James Barke
: Politics, Cinema and Writing Scottish Urban Modernity

  • Keir Elder

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Literature


    This thesis examines the early works of the Scottish novelist, playwright, would-be screenwriter, commentator and political agitator, James Barke, to argue that he was a more significant figure on the Scottish literary scene than his place in the canon would suggest. The purpose in so doing is to suggest that his writing was symptomatic of a modernisation in Scottish society and letters during the 1930s. In prosecuting this endeavour, the research considers four aspects of the author's early output: the political dimension; his aesthetic sensibilities; the impact and representation of the city; and finally the part played by the experience and influence of the cinema. Equally, it is argued that these novels are emblematic of both the author's own migration from country to city and the longer-term transformation of Scotland's demography from largely rural-dwelling to largely urban-dwelling. The theoretical method engages with a Marxist critique and anchors Barke's early novels to his constantly evolving political commitment which tracks, but does not entirely subscribe to, the development of a broad range of Leftist ideologies of the era.

    The jump-off point and principal underpinning of the research is an appreciation of James Barke's Major Operation (1936) as a Scottish novel of significance for its literary innovation, approach to, and rendering of, Scottish urban modernity. In the thoroughgoing 2002 analysis of the field in Scottish Literature edited by Douglas Gifford, Major Operation is identified as one of the Scottish novels 'extending its perspective of ironic social realism to the city' and a novel that 'had no time for non-political and non-economic considerations.' This thesis contends that this is to diminish the scope of Major Operation's engagement with innovative forms and considerations of the dichotomies that comprise the modern city. I argue that, inspired by the stylistic achievements of James Joyce, in many respects Ulysses and Major Operation are contiguous, each author concerned with a ‘peripheral’ city in an Empire, each coloured by its national tradition, residual parochial features, idiolect and political situation. In a bold literary form, Barke's novel celebrates and critiques Glasgow in a manner unsurpassed in Scottish letters, his approach to modern urban Scotland in his early novels being a uniquely informed and cosmopolitan one.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorKeith Williams (Supervisor)


    • James Barke
    • Scottish Modernisms
    • Cinema
    • Film Society of Glasgow
    • Scottish Literary Revival

    Cite this