There was an event at the Mitchell Library on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of James Kelman. Organised by Drouth Magazine, in partnership with Scott Hames of the University of Stirling, this was a day-long soiree with song, music, film, performance and an appearance by the man himself.
I couldn’t make it along to the whole event but what I did see was inspiring and magnificent. Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, lifelong friends of James Kelman, were the perfect support act, each identifying what it was about Kelman as a man and a writer that had supported their own creativity. Although frailer than I remember him, there is still something incredibly captivating about Tom Leonard. In around 2006 I filmed him at Celtic Park. After a brilliant interview he performed The Good Thief in the stadium seating deck. It was spectacular. The feature never did make the air as my then editor was nervous about its content. I must dig it out..
When James Kelman finally arrived on stage he seemed humbled by the event, almost shy in his demeanour, but quickly got into a stride talking about his radical past, his belief in community and solidarity, and how he we should all take the time to learn from other people’s struggles. He spoke about how art is his refuge, and how he bounds out of bed each and every day because he knows he’s going to enjoy himself at his machine.
Even at 70 he is a prolific worker, and he spoke about always having hundreds of creative works on the go. He’s just published his ninth novel, Dirt Road ( a film is on it’s way too, we got to see a clip of the movie Dirt Road to Lafayette, directed by Kenny Glenaan and written by Kelman and it looks beautiful) but he doesn’t work on one project before seamlessly moving on to the next. ‘What’s your next project going to be?’, he argues, is never a meaningful question because as an artist your project is your life’s work, essentially, there is no beginning and end to your creativity.
He jokingly spoke about having around 3000 unfinished stories on his computer and how if he whistled “come on gang” they’d come marching forward to the front, escaping from their folders shouting “gonnae finish me?”. It’s good to know that there will always be a Kelman work on the go.
During her incredible performance, where she commanded the stage, Liz Lochhead recalled the weekly literary nights held at Philip Hobsbaum’s flat. From her early twenties, Liz went along with Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray and after a year finally heard a young James Kelman read (she said she didn’t ‘get him’ on his first reading, but his second was so impactful it changed her as a person). At these midweek events the young activists talked about writing, performed their work, analysed and intellectualised and formed formidable friendships grounded by their collective and individual creativity. As a writer, and a documentary filmmaker, I’d love to have been able to capture that world.
I first read James Kelman in the mid-90s when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in History and Politics. How Late It Was, How Late was like nothing I’d ever read before. The dialect, the shift in points of view, the absolute authenticity of people and place. For the very first time I could feel my city. It made me wonder, “could I…”?
Eh no, I didn’t, of course I didn’t: where would a working class single mum, who still didn’t really believe that she deserved to be at university, find such courage.
Almost a decade later, wiser, and awakened to the radical heartbeat of the working classes of my city, I found the courage to write in its voice.
When you stand still, you can hear Glasgow’s deeply political working classes. The city’s radical backdrop is embedded in the city’s historical conversations, in the voices of the Kelman’s, Gray’s, Lochhead’s, and Leonard’s of our past.
Mary Barbour, Mary Laird, Agnes Dollan, Helen Crawford, John MacLean, Harry McShane, James Maxton, Willie Gallagher, alongside others, have helped to shape its very character, demonstrating how the human experience of the working classes can be ambitious rather than stereotypical. There’s something very Kelman about that.
I got to meet James (or Jim as everyone called him) at the end of the event. It was a pleasure to stand in tune with the man who set me on the path to finding my true voice.