ON THE BUSES with Kelman the young Drumchapel writer
by JACK HAGGERTY
The Clydebank Press, Friday, January
Jim Kelman is a young Glasgow writer,
presently living in Maryhill, who has just published his first book
of short stories recently, “An Old Pub near the Angel”
(Puckerbush Press, Orono, Maine, U.S.A.). Although born and bred in
Govan, he was brought up largely in Drumchapel back in the '50s,
drifting since then between London, Jersey and Manchester – even a
brief spell in Passadena, California.
I wanted to talk to him most especially about his boyhood in Drumchapel, what he remembered, how everything grew bad, sights, sounds, images, funny stories, the whole bit. Good copy for a reporter, great material for a creative writer. Over the telephone he said fine, come up at any time, we'll go for a pint maybe and talk.
The flat in Garioch Mill Road, Maryhill, seems very cramped and gives the impression of being crowded with that old-fashioned sort of furniture built by craftsmen, finished with care. Much more agreeable than some of the shoddy workmanship turned out today; much more pleasant an atmosphere to sit back in and talk, the firelight making everything slightly luminous, reminding you that everything has a softer surface.
“I've never actually published anything about Drumchapel yet,” said Kelman, sitting in the front parlour. “Not yet. But I will. It's got to come into it at some time. With a housing scheme there's so much possibility, so much to write about.”
“The Scotsman newspaper did an interview with me recently and I was later asked how about writing a sort of feature piece on Drumchapel. Actually I made a start on it, but never finished it. You see it sort of developed into something else. It became a conversation between two Drumchapel women, housewives. One stays there, the other wants to move out...One day I'll come back to it and make a play out of it maybe.”
While Kelman was talking, his two baby daughters kept spilling into the room, climbing up on his knee, wanting to be kissed, to say goodnight to the visitor before they went to bed.
Kelman is married to a secretary from Swansea, holds down a job as a bus driver to keep the wolf from the door. He's only 27, but is shaping up for some fine things as a writer. Lots of people think so – Philip Hobsbaum, the poet and lecturer at Glasgow University, an American writer called Mary Gray Hughes – everyone except society that is.
The only good writer is a dead writer, or one who makes a lot of money. Certainly Kelman can't go down the dole and register for work as an unemployed author. Recently he was turned down for an Arts Council grant, so he has to do his writing at all sorts of odd hours. Sometimes into the far watches of the night.
“When I was a boy in Drumchapel I never thought about being a writer,” he said, “though I suppose I must have read a lot. I can't remember what. I wanted to be a painter up until I was 21, when I realised I wasn't good enough. One of my earliest stories was called “A Question of Balance”, which was about a newspaper boy in Drumchapel, which I was for a spell.
“I do think a lot about Drumchapel. Like the reasons it could have been better. So many mistakes were made, so many administrative mistakes. It's a place that breeds cynicism, even in the young people. Cynical 17 and 14-year-olds. You've got to fight your way out of that. What did I do when I was that age? Played cards all the time. Went on long walks up to the Old Kilpatricks. But even when we went there we used to get chased by the farmers and game-keepers – especially if they caught you swimming in the lochs...there were clearwater lochs almost behind every rise in the ground 'way up there.
“From my house, up in scheme one, on Glenkirk Avenue – or Stonedyke as the lower middle class like to call it,” he grins, “we've had this fantastic view. The Campsies, the Old Kilpatrick Hi8lls, Belside Hill, the Renfrew Hills.”
When he isn't working on a short story, or musing over the novel he recently began, Kelman spends much of his time up in the Old Glasgow Room in the Mitchell Library. He has dug deep into the history of the Colquhoun family from Garscaadden, some of whose exploits back in “ye old days” of the estate would make the original Tom Jones blush. Drumry, he says, is mentioned as far back in the annals as the 14th century.
SIR ROBERT LIVINGSTONE
“What I'm after,” he explains, “is a general consciousness of the place, of Drumchapel. And there are things that the community should be conscious of – there's history on the doorstep out there, but I mean the kids don't know anything about it, they don't get taught about it in their schools. For example, do you know that the Lord Treasurer of Scotland, Sir Robert Livingstone of Drumry, was executed in 1447? This is the kind of thing I'm getting at, man.”
He stops to roll himself a cigarette, leaning forward in his chair. Although by his output of spoken words Kelman could hardly be described as laconic, he somehow evinces that quality. Things that are left unsaid. The man who has noticeably more on his mind than he expresses. You could spend a whole evening with him, getting him to talk at length, listening with an ear to his heart, yet come away not knowing too much about him. That's how it often is with writers. No point complaining.
“Talking about history,” he begins again, “one of the things the Corporation should never be forgiven for is that in 1910 they knocked down a barn in Drumry. It was used as a bothy for some workers, but the thing is it had carved in Saxon characters over the door the name Laurence Crawford. Saxon figures! Think of the price Americans would pay for something like that today!”
