Kelman, James

views updated May 08 2018


Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 9 June 1946. Education: Greenfield School, Stonedyke School, and Hyndland School, all Glasgow, 1951-61. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1975-78, 1981-82. Family: Married Marie Connors in 1969; two daughters. Career: Has worked at a variety of semi-skilled and labouring jobs. Scottish Arts Council Writing fellowship, 1978-80, 1982-85. Awards: Scottish Arts Council bursary, 1973, 1980, and book award, 1983, 1987, 1989; Cheltenham prize, 1987; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1990; Booker McConnell Prize, 1994. Agent: Cathie Thomson, 23 Hillhead Street, Glasgow G12. Address: 244 West Princess Street, Glasgow G4 9DP, Scotland.



The Busconductor Hines. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1984.

A Chancer. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1985.

A Disaffection. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1989.

How Late It Was, How Late. London, Secker and Warburg, 1994.

Short Stories

An Old Pub Near the Angel. Orono, Maine, Puckerbrush Press, 1973.

Three Glasgow Writers, with Tom Leonard and Alex Hamilton. Glasgow, Molendinar Press, 1976.

Short Tales from the Nightshift. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1978.

Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories. Edinburgh, Polygon Press, 1983.

Lean Tales, with Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens. London, Cape, 1985.

Greyhound for Breakfast. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1987.

The Burn. London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Busted Scotch: Selected Stories. New York, Norton, 1997.

The Good Times. London, Secker & Warburg, 1998; New York, Anchor Books, 1999.


The Busker (produced Edinburgh, 1985).

Le Rodeur, adaptation of the play by Enzo Cormann (produced Edinburgh, 1987).

In the Night (produced Stirling, 1988).

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days (produced Edinburgh, 1990). London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Radio Plays:

Hardie and Baird: The Last Days, 1978.


The Return, 1990.


Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political. Stirling, Scotland, AK Press, 1992.

Editor, An East End Anthology. Glasgow, Clydeside Press, 1988.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

Critical Studies:

"Patter Merchants and Chancers: Recent Glasgow Writing" in Planet (Aberystwyth), no. 60, 1986-87, and article in New Welsh Review, (Aberystwyth), no. 10, 1990, both by Ian A. Bell.

James Kelman comments:

Glasgow is a post-industrial city; its culture comprises many different cultural traditions: I work within this.

* * *

James Kelman has established himself as one of the most compelling new voices in British fiction. Combining intense local affiliation with the west of Scotland and great stylistic inventiveness, he represents commitment and integrity, frankness and exuberance, and has been compared with Kafka and Beckett. His first novel, The Busconductor Hines takes a sombre subject, but articulates its central character through a mixture of impersonal reports and stream-of-consciousness imaginings. Kelman ignores the conventions of orthodox "realist" fiction in favour of a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of fact and fantasy, in tribute to the imaginative capacities of "ordinary people." Here is a sample:

Life is too serious.

Hunch the shoulders and march. The furtively fast figure. One fine morning Hines R. was arrested. Crackle crackle crackle. We have this fantasy coming through on the line sir should we tape it and hold it against him or what. Naw but honest sir he's just a lowly member of the transport experience; he slept in a little and perforce is obliged to walk it to work, having missed the bastarn omnibus. A certain irony granted but nothing more, no significance of any insurrectionary nature.

It may be tempting to read this as a purely formal experiment, and relax into appreciating the multivocal texture of the writing. However, the stylistic extravaganza is always at the service of a purposive exploration of Hines's world, and the book retains its human centre in moving descriptions of Hines at work and at home.

Kelman's second novel, A Chancer, adopts a different approach. It portrays a young man without qualities, with no attempt to investigate what goes on inside his head. Instead, it narrates his day-to-day existence as he drifts and gamblesa perennial interest of Kelman'swithout overt or coercive authorial intrusion. The novel is interspersed with brief scenes where Kelman scrupulously describes events, and just as scrupulously keeps his distance. Such reluctance to invade his character's privacy is yet another way of resisting the pseudo-omniscience of more conventional third person narrative. It challenges us to make sense of events, without allowing us any special privileges. The formal features are not decorative, but are ways of identifying the limits of knowledge. What we eventually see through the sombre narrative is a life of purposelessness and indecision, lived within day-to-day privations, invigorated by the austerity of its unadorned, skeletal telling.

