Book review: The Red Cockatoo - James Kelman and the Art of Commitment

IN 1999 a newspaper asked Edwin Morgan for his pick of Scottish literary quotations to be carved into the façade of the new parliament. As the discussion turned to living writers, he executed a skillful parry: “With Kelman it’s hard to think of something that’s appropriate”.

Morgan meant no disrespect, but it was probably right to omit James Kelman from the Canongate Wall. Incorporating his prose into the fabric and symbolism of Holyrood would have been dishonest. Kelman’s art and politics are far removed from the devolution project, whether understood as a stepping-stone to statehood or effort to re-legitimise British democracy. His principled disdain for both these ventures has been plain from the start; Kelman’s political commitments are strictly extra-parliamentary, focused on direct action and community struggle.

Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger have constructed a monument to Kelman’s position outside Establishment political channels, locating him at the heart of a loose network of radical groupings and projects, from the Free University Network to anti-racist campaigns to Clydeside Action on Asbestosis. Apart from his own essays, Kelman’s political activism has never been recorded in this focused and textured way. Rich in personal and incidental detail, at its best The Red Cockatoo is a valuable document of a crucial area of Kelman’s life and work. Miller’s illustrations, which adopt the “objective” visual language of flowcharts and exploded diagrams to capture Kelman’s action and alliances, are a triumph. The factual aura of these images is both ironised and energised by the ragged, restless, “personal” quality of the freehand lines and lettering, an effect strongly reminiscent of Kelman’s fiction.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

As with much of that fiction, The Red Cockatoo contains a structural irony. Miller and Rodger take pains to emphasise Kelman’s role in fostering lateral connections rather than acting as a Leninist leader or coalition-builder, but it is difficult to shake the feeling our interest in the radical grouplets is a function of our greater interest in the personal politics of Kelman. (Which is, in turn, a by-product of our interest in his art – handled with less care than the activism here, but including suggestive reflections on Kelman and urban space.) A related awkwardness emerges in the centrepiece of the book, a fastidious account of the 1990 Self-Determination and Power conference organised by a team including Kelman and Derek Rodger, and best remembered today for the attendance of Noam Chomsky.

Working from private, unedited video footage, the authors’ commentary has its Pravda moments (“Chomsky at the microphone immediately demonstrated an intellectual generosity, a finely nuanced awareness of civil responsibility, and co-operative spirit in his opening remarks”). But their scrupulous attention to the practical details and internal micro-politics of the conference (we even learn how the raffle money was spent) fit the tradition of radical local history in which Kelman’s own non-fiction is rooted. As the Scottish Left re-open a “first principles” debate on self-determination, we could do worse than consider the successes and failures of the 1990 conference, including the ambivalence of “ordinary” delegates about the prominence of star intellectuals in the event programme.

There is a jarring contrast between the authors’ patient reconstruction of the conference and the breezy, even slapdash quality of earlier sections situating Kelman’s activism in wider literary horizons. “Common Sense” philosophy is key to the constellation Miller and Rodger mean to assemble around and before Kelman, but some of the connections they propose stretch common sense to breaking point. Plato, Confucius, Machiavelli and Rousseau – four “operators who sought to use the word as a means to politics” – are nominated as Kelman’s precursors in literary engagement; but can the authors mean the Plato who abandoned politics for true philosophy, and warned of the dangers of writing? “It is not entirely crazy,” they assure us, to view Kelman the essayist as a son of Montaigne, since the Frenchman “couched his own sense of legitimacy in contemplating and apprehending the world around him in this membership of the body of humanity, rather than it’s [sic] appointed agencies.”

But the relaxed honesty and self-fascination of the Essais are premised on Montaigne’s cheerful acceptance of “inconstancy” and a “privileged lack of emotion” that stops him getting worked up about things. Kelman’s essays read otherwise.

If the earlier sections of the book have been edited and proofread, it doesn’t show. The opening scene of Kelman’s best-known novel does not contain a “drunken brawl with the police”. The claim that Kelman has “produced no fantastical writing whatsoever” since his early stories overlooks, among other things, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free (2004). The notion of “civil society” does not originate with Gramsci, there is no such thing as the “literary classes”, and only the most slipshod reader of Terry Eagleton thinks he denies the existence of literature. If Charles Dickens is “the most establishment of English novelists”, the establishment can’t be so sinister after all – just a bit soppy and naïve.

Indeed, Orwell’s portrait of Dickens bears a strong resemblance to the subject of this book: “It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry.”

Could Kelman be the next furious literary conscience to be canonised – and de-fanged – as a humanist saint? Time will tell. The Red Cockatoo adds detail and nuance to the familiar image of Kelman the Indignant, but only partly honours the rigour and clarity behind the fighting talk.

• The Red Cockatoo: James Kelman and the Art of Commitment by Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger,

Sandstone Press, 244pp, £15.99