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Eighteen stories from the dark end of the street

These stories were originally published in 1985 as part of a collection of writing by James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens, a book called Lean Tales, which is now out of print.

These 18 stories, most of which have been revised by Kelman in the interim, are therefore a third of that book and also, the author reveals in a fascinating afterword, the bare bones of a novel that was never written. The afterword, 3000 words of it, has been written especially for this very pleasing 82-page publication by Tangerine Press (made, the publisher notes, with acid-free board, conservation glue and hemp cord) and even if you are not a devotee of the author's numerous works, feels like essential reading.

Kelman recounts how he began writing, and how, in the 1970s, he balanced hard work with writing not one but four novels at once. One of these novels would have included many of these stories, and several were published as a "novel in progress".

But the novel did not progress. He writes: "Nuances of character distinguished one narrator from another. There were inconsistencies. Things were just not right. What was missing was consistency of practice. I could have rectified the problems with adequate time."

But he did not have the time, a situation which drove him "nuts". Kelman writes about the anguish an artist feels when he is caught between the desperate desire to create - "If I could not write, what would become of me?" - and financial reality and practical constraints. He considered giving up full-time employment entirely, but although he had experience of "scratching about" as a single unemployed man, "when children come along it makes the difference".

There seemed no easy way to proceed. The answers lay, partially, in the writers' collective, The Print Studio Press, which printed six of the fragments from his "never-finished novel". His short story collection Not Not While The Giro contained 12 more.

One story had, for the author, an unhappier fate. Entitled The Block, it was broadcast by the BBC. Kelman listened in, and "out came this extraordinary upper-middle class anglocentric RP bastard of a voice that murdered my first-person narrator". He switched off the radio. Kelman notes that the actor was Scottish but, he muses, one forced to lose his accent for the BBC. Kelman describes the BBC as: "those guardians of High English Culture who will commandeer the very nails from your fingers and show amazement if you offer resistance."

The novel, then, never appeared, and exists only in these short stories. "I would have finished it. It failed through no fault of my own," Kelman insists.

The stories themselves - some long like the funny and then shattering O jesus, here come the dwarfs, or very short such as the elusive Learning The Story - are precise, limber evocations of loneliness, dereliction, and transience, both material and spiritual. The tales are mainly in the first person, and masterfully build detail and diction into stories that lightly and expertly grasp both heaviness and depth.

The majority of these tales involve poverty, characters living rough or worse. It is a world of hostels and shelters, betting shops and tents, precious pennies in cups and hats, cheap food and welcome but treacherous alcohol.

Old Holborn, where a Scottish drifter "helps out" a busker in London is both amusing and bleak, and was once the basis of a play, The Busker, for Allan Tall's theatre company. The Paperbag lingers: a short, perfect and penetrating tale of mental disarray and loneliness that, one imagines, even Kelman could not improve. Getting There is both beautiful and bleak: a Scot hitchhikes to the south west of England, is lost and skint, and ends up huddling in a seafront shelter as a storm comes in. One re-reads it, hoping the man reaches a kinder fate.

A Lean Third is full of exceptional writing. The afterword is an exceptional look into writing, how writers write, and why. This is a slim book with the literary weight of an anchor.

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