John Herdman

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John Herdman
John Herdman.jpg
John Herdman pictured at The Grassmarket Project, October 2014.
Born Template:Birth date and age
Edinburgh, Scotland
Occupation Writer
Nationality British
Genre Scottish literature
Notable awards Template:Awd Template:Awd

John Macmillan Herdman (born July 20, 1941) is a Scottish novelist, short story writer and literary critic. He is the author of seventeen books including five novels and various works of shorter fiction, a play, two critical studies and a memoir, and he has contributed to twenty other books. His work has been translated, broadcast and anthologized, and taught at universities in France, Australia and Russia.

Life and Career

John Herdman was educated at Merchiston Castle School, and then at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a double first in English in 1963 and afterwards did research in Scottish literature. At a later date he returned to Cambridge to study church history for a Diploma in Theology, and in 1988 was awarded his Cambridge Ph.D for his published critical work. In the late 1960s and 1970s he was much involved in Scottish nationalism, both political and literary, a period recalled in his memoirs Poets, Pubs, Polls and Pillar Boxes (Akros, 1999) and Another Country (Thirsty Books, 2013). He has held a Creative Writing Fellowship at Edinburgh University (1977-79), Hawthornden Writer’s Fellowships (1989 and 1995), and the William Soutar Fellowship in Perth (1990-91), and has been Writer in Residence at Champlain College, Trent University, Canada (1998). He has received two Scottish Arts Council Book Awards and four bursaries. He is married and lives in Edinburgh.

James Kelman (born 9 June 1946) is an influential Scottish writer of novels, short stories, plays, and political essays. His novel A Disaffection was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1989. Kelman won the 1994 Booker Prize with How Late It Was, How Late[1] In 1998 Kelman was awarded the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award. His 2008 novel Kieron Smith, Boy won both of Scotland's principal literary awards: the Saltire Society's Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year.[2]

Life and work

Born in Glasgow, Kelman says:[3]

My own background is as normal or abnormal as anyone else's. Born and bred in Govan and Drumchapel, inner city tenement to the housing scheme homeland on the outer reaches of the city. Four brothers, my mother a full time parent, my father in the picture framemaking and gilding trade, trying to operate a one man business and I left school at 15 etc. etc. (...) For one reason or another, by the age of 21/22 I decided to write stories. The stories I wanted to write would derive from my own background, my own socio-cultural experience. I wanted to write as one of my own people, I wanted to write and remain a member of my own community.

During the 1970s he published a first collection of short stories. He became involved in Philip Hobsbaum's creative writing group in Glasgow along with Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jeff Torrington and his short stories began to appear in magazines.[4] These stories introduced a distinctive style, expressing first person internal monologues in a pared-down prose using Glaswegian speech patterns, though avoiding for the most part the quasi-phonetic rendition of Tom Leonard. Kelman's developing style has been influential on the succeeding generation of Scottish novelists, including Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Janice Galloway. In 1998, Kelman received the Stakis Prize for "Scottish Writer of the Year" for his collection of short stories 'The Good Times.'

Critical reception

Kelman's Booker Prize win was, at the time, controversial due to what some saw as the books casual use of bad language: one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, denounced the awarding of the prize to Kelman's book as "a disgrace".[5] Kelman has since said that his Booker prize win, specifically the negative publicity and attacks made as a result, made publishers more reluctant to handle his work.[6]

The debate surrounding the use of this "offensive" language has been picked up by Kelman himself, who argues that the "Standard English" of traditional English novels is unrealistic. In his essay, 'The Importance of Glasgow in my Work', he compares the presentation of working class and Scottish characters with those of the traditional "upper class" English protagonist: "Everybody from a Glaswegian or working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero (occasionally Scottish but with no linguistic variation) whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”[7][8]

Political views and activism

Kelman's work has been described as flowing "not only from being an engaged writer, but a cultural and political activist".[9] At the time of Glasgow's Year as City of Culture he was prominent in the Workers' City group, critical of the celebrations. The name was chosen as to draw attention to the renaming of part of the city centre as the Merchant City, which they described as promoting the "fallacy that Glasgow somehow exists because of (...) 18th century entrepreneurs and far-sighted politicians. (The merchants) were men who trafficked in degradation, causing untold misery, death and starvation to thousands"[10] The Workers' City group campaigned against what was seen as the victimisation of People's Palace curator Elspeth King and a Council attempt to sell off one third of Glasgow Green. Their activities drew the ire of Labour Party councillors and commentators, Kelman, and his colleagues Hugh Savage and Farquhar McLay, being described as "an 'embarrassment' to the city's 'cultural workforce'".[10]

Kelman has been a prominent campaigner, notably in issues of social justice and traditional left wing causes, although he is resolutely not a party man, and remains at his heart a libertarian socialist anarchist, saying "the parliamentary opposition parties are essential to the political apparatus of this country which is designed to arrest justice".[10] He lives in Glasgow with his wife and children, though has also lived in London, Manchester, the Channel Islands, Australia and America.

