of semi-skilled and labouring jobs. Scottish Arts Council Writing fellowship, 1978-80, 1982-85. Awards: Scottish Arts Council bursary, 1973, 1980, and book award, 1983, 1987, 1989; Cheltenham prize, 1987; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1990; Booker McConnell Prize, 1994. Agent: Cathie Thomson, 23 Hillhead Street, Glasgow G12.



The Busconductor Hines. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1984.

A Chancer. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1985.

A Disaffection. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1989.

How Late It Was, How Late. London, Secker and Warburg, 1994.

Short Stories

An Old Pub Near the Angel. Orono, Maine, Puckerbrush Press, 1973.

Three Glasgow Writers, with Tom Leonard and Alex Hamilton. Glasgow, Molendinar Press, 1976.

Short Tales from the Nightshift. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1978.

Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1983.

Lean Tales, with Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens. London, Cape, 1985.

Greyhound for Breakfast. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1987.

The Burn. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Busted Scotch: Selected Stories. New York, Norton, 1997.

The Good Times. London, Secker & Warburg, 1998; New York, Anchor Books, 1999.


The Busker (produced Edinburgh, 1985).

Le Rodeur, adaptation of the play by Enzo Cormann (produced Edinburgh, 1987).

In the Night (produced Stirling, 1988).

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days (produced Edinburgh, 1990). London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Radio Plays:

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days, 1978.


The Return, 1990.


Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political. Stirling, Scotland, AK Press, 1992.

Editor, An East End Anthology. Glasgow, Clydeside Press, 1988.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

Critical Studies:

"Patter Merchants and Chancers: Recent Glasgow Writing" in Planet (Aberystwyth), no. 60, 1986-87, and article in New Welsh Review, (Aberystwyth), no. 10, 1990, both by Ian A. Bell.

Glasgow is a post-industrial city; its culture comprises many different cultural traditions: I work within this.

* * *

James Kelman has established himself as one of the most compelling new voices in British fiction. Combining intense local affiliation with the west of Scotland and great stylistic inventiveness, he represents commitment and integrity, frankness and exuberance, and has been compared with Kafka and Beckett. His first novel, The Busconductor Hines takes a sombre subject, but articulates its central character through a mixture of impersonal reports and stream-of-consciousness imaginings. Kelman ignores the conventions of orthodox "realist" fiction in favour of a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of fact and fantasy, in tribute to the imaginative capacities of "ordinary people." Here is a sample:

Life is too serious.

Hunch the shoulders and march. The furtively fast figure. One fine morning Hines R. was arrested. Crackle crackle crackle. We have this fantasy coming through on the line sir should we tape it and hold it against him or what. Naw but honest sir he's just a lowly member of the transport experience; he slept in a little and perforce is obliged to walk it to work, having missed the bastarn omnibus. A certain irony granted but nothing more, no significance of any insurrectionary nature.

It may be tempting to read this as a purely formal experiment, and relax into appreciating the multivocal texture of the writing. However, the stylistic extravaganza is always at the service of a purposive exploration of Hines's world, and the book retains its human centre in moving descriptions of Hines at work and at home.

Kelman's second novel, A Chancer, adopts a different approach. It portrays a young man without qualities, with no attempt to investigate what goes on inside his head. Instead, it narrates his day-to-day existence as he drifts and gambles—a perennial interest of Kelman's—without overt or coercive authorial intrusion. The novel is interspersed with brief scenes where Kelman scrupulously describes events, and just as scrupulously keeps his distance. Such reluctance to invade his character's privacy is yet another way of resisting the pseudo-omniscience of more conventional third person narrative. It challenges us to make sense of events, without allowing us any special privileges. The formal features are not decorative, but are ways of identifying the limits of knowledge. What we eventually see through the sombre narrative is a life of purposelessness and indecision, lived within day-to-day privations, invigorated by the austerity of its unadorned, skeletal telling.

In his collections of short fictions, Greyhound for Breakfast and The Burn, Kelman shows more of his range. Some stories are brief vignettes, less than a page long, an anecdotal form he has experimented with from his earliest full collection—Not Not While the Giro—onwards. Others are more elaborately developed, in alternating moods of wit, exhilaration, exasperation, and despair. They are certainly the most diverse and exuberant collections of recent years, with the power and intensity and wit of the prose encapsulating very large social and political concerns within miniaturist sketches.

