Kelman won’t let the reader forget that politics not only inform any prose fiction, they are inseparable from it. For politics in many ways seems to be the main driver of his own work. Besides numerous novels and books of short stories, he has published two volumes of literary, social, historical and political criticism. He has also been unceasingly involved in political and human rights campaigns, manifestoes and demonstrations throughout his life.
His stance on social and political issues has attracted negative criticism not only from ordinary readers, but from the Establishment in the form of Booker Prize judges and others. Kelman himself even claims that his dramatic work has not been given a full airing precisely because of his political standpoint[i]. It is remarkable that this criticism is focussed almost exclusively on Kelman’s dramatic and literary fiction work and that the forthright and often provocative political essays seem to pass more or less unnoticed.
On the 10th of January 1990 the novelist James Kelman stood before a packed hall at the Pearce Institute in Govan, to introduce the celebrated linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who had come to deliver the keynote speech. Reading from a carefully prepared talk, Kelman expanded on the reasons for inviting Chomsky to the Self Determination and Power Conference. He spoke of political structures, activism, distrust of those in power and his own conviction that the intellectual tradition that culminated in Scottish Common Sense philosophy, held great lessons for radical political mobilisation. This two-day conference, which he had planned and organised was both a culmination, and a starting point, for his career in political activism. Within the hall could be found many of Kelman’s closest collaborators through which his political allegiances and interests can be mapped.
Beside Kelman on the platform was of course, Chomsky, whose work on linguistics had been of interest to Kelman since 1988[ii]. Sitting in the audience – a highly eclectic grouping of teachers, social workers, trade unionists, artists, anarchists, academics and even the odd journalist – was George Davie, the preeminent scholar of the Presbyterian Scottish Enlightenment, whose detailing of a suppressed intellectual tradition based on first principles Kelman saw as intimately connected with Chomsky’s ideas. At the back of the hall was Roxy Harris, the poet John La Rose, and Gus John, who had welcomed Kelman into the network of radical black activism within the United Kingdom. Also present was Peter Kravitz, the great facilitator and connector of people and ideas who had made many crucial introductions between Kelman and his collaborators. Also present were members of the Free University, one of whom filmed the two days of the conference at Kelman’s urging.
[i] See interview with William Clark, Variant, volume 2, Number 12, p3
[ii] ‘Introduction, AJS, p13