Blind Man with a Pistol

James Kelman

Yesterday I heard the great Scottish writer James Kelman read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Language is the culture—if you lose your language you’ve lost your culture, so if you’ve lost the way your family talk, the way your friends talk, then you’ve lost your culture, and your divorced from it. That’s what happens with all these stupid fucking books by bad average writers because they’ve lost their culture, they’ve given it away. Not only that, what they’re saying is it’s inferior, because they make anybody who comes from that culture speak in a hybrid language, whereas they speak standard English. And their language is the superior one. So what they are doing, in effect, is castrating their parents, and their whole culture.

From Duncan McLean, “James Kelman Interviewed” in Murdo Macdonald, ed. Nothing Is Altogether Trivial: An Anthology of Writing From the Edinburgh Review. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 112.

This interview excerpt sums up Kelman’s politics from a career of writing. ‘Language is culture’. It carries our history, our values, our desires and our tragedies. It can be violent, oppressive, joyful and liberating. And for Kelmansocialist, existentialist, working-class and above all, Glaswegian—this problem goes straight to the heart of writing and art.

His Booker-prize winning effort How Late It Was, How Late (1994) was called ‘literary vandalism’ by The Times for its proliferate usage of the word ‘fuck’ and for its ‘abuse’ of the English language. If only they knew how finely they were making his point. At the talk yesterday, Kelman noted how as a Scot, linguistic self-censorship is endemic. Not only against swearing, or blasphemies or even Gaelic. But against words like ‘doune’ instead of ‘down’, or ‘didnay’ and ‘couldnay’.

His new book, Kieron Smith, Boy (2008), takes this matter to heart. Following Kieron, a ‘proddie’ with a ‘pape’ name growing up in Govan in Glasgow (a block away from Ibrox Stadium where Rangers play), Kelman tracks the formation of the Scottish urban identity through language. Scottish history haunts Kelman’s language, where old Gaelic syntactic constructions still govern his phrasing.

There were great smells at the river and big ships went down it, ocean-going. Ye heard the horn and ran to see them. Ye had to run fast so it would not be away. Everybody was cheering maybe if it was a new one just built and here it was launched. Even if it was an old cargo boat or else a container ship. I liked them. Where had they been? They were all old and had been places all over the world. It was great, and ye were walking along and running along and running along beside it then ye had to go round a corner and round a river-street and then back down and there was the river and the boat was there.

Ye heard the horn sometimes and ye were in bed, it was creepy, ye were maybe asleep but ye still heard it, if it was coming out of nowhere, that was how it sounded, ooohhhhh ooohhhhh, ooohhhhh ooohhhhh, oooooohhhhhhhhh, and a big low voice. Just creepy. One time my da was home on leave and took me and Mattie down dead late at night. It was for a special boat. Other people were there, lasses too. We were all there waiting. It was completely foggy and just as if there was no noise hardly anywhere and everything was thick, very very thick, and ye could hardly hear anything and ye could not see nothing except yellow coming through where the lights were, ye were holding on to yer da’s hand, then Look, look! That was my da in a quiet voice, See, look!

8 Comments so far
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The only book of his I can really stand is “How Late…”

The rest are painfully boring.

Comment by bigcitylib

Well, thanks for the comment, I guess. I don’t know why you read ‘the rest’ if you found them all (seven novels and seven short story collections, and an excellent essay compendium And The Judges Said…) so painful. I would encourage you to read his latest book, however–it’s a bit lighter, more playful and I found it completely endearing.

But, that said, he certainly won’t please everyone as the reaction to his Booker Prize renders crystal clear.

Comment by Blind Man

I have TRIED to read a number of his novels and short stories based on what I have heard of his reputation. Actually, the stories can be quite good. “Land of the free…” is the only novel I’ve managed to make it through after “How Late…”

Comment by bigcitylib

Interesting take on the new novel. Did Kelman himself say Gaelic was an influence on the syntax of KSB?

Comment by Utterson

Hi Utterson,

Yes, Kelman talked about his Grandmother, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and spoke Gallic, but never taught her children or grandchildren the language because it never seemed appropriate or necessary. Nevertheless, Kelman said, constructions like ‘I did not know…I did not care’ that Kieron repeatedly uses derive from Gallic syntax.

Comment by Blind Man

That’s really interesting, thanks. I’m doing some research on Kelman’s use of language and this is a bit of a surprise — as far as I’m aware he doesn’t actually know that much about (Scottish) Gaelic! [It’s spelt the same as (Irish) Gaelic, but pronounced differently.] I’ll definitely follow this up — cheers.

Comment by Utterson

No problem, Utterson, I’m glad you found it useful. And thanks for the sp. correction. I have updated my records ;)

Comment by Blind Man

Utterson, he doesn’t speak Gaelic fluently, but knows a bit about its constructions, some vocabulary, etc. I was his student and assistant for a time, and he spoke of his grandmother and her language several times. Hope that helps.

Comment by zxcvb

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