Will Kelman's London cheers pave the way for Glasgow sneers?

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The Independent Online
THE WORST thing about Booker Prize rows is that they never get anywhere. Like a pot of soup that boils over, they flow violently in all directions at once, provoking screams and curses, fouling everything. They leave cook and family angry, sticky-handed and - in the end - still hungry.

That is how it was when James Kelman got the Booker last week for How Late It Was, How Late. The judging procedure collapsed into something between a California jury-selection and a penalty shoot-out. Some complained that the novel was 'inaccessible' (ie that they could not understand Glaswegian), while others complained that it was all too accessible because it used the word 'fuck' 4,000 times in 374 pages (who was the dolt who counted that?) The outcry about language overflowed into the outcry about bad language, filling the kitchen with impenetrable murk.

In the end, everyone left dissatisfied except in one respect: that almost every conceivable prejudice had been reinforced. London journalists who had called Kelman a pseud for not turning up in 1989 when he was shortlisted now called him a pseud for turning up and not wearing a dinner jacket. All their cliches about Glasgow writers were fished out and came in handy, although Catherine Lockerbie, in the Scotsman, suggested that 'abuse of the adjective 'gritty' should henceforth be deemed a capital offence'. Scots were confirmed in their view that the English literary establishment despised Scottish writing as 'peripheral'.

James Kelman's prejudices were confirmed too. He left for the North with a large sum of money - the only unqualified good to come out of the whole shambles. In the causes that interest him (brother-writers, or Glasgow's asbestosis victims), a few quid can go a spectacularly long way. Before leaving, however, he repeated some familiar Kelman views: that arguments about swear-words were 'crass', that a London coterie was condemning his sort of people to 'non-existence' by refusing to recognise their voice as literature. That sort of exclusion was 'on the border between elitism and racism'.

The hunger remains. The award to Kelman should have led to many consequences. One might have been no more than that the novel would be read calmly and seriously. Another gain could have been a discussion of the phenomenal growth of Scottish prose writing in recent years by consciously Scottish writers or by novelists working to a greater or lesser extent in a Scottish literary tradition. That, in turn, could have helped on the kind of debate that is so natural in other cultures but so clogged with paranoia and arrogance in Britain: the question whether a language can contain only one literary canon or several - something that clearly preoccupies James Kelman and his friends. But none of that happened.

The issue of the Independent whose front page announced the award (' 'Foul-mouthed' novel is pounds 20,000 Booker winner') carried in its centre pages extracts from George Steiner's Oxford lecture on comparative literature. Steiner said that 'the multiplicity of human tongues . . . has been the enabling condition of men and women's freedom to perceive, to articulate, to 'redraft' the existential world in manifold freedom . . . Each and every window in the house of languages opens on to a different landscape and temporality, to a different segmentation in the spectrum of perceived and classified experience'.

Kelman has his own window in the house of languages. He made it mostly by himself. He is a mature and severely professional writer, and among the many things that can be said in his praise is a comment made this week by a Scottish writer who knows him: 'He has opened the way for younger people to write about their own world in the way that they speak.'

This has been tried before in working-class Scotland, but without total conviction and sometimes with queasy results. Standard-English narrative with Scots dialogue was a shaky half- way house. Some writers went forward by writing narrative and speech alike in Scots. This works better in full-blooded rural Scots than it does with urban working- class language, which remains above all a talk medium, ill at ease in written narration.

Kelman solved this many years ago, and in a way that in retrospect seems obvious. He went over to the interior monologue. How Late It Was, How Late is just blinded, desperate Sammy talking to himself, with a supporting cast of other voices. Interior monologue can be a pretty claustrophobic form to read, when it is sustained, and I think that Kelman is at his peak in short stories; How Late is not the best of his works. But if he is run over tomorrow by one of Strathclyde's 'Wee Happy Buses' he will have left his own literature measurably stronger and more free.

How about his own freedom? Kelman's world view is a desperate one. He sees himself as a member of the Scottish working class, which lives under the close surveillance of a police state. While he is not a conventional nationalist, he compares this to the plight of a colonised people; nothing annoys him more than remarks about Britain as a place of free speech and expression. For Kelman, the way his novel was attacked in London precisely illustrates this oppression; as he said to my colleague Ian Jack a few years ago, 'in fiction whole groups in society have been suppressed by virtue of the way they speak . . . If the language is taboo, the people are taboo.'

Fiction is not a social survey, and it is wrong to assail writers for what they do not choose to write about. All the same, there have been complaints that the merciless world of How Late is not a true picture of Glasgow's underside. Some say that matters are not so bad, that Kelman refuses to see that there are many possibilities of escape and betterment. Others, like the West of Scotland writer Andrew O'Hagan, say that the problems are actually worse than Kelman allows.

O'Hagan objects that the picture of Sammy being hammered with monotonous cruelty by a succession of officials makes a false, romantic distinction between 'Them' and 'Us'. The true crime of Thatcherism is that it induced the working class to hammer itself. The brutal clerks and cops are actually the next-door neighbours, the pub-sharers, of those whose benefit they cancel and whose doors they bust down. Alien imperialists they are not.

Kelman himself is not taboo at all. Some people hate his book, but he is now famous and honoured for it, and this may set up both inner and outer tensions for him. Enemy headquarters in London has a plan to assimilate him by flattery. Friend headquarters in Glasgow, a town where success generally has to be lived down, will watch for tokens of conceit or defection. In that sense, Kelman's real struggle for his own liberation is only just beginning.

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