James Kelman: From bus driver to world-famous novelist

James Kelman at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for the awards. Picture: Dan Phillips
James Kelman at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for the awards. Picture: Dan Phillips
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JAMES Kelman is renowned for giving a voice to the ordinary people of his home city of Glasgow.

After two years of a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor – he said it helped develop his love of words – he emigrated to California with his family.

Kelman later returned to Scotland and worked in a variety of jobs, including as a bus driver. He also studied philosophy and English at the University of Strathclyde.

He has told how, one day, he decided out of the blue he wanted to write. Philip Hobsbaum’s creative writing group in Glasgow is credited with giving him the confidence to express himself in his distinctive style – first-person internal monologues, using Glaswegian speech patterns.

His style is regarded as having been an influence on later writers such as Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway.

Kelman was part of Workers’ City Group, which campaigned against what they perceived were injustices in Glasgow, including the promotion of the Merchant City quarter, which he said gave undue praise to the role of those who had used slave labour to create their wealth.

In the 1970s, he published his first collection of short stories and went on to write a number of books. His first novel, The Busconductor Hines, was published in 1984. His novel How Late it Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. The book, with its strong language, attracted criticism with some MPs calling for it to be banned.

In his acceptance speech, he defended the right to self-expression and attacked censorship and elitism.


IT HAPPENED on her way home from the casino one morning, Helen noticed the two men through the side passenger window.

A pair of homeless guys. One was tall and skinny, the other smaller, heavier built and walking with a limp, quite a bad limp. They approached the traffic lights and were going to cross the road in front of her taxi, right in front of its nose. The lights were red but set to change. Surely the men knew that?

The tall man was having to walk slowly to stay abreast of the other, almost having to stop. He was full bearded and wearing a woollen cap. Although he was taking small steps Helen could imagine him striding out, his stride would be long and it would be hard keeping up with him. There was something else about him, to do with his shape and the way he walked, just something.

Would they make it across in time? Only if they hurried. They wouldn’t hurry, not them. You could tell just by looking. They went at their own pace and that was that.

Helen looked away, then looked back. Her workmates Caroline and Jill were beside her in the back seat but hadn’t noticed the drama. The lights would change and the taxi would move.

What would they do? Nothing, just keep walking. Oh God, Helen hated this kind of thing. Why did she even notice? Typical. She always had to. Other people didn’t.

Only it was so tense, too tense.

©James Kelman from Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)