In his collections of short fictions, Greyhound for Breakfast and The Burn, Kelman shows more of his range. Some stories are brief vignettes, less than a page long, an anecdotal form he has experimented with from his earliest full collectionNot Not While the Giro onwards. Others are more elaborately developed, in alternating moods of wit, exhilaration, exasperation, and despair. They are certainly the most diverse and exuberant collections of recent years, with the power and intensity and wit of the prose encapsulating very large social and political concerns within miniaturist sketches.

"Greyhound for Breakfast" is an exceptional piece, showing the author at his best. Without ornament, it recounts a couple of hours in the life of a character and his newly-acquired greyhound. It sounds comic, a not-very-shaggy dog story, but it is not. Ronnie has bought the dog for more money than he really has, and as the day goes on he can find no good reason for having done so. He had a half-formed idea of entering it in races, but this soon seems ridiculous. As he wanders, more and more of his life begins to look absurd. He has no job, no proper communication with his wife, his son has just left home, and the whole business of living seems meaningless. As the story ends, the narrative drifts into a wonderfully controlled and frightening stream-of-consciousness reverie. The nihilism is deeply unsettling, representing the inarticulate yearnings and unsatisfied desires of an ordinary man undergoing the alienations of contemporary urban life. Kelman's language is of necessity frank, but never gratuitously so, dramatising the painful struggle towards articulacy of the most complex emotions. The dog is used as a symbol, but to call it that suggests a cruder, more schematic technique than Kelman offers. The story is typically suggestive, enigmatic, and nuanced. Without overly directive authorial intervention, the connections between individual lives and the circumstances which prescribe them are made. Although Kelman's work is insistently angry, it is angry on behalf of his subjects, rather than exasperated with them.

The same intensity and the same humanity can be found in Kelman's 1989 novel, A Disaffection, which returns to the fabric of interior and exterior description. This book puts on display a Glasgow school teacher at the moment when he sees the paucity of his own life. It offers an engagement with the traditional concerns of the social realist novel, but also a more tense mixture of moods than in comparable work by David Storey or Alan Sillitoe. Kelman uses his very flexible style to move inside and outside Doyle's head, to maintain scrupulous attention to him and his fantasies. The novel becomes an unsentimental education, taking us through Doyle's crisis of confidence. Although it is an attack on the constraints and hypocrisies of the State educational system, it is a much more broadly-based revelation of a culture clinging onto the vestiges of its self-esteem.

Doyle's yearnings for something better, represented by the strange pair of pipes he finds and his unsatisfied fancy for a fellow-teacher, become a way of intensifying and demonstrating not only Doyle's own malaise, but also broader national circumstances. At times, the political leanings are explicit. Kelman uses the book to insinuate a disturbing critique of those who believe in the possibilities of change from within. Doyle struggles all the way through under the pressures to effect change, pressures which are much greater than he fully realises. In very powerful scenes with his parents and his unemployed brother, he enacts his alienation from the conditions of their lives, yet he has found nothing to replace their dignity. In the classroom and the staffroom, the futility of trying to educate people genuinely in circumstances so adverse is made very clear.

Yet the book is neither a simple diatribe, nor a purely personal vision. Kelman introduces complex framing devices through Doyle's interests in Hölderlin and Pythagorean philosophy. As in The Busconductor Hines the author seems very close to his character, but these references, like the frequent allusions to Hamlet, are ways of introducing new perspectives, and encouraging distance. At times, Kelman shows a Swiftian taste for irony, using that form as the only possible way of coping with the revealed awfulness of the world. We are not allowed to hold Doyle in contempt, and the sharp oscillations in the narrative between wit and horror are both compulsive and disturbing.

In 1994 Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker McConnell Prize, a highly prestigious award. Yet this harrowing tale of blindness and affliction provoked an extraordinary controversy in Britain. Unable to see the book's deep humanity, many critics castigated its harsh language and its intense concentration on the lives of the dispossessed. How Late It Was, How Late is Kelman's toughest book yet, his most clearly focussed and uncompromising. His fascinating style, combining the darkest humour with glimpses of the horror of everyday life, allows him to produce narratives capable of the caustic and the tender, the intimate and the aloof. Moving in and out of the central figure's consciousness makes possible a fully human realisation of an individual's plight, and a recognition of the material circumstances that impose such pressure. More recently, Kelman has written plays (notably Hardie and Baird ) and numerous political pamphlets, and his development is clearly continuing.

