From That Was a Shiver
When James Kelman won the Man Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel How Late It Was, How Late, the victory was greeted with controversy, not least among the members of the Booker jury. One particularly outspoken juror, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, put it this way: “I’m really unhappy. Kelman is deeply inaccessible for a lot of people. I am implacably opposed to the book.” By “deeply inaccessible,” it would appear that Neuberger was referring to the novel’s language, which is steeped in a Glaswegian vernacular street argot. No less a literary luminary than Salman Rushdie appeared in accordance, saying publicly that he felt the wrong book won.
Writing in the Independent at the time, Robert Winder suggested that one off-putting element in the book is Kelman’s liberal use of profanity: “There are, it has been estimated, 4,000 fucks in the Booker winner – 21 of them in the first three pages.” This argument typifies a literary snobbery that can’t comprehend how an author who realistically represents the way people actually speak – as opposed to exemplifying some airy notion of high literary style as the epitome of craft – might be worthy of praise or award recognition. The year before Kelman won the prize, two members of the Booker jury threatened to quit if Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – another Scottish novel with copious swearing and crude content – graduated from the longlist to the shortlist. (It was shut out of shortlist contention.)
But there is another, more insidious bias at work here. Because a profanity-laced vernacular is most prevalent among working-class or lower-class characters – precisely the characters Kelman, who grew up in working-class Glasgow, focuses on – criticism such as Neuberger’s evinces a not-too-subtle disdain at the appearance or value of characters who might not be considered refined enough for a literary audience to be spending time with. The street urchins in Dickens are acceptable, it would seem, so long as they are treated at one remove, as objects of pity and subject to the charity of better-off characters and benefactors. But give these characters inner lives and psychologies of their own or – heaven forfend – make them the central focus of a story and the knives come out.
The continued prevalence of this attitude accounts for one reason Kelman’s work remains so relevant. He staunchly refuses to condescend to his characters (or his reader); the protagonist of the short story “One Has One’s Weans” is a shift worker living in low-rent housing, but he is well read enough to reference a story by Heinrich Böll. He is also fully cognizant of the structural mechanisms within the late capitalist economy that exist to keep him and his fellow workers subservient. They struggle with one another while chasing overtime work and extra shifts that will allow them a bit more money to support their families, all the while ignoring the long-term damage being done to their bodies and their mental well-being.
While the metaphor of combat is explicitly invoked to describe the narrator’s life at work and at home, the most salient characteristic of the man’s life, in Kelman’s conception, is his exhaustion. “One wearied, one wearied,” the narrator laments about the possibility of a domestic disagreement following a 12-hour shift at work. As for his job, the narrator appears resigned to his role as a participant in an exploitative capitalist economy: “I did not lead any struggle. I did not take part in any struggle. I allowed the fucking system to steamroller me into oblivion oblivion oblivion.”
If part of the antipathy toward Kelman comes from the elite literary establishment’s scandalized reaction at what it perceives to be the effrontery of its literary inferiors, subsumed in this is an unease at being confronted by a writer who not only understands the systemic inequities built into the capitalist machine but actively critiques them, on the level of both form and content. (In the world of film, Ken Loach has felt the same backlash from establishment figures made uncomfortable by his explicitly socialist critiques of postmodern society.) In Kelman’s story, the narrator goes to confront neighbours he believes to be responsible for a mysterious scratching that is keeping his children (his “weans”) awake; in place of the expected set-to, the narrator is confronted with an elderly couple who only serve to underscore the inherently unequal nature of the system they have all been forced to subsist under.
The old man and his wife live in squalor and must undertake near-constant repair work on their apartment, which is in danger of collapsing in on itself from structural cracks and warping floors. When the narrator asks if he has ever complained to the local housing association, the old man is upfront about why it is more reasonable to simply try to live with the problems: “Naw son ye dont tell them nothing. A big mistake that. The very excuse they’re looking for. They’ll fucking demolish the place.” And there are no complaints from the tenants in the room above, the old man says, because that unit has been taken over by a flock of birds. “Ye stand across the street ye see them all sitting about, all the birds, they’re all fucking in there; it’s like that fucking movie son know that one. Some racket they make too. Do ye no hear it?” The only response the narrator can muster is a fatigued, “Aye, yeah.”
“One Has One’s Weans” is cast in the mode of kitchen-sink realism that has been a significant part of U.K. literature since at least the 1950s era of the angry young man novel; Alan Sillitoe’s linked story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a precursor of Kelman’s approach. Yet as Alan Bissett has pointed out, Kelman adapts this mode to a particularly Scottish context: his work is inextricable from the dialect and colloquial speech patterns his characters espouse, which, in Bissett’s view, is yet another reason it is received with such resistance. Yet it is precisely this refusal to compromise that makes Kelman’s writing so vivid and vigorous. Though it is brief and thoroughly unadorned, “One Has One’s Weans” exemplifies the author’s refusal to capitulate to the demands of establishment literary sensibilities every bit as much as does his more famous, award-winning novel.