How Late it Was, How Late
by James Kelman
Norton, 374 pp., $21.00
The Dead School
by Patrick McCabe
Dial Press, 286 pp., $21.95
Walking the Dog and Other Stories
by Bernard MacLaverty
Norton, 198 pp., $20.00
In 1957 the English social critic Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy, subtitled Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments. His aim was to describe modern English working-class culture on the evidence of his own experience and of the materials, printed or not, devised for the instruction and diversion of that class. His conclusions were measured:
My argument is not that there was, in England one generation ago, an urban culture still very much “of the people” and that now there is only a mass urban culture. It is rather that the appeals made by the mass publicists are for a great number of reasons made more insistently, effectively and in a more comprehensive and centralised form today than they were earlier; that we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture; that the remnants of what was at least in parts an urban culture “of the people” are being destroyed; and that the new mass culture is in some important ways less healthy than the often crude culture it is replacing.
Hoggart was especially familiar with the working-class communities of Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, and Hull. He made no particular reference to Scotland, presumably because he thought the differences between working-class life there and in England were slight.
If James Kelman’s novels and stories are taken as evidence, Scotland, or at least Glasgow, deserves a separate chapter in such a book as Hoggart’s. The mass urban culture that Hoggart dreaded has arrived in Glasgow’s Sauciehall Street, the Gorbals, Crown Street, Cumberland Street, and Scobie Street. Kelman’s characters are working-class people, even though most of them are out of a job and living on the dole. They remember what it was like to work, however irregularly, or at least what it was like for their fathers to work. In Kelman’s A Disaffection (1989) the main character, Pat Doyle, is a teacher and he has a job, but he identifies himself with the working class, rages against the social and political system, and despises himself for playing a middle-class part in it. He assumes that “the system” is in place, permanently, and that it is represented now and forever by its deadly bureaucrats.
In Kelman’s most recent novel, How Late it Was, How Late, the hero, Sammy Samuels, lives on the gyro, the Friday check from the Employment Exchange. The book is not a straight-forward narration but a soliloquy by Sammy raging over his dealings with the police, civil servants, doctors, and other exemplars of authority. Although the events are not always clear, we gather that he is back on the streets of Glasgow after doing time in jail—eleven of his thirty-eight years—and is blind as a result of a fight with some soldiers and a beating by the police who arrest him for the brawl. Sammy manages to make his way home from jail in spite of his blindness, only to find that his live-in friend …