Ian A. Bell

Gray, Alasdair (James)

views updated Jun 11 2018

GRAY, Alasdair (James)

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 28 December 1934. Education: Whitehill Senior Secondary School, 1946-52; Glasgow Art School (Bellahouston traveling scholarship, 1957), 1952-57, diploma in mural painting and design 1957. Family: Married 1) Inge Sorensen in 1962 (divorced 1970); one son; 2) Morag McAlpine in 1991. Career: Art teacher, Lanarkshire and Glasgow, 1958-61; scene painter, Pavilion and Citizens' theaters, Glasgow, 1961-63; freelance painter and writer, Glasgow, 1963-76; artist recorder, People's Palace Local History Museum, Glasgow, 1976-77; writer-in-residence, Glasgow University, 1977-79. Since 1979 freelance writer and painter. Address: Dog and Bone Books, 175 Queen Victoria Drive, Glasgow G14 9BP, Scotland.



Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Edinburgh, Canongate, and New York, Harper, 1981.

1982, Janine. London, Cape, and New York, Viking, 1984.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1985; New York, Braziller, 1986.

Something Leather. London, Cape, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.

McGrotty and Ludmilla; or, The Harbinger Report. Glasgow, Dog and Bone, 1990.

Poor Things. London, Bloomsbury, 1992; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1993.

A History Maker. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1994; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1995.

Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Short Stories

The Comedy of the White Dog. Glasgow, Print Studio Press, 1979.

Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1984.

Lean Tales, with Agnes Owens and James Kelman. London, Cape, 1985.

Ten Tales Tall and True. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; New York, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Jonah (puppet play; produced Glasgow, 1956).

The Fall of Kelvin Walker (televised 1968; produced on tour, 1972).

Dialogue (produced on tour, 1971).

The Loss of the Golden Silence (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Homeward Bound (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Tickly Mince (revue), with Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead (produced Glasgow, 1982).

The Pie of Damocles (revue), with others (produced Glasgow, 1983).

Radio Plays:

Quiet People, 1968; The Night Off, 1969; Thomas Muir of Huntershill (documentary), 1970; The Loss of the Golden Silence, 1974; The Harbinger Report, 1975; McGrotty and Ludmilla, 1976; The Vital Witness (on Joan Ure), 1979.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Under the Helmet, 1965; The Fall of Kelvin Walker, 1968; Triangles, 1972; The Man Who Knew about Electricity, 1973; Honesty (for children), 1974; Today and Yesterday (3 plays; for children), 1975; Beloved, 1976; The Gadfly, 1977; The Story of a Recluse, 1986.


Old Negatives: Four Verse Sequences. London, Cape, 1989.

The Artist in His World: Prints, 1986-1997 (descriptive poems), byIam McCulloch. Glendaruel, Argyll, Scotland, Argyll Publishing, 1998.


Self-Portrait (autobiography). Edinburgh, Saltire Society, 1988.

Why Scots Should Rule Scotland. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1992.

Editor, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.


Manuscript Collections:

Scottish National Library, Edinburgh; Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University.

Critical Studies:

The Arts of Alasdair Gray edited by Crawford and Naion, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1991; Alasdair Gray by Stephen Bernstein. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities : Actor: Television The Story of a Recluse, 1986.

Alasdair Gray comments:

Lanark was planned as a whale, 1982, Janine as an electric eel, The Fall of Kelvin Walker as a tasty sprat. Of the short stories I think "A Report to the Trustees" has the most honestly sober prose, "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" the most inventive fancy, "Prometheus" the greatest scope.

(1995) My stories try to seduce the reader by disguising themselves as sensational entertainment, but are propaganda for democratic welfarestate Socialism and an independent Scottish parliament. My jacket designs and illustrationsespecially the erotic onesare designed with the same high purpose.

* * *

Alasdair Gray came late to the novel and was in middle life when Lanark his first and most successful novel was published. Prior to that he had been a painter and a scriptwriter and visual influences bear heavily on all his work: even his book jackets are designed by him. His eye for detail and his taste for color combine especially well in his short stories which were published together under the title Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Some stories in this collection are long, such as "Logopandocy" a pastiche in the writings of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie whom Gray much admires; others short, and two, "A Likely Story in a Non-Marital Setting" and "A Like Story in a Domestic Setting," only five lines long. Some are set in modern everyday life, others in a fantastic other world; above all, they are rich in imaginative background detail. His story "Five Letters from the Eastern Empire" is set in the time of Marco Polo and the letters are supposedly written by Bohum the Chinese emperor's tragic poet, to his parents and they describe the court"the evergreen garden"in all its magnificence and all its cruelty. On the other hand it is an evocative description of the lives led by the divinely justified and the sharp, cinematic cuts and finely observed detail make it seem an exercise in scriptwriting. On another level it is a parable of power that oppresses, of a backsliding emperor whom Bohu discovers to be an "evil little puppet, and all the cunning, straightfaced, pompous men who use him."

