‘How late it was, how late is a heroic monument to the freedom and resilience of the individual subject. . .’
Extracts taken from The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation
By Scott Hames
Published by Edinburgh University Press
In a set-piece irresistible to cultural critics, the state opening of the new Scottish Parliament found its ‘truly electric moment, the moment everyone remembers’ when the new intake of MSPs joined in Sheena Wellington’s recital of ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ That’. ‘Part of the frisson’, observed Douglas Mack, ‘doubtless derived from the fact that this old song gives voice to a radical egalitarianism of a kind not usually associated with royal opening ceremonies.’ With its noisy contempt for elite prerogative, Burns’ song is difficult to square with the sanctifying presence of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, who ‘sat in respectful silence, listening to lines about rank being merely ‘the guinea’s stamp’, about ‘yon birkie ca’d a lord’, about the ‘tinsel show’ of wealth and privilege’. This awkwardness extends to the well-scrubbed parliamentarians, solemnly crooning vindication of their ‘toils obscure’ for the television cameras, ventriloquising the disdain of the powerless.
But as nobody in the chamber (or watching a recording) could mistake, in the moment of song these rhetorical glitches are as nothing – so much ‘a’ that’ to triumphantly set aside. The contradictions of the scene are flushed away in the sensuous mutuality of collective singing. In releasing the sound and experience of latent togetherness – the force of ‘unisonance’ described by Benedict Anderson – this song-pageant manifests a condition of national co-presence emblematised by voice; and on terms far exceeding those of the Scotland Act 1998
. . .
In a 1995 article, Dorothy McMillan notes the authenticating appeal of demotic experience in the ‘new’ Scotland: ‘some engagement with the folk or the people has generally been found necessary in the construction of a notion of nation and it is, of course, in the urban discourses of James Kelman and his disciples that most critics north and south of the border have found the new centre of Scottishness’. Michael Gardiner’s 2005 primer on Modern Scottish Culture installs Kelman at the heart of cultural devolution: ‘dissatisfied with being politically silenced in the 1980s and 1990s, [Scots] had to find a creative solution [. . .] Kelman’s rise came at a time when Scots were literally finding a political “voice” in the form of the new Parliament.’ But Kelman’s best-known novel underscores the limits of conceiving voice as a channel for transmitting ‘given’ identities into pre-constituted representative space. Gardiner’s reading of How late it was, how late as a ‘direct representation of devolution’ therefore strikes me as antithetical; on the contrary, Kelman’s most celebrated novel is forearmed against intercessionary mechanisms of power, and pointedly refuses to conceive power as representation on the devolutionary model. Instead How late constitutes voice as the medium of being, and pungently insists ‘there’s a difference between repping somebody and fucking being somebody’. As in much of Kelman’s fiction, the narration seems to directly embody the subjectivity and ipseity of his characters – of The Busconductor Hines we are told ‘his language contains his brains and his brains are a singular kettle of fish’ – in language which is nonetheless saturated in class, place and Balibar’s ‘common acts’ of exchange.
With extraordinary immediacy How late seems to enact rather than describe the drama of Sammy’s inner life as he navigates the living moment, but in a relational idiom which de-centres his self narration into a form of reportage:
‘Quiet voices quiet voices, he was gony have to move man he was gony have to fucking move, now, he stepped back, pushing out the door and out onto the pavement he went left, tapping as quick as he could, keeping into the wall. He hit against somebody but battered on, just to keep going, he was fine man he was okay except this feeling like any minute the wallop from behind, the blow in the back, the quick rush of air then thud, he kept going, head down, the shoulders hunched.’
This hyper-naturalist effect cannot but flirt with the positivism of ethnographic writing; words that seem to ‘precipitate the culture they purport to describe’. Yet they also, in Kelman, enregister the particularity of the individual’s lifeworld and his freedom from what ethnographic writing (and parliamentary displays of identity) would reify as ‘given’. Sammy is an unemployed ex-convict who wakes up on a patch of Glasgow waste ground, unaccountably assaults some undercover police officers, and is blinded soon after they take their revenge. How late conveys, with overpowering intensity, his efforts to navigate this predicament, one compounded by the disappearance of his girlfriend and acute police interest in friends Sammy may or may not have met during a drinking binge he cannot remember. As he navigates various circles of bureaucratic purgatory, moving from police custody to doctors’ offices to charity clinics via the state social security apparatus, Sammy encounters lawyers, fellow prisoners and his young son. But he remains utterly alone in his struggle, and insists on a personally authenticated confrontation with state power: ‘He had nay intention of using a rep [lawyer]. [. . .] Nay cunt was gony get him out of trouble; nay cunt except himself.’
How late it was, how late is a heroic monument to the freedom and resilience of the individual subject – if any contemporary novelist ‘backs Descartes’, it is Kelman – but the fiction of psychological immersion he achieves is largely divorced from recognisable Scottish society. Traces of contemporary Glasgow are few and cursory, with the important exception of language: the medium of this character’s psychic being, mobilised as a literary device which seems to embody rather than signify social rootedness. In ‘obliterating’ the universalist third-person narrative space from which his characters might formerly have been ‘fixed’ as objects – their lives and speech rendered as mere sociological facts by an external, ‘colonising’ Standard English narrator – Kelman’s narrative experiments severely attenuate the ‘interconnected’ spatiality of the national imaginary. In this respect his narrative experiments aim to realise subjectivity rather than nationality, and his influence on the contemporary novel is not confined to Scotland.
The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation by Scott Hames is published by Edinburgh University Press, priced £19.99
‘Meticulously, they avoid reminiscence.’