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James Kelman enters the Scottish culture controversy

IT was surely inevitable. Ask a group of writers for their thoughts on independence and at least a couple of them would say something that could be turned into juicy headlines.

Author James Kelman
Author James Kelman

Alasdair Gray, the feted author of Lanark, recognised as one of the greatest novels of the past half century, as well as an artist of renown, duly obliged.

Calling his chapter in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence "Settlers and Colonists", Gray pointed his pen at English arts administrators in Scotland, including Vicky Featherstone, the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, and Andrew Dixon, the first director of Creative Scotland, both of whom have recently announced their resignations.

The latter, wrote Gray, "admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but said he was willing to learn. Ain't Scotland lucky?"

Inevitably perhaps, Gray's remarks were interpreted, as he must have anticipated, as anti-English and, in some quarters, racist, disregarding the fact that in his essay he illustrated his argument by mentioning a number of English (and Welsh) incomers to Scotland "who became more effectively Scottish than most born natives" and whose contribution to Scottish culture has been long-lasting, crucial and often unselfish.

James Kelman, who was presented last month with the Saltire Society's Scottish Book of the Year Award for his novel Mo Said She Was Quirky, also contributes to Unstated. In his essay, he, like Gray, writes of colonists and imperialism.

"Writers like myself," he remarks, "are guilty of being 'too Scottish'; our 'Scottishness' is an attack on 'Britishness' and acts as a disqualification. It is assumed that Scottish experience is homogenous whereas English experience offers a wide-ranging and worldly heterogeneity. Our work is attacked in pseudo-literary tones for its perceived insularity. This also happens within Scotland; anglocentric Scottish critics condemn Scottish writers for their 'lack of diversity'."

Kelman, the only Scottish author ever to have won the Booker Prize, has won the Scottish Book of the Year award three times. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, which is given not for one book but for a remarkable body of work.

He spoke exclusively to the Sunday Herald last week as controversy grew over Gray's comments.

James Kelman's voice betrays an air of battle-fatigued exasperation. What particularly irks him, he says, is that it is not assumed that there is a Scottish literary tradition within which many Scottish writers operate. "Even to assert that we do have literary tradition of our own is somehow to be seen as a form of anti-Englishness or xenophobia or racism,'' he said in an interview with the Sunday Herald last week.

''In any other country in the world – imagine we were in Norway – how would it be if we were Norwegian people and the people who controlled all our artistic endeavour and expression were people from Denmark and their only education experience was Danish? Danish art, Danish music, Danish literature.

"And yet they're [the English] in control of ours. And what happens is once they're in control is that they discover there is an indigenous culture here. They're very cheerful to realise that! They're really surprised to discover that Scotland's got writers. 'This is really great and we really do want to get to know them!'"

On a personal level, says Kelman, he has nothing against the likes of the former director of Creative Scotland Andrew Dixon and ouotgoing National Theatre artistic director Vicky Featherstone. On the contrary. "They are really nice people. It just hasn't dawned on them that Scotland's a country. They haven't realised that as a northerly country it has its own traditions and art and culture.

"They just assume – they make the ordinary, imperialist assumption – that the country doesn't exist until they've come in and given it their own culture. What they would see as being non-parochial. Because anything that goes on in the colonised country can only be parochial. It can only be that. It takes you back to 1990 and Glasgow's year as city of culture and all that."

The need constantly to defend and define the culture in which he works, and explain what he's trying to achieve, even to fellow Scots, has long been a cross Kelman has had to bear. When in 1994 he won the Booker, the judges' decision was described by Simon Jenkins, who at present is chairman of the National Trust in England, as an act of "literary vandalism". Kelman himself, meanwhile, was dismissed as "a Jilly Cooper of the gutter, a Barbara Cartland of the Gorbals".

Not a lot, it seems, has changed in the intervening years. What can you expect, says Kelman, when people have no understanding of the tradition? On the other hand, he has no desire either to be seen as representative of anywhere, be it Scotland or Glasgow, which is how some people have interpreted his latest novel. One critic, he recalls, said that if Mo Said She Was Quirky "is supposed to be representative of Glasgow people then I don't think much of it".

"Well, it's not supposed to be that at all," says Kelman. "Why would you think that? Why would you think that any Scottish writer has to represent Scottishness? Is Martin Amis supposed to represent Englishness? Or Ian McEwan?

"English writers make that criticism of me but they would never make that criticism of their own. It would never occur to them. When you say that to them they get a glazed look over their faces. They don't know what you're talking about.

"Yet for us they always make these assumptions about what we're doing as artists. It really is wearing and it's nice to be away from this culture in that sense. It really is good being away. I've been exiled from this country on many occasions in my life and these are probably the best times in my life.

"For me, it's a treat to be in places like the States or in Europe or Australia. There they assume you're a writer, whereas here you have to argue that you are indeed a writer and that your work should be treated like any other writer's. I like to use the phrase 'burden of proof'. You have to justify the way you live your life and so on."

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