Although Gray makes considerable use of myth and parable in his fiction and delights in creating imaginative worlds and societies, the matter of Scotland is never far away from the heart of his fiction. In 1982, Janine, the hero, an aging, divorced alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations tells his story while sitting in the dingy bedroom of a small Scottish hotel: to him, his native country and his fellow countrymen are subjects of disgust. "The truth is that we are a nation of arselickers, though we disguise it with surfaces: a surface of generous, openhanded manliness, a surface of dour practical integrity, a surface of futile, maudlin defiance like when we break goalposts and windows after football matches on foreign soil and commit suicide on Hogmanay by leaping from fountains in Trafalgar." Although this novel is only loosely connected to the reality of present-day Scotland, and more concerned with the general human condition as experienced in the narrator's drunken reverie, 1982, Janine is rich in Scottish literary allusions. In one section the narrator meets a pantheon of Scottish poets in an Edinburgh pub; in another Gray's richly lyrical exploration of time, space, and inebriation is reminiscent of Hugh MacDiarmid's long poem, "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle." That Gray should be so concerned with Scotland and yet repelled by ita classic theme in Scottish cultural lifeshould come as little surprise to readers of Lanark. In this phantasmagoric exploration of modern city life Gray has an index of plagiarisms, a recurring literary device in his fiction, and this includes an entry on the Scottish novelist George Douglas Brown (1869-1902): "Books 1 and 2 owe much to the novel The House with the Green Shutters in which heavy paternalism forces a weak-minded youth into dread of existence, hallucination and crime." In Brown's novel, Gourlay, a wealthy self-made man is ruined by his monstrous self-willed nature and his son is castrated both by his malignancy and by the squalid ethics of Barbie, the mean town in which the Gourlays live. Although Duncan Thaw, the narrator of Lanark is not subjected to similar pressures he has to cope with a loveless family and the dreary drudgery of growing to maturity in a far-from-idealized version of the city of Glasgow. To escape from the numbing mindlessness of his life Thaw finds himself in a world which might yet be; this is the afterlife to which he is condemned after a death which is half accidental and half suicidal. Called Unthank it contains echoes of his life on earth in Scotland but is peopled by creatures which have the power of transmogrification.

For all the brilliance of his imaginative inventiveness, Gray showed himself to be on less secure ground in these fantasy sections and was at his best in dealing with the realities of modern life; indeed his descriptions of life in post-war Scotland have a sure and naturalistic touch. This virtue resurfaces in Something Leather, a quirky meandering novel which examines the nature of female sexuality as experienced by three different women, Senga, Donalda and June. As has become de rigueur in Gray's novels there is also a full cast of supporting characters, including the self-deluding and destructive Tom who bears a close resemblance to Duncan Thaw. Gray has spiced the narrative with a number of erotic cameosthe effect is of reading a number of short storiesbut the end result is curiously asexual.

Most of Gray's writing leaves an impression of linguistic inventiveness and artistic energy but his later fiction, including the bizarre McGrotty and Ludmilla, has revealed a growing impatience with the confines of the novel's form. In "Critic-Fuel," an epilogue to Something Leather he made the surprising admission that he had run out of interest in his writing, hence the change to female central characters. "Having discovered how my talent worked it was almost certainly defunct. Imagination will not employ whom it cannot surprise." His Mavis, central figure in the title piece of Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale, with Five Shorter Tales, is an undeniably strong figure who manipulates the men around her. Much the same is true of the other women in the volumesuggesting that they are pushing their creator forward to explore new frontiers in his own literary consciousness.

Trevor Royle

Kelman, James

views updated May 11 2018


Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, Scotland, 9 June 1946. Education: Attended University of Strathclyde, 1975-78, 1981-82. Family: Married Marie Connors in 1969; two children. Career: Lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Awards: Scottish Arts Council bursar, 1973, 1980; Scottish Arts Council writing fellowship, 1978-80, 1982-85; Scottish Arts Council book award, 1983, 1987, 1989; Cheltenham prize, 1987; James Tait Black Memorial prize, for A Disaffection, 1990; Booker prize, for How Late It Was, How Late, 1994.


Short Stories

An Old Pub Near the Angel. 1973.

