James Kelman: Look back in anger

The Booker winner James Kelman has been rocking the literary establishment for more than 20 years. Lesley Mcdowell talks to him about radicalism and rage
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The Independent Culture

"My culture and my language have a right to exist," James Kelman said in his 1994 Booker-night acceptance speech, after winning the prize for How Late it Was, How Late, "and no one has the authority to dismiss that right." It is 10 years since the Glaswegian novelist delivered that angry riposte to his detractors, a decade that has seen more fiction, more awards, a volume of essays and a university professorship decorate his CV like a series of medals. This foot-soldier of fiction and class warfare, it would seem, has finally won his place among the literary elite. The battle is over.

Or is it? The Kelman I meet in a Glasgow café one pleasantly warm and sunny morning is polite, polished and experienced with regard to interview technique. No one in the café bats an eyelid at one of Glasgow's most famous literary sons; this is a writer whom people, after the briefest of meetings, like to refer to as "Jim". I resist taking that kind of liberty because, although I wouldn't describe him as an intimidating presence, there's a no-nonsense attitude about him, a sense that fools will not be suffered gladly.

Few Glaswegians can be ignorant of the man who immortalised their city in the award-winning 1989 novel A Disaffection; Kelman dominated the Scottish literary scene of the 1980s and 1990s, and his national reputation merely added to Glasgow's increasingly high profile.

And so here is a writer with that rare piece of baggage, the reputation of a city in his hands. He doesn't wear his reputation lightly. I tell him that, looking back over the criticisms made when he won the Booker (one judge, Julia Neuberger, doubted that Kelman's liberal use of swearing and uncompromising Glasgow dialect even allowed the novel to be termed "literature"), I am struck, in this post-Irvine Welsh world, by how old-fashioned they seem. But he doesn't agree that things have moved on since.

"I'm not sure that they have," he says now. "It just depends - you have to look below the surface for what the real attack is, and the real attack on my own work is usually quite a political attack, you know. Often it's just class: I usually get asked at some point, do I still believe the working class exists? Sometimes you forget about notions of class until you realise the class attacks are being perpetrated from the other classes against working-class people," he explains. "And it might be through the medium of language and the education system, or it might be through claims for industrial disease, which is basically a working-class condition. And then you're aware that sure, there's class warfare, but it's usually directed against the working-class people from above."

He is still a man fighting his corner, he assures me. There's almost nothing he has ever written that he hasn't either been attacked or applauded for. He was quite surprised at the criticisms he received over his last piece of fiction, Translated Accounts, which was devoted to unnamed voices who recounted their experiences of torture and political oppression from around the world.

He says that, too, "was to do with my use of language and the unwillingness of some to look at how language might be operating in it. A too-readiness to assume it was kind of shoddy work rather than that maybe there was something else going on there, you know?"

His new novel, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), carries on some of the themes of that book. But it is a devastatingly funny, cynical and bleak view of life in America from the point of view of a Scottish immigrant, Jeremiah Brown.

Jeremiah is about 35, brought up in Scotland long enough to have a still-marked Glasgow accent, but attuned enough to the US to think of it more as home than his native land. This America of airport terminals, bars and bus stations looks and sounds realistic, but in the background lurks a menacing security apparatus suggesting that the country's post-September 11 paranoia has reached sinister new levels.

When we first encounter Jeremiah, he is waiting for a flight back to Scotland, his first visit in a dozen years, and, nervous about it, he visits a series of bars to calm himself. In true Kelman style, he is a hyper-aware individual, too resentful of authority to hold down the menial jobs he keeps taking, too self-aware to take on anything that might mean selling out. But when his nightclub-singer girlfriend, Yasmin, gets pregnant, he decides to stand by her, get a good job and stick to it. As he recounts in flashback, he wasn't any good at it: now he and Yasmin are apart and he rarely sees his little daughter.

Like most Kelman male protagonists, he knows things have gone wrong; his view of the world is coloured by a sense of impotence. All he can do is rail against it - and against the place which will always see him as an alien. Kelman lived in the US briefly as a 17-year-old, when his family emigrated, but he came back to Glasgow after a couple of months. His family, minus an older brother, followed suit. But he has been back and forth several times, teaching in Texas, going on reading tours, visiting family. Why has it taken him until now to set a book there?

"Well, as a writer I never believed in the idea of the Great Novel, or one Great Anything. I've always believed that for any artist it's the body of work that's important. You have to be patient - you do your work as if you'll live for ever (apart from your first work which usually you do as if you are going to die)," he says, wryly. "After that you have to relax a bit and go deeply into whatever you should at the time. Try and resist searching for broad canvases all the time. So I always felt that you should allow things to come as they should come, and this novel was based in the States because it was the right time for it to come."

When Kelman says "the right time", he means more in a personal than a political sense, although his story of the immigrant experience, told through Jeremiah and full of alienation and paranoia, could not be more timely. "Of course," he explains. "I've created some of the government structures that you find in the novel, but sometimes you find you're foreshadowing things that happen in the state itself. What the British state's doing right now is the most far-right extreme. There's almost fascist stuff right now coming from Blunkett," he says. "It's a shocking, disgraceful time in politics right now because of the sheer racism of a lot of these judgements."

Kelman peppers his talks with terms that indicate where he stands. He repeatedly refers to "artists" in the way that debunks the pretentious quality of the word; he has a pedagogical attitude to writing, indicative of his long experience teaching creative writing over 30 years; and his political radicalism surfaces in his references to the "British state". It all contributes to a world-view that may not seek agreement or consensus but feeds his work and refuses to let him compromise.

Kelman has always supplemented his income with teaching - the writing simply doesn't pay enough. His wife, a social worker, has often had to support him. He has been extremely vocal on the failure of arts councils to support writers: "They just have no faith in artists, they really don't believe in them," he says. "They think if they give money to artists it's just an excuse to go and get drunk or something. Artists are very seldom given money to do their own work, it's nearly always on condition that they do other work, which I just find appalling. And it ties in to this old carry-on where, when you're a writer in residence, you're not really supposed to be just a writer, you're a teacher and a community worker, too."

Arts councils, he argues, are "too scared to evaluate work properly, to say, 'This is good,' or, 'This is bad.' In the UK you find second-rate, or rather fifth-rate, work treated as though it were a masterpiece, especially in literature." Such as whose? "Oh, they're all well known, 'cause they're in the paper every week and they all get huge sums of money."

I don't think the irony of being an established writer given the privilege of mouthing off about likes and dislikes in the press is lost on Kelman. Were he accused of abusing that privilege, no doubt he would answer that, as a working-class man from a group traditionally silenced, he is merely taking full advantage of it. But he would put it much better than that; James Kelman is the last person to need someone else to speak for him.

Biography: James Kelman

James Kelman was born in Glasgow in 1946, the son of a picture-framer and restorer. He left school at 15 and has lived in the US briefly, when his parents emigrated, as well as London and Edinburgh. He began writing at the age of 22, in free time away from driving buses in Govan. In 1971 he joined a creative-writing class and published his first work, the short story collection, Not Not While the Giro in 1983 at the age of 37; it was followed by The Busconductor Hines and A Chancer. He won the Cheltenham Prize in 1987 for Greyhound for Breakfast; the James Tait Black Prize in 1989 for A Disaffection and the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late. His new novel, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, is published by Hamish Hamilton. James Kelman lives in Glasgow with his wife and family.