I was 21 and in my last year at Edinburgh University when James Kelman's The Busconductor Hines was published. It was brought out by Polygon Books, a tiny house owned and run by Edinburgh students. It was a desirable object, beautifully printed in gold and green to make it look like a giant box of Rizla papers.
I already knew Kelman's work from his short stories; I'd first come across "Not Not While The Giro" in a Penguin anthology, and after reading it became so anxious about Kelman's state of mind - having identified it with the character in the story - that I asked a friend who knew him, "Is he all right?" I don't know what I would have done if the answer had been "No". Taken him some sandwiches? I was reassured that Kelman had a family, a place to live, means of support. But I can't imagine asking that about anyone else I was reading. They were all dead, or lived in faraway places like Italy or London, or were too prosperous to be personally jeopardised. Here was a man living only a few miles away, in my time, writing powerful, funny, moving prose about the torments and consolations of people who didn't have much money, and whose parents and grandparents didn't either.
The Busconductor Hines was the fuller realisation of Kelman's greatness. Hines, the Glasgow conductor, struggles to make his consciousness of the overwhelming arbitrariness of the universe correspond to his immediate human instincts - to love, pity or hate the individuals around him, his wife, his child, his family, the drivers and conductors, his petty supervisors. Hines's political anger - and there is plenty, about class, authority, snobbery - returns to a questioning of the self, in brilliant, hilarious internal dialogues between the escapist dreamer Hines and Hines the hard-nosed cynic.
As a young writer I experimented with Kelmanesque style and subject matter, not very successfully. But there are things a writer can teach you that are neither style nor content. One of the things that staggered me about Hines was the rigour of it: there's no sloppiness, no cliché, nothing stale. He never cruises, never makes allowances, never makes assumptions. Hines crystallised for me the notion that founding drama in criminal extremity, or in the exotic, isn't a necessary condition for it to be intense. It's just that when you write about the here and now, everyone thinks they're an expert; so it is more difficult. It takes someone like Kelman to come along and point out that we don't know what we think we know about the here and now. It can always bear re-imagining.
James Meek's new novel is 'The Heart Broke In' (Canongate)Reuse content