Three Glasgow Writers (with Tom Leonard and Alex Hamilton). 1976.

Short Tales from the Nightshift. 1978.

Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories. 1983.

Lean Tales (with Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens). 1985.

Greyhound for Breakfast. 1987.

The Burn. 1991.

Busted Scotch: Selected Stories. 1997.


The Busconductor Hines. 1984.

A Chancer. 1985.

A Disaffection. 1989.

How Late It Was, How Late. 1994.


Hardie and Baird: The Last Days (broadcast 1978). 1991.


Editor, An East End Anthology. 1988.

* * *

There have been two literary upsurges in twentieth-century Scotland. The first, the Scottish Renaissance, so called by the French academic Dennis Saurat and whose high priest was Hugh MacDiarmid (C. M. Grieve), was mainly concerned with poetry, though the novels of Gunn, Linklater, and MacColla, the short stories of Fred Urquhart, and the plays of James Bridie (O. H. Mavor) ought properly to qualify for inclusion. In orientation, despite MacDiarmid's professed communism, it was in idiom more or less middle-class.

The second upsurge, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, however, was fundamentally based on the novel and the short story and was what the men of the 1930s might well have called "working-class" in orientation. The gifted novelist and short story writer Alan Spence is commonly credited with the fact that it has been largely centered on Glasgow, which may well be so, but the current revival's high priest is undoubtedly a Glaswegian, the former bus driver James Kelman.

Kelman has been called "a nocturnal and solitary creature by profession" and also "the Scottish answer to Kafka, Joyce and Kirkegaard." No doubt all of these writers had some influence on him, but he is first and foremost the voice of the disadvantaged, both as regards the speech of his characters and in the everyday situations in which they find themselves.

Given the deplorably enduring and rigid class structure of Scottish (and, indeed, British) society, it is perhaps inevitable that writing such as Kelman's should have aroused fierce criticism as well as strong praise. This was epitomized when, in 1994, he became the first Scot to be awarded the Booker Prize with his novel How Late It Was, How Late, depicting through the eyes of one Sam what Jayne Margetts called "the seedy underbelly of Glaswegian life."

"Since I started to show my work in public," Kelman has recorded, "… there's been a marked response, either people have loved it or there's been hostility and what happened with the Booker Prize has been happening all my working life…. It's funny, writing about your cultural working-class roots. We're slapped in the face and told, 'This is not real literature—you're writing about working-class people with funny voices."' Kelman records that "when this kind of thing happens … it actually takes a while to work out what somebody else has said that upsets you…. You develop strategies for coping that allow you to continue to go on doing the work. It's actually quite hurtful…."

While there is absolutely no question of the fact that Kelman's work is "real literature" or that anyone who denies this must suffer from limited perception, in fairness to his more intelligent critics it could be argued that the "fuckings," "bloodies," "cunts," and so forth represent a deficient expressive command on the part of his Glasgow characters and thus become wearisome. It is a criticism, however, that, if applicable at all, is perhaps more valid in the novels than in the short stories. If true, it presumably would be a valid point, too, in the consideration not only of Glasgow's working-class literature but also of similar authentic writing from any once industrial conurbation: "When I first started writing I wanted to write stories about my own culture and I took it for granted that was what a writer is supposed to do…. Once you begin, you find out that's not quite the case. I'm allowed to be a writer if I'm willing to give up my culture, give up my wee voice, give up the songs of my grandparents because it's all inferior … now I'm supposed to talk like a fucking king."

Kelman's first full collection, The Burn, appeared in 1991 and has been much reprinted, presumably showing that whoever expects from him kingly talk it is not his readers. Here the range of character sketches is wide, from the title story, in which a man in his good suit gets bogged down in a burn on his way to a job interview, to "Lassies Are Trained That Way," in which a man in a pub whose innocent offer to buy an unaccompanied girl a gin and orangeade is misunderstood: "Mind you … lassies are trained for it, in a manner of speaking; it's part of the growing-up process for them, young females. It doesn't happen with boys, just if you're a lassie, you've got to learn how not to talk, you get trained how not to look. How not to look and how not to talk. You get trained how not to do things."

Some of the stories deal with purely Scottish situations. In "A Memory," for example, when the narrator asks in an English shop for "a slice of square sausage please," the request causes incomprehension:

"It's actually a delicacy," he explains: "a flat slice of sausagemeat approximately 2 inches by 3, the thickness varying between an eighth of an inch and an inch … making the movements with both my hands to display the idea more substantially.

