‘Events in Yer Life’ by James Kelman

Thirtysomethings…

He was thirty one and he didn’t feel like was making a good job of his life…

Derek, the thirty-one year old protagonist of James Kelman’s (relatively) long short story is back home in Glasgow to assist in matters following the death of his mother. Effectively orphaned (his father died when Derek was a child) Derek suddenly feels adrift in his own life: unwilling to fully commit in his relationship, still smarting over an incident at art school which saw him leave the course prematurely, still grieving and reeling over his “first adult experience of death”:

He kept getting tearful. But that was alright, that was alright. It was alright. It was just

What follows is a very Kelmanesque long dark night of the soul: Derek meets up with his old friend from his student days and they go to the pub, Derek hoping that the drinking session will help him “get the other thing out of his system. What other thing? His fucking life.” So, they get drunk. They reminisce. They eye up girls at the bar. They argue about Derek’s apparent “Englishness” after being away from Glasgow for so long; discuss old friends and acquaintances; Derek look enviously at his friend’s married status and compares it to his own uncommitted relationship:

He had been too long on his own. Maybe if he had settled down and was rearing a family.

As tends to be the case in such things, nothing gets resolved. Kelman’s instincts regarding where to begin and end his stories – or rather, where to join and leave his untidy narratives – is as impeccable as ever. And the reader is left with a sense of Derek’s life going on, like all our lives, in their own haphazard fashion, far beyond the final full stop. 

Published in The Burn, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1991

‘Acid’ by James Kelman

James Kelman has, without doubt, a claim to be Britain’s greatest living writer (see, for example, two International Man Booker Prize nominations when it was awarded for a writer’s body of work) so it seems perverse to choose a story which is less than half a page long as representative of his skill. And yet ‘Acid’ has such power, told, as always, in a colloquial voice (which is not to say Glaswegian), the fragment of an overheard conversation, and with the seemingly throwaway phrase “who was also the young man’s father” deftly unparenthetical. A story to be read in single intake of breath. (And if that wasn’t enough, the story also appears in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, in the Index of Plagiarisms in reference to a non-existent chapter 47).

First published in Not Not While the Giro, Polygon, 1983, and available in Tales of Here and Then, thi wurd, 2020

‘The Christmas Shopping’ by James Kelman

Like much of Kelman’s fiction ‘The Christmas Shopping’ (written in the demotic Glaswegian dialect of the author’s hometown) begins in medias res, plunging the reader if not so much into the heart of the action, then at least somewhere towards the fag-end of a rambling, apparently inconsequential anecdote: 

That obelisk thing I was talking about, it was lying stranded down the back of Argyle Street.

As observed by the story’s unnamed narrator, the obelisk thing (its description is later refined to “more like a Celtic Cross”) causes minor waves of interest in the steady stream of Christmas shoppers. A couple of men from one of the local bars give it a cursory glance before moving on (“one of them was fucking pished anyway”); a group of teenagers laugh at the object, possibly contemplating mischief (“Teenagers, you’re never quite sure,”); a businessman (“a posh cunt with bowler and brolly”) seems less annoyed at an obstacle in his path, more at the unexpected disturbance in the natural order of things; while an elderly lady is so intrigued that she decides to take a closer look, free from any hint of embarrassment (“You notice that a lot about old folk; seen it and done it”). Finally, a young woman in a red hat approaches the obelisk. Up until now the narrator has been a largely unknown quantity (though the reader will have been able to glean a pretty decent thumbnail sketch of his character from his attitude towards the various passers-by). But the arrival of the woman in the red hat moves the narrator to action, bringing the story to a close which, at first glance, is as innocuous as its beginning:

I felt like asking her if she fancied going for a coffee or a cup of tea or something but then I noticed something in her face when she sees me so I says to myself, Fuck that for a game, and I just crosses ower into Ingram Street and I carried along the way I was going. Some women are funny, I wisni taking any chances.

 At just over two pages in length, ‘The Christmas Shopping’ a beautifully succinct example of Kelman’s talent for capturing transient scraps of the quotidian; holding them up to the light for us to marvel at for a fleeing moment; before the world moves on and they’re gone forever. And while it may be tempting to read allegorical meaning into it (the fallen cross, the lone bystander, the yearning for companionship/shelter during the festive season, etc) to me it is simply, and more affectingly, a snapshot of a lonely man in a crowd; the bland irony of the title only adding to the story’s poignancy and its underlying sense of frustration and pathos.

First published in The Burn, Secker & Warburg, 1991

Chosen by W.B. Gooderham. Gooderham is a freelance writer. He blogs at http://livesinlit.com and http://bookdedications.co.uk/

‘A Walk in the Park’ by James Kelman

Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.

I recently wrote a story in which a man in his sixties easily locates a book he hasn’t read since university, because his shelves are so well organized. Pure fantasy, of course: the set of books I’ve read is much larger than the set of those I can currently lay my hands on. I’ve chosen ‘A Walk in the Park’ from The Burn partly for its brutally ambiguous title, and partly, if I’m honest, because I simply could not find my copies of his earlier collections Greyhound for Breakfast and Not, not while the giro. If you’re only familiar with the novels – or not familiar with Kelman at all – these are a treat. Pure slivers of working class Glaswegian life, with all the poverty and alcohol and love and rage that the late 80s had to offer, but all rendered with minute attention to the detail of language and dialect. It’s prose you have to read at talking speed – which suits me fine: I’m a slow reader – tuning in to the demotic speech and thought-patterns of his frequently broken, but always human, characters. Some people found Kelman difficult to read – just as, more recently, some inexplicably declared Anna Burns’ Milkman difficult to read – but if you can’t hear Kelman’s people talking in your head, it’s because you’re not listening. Slow down.

‘A Walk in the Park’ maintains a perfect balance between banality and tragedy in the story of a man and woman, both weighed down by failed relationships; they meet and wonder what to do of an afternoon:      

They stood staring at each other for several moments. Then she said: The library?
      Nah.      
A walk in the park?      
Uch naw.

But a walk in the park it is. They even hold hands. She tries, she teases, and he tries, too, but all the while he’s keeping the lid on a boiling rage born of frustration, of an awareness of his own inability to cope.

A brief flash, indeed, if fireflies lived for thirty years.

First published in The Burn, Secker and Warburg, 1991; Minerva paperback 1992; currently available from Polygon, 2009