In his introduction to Born up a Close: Memoirs of a Brigton Boy (2006), an edition of Glaswegian political campaigner Hugh Savage's writings, Kelman sums up his understanding of the history of national and class conflict as follows:

In an occupied country indigenous history can only be radical. It is a class issue. The intellectual life of working class people is ‘occupied’. In a colonised country intellectual occupation takes place throughout society. The closer to the ruling class we get the less difference there exists in language and culture, until finally we find that questions fundamental to society at its widest level are settled by members of the same closely knit circle, occasionally even the same family or ‘bloodline’. And the outcome of that can be war, the slaughter of working class people.

Despite reservations about nationalism, Kelman has voiced his support for Scottish Independence, stating "Any form of nationalism is dangerous, and should be treated with caution. I cannot accept nationalism and I am not a Scottish Nationalist. But once that is said, I favour a Yes or No decision on independence and I shall vote Yes to independence."[11] In 2012 a film was made based on the short story 'Greyhound For Breakfast'. He has voiced criticism of Scottish arts funding council Creative Scotland.[12][13]


As a fiction writer, Herdman’s main publications have been Descent (1968), A Truth Lover (1973), Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie / Clapperton (1974), Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978), Stories Short and Tall (1979), Imelda and Other Stories (1993), Ghostwriting (1995), Four Tales (2000), The Sinister Cabaret (2001), and My Wife’s Lovers (2007). A French edition of Imelda appeared in 2006. These works have been seen as continuing the tradition of James Hogg and R.L. Stevenson in Scottish fiction, but Herdman’s main affinities are perhaps with European writers of the nineteenth century and with Irish and European modernism. His fictions have a metaphysical flavour and a preoccupation with psychological duality, as well as strong elements of the surreal, the satirical and the grotesque. The books were widely commented upon in Scotland on publication, and studies of interest include Macdonald Daly’s introduction to Four Tales (Zoilus Press, 2000), Jean Berton’s articles on Ghostwriting in Études Écossaises nos. 8 and 9 (Université de Stendhal-Grenoble 3, 2002 and 2003-4), and Maïca Sanconie’s Postface to the French edition of Imelda (Quidam Editeur, 2006). Herdman has been interviewed by Macdonald Daly in Southfields six point one (1999), and by Isobel Murray and Bob Tait in Scottish Writers Talking 3 (John Donald, 2006). His plays Clapperton’s Day and Cruising were successfully produced on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1985 and 1997 respectively, the latter being published in 1997.

As critic, Herdman has published Voice Without Restraint: Bob Dylan’s Lyrics and their Background (London and New York, 1982; Japanese translation, Tokyo, 1983), and The Double in Nineteenth Century Fiction (London, 1990, and New York, 1991), and contributed to various critical volumes on Scottish literary subjects. He has written very widely on modern and contemporary Scottish writers, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, David Lindsay, William Soutar, Fionn MacColla, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott, Duncan Glen and D.M. Black. He edited two volumes of The Third Statistical Account of Scotland: Vol. 22 (The County of Berwick) (1992), and Vol. 28 (The County of Roxburgh) (1992). He is a past editor of Catalyst for the Scottish Viewpoint, and between 2004 and 2012 was co-editor (with Walter Perrie) of Fras and Fras Publications.


Short stories



  • Descent (Fiery Star Press, Edinburgh, 1968) - available from Zoilus Press
  • A Truth Lover (Akros Publications, Preston, 1973)
  • Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie/Clapperton (Rainbow Books, Aberdeen, 1974)
  • Pagan's Pilgrimage (Akros Publications, Preston, 1978)
  • Stories Short & Tall (Caithness Books, Thurso, 1979) - available direct from John Herdman
  • Voice Without Restraint: Bob Dylan's Lyrics & their Background (Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh, 1982; Delilah Books, New York, 1982; (Japanese translation) CBS/Sony Publishing, Tokyo, 1983) - available on CD from Zoilus Press
  • Three Novellas (Polygon Books, Edinburgh, 1987) - OOP
  • The Double in Nineteenth Century Fiction (The Macmillan Press, London, 1990; St Martin's Press, New York, 1991) - available from James Thin and from Macmillan Press on order.
  • Imelda & Other Stories (Polygon, Edinburgh, 1993)
  • Ghostwriting (Polygon, Edinburgh, 1996) (OOP)
  • Cruising: A Play in Two Acts (diehard publishers, Edinburgh, 1997)
  • Poets, Pubs, Polls & Pillar Boxes (Akros Publications, Kirkcaldy, 1999) - OOP
  • Four Tales, with an introduction by MacDonald Daly (Zoilus Press, London, 2000)
  • The Sinister Cabaret (Black Ace Books, Forfar, 2001)
  • Triptych: Three Tales (fras Publications, Blair Atholl, 2004)
  • Imelda, trans. with a post-face by Maïca Sanconie (Quidam Editeur, Paris, 2006) (OOP)
  • My Wife's Lovers: Ten Tales (Black Ace Books, Perth, 2007)
  • Another Country (Thirsty Books/ Argyll Publishing, Edinburgh, 2013)


