I tried, I really tried to read all the way to the end of How Late It Was How Late. I made it, but it was incredibly hard going and several times I was ready to throw in the towel.
The issue wasn’t the rawness of the text. After a time I simply became immured to the frequency with which James Kelman used the F word. In case you’re interested, some columnists did a count and got to 4,000 instances. In my edition that equates to ten uses per page….
I even got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect used by his central character, a habitual drunk and petty criminal called Sammy Samuels. I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants…
Here’s a typical passage that will give you a flavour of the style of this book. Any oddities are not of my making – it’s just the way the book is written. This snippet comes from early in the novel where Sammy, having woken up in an alley after a two-day drinking binge gets into a fight with some soldiers. Taken into police custody he’s so badly beaten he becomes blind.
He didnay even know what day it was. Jesus. The big mouth man he always had to blab. If that was him for another night
Jesus christ. She would be really worried now. He aye had to blab. How come he aye had to blab! Just stupit. Stupit. She would be worrying. Doesnay matter the situation, how it was, that was past tense, she would worry. Cause he had nay place to go and she knew it. Ye’re talking from whenever it was the now back to last Friday morning man that’s how long it was; four maybe five days, including the Saturday. Fucking Saturday! Saturday was a blank. A blank.
Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The ‘she’ in the passage turns out to be a woman called Helen with whom he’s been living. But when he eventually gets back to the flat she’s disappeared. Where and why, we don’t know. Half the time even Sammy doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on.
Bleak and Bizarre
For a book that deals with someone already in the dregs of society whose life suddenly turns much worse when he is blinded, How Late It Was, How Late is understandably dark. But it can also be quite funny in a black comedy kind of way.
Sammy for example cobbles together a kind of walking stick so he can tap his way along the streets. Then he realises it needs to be painted white. No problem, he has plenty of paint in his flat. Just one issue remains – how will he know which can is white?
Sammy bizarrely doesn’t seem all that fazed by his blindness initially. He just thinks it’s weird, an ‘initial wee flurry of excitement but no what ye would call panic-stations.” He’s more concerned about the fact someone stole his new leather shoes while he was in his drunken stupor, leaving him with badly fitting cheap trainers.
He’s remarkably philosophical about his run ins with the police – he’s clearly been down that road before and knows the score. But when he tries to get some disability compensation for his blindness he enters an unknown world of absurdity and obfuscation in the form of the welfare system. All he wants to do is claim some money so he can buy food but instead he gets a lecture on ‘Dysfunctional Benefits’ and ‘Community Gratuity’. And ends up empty handed except for a warning about making false statements alleging police violence
Flashes of humour didn’t however provide enough compensation for the fact that for most of the time I found the book was a slog. Page after page of stream of consciousness, interrupted occasionally by a strange third person voice, but without the
Condemned By Critics
I didn’t dislike it as intensely however as some of the critics who castigated How Late It Was How Late when it was published and was named as the Booker Prize winner in 1994..
Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist, for example described Kelman as “illiterate savage” who had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. One of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.”
Kelman hit back in his acceptance speech at the Booker awards ceremony. “… my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”
He has a good point. No author should feel stifled because of an elitist view of what is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ language. Kelman is writing from his own experience, of the people he saw around him while growing up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s a city notorious for straight talking, hard living and dark humour. Did the critics seriously expect Kelman to have a central figure who uses Queen’s English or received pronunciation?
I didn’t enjoy How Late It Was How Late, but neither did I feel it deserved the level of criticism levied at Kelman. It’s not a book to everyone’s taste but he has to be admired for his boldness and ingenuity.
It’s celebration time here at BookerTalk headquarters as we mark another anniversary for the blog.
Eight years ago I came up with the idea of starting a book blog. To be frank, I had only a very sketchy idea of why I wanted to do this. The ‘plan’ , such as it was, came down to this: I would read all the books that won the Booker Prize and would write about them.
It didn’t take very long before I got a big dose of reality.
- Blogging was more time consuming than I expected and
- I couldn’t read fast enough to create new content more than once a week. Even with my limited knowledge of blogging, I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to work! and
- I’d been overly optimistic about the level of interest my blog would generate. The world, it was clear, was not waiting for my thoughts on book XYZ.
This was a project that looked like it wouldn’t even last six months. Fortunately there were plenty of people around who did know how to run a book blog. They were more than generous; sharing their advice and insights and giving me confidence.
