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

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.

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