"Greyhound for Breakfast" is an exceptional piece, showing the author at his best. Without ornament, it recounts a couple of hours in the life of a character and his newly-acquired greyhound. It sounds comic, a not-very-shaggy dog story, but it is not. Ronnie has bought the dog for more money than he really has, and as the day goes on he can find no good reason for having done so. He had a half-formed idea of entering it in races, but this soon seems ridiculous. As he wanders, more and more of his life begins to look absurd. He has no job, no proper communication with his wife, his son has just left home, and the whole business of living seems meaningless. As the story ends, the narrative drifts into a wonderfully controlled and frightening stream-of-consciousness reverie. The nihilism is deeply unsettling, representing the inarticulate yearnings and unsatisfied desires of an ordinary man undergoing the alienations of contemporary urban life. Kelman's language is of necessity frank, but never gratuitously so, dramatising the painful struggle towards articulacy of the most complex emotions. The dog is used as a symbol, but to call it that suggests a cruder, more schematic technique than Kelman offers. The story is typically suggestive, enigmatic, and nuanced. Without overly directive authorial intervention, the connections between individual lives and the circumstances which prescribe them are made. Although Kelman's work is insistently angry, it is angry on behalf of his subjects, rather than exasperated with them.

The same intensity and the same humanity can be found in Kelman's 1989 novel, A Disaffection, which returns to the fabric of interior and exterior description. This book puts on display a Glasgow school teacher at the moment when he sees the paucity of his own life. It offers an engagement with the traditional concerns of the social realist novel, but also a more tense mixture of moods than in comparable work by David Storey or Alan Sillitoe. Kelman uses his very flexible style to move inside and outside Doyle's head, to maintain scrupulous attention to him and his fantasies. The novel becomes an unsentimental education, taking us through Doyle's crisis of confidence. Although it is an attack on the constraints and hypocrisies of the State educational system, it is a much more broadly-based revelation of a culture clinging onto the vestiges of its self-esteem.

Doyle's yearnings for something better, represented by the strange pair of pipes he finds and his unsatisfied fancy for a fellow-teacher, become a way of intensifying and demonstrating not only Doyle's own malaise, but also broader national circumstances. At times, the political leanings are explicit. Kelman uses the book to insinuate a disturbing critique of those who believe in the possibilities of change from within. Doyle struggles all the way through under the pressures to effect change, pressures which are much greater than he fully realises. In very powerful scenes with his parents and his unemployed brother, he enacts his alienation from the conditions of their lives, yet he has found nothing to replace their dignity. In the classroom and the staffroom, the futility of trying to educate people genuinely in circumstances so adverse is made very clear.

Yet the book is neither a simple diatribe, nor a purely personal vision. Kelman introduces complex framing devices through Doyle's interests in Hölderlin and Pythagorean philosophy. As in The Busconductor Hines the author seems very close to his character, but these references, like the frequent allusions to Hamlet, are ways of introducing new perspectives, and encouraging distance. At times, Kelman shows a Swiftian taste for irony, using that form as the only possible way of coping with the revealed awfulness of the world. We are not allowed to hold Doyle in contempt, and the sharp oscillations in the narrative between wit and horror are both compulsive and disturbing.

In 1994 Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker McConnell Prize, a highly prestigious award. Yet this harrowing tale of blindness and affliction provoked an extraordinary controversy in Britain. Unable to see the book's deep humanity, many critics castigated its harsh language and its intense concentration on the lives of the dispossessed. How Late It Was, How Late is Kelman's toughest book yet, his most clearly focussed and uncompromising. His fascinating style, combining the darkest humour with glimpses of the horror of everyday life, allows him to produce narratives capable of the caustic and the tender, the intimate and the aloof. Moving in and out of the central figure's consciousness makes possible a fully human realisation of an individual's plight, and a recognition of the material circumstances that impose such pressure. More recently, Kelman has written plays (notably Hardie and Baird) and numerous political pamphlets, and his development is clearly continuing.

—Ian A. Bell

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