Contributor to:

  • Whither Scotland?, ed. Duncan Glen (Victor Gollancz, London, 1971)
  • Essays on Fionn MacColla, ed. David Morrison (Caithness Books, Thurso, 1973) - available from James Thin
  • Jock Tamson's Bairns, ed. Trevor Royle (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1977)
  • Twentieth Century Literature of Criticism, Vol. 15 (Gale Research Co., Detroit, 1985)
  • Essays on Sorley MacLean, ed. Joy Hendry & Raymond J. Ross (Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1986)
  • The Devil & the Giro: Two Twentieth Centuries of Scottish Stories, ed. Carl MacDougall (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1989)
  • The Day I Met the Queen Mother (New Writing Scotland 8) (ASLS, Aberdeen, 1990)
  • The Devil & Dr Tuberose (Scottish Short Stories 1991) (Harper Collins, London, 1991)
  • Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 40 (Gale Research Co., Detroit, 1993)
  • The Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction, ed. Peter Kravitz (Picador, London, 1997)
  • Marilynre várva: Mai skót novellák (Pannónia Könyvek, Hungary, 1998)
  • The Keekin-Gless: An Anthology from Perth & Kinross, ed. R.A. Jamieson & Carl MacDougall (Perth & Kinross Libraries, Perth, 1999)
  • Figures of Speech: An Anthology of Magdalene Writers, ed. M.E.J. Hughes, John Mole, Nick Seddon (Magdalene College, Cambridge, 2000)
  • The Lie of the Land: Poems and Stories from Perth & Kinross, ed. Brian McCabe et al. (Perth and Kinross Libraries, Perth, 2004)
  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Colin Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004)
  • Bringing Back Some Brightness: 20 Years of New Writing Scotland (NWS 22), ed. Valerie Thornton and Hamish Whyte (ASLS, Glasgow, 2004)
  • Short Story Criticism, Vol. 44 (Thomson Gale, Michigan, 2005-6)
  • Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 192 (Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008)
  • The Mammoth Book of Bob Dylan, ed. Sean Egan (Robinson, London, 2011)


  • Third Statistical Account of Scotland:
   * Vol. XXIII, The County of Berwick (Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1992)
   * Vol. XXVIII, The County of Roxburgh (Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1992)

Book-length critical works on Kelman


  1. Winder, Robert (12 October 1994). "'Foul-mouthed' novel is pounds 20,000 Booker winner". The Independent. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  2. "Kieron Smith, boy is Scottish Book of the Year 2009". Scottish Arts Council. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  3. Kelman, James (1992). The Importance of Glasgow in my Work (in Some Recent Attacks). Stirling: AK Press. pp. 78–84. ISBN 1-873176-80-5. 
  4. Kravitz, Peter (1997). The Picador book of contemporary Scottish fiction. Picador. pp. xiii–xv. ISBN 0330335502. 
  5. Lyall, Sarah (29 November 1994). "In Furor Over Prize, Novelist Speaks Up For His Language". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  6. [1]
  7. Kelman, James (1992-01-01). Kelman, James, ed. The Importance of Glasgow in My Work, IN: Some recent attacks: essays cultural & political (PDF). Stirling: AK Press. pp. 78–84. ISBN 1873176805. 
  8. "The Mystery of the Missing Scots". Litro Magazine (in English). Retrieved 2016-02-09. 
  9. Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (1 ed.). Stirling: AK Press. 1992. ISBN 1-873176-80-5. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Kelman, james (1992). "Foreword". Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (1 ed.). Stirling: AK Press. pp. 1–4. ISBN 1-873176-80-5. 
  11. "Scottish independence: Author James Kelman plans to vote Yes 'with caution'". Retrieved 11 May 2012. 

External links