How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman: Controversial Booker Winner

Cover of How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman, a winner of the Booker Prize

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

25 thoughts on “How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman: Controversial Booker Winner

  • February 26, 2020 at 8:31 am
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    I weirdly loved this, even though I don’t like bleak and violent stuff – I think in the same way that I love Magnus Mills’ work. Maybe the huge difference from my life or something, I don’t know. Your view on it is very balanced and fair, in my opinion.

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  • February 25, 2020 at 5:23 pm
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    “I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants” LOL This does not sound like a book I’ll give any time to. Excellent review of it though!
    I do long for the return of books of lovely people with lovely lives and lovely manners in which they are not raping the help or stealing from friends or or or or.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:29 pm
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      Your wish for ‘kinder’ books reminds me of a movement a few years ago to have ‘nicer’ content in newspapers. I forget what it was called but I think Martin Bell the broadcaster was involved. It didn’t last long because the people behind it discovered that humans like to read about the dark and not so nice things in life 🙂

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      • February 25, 2020 at 5:45 pm
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        LOL–I’m not THAT bad! Lol. I just get tired of reading about “extreme repulsive-os” (“The Big Chill”). I endured the forced sex in Outlander and read Trainspotting and who knows how many other of that ilk!

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  • February 25, 2020 at 11:19 am
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    Interesting to read this review because I have just been defeated, for the 3rd time, in reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “That Lass O’ Lowries”–not because of poor language but because of dialect that went on and on and set my teeth on edge.

    Some books seem to deliberately challenge their readers in an unnecessary way.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 4:11 pm
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      Dialect is really tough to get right I think. If you use it too much it makes it hard for the reader but it you go the other way and just use it occasionally it looks as if you’re just giving it token attention

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  • February 25, 2020 at 10:31 am
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    I was deafeted by this one I’m afraid, I think I might have managed about 30 pages several years ago. Well done on finishing it.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 4:07 pm
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      i had to have two attempts. The first one in 2018 I got to page 30 and put it aside….I only finished this time because it was the last of the Booker prize winners on my list 🙂

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  • February 25, 2020 at 9:00 am
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    The dialect sounds pretty well done to this Glaswegian, but I’m so sick of the Scottish literary tendency to show only the worst aspects of Scottish culture. Where are the books about the vast majority who don’t spend all their time drunk, spouting foul language? I recognise this aspect of Scottish life for sure, but I always feel these books written for non-Scots, so they can be justified in looking on us as uncivilised drunken savages, and I rather dislike the writers who make their fortune by perpetuating this distorted one-sided picture of the nation. Haha – do I sound angry and bitter? You betcha! 😉

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    • February 25, 2020 at 4:10 pm
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      Wouldn’t it be a. bit odd of a Scottish author to want his country to be seen in that way though? i could maybe understand it more if it was coming from an author outside the country who was falling into a trap of stereotyping….
      i do sympathise though. I’m sick of the way film makers/tv producers depict people in Wales, as if we’re all members of a choir that wants to burst into song at every opportunity……

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  • February 25, 2020 at 7:55 am
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    I find books written in dialect way too much hard work, so not for me. That said, it doesn’t sound like a book I would want to read. But each to their own. I can imagine how controversial the award must have been.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 4:11 pm
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      it certainly provoked strong reactions. I think one critic said the book was “crap”

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      • February 26, 2020 at 7:29 am
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        I’ll take him at his word (the critic); wild horses wouldn’t drag me to this one!

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  • February 25, 2020 at 3:07 am
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    congrats on your perseverance. I refuse to read a book with a large number of F words. For me, it reflects the lack of creativity of an author, or of the expanse of his/her vocabulary

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:01 pm
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      To be fair to Kelman I don’t think he was using this gratuitously – its very much the language of the street and of the kind of individual he chose to make his central character.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:01 pm
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      Well I don’t honestly think you’ll feel you are missing out!

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  • February 24, 2020 at 11:37 pm
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    Well done, you got there in the end! Despite the issues you’ve raised, I still felt it was worthwhile and I think it’s important to hear the voices of the underclass.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:03 pm
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      It’s not one of my favourite Booker winners for sure, I had to have two runs at the book before I could get to the end……The voice worked well I thought once you got into it and could feel the rhythm. I just wanted to feel it was going somewhere, not in circles

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      • February 25, 2020 at 10:04 pm
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        Ah, but his life wasn’t going anywhere either!

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  • February 24, 2020 at 10:29 pm
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    There was a huge element of the usual racism against Scots by a certain section of society within the so-called literati. Some people are just intolerant of anything that’s new or different from their experiences. It’s rather sad as surely the whole thing about reading is that it can take you out of your own world and broaden your outlook.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:09 pm
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      You think the attacks on Kelman’s book were racially motivated? I didn’t detect that personally.

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      • February 25, 2020 at 10:19 pm
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        Oh definitely, the same way the tabloids went after Gordon Brown, and just as whenever I and many Scots go to England, we have to repeat ourselves constantly,, despite speaking very clear English with far less accent than whomever we are speaking to. I stuck it out two years in Essex and that was enough.

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  • February 24, 2020 at 10:13 pm
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    So I’m thinking that I will not put this one on my list… I don’t mind writing that pushes the envelope, nor art, nor music. We don’t get anywhere by standing still. But honestly, I think it’s possible to write something really brilliant without this extreme edge.

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    • February 25, 2020 at 5:06 pm
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      I knew even before I started reading it that it would be a challenge. I’m fine with taking chances and trying new approaches as long as the reader is entertained/engaged as a result – sadly in this case that didn’t really happen for me

      Reply

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