What I Do

Although James Kelman’s latest collection of essays, What I Do, is subtitled ‘Memoirs’ it is mainly about other people. As Kelman explains, these pieces were generally written as “obituary, memorial or eulogy,” in most cases for individuals which he “considered a friend.” However, they are also people who have had some influence over Kelman’s life – his writing, his politics – and thus the inclusion of African writers such as Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma whom he has never met. Along the way we learn a little about Kelman’s life – his time as a bus conductor and, later, a bus driver; working on a building site in London; and (new to me) setting himself up as a ‘man with a van’ specialising in transporting artworks (until the van caught fire…). There’s nothing romantic about these jobs, they are an economic necessity, as Kelman often reminds us:

“Soon after this I was married and my wife stopped working; we were expecting a child. On one wage we couldn’t find a place to stay in London…I quit the building trade and we returned to Glasgow. Back on the buses again, this time as driver, there was no other work.”

He makes a similar point when writing about fellow writer Agnes Owens, with whom he and Alasdair Gray published the collection Lean Tales:

“Agnes had no option but to work, and work she did in factories and cleaning the home of wealthy people and she went on doing it even as a published writer.”

Kelman’s work was first published in the US and it’s unsurprising that a number of the writers he mentions here are American, though perhaps less expected that they are all women: Mary Gray Hughes, Tillie Olsen, June Jordan. In writing about Hughes, who was instrumental in An old pub near the Angel, his first collection, appearing, and with whom he regularly corresponded after meeting her in Glasgow in 1972, he says, “A writer was a writer, gender was relevant but only slightly,” though he later acknowledges:

“Necessity is relative and for many writers and would-be writers, especially women, the mixture of necessity and domestic is crippling.”

Not one of these writers published extensively, for various reasons, and in each we see that, for some, the struggle is not entirely artistic, but also against the worlds of publishing, criticism and those the state charges with gate-keeping the arts. When Tillie Olsen is in London to promote Silences she is interviewed by a broadsheet journalist:

“Perhaps it was her unwillingness to enter into a self-deprecating irony that most upset the journalist whose finished feature ridiculed the great American writer in a most extraordinary show of upper middle-class English elitist prejudice.”

Kelman has his own well-documented problems with the publication of How Late It Was, How Late, for example on a reading tour with June Jordan in Oxford:

“Even during my reading, there were heckles.”

In this case, he turns the story against himself when, at an American reading, he is about to treat a question as an “elitist attack” only to be disarmed by hearing June laughing from the audience.

Kelman has no time for the Scottish establishment either, as we see when he discusses the artist Alasdair Taylor in ‘An Artist Lives in Scotland’:

“The way I saw it the situation faced by Alasdair Taylor is the extent to which Scottish society values its own culture. The neglect of an artist such as Alasdair Taylor borders on the wilful.”

Instead, Kelman speaks fondly of artists’ cooperatives such the Print Studio Press which published, as well as Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and Alan Spence amongst others, though he freely admits, “doing everything ourselves was a pipe dream.” We see something similar in the chapter on John La Rose who was a founder member of the Caribbean Artists Movement. Kelman sees a similarity between his own writing and the writing of some Caribbean and African writers:

“The struggle against the imposition of the Standard English literary form was a class issue but there was another context, a wider context, that of imperialism and the fight for indigenous survival.”

Thus we also have chapters on Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma: “In common we had language. Not any language but a language thrust upon us; an imperial language that had colonized just about every area of our existence.” For Kelman writing is, first of all, language. And also, as he says in the final chapter, an address he gave at Tom Leonard’s funeral, “The local is primary… the local is the universal.”

The remaining essays in the collection, on left-wing radical figures known to Kelman who in many ways represent a lost past, may be of less interest to those who are primarily interested in his writing. They do, however, provide an interesting context, and share the same values of resistance and an independent mind. Worth pointing out that ‘left-wing’ does not mean the Labour Party (“people here know it is corrupt”), which is often the enemy, attempting to remove Elspeth King as curator of the People’s Palace museum or sell off Glasgow Green. Kelman and other writers were famously involved in protesting Glasgow as ‘city of culture’ in 1990:

“The phrase ‘cultural product’ indicates the value placed by the Labour Council on the city’s cultural heritage and tradition which was no value at all other than as a business commodity; and to what extent its parts might be sold to tourists and visitors.”

These may be, in a sense, historical documents, but they provide an important reminder that politics, as well as art, is local and universal at the same time.

James Kelman is arguable the UK’s greatest living writer, if that means anything. It seems both sad and appropriate that these essays are published by a small print in Glasgow, but that doesn’t make them any less vital for anyone, anywhere, who is interested in writing.

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2 Responses to “What I Do”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    That’s an impressive statement you make in your last paragraph about his talent – I shall obviously have to read him!!

    • 1streading Says:

      I suppose he’s not for everyone but he is without doubt an important writer – side-lined because he’s not mainstream – a bit like J G Ballard in his lifetime.

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