The girl thinking I am mad or else kidding her on in some unfathomable but essentially snobby and elitist way—It's fine, I said, just give me one of your English efforts, these long fat things you stuff full of bread and water—gaolmeat we call them back where I come from."

She was still bewildered but now slightly impatient.

Glasgow sausage manufacturers could earn themselves a fortune down here eh! Ha ha.

Yeh, she said, and walked to the kitchen to pass on my order.

The title story of an earlier collection, Not Not While the Giro, is in some respects among Kelman's best. The atmospheric tension built up in "The House of an Old Woman" reveals another side to Kelman's remarkable talent.

In Greyhound For Breakfast (1987), probably the richest of Kelman's collections, the title story deals with the problems Ronnie gets himself into when on impulse he buys a greyhound, which he takes into a pub:

After a moment Jimmy Peters said, I mean are you actually going to race it?

Naw Jimmy I'm just going to take it for walks.

The other three laughed loudly. Ronnie shook his head at Peter. Then he gazed at the dog: he inhaled on the cigarette, but it had stopped burning.

Does Babs know yet? asked McInnes.


Babs, does she know yet?

What about?

God sake Ronnie!

Ronnie reached for the box of matches again and he struck one, got the roll-up burning once more. He blew out the flame and replied, I've no seen her since breakfast.

Tam McColl grinned. You're mad ya cunt, fucking mad.

How much was it? asked Kelly. Or are we no allowed to ask?

Ronnie lifted his beer and sipped at it.

Did it cost much?

Fuck sake, muttered Ronnie.

You're no going to tell us? asked Kelly.

Ronnie shrugged. Eighty notes.

Eighty notes?

Ronnie looked at him.

Jimmy Peters had shifted roundabout on his seat, and he leaned down and ruffled the dog's ears, making a funny face at it. The dog looked back at him. He said to Ronnie, Aye it's a pally big animal.

The clarity of this scene is matched in other stories, obsessional and dispassionate narratives that have a deadpan humor. And while one may not necessarily agree with the critic who thought "Cute Chick!" the funniest story in the English language, its brevity, characteristic of a number of the sketches in this collection, illustrates Kelman's ability to make a point within the minimum length required:

There used to be this talkative old lady with a polite English accent who roamed the betting shops of Glasgow being avoided by everybody. Whenever she appeared the heavily backed favourite was just about to get beat by a big outsider. And she would always cry out in a surprised way about how she'd managed to choose it, before going to collect her dough at the pay-out window. And when asked for her nomde-plume she spoke loudly and clearly: Cute Chick!

It made the punters' blood run cold.

With his superb ear for the talk of Glasgow, his constructive skill, and his effortless sense of style—the last two less obvious qualities of Irvine Welsh, with whom he is sometimes compared—Kelman is undoubtedly the most important Glasgow fiction writer the twentieth century has produced.

—Maurice Lindsay

See the essay on "Not Not While the Giro."

Gray, Alasdair (James)

views updated May 21 2018

GRAY, Alasdair (James)

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 28 December 1934. Education: Whitehill Senior Secondary School, 1946-52; Glasgow Art School (Bellahouston traveling scholarship, 1957), 1952-57, diploma in mural painting and design 1957; Jordanhill Teacher's Training College, 1960-61, Teacher's certificate. Family: Married1) Inge Sorensen in 1962 (divorced 1970); one son; 2) Morag McAlpine in 1991. Career: Art teacher, Lanarkshire and Glasgow, 1958-61; cabaret performer, Edinburgh, 1961; scene painter, Pavilion and Citizens' theaters, Glasgow, 1961-63; freelance painter and writer, Glasgow, 1963-76; artist recorder, People's Palace Local History Museum, Glasgow, 1976-77; writer-in-residence, Glasgow University, 1977-79; freelance writer and painter, since 1979. Lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Awards: Frederick Niven award, for Lanark: A Life in Four Books, 1992; The Times Book award, for Unlikely Stories, Mostly, 1993; Whitbread & Guardian awards, for Poor Things, 1995.


Short Stories

The Comedy of the White Dog. 1979.

Unlikely Stories, Mostly. 1984.

Lean Tales. 1985.

Ten Tales Tall and True. 1994.


Lanark: A Life in Four Books. 1981.

1982, Janine. 1984.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties. 1985.

Something Leather. 1990.

McGrotty and Ludmilla; or, The Harbinger Report. 1990.

Poor Things. 1992.

A History Maker. 1994.

Mavis Belfrage. 1996.


