Bert Wright meets the author of Not, Not While the Giro, short story writer, novelist, and now playwright James Kelman.
You hear some terrible junk spoken about Kelman. He’s that kind ofa writer— a stimulus for passionately-expressed often widely-divergent opinions. Much of the negative stuff he can live with. I suspect, arising as it does from received notions about what constitutes ‘serious‘ literature. Any writer who challenges the assumptions underlying the sacred canon of Eng Lit can expect this of course. It's part of the deal. Even so,
no writer enjoys eing dismisse as ‘foulmouthed‘. ‘aggressively proletarian‘. ‘perversely non-literary‘, all ofwhich epithets have been levelled at the man before me. the man now holding forth on such diverse arcana as the Leavisite concept of‘tradition‘, the style/content dichotomy and the philosophy oflanguage. Clearly, if he is the cultural Visigoth many would have us believe, then for today, he‘s left the axe at home. Kelman is in Edinburgh looking at the stage space for the revival of his
play The Busker which opens the new Traverse season on January 27th. Already a popular and critical success on the Fringe of 1985. it started life as ‘Old Holborn’, a short story that first appeared in the collection Lean Tales but which now bears only sibling relationship to the extended drama. Briefly, it examines the emerging and tentative relationships between three strangers thrown together in the isolation of the moment. A down-at-heel busker is playing the blues to the space in front of him when along slopes the Ponce, a Glasgow flyman who suggests that flagging productivity might benefit from the deployment of his street skills. Later. they are joined by Lady. another enigmatic Glaswegian who completes the ephemeral triangle. Of The Busker, one Fringe critic wrote ‘it is distinctly low-key, a play in which nothing much really happens‘, a comment which evokes the bleak. unalleviated wastes of Beckett. Certainly, you don’t expect linear plot development from Kelman; evanescent moments captured in an almost cinematic sense are what he does best. Thus in the short story ‘The Paperbag‘ that moment had indeed arrived and was gone now, gone forever. and so was she, away to a life that was much better than this one'.
That ‘better life’ always seems out of reach of Kelman’s victim underclass but unlike Beckett, where consolation is vain to seek, there is. in Kelman’s work, the tough ironic humour ofordinary people,
. the determination to ‘get by‘ even
when jacking it in seems the only sane alternative. Having missed The Busker first time around, I defer to the aforementioned critic who despite early reservations, ended his piece rhapsodising with the rest of the critical chorus.
For aging ravers, there is the added piquancy of some fine vintage music from the Busker alias Alan Tall, a performing musician and composer in his own right. Tall’s contribution is
central to the play‘s success for as Kelman suggests ‘we couldn’t have done it with a non-musician miming‘. Of Katy Duke (Lady) and John Cobb (the Ponce), the play‘s creator is no less effusive , describing the latter as ‘one of the most underrated actors in Scotland, a kind of Scottish Woody Allen.’
What ofthe political implications ofthe play? Indeed. are there any? Kelman tells of his astonishment when one bright spark remarked that in general his work ‘didn‘t seem very political'. ‘Just because I don‘t come on like the 7:84 or Wildcat doesn‘t mean that my work isn‘t political’ he continues. ‘I mean these three are displaced persons never knowing where the price ofthe next meal is coming from. Ofcourse the politics of the thing are important but in my work, they‘re structured into the fabric of the work‘. Like many a writer, Kelman is reluctant to see the artistic edifice lovingly constructed, crumble under pressure ofdiscursive analysis. To discover for yourselves. go and see it.
Although Kelman has previously written radio drama, it is as a short story writer and novelist that he has made his reputation. Does The Busker signal new preoccupations then? ‘Not really, a lot of my stories and ofcourse Hines (his novel Bur Conductor Hines) are written from the inside, internalised in the consciousness of a single character‘. He discovered that by what he self-deprecatingly calls ‘footering about with dialogue’, new artistic possibilities opened up. The Busker was the natural issue of that transition.
For another Scottish writer, William Mcllvanney, English Literature appeared as ‘a body of evidence in which ninety-eight per cent ofthe witnesses were never called‘ and perhaps Kelman‘s greatest achievement lies in giving this great unspoken-for an authentic literary voice. By doing so, he has shown that passive acceptance is not the only possible response to the ‘cultural imperialism‘ of the Eng Lit mafia he so despises.
Currently, Kelman’s career gives a satisfying impression of being determinedly on course with in addition to The Busker, a new collection ofshort stories Greyhound for Breakfast coming from Seeker and Warburg in March, a month which also sees the paperback edition of The Chancer on the prestigious Picador imprint. A sterner test comes when a new play, A Woman of Pleasing Aspect opens later in the year at the Battersea Arts Festival and that, as Hines might say is ‘a different kettle ofcoconuts all the gether‘.
James Kelman’s play The Busker opens at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on Tues 27January.
RON BUTLIN The writer talks to Alan Taylor.
‘You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed’. At my time of life this does not make for a comforting read but this. says Edinburgh-born writer Ron Butlin. is where his first novel TheSound of My Voice really begins.
Formerly a footman. model, computer operator. security guard and lorry loader in a tea factory. Butlin has oflate been picking up plaudits as a poet and sometime short story writer. The Sound ofMy Voice, he says. when I ask whether it’s in danger ofbeing labelled ‘a problem novel‘ is ‘about someone who happens to be an alcoholic. But basically it‘s a novel about A PROBLEM THAT FACES US ALL. Because at that age you are beginning to become the person you are, and you‘re wondering whether or not you want to be that person. You ask yourself: “Do I want to be him or am I carrying a whole lot of burdens that other people put on me?“ ‘
Carrying the burdens in The Sound ofMy Voice is Morris Magellan, a biscuit-firm dipso who is fast losing touch with reality. Already his relationship with his long-suffering and insufferably understanding wife and his two children (‘the accusations’) has dissolved. though he still clutches straws at Majestics (the factory) with the help of the office bottle and ‘an inner narrator’ playing the dual role ofcomforter and correctionist.
Confesses Ron Butlin, ‘l‘m not an alcoholic. But the anxieties that are expressed through the metaphor of alcoholism are ones with which I‘m
The List 23 Jan — 5 Feb 1