Kieron Smith, Boy
by James Kelman
We’ve all been there, we all know what it feels like, but rarely does an author get inside the head of a child and come up with a voice as authentic as Kieron Smith. We’re given a child’s-eye view of Kieron’s world: a narrow, confining view that dilates as Kieron gets older and his experiences broaden. It’s a very ordinary childhood but it’s also a unique one.
Kieron is around 5 or 6 years old at the start of the book and living in a Glasgow tenement where he can visit his grannie and beloved granda who live in another tenement in the next street. He plays with his pals in the back courts, climbing the walls over the middens and going for rides on the wee passenger ferry near his home. He goes to the swimming baths with his grannie. He discovers the solitude of the library. He joins the Boys Brigade. He marches along with the Orange walk, innocently colluding with the religious bigotry that infests his home town. His da’s at sea in the Merchant Navy so only at home intermittently. Maw’s out at work and big brother Matt who is about 5 years older is the blue-eyed boy - so Kieron thinks: “I was born second. So they all liked him the best. Except my grannie, she liked me. If everybody like Mattie she would just like me because that was fair.” “Fair” is a word that Kieron uses a lot and his sense of justice often gets him into bother.
When the family moves from the tenement (probably in the early 50s) to a post-war housing scheme, Kieron’s world is turned upside down. No longer is he able to just pop in to see his grandparents after school – it’s now a train bus and ferry ride away. Da’s left the navy and works only sporadically: his presence in the house is not a welcome one. Kieron still has to share a room with his brother but at least now they don’t have to share a bed. Mattie, of course, gets the “best” bed nearest the window: “I did not care about his side except the window. How come he had it? It was not fair at all, I could not even look out. If I just wanted to see. If it was getting dark or raining, if it was pelting down or what. I just wanted to look out and I could not, so that was not fair. How come I could not just look out? That was all. How come I was not allowed to?”
Kieron lives a life of anxiety negotiating fear at every turn – doings from his da, doings from his brother, the teacher’s belt, trying to avoid the Catholics up the next close - but he also has a lot of fun. The boys’ games are played outdoors, a game of “heidies”, exploring building sites, catching fish in the park while steering clear of the “parky”. The only toy mentioned is an old second-hand bike.
The unique use of language in this book is what brings it alive. James Kelman is notorious for his use of Glasgow dialect (toned down in this novel) and for the amount of swearing in his books. But “bad words” are banned in the Smith household and in a brilliant device Kelman allows Kieron to self-censor the language. Kieron says: “Mitch said it too. Oh Podgie is a moaning-faced b*****d. That was him when we were walking. Moan moan moan. It is a f*****g swamp. Oh the grass is f*****g wringing. Oh my maw will kick up f**k”. Remarkably, Kieron’s language alters as he gets older and with his entry to secondary school the innocence (and the asterisks) have gone.
I have to confess to a bit of a bias here as Kieron’s childhood is very close to mine and it felt very real, and sometimes very uncomfortable, to me. I’d also stick my neck out and say that this is a work of sheer brilliance in which every one of us will recognise the pain, fear, anxiety, excitement and downright joy of childhood.