Jonah (puppet play; produced Glasgow, 1956).

The Fall of Kelvin Walker (televised 1968; produced on tour, 1972).

Dialogue (produced on tour, 1971).

The Loss of the Golden Silence (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Homeward Bound (produced Edinburgh, 1973).

Tickly Mince (revue), with Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead (produced Glasgow, 1982).

The Pie of Damocles (revue), with others (produced Glasgow, 1983).

Radio Plays:

Quiet People, 1968; The Night Off, 1969; Thomas Muir of Huntershill (documentary), 1970; The Loss of the Golden Silence, 1974; The Harbinger Report, 1975; McGrotty and Ludmilla, 1976; The Vital Witness (on Joan Ure), 1979.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Under the Helmet, 1965; The Fall of Kelvin Walker, 1968; Triangles, 1972; The Man Who Knew about Electricity, 1973; Honesty (for children), 1974; Today and Yesterday (3 plays; for children), 1975; Beloved, 1976; The Gadfly, 1977; The Story of a Recluse, 1986.


Old Negatives: Four Verse Sequences. 1989.


Five Scottish Artists. 1986.

Self-Portrait (autobiography). 1988.

Why Scots Should Rule Scotland. 1992.


Critical Studies:

The Arts of Alasdair Gray edited by Crawford and Naion, Edinburgh, 1991; The Glasgow Review, issue 3, Summer 1995.

* * *

Although Alasdair Gray came to fiction late in his career—he is also an accomplished artist—he has made a signal contribution to the genre. His novel Lanark (1981) was acclaimed for its inventiveness and exuberance, and it helped set the tone for his first collection of short fiction, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983). In fact, much of Gray's writing is seamless, in that some elements, such as comic surrealism and an idiosyncratic approach to narrative, are central to its style and form. Also, and this sets him apart from most other writers, all his books are richly illustrated. His quirky and frequently outrageous drawings offer a shrewd visual counterpoint to the words. Indeed, his books are works of art within their own right and are reminders of a bygone age of book production.

Gray's short stories take the reader into a strange world of grotesque characters and monstrous creatures where reality and fantasy collide. This suggests a highly inventive imagination at work. In one early story, "The Problem," the sun visits the narrator in the guise of a beautiful woman and spends the whole time worrying about her spots. Not only does Gray give the sun a female persona, in itself a startling concept, but his narrative is a combination of realism and fancy which makes the story at once otherworldly and strangely accessible.

Humor, too, is never absent. Indeed, Gray has the Rabelaisian ability to make his readers laugh out loud: he seems to believe that entertainment is as important as enlightenment and some of his writing is thunderously funny. Gray acknowledges that literary debt in his spoof "Logopandocy," allegedly written by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, the seventeenth-century translator of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Here are the same verbal wit, the same flashes of bawdiness, the same use of colloquial and idiomatic language that informed Urquhart's work. At one stage in the narrative there is an asterisked gap with the words: "Here a great part of the manuscript has been eaten by mice," and the story is invested with a linguistic playfulness that is entirely original.

"The Crank That Made the Revolution" also depends on the contiguity of fiction and farce. Vague McMenamy is a child prodigy, an infant-inventor whose discoveries pave the way for the later Industrial Revolution, but his inventions are bizarre parodies of what actually took place during that period. Observing his grandmother's ducks, he holds them to be vastly inefficient creatures and determines to improve them. "Imagine," he says "a household appliance devised to shampoo carpets, mash potatoes and darn holes in socks whenever it feels like it." Far from solving the physical problem, the results are disastrous. The ducks are enabled to swim faster by constructing a paddle wheel powered by the crank of the story's title, but farce turns into tragedy when a bigger vessel containing seventeen ducks crosses the pond with such velocity that it overturns and sinks. All this is related with the deadpan wit that is a hallmark of Gray's style. No one could possibly believe the technical veracity of the invention, but that is a minor point: the success of the story depends on Gray's ability to take the reader into a world of his own making in which everything is possible.

Gray is fascinated, too, by the point where history merges into fable. A marriage between a feckless young man and a determined woman is destroyed even before it begins through the agency of a strange white dog, which is the benefactor of sexually frigid women. After being discomforted by the dog's presence, the man refuses to believe the myth that the dog is dedicated to the love of his future wife and, inevitably, his lack of credence leads to calamity. "The Comedy of the White Dog" is a familiar tale, bringing together the best elements of folk fable and classical mythology, but in Gray's hands it is transformed into a timeless story which may or may not have a basis in fact.