So just over 1,100 posts later and amazingly I’m still here. Of course things have changed over the eight years.
The site has gone through more than one design update. I’ve moved away from the initial focus on the Booker Prize in favour of broader topics. And I’ve tried (though not always succeeded) to write in a more personal tone.
I’m still making tweaks however; adding more sub titles to posts for example to improve their readability or looking for more interesting graphics.
I know a lot more about blogging now than I did eight years ago, most of it learned the hard way through trial and error.
Lessons From The Front Line Of Book Blogging
Lesson 1: Blogging Takes Energy
I wasn’t completely naive when I started BookerTalk. I knew I’d have to put effort in to creating content, formatting pages and posts etc. But I never appreciated just how hard it is to come up with something to say every few days.
I also hadn’t figured in the amount of time required to respond to comments from readers and to read other people’s blogs.
Doing all this while working full time and having to travel for my job was exhausting. I’m not surprised that 90% of bloggers quit after a few months. Or that many bloggers that were very active when I started out, suffered burn out and lost their enthusiasm.
Two things have helped me keep going.
One has been to keep a note of possible blog topics.
I learned very early on that just posting reviews wasn’t going to work – I take too long to write them (the curse of perfection!) and I don’t read enough to do more than one review each week. Clearly that wasn’t enough to sustain a blog.
I knew I needed other material. But there’s nothing worse than just looking at a blank screen trying desperately to think of something to write. Now, when I’m struggling for inspiration I take a look at my blog topics list. Some topics are reminders of books I need to review. Some are ideas for list posts and discussion topics. Others might just prompts like “My favourite XXX”. You can find loads of ideas for blog topics online; most are not relevant but others you can easily adapt.
The other thing that’s helped in recent years is to be more disciplined with content creation. Most blogging experts I came across, advised me to have a blogging schedule. where I wrote a new post every day, or once a week or three times a week.
No way can I post every day. I try to have a new piece of content every couple of days. It doesn’t always work out that way because, as we all know, unexpected events in life can throw the best of plans out of the window. No way do I ever want to tell a friend “Sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch, got to write my blog post.”
You have to choose what works for you – only you know how much time you have available and how much you have to say. And – more crucially – how important blogging is to you. If it’s important, then you’ll put the effort into it, just like you would any other hobby or interest.
I don’t claim to have nailed this – but I’m working on it!
Lesson 2: Try, Fail, Try Again
I wish I’d kept a record of all the changes I’ve made to the blog since I started. It’s been a laboratory for experimentation. A place where I tried different approaches, some of which failed miserably, others that I maybe kept going longer than I should have.
But that’s the beauty of blogging. You can use it to test out an idea. It’s not like the traditional media world where everything you have ever written is captured for posterity. If you try something new and it doesn’t work on the blog, you can just delete it or make some upgrades.
Don’t like your post heading? Easy – just change it. Several times if you want to (just be careful not to change the slug or it will create a problem for search engine traffic).
Don’t like the navigation of your site? Easy again – create a new menu or move pages around within the existing menus.
I know my early attempts at reviews were pathetic. So I’ve deleted a lot of them. Others I have re-written so I don’t feel quite so embarrassed when I read them now. At one time I did a weekly post based on literary news/author news but I abandoned it because it was taking me far too long to do the research and I simply wasn’t enjoying it.
The point really is that the blog has evolved as I’ve tried to figure out what works best for me and my readers. It will likely evolve again in the future. The world of social media changes fast. What works today on a blog won’t necessarily work in the future. So I have to keep trying new approaches, failing and trying again. As Cristian Mihai says:
Effective bloggers never stop learningSource: Cristian Mihail, The Art of Blogging
Lesson 3: Don’t Sweat The Figures
There were times early on when I posted what I thought was a great piece of content only to find it generated little reaction. Sure I got a few ‘likes’ but hardly any comments which is the kind of interaction I value most.
When that happens over and over again, it’s easy to get despondent. Why bother you think if no-one is paying any attention. I started to doubt myself, especially when I saw other bloggers get scores of comments on their posts.
The lesson I’ve learned is that it takes much longer than we expect to build up a following on a blog. You can do it more quickly if you write lots of click-bait type content but that’s not what interests me.
It’s not just a case of writing ace content. You have to engage with people on their blogs – read what they’re posting, comment on it and share it via social media. The more I did that, the more people paid attention to what I was doing and I started to get more comments.