“Laurence Crawford, of course, was father of Captain Thomas Crawford, who captured Dumbarton Castle, later acquiring the estate of Jordanhill. That was a long while ago.
“Working class people have no history. They have no real sense of history. Really, they're living only in the present...or else they put history down to every conceivable superstition under the sun. Look at the way a man will ignore the historical facts of 1690 for example. No matter how you tell them, how much historical truth you present them with, they won't believe that King Billy used mostly Catholic mercenaries for his army at the Boyne; or that he received a blessing from the Pope. They have a way of blocking these things out.
“One of my short stories, 'Nice to be Nice', is concerned with this theme...Let me try to explain. Supposing a young student were to come to a Glasgow working man who's getting on in years. And the student tells the old man that he's been conned his whole life. Now the old man is hardly going to accept that his life has been useless, or admit that all his life he has been a slave, no better-off than chattel; a pawn...It's very sad to see the man who hasn't come to this realisation, who's still trapped – like the working man who votes Tory maybe. Who has no clue how much the whole system is conning him.”
Politics aside, Kelman can call to memory moments from his childhood, as clear as looking into a rockpool, never forgetting its shape, its colour, details of its damage. There's also a feeling of joy and liberation, like running water, which will always remain with him.
OLD ARMY BARRACKS
He remembers, for instance, tearing up Drumchapel's old Gunsight Hill (all gone now, alas to make room for Tallant Road) and hiding under the huge tarpaulins draped over the ant-aircraft guns which sat on the crown of the hill beside the army barracks, obsolete and useless, built for another age.
“That was before Southdeen was there,” Kelman reflects, “I remember we used to hang onto the big barrels of the guns – that would be about 1955 or so. The guns must've been in pretty good nick because we had to hide from a soldier once who was there to guard it or something...And at the bottom of the hill, where Kinfauns Drive is, there was Ross Farm!”
He remembers too, a pitch battle which developed between Drumchapel's new settlers and the natives who had always lived there – the tinkers.
“It was always between the tenants and the squatters,” he recalled, “and it started off with just the kids, until the men got involved. But there were a few stones thrown well amiss and then it fizzled out – I've no idea how it happened.”
He laughs. “The tinkers always intrigued me, the way it does when you're a wee boy...we saw them like Red Indians, very mysterious.”
In those days the famous Colquhoun family still owned the Garscadden estate down by the vale of Linkwood (where the three high-rised flats are today.) Kelman remembers playing a game of catch-all or hide-and-seek one summer's evening when dusk was dropping. He hid himself, in the deepest part of the estate, watching out for the gamekeeper, when he chanced upon two pale headstones which sat spookily between the high stable walls and a spinney of whispering trees.
“The other boys had probably given up the ghost and gone home for supper,” he said, “so you can imagine how I felt on coming across these two gravestones. They were the graves of a horse and a dog. I was so fascinated that I stole myself back the next morning when it was light just to make sure I hadn't imagined it. I wonder if the stones are still there today? The animals must've been beloved family pets, I suppose...In those days the estate was almost idyllic, there were pear trees and apples trees...”
Recently, under the guise of being a newspaper reporter, Kelman made a few investigations about the white church down in Old Drumchapel – he's always been by turns amused and disgusted at the “villagers” snobbish attitude to the folk living in the scheme.
“They recently built an extension to the church for a discotheque,” he explained, “and they were trying to get as many of the village children to go as possible. The caretaker I spoke to told me that if they got most of their children to go then they could clean out the riff-raff. That's what he said! They only needed 20 names and then they could say the books were filled, excluding most of the kids from the scheme.
“In the same white church, during the blitz in the last war, a lot of Clydebank people sheltered in the basement. One night a bomb fell leaving only a couple of walls standing, but everyone escaped unhurt. I wonder if any of your readers were there when it happened? Maybe if they remember anything about it they could get in touch with me. I'd be very interested to hear a first-hand account.”
When we closed the interview we went down to a pub on the street corner for a pint. He talked briefly on some of the technical problems of his craft. He really cares about words, seeing it as a skill like his dad who was a picture framer known widely by Glasgow painters. But his father's trade was at least recognised by the world, they paid you a living, enough to subsist on anyway.
“Change?” Kelman asks. “You mean financial change? No, no, I don't think so. Change will be for the worst perhaps. There's just no way. It's almost impossible to live and write in this country. I may move with the family to Canada in a couple of years. Maybe. But I don't really know. There's no way.”
He wasn't complaining. It was the way
it was. He accepted it. He was happy just to be able to write when he
could. It was something he couldn't live without. Walking off into
the dark raw night he looked very like a bus driver who had to get
home and get some shut-eye before tomorrow's shift. Which was true.
You can buy An Old Pub Near the Angel here.
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