Not that Gray is all feyness and unpredictability. "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" is a straightforward, though lengthy, story set at the time of Marco Polo and related by a poet-narrator who sets out to describe "etiquette, government, irrigation, clogs, kites, rumour, poetry, justice, massage, town-planning, sex and ventriloquism in an obsolete nation." The first-person narratives of "You" and "The Trendelenburg Position" are also firmly rooted in real life, but Gray leavens the actuality with flashes of wit: in the second story a dentist monopolizes his helpless patient with a breathtaking fantasy involving impossible future inventions.

A similar sense of realism, with a smile never far away, informs the 13 stories contained in Ten Tales Tall & True. Not much happens in "Houses & Small Labour Parties," but in a story dealing with a group of laborers, Gray makes several telling comments about the unequal relationship between workers and society. The lone female drinker in "Are You a Lesbian?" is also a contemporary icon, a woman striving to find her sense of being in a man's world. Pestered by a man, she reveals that she is a failed minister and that her loneliness can only be assuaged by drinking in a bar where she can see and hear other groups of people talking quietly together. The poignancy of her story is reinforced by the introduction of brief biblical quotations, notably St. Paul's exhortation on the power of love and charity from I Corinthians, 13.

In a curiously touching story, "Mr Meikle—an Epilogue, Gray reveals the source of much of his inspiration as a writer, a former teacher of English who provided him with "freedom and opportunity" to pursue his literary interests. Inevitably, given Gray's preoccupations, the story is also a fable, but the combination of autobiography and caprice is entirely typical. It provides a useful key to understanding the work of this challenging and provocative writer.

—Trevor Royle

See the essay on "Fictional Exits."

Gray, Alasdair (James)

views updated May 17 2018

GRAY, Alasdair (James)

GRAY, Alasdair (James). Scottish, b. 1934. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Plays/Screenplays, Intellectual history. Career: Art teacher, Lanarkshire and Glasgow, 1958-62; scene painter, Pavilion and Citizens' theatres, Glasgow, 1962-63; freelance painter and writer, Glasgow, 1963-76; artist recorder, People's Palace Local History Museum, Glasgow, 1976-77; University of Glasgow, writer-in-residence, 1977-79, consulting professor of creative writing, 2001-; freelance writer, painter and book designer, 1979-. Publications: Five Scottish Artists (catalog), 1986; Saltire Self-Portrait 4 (autobiographical sketch), 1988; Old Negatives (4 verse sequences), 1989; Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, 1992, rev. ed., 1997; Working Legs (play), 1997; The Book of Prefaces, 2000; Sixteen Occasional Poems, 2000; A Short Survey of Classical Scottish Writing, 2001. NOVELS: Lanark: A Life in Four Books, 1981; 1982, Janine, 1984; The Fall of Kelvin Walker, 1985; Something Leather, 1990; McGrotty and Ludmilla; or, The Harbinger Report, 1990; Poor Things, 1992; A History Maker, 1994. STORIES: The Comedy of the White Dog, 1979; Unlikely Stories, Mostly, 1983; (with A. Owens and J. Kelman) Lean Tales, 1985; Ten Tales Tall and True, 1993; Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale: With Five Shorter Tales, 1996; The End of Their Tethers, 2003. Address: 2 Marchmont Terrace, Glasgow G12 9LT, Scotland.

Kelman, James

views updated May 14 2018


KELMAN, James. Scottish, b. 1946. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Plays/Screenplays. Career: Novelist and short story writer. Publications: NOVELS: The Busconductor Hines, 1984; A Chancer, 1985; A Disaffection, 1989; How Late It Was, How Late, 1994 (Booker Prize); Translated Accounts, 2001. SHORT STORIES: An Old Pub Near the Angel, 1973; (with T. Leonard and A, Hamilton) Three Glasgow Writers, 1976; Short Tales from the Nightshift, 1978; Not Not While the Giro and Other Stories, 1983; (with A. Gray and A. Owens) Lean Tales, 1985; Greyhound for Breakfast, 1987; The Burn, 1991; Busted Scotch, 1997; The Good Times, 1998. PLAYS: The Busker, 1985; Le Rodeur (adaptation of the play by Enzo Cormann), 1987; In the Night, 1988; Hardie and Baird: The Last Days, 1991. OTHER: (ed.) An East End Anthology, 1988; The Return (screenplay), 1990. Address: 244 W. Princess St., Glasgow G4 9DP, Scotland. Online address:

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