But here’s the thing. While it’s gratifying to get loads of comments, if you put too much emphasis on the numbers, blogging can get depressing.
Like most new bloggers, I fell into that trap. I regularly checked the traffic to my site, looking at:
- Number of visitors
- Number of comments
- Number of followers
If the visitor count was up, I walked around while a smile; but if it went down and stayed down, I went around with a scowl.
It took five years (I’m a slow learner!) and a health scare to put all this focus on numbers into perspective. I still look at the stats; but not every day.
I pay more attention to the level of interaction I see via comments. Why? Because ultimately what keeps me motivated to blog is the connection to people who share my love of books and reading.
Blogging is a social environment. It’s a platform for you and I to talk to each other even if we are thousands of miles and many time zones apart. We may never meet in person but we can become friends through our mutual love of reading. Without the social element, of blogging, I may as well just write journal entries into a notebook.
The Best Reward
That social interaction more than compensates for all the times I’ve struggled to write a post or had to wrestle with the technical side of WordPress.
So to everyone who has sent me a message or left a comment; given me suggestions for new authors or shared your experience ….
You inspire me. Give me confidence. And make me feel alive.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is The Last Ten Books That Gave Me a Book Hangover .
Though its many, many years since I experienced a hangover, I can still remember the symptoms. The disturbed sleep; the thudding headache and the feeling of nausea.
No-one really goes out drinking with the intention of getting a hangover do they? No more than I ever deliberately choose books that I think will give me a hangover feeling. But some of them do provoke those unwelcome reactions.
I’m thinking here of books that have complex plots or complicated structures or are written in a very dense style.
How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman
Appropriately this Booker Prize winner begins with the protagonist Sammy waking up in a lane after a two-day drinking binge. It would have been challenging enough to understand because everything that happens to this guy is told in stream of consciousness style. But its made even more challenging because the story is rendered in a working class Scottish dialect. (Imagine a drunken rant by Billy Connolly and you might get the picture). I struggled my way through just over 100 pages but then decided I’d had enough.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
This was a clever novel of two characters and three versions of their lives. The chapters switch between the different versions of the couple but at the exact same point in time. It was a fascinating approach to narration but I did find it confusing initially and had to take notes to keep each couple and each version clear in my head.
Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie’s much-lauded novel falls into the category for me of “impressive rather than enjoyable.” It had such a dazzling array of allusion and digressions plus political references I didn’t understand that reading it felt like wading through mud. I could read only a couple of pages a night.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A beautifully contrived novel with two time zones and two settings that incorporates several themes. One of them considers the elusive nature of time:
In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.
Maybe not the best thing to read late at night when the brain wants to shut down. But worse was to come – a section that baffled me was an explanation of a thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat which tries to explain how a being may be simultaneously both alive and dead.
The books in this group are all books that were so engrossing I had to keep reading, even though it was far beyond lights out time.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Boy am I glad I’m not reading this right now. It’s premise of a flu virus that is so virulent it wipes out 99% of the world’s population would be rather too close for comfort to the current Coronovirus outbreak. It does make you worry about how you’d cope in a world where everything you know no longer exists.
The North Water by McGuire, Ian
Long listed for the Man Booker 2016, this is a fast-paced novel that pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s. It leaves no doubt that this is a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless men will survive.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
I imagine there are English lit students beavering away even now on comparative essays involving The Hours and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. That wasn’t what kept me awake however. The Hours is simply a brilliant novel of three generations of women who all, in different ways, suffer issues of mental health and alienation.
Horror stories or tales with graphic violence are absolutely not to my taste. Sometimes however you can’t avoid an element of violence or passages which are not for the faint-hearted.
The opening chapters of Alex are gruesome; definitely not for the squeamish. But just when you think you can’t bear to read any more, Lemaitre masterfully brings us some relief in the form of the police hunt for a girl who’s been abducted. If it hadn’t switched gear I couldn’t have continued reading.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
The beauty of Lullaby is that it contains the suspense of violence without forcing us to confront its reality. We know right from the beginning that a nanny kills two children in her care. The interest isn’t what she did but why.
Pure by Andrew Miller
The smell of stench and decay is impossible to avoid when you read this book. Set in Paris the book introduces us to an engineer charged with removing the graves from a cemetery in the city. But the stench of corruption and evil presages what happens a few years later when the Revolution is in full flood (or should that be full blood?)