James Kelman (1998) How Late it Was, How Late

How Late it Was, How Late won the Booker Prize on its publication in 1994. It was a controversial verdict. Rabbi Julia Neauberger one of the judges is quoted as saying, ‘Frankly, it’s crap’ and threatened to resign from the panel if it won. Written in Glasgow dialect and telling the story of Sammy who did a bit of stealing, did a bit of time and has become blind after taking a hammering from the cops that arrest him, I don’t think it’s crap, but without knowing what else was up for the prize that year I wouldn’t have voted for it. I started reading it a few times, the language is familiar to me, as are many of the places, but I couldn’t really get into it. But I did finish it at the third attempt and I don’t want you to think it was a chore, because it wisnae, but neither was it a joy.

‘Yeah know the auld saying: life goes on. Sammy made it across the flats; it wasnay a scoosh case; he battled it out; he went for it and made it. So there you go and that’s that. Plus Helen hadnay come back. He knew it as soon as he stepped out of the lift. The fucking wind blowing in from the corridor as usual.’

Helen works as a barmaid in Quinn’s Bar and is Sammy’s partner. Sammy’s already been married and has a son Peter, who appears with his pal Keith to take some photos of the injuries Sammy suffered at the hands of the police or ‘sodjers’. That was Ally’s idea, he’s on a third of whatever compensation Sammy might win from the Sight Loss Department of Central Medical. Ally is an unofficial welfare right’s officer, the kind that many of us knew in the late eighties, a know-it-all that for a wee bit would help people fill in forms and get what they were entitled to and frequently werenae. He’s an expert in the system and humanity, bit of a pest and Sammy plays along with him even when he turns up at Helen’s flat at 5 am because he figures Sammy is one of those people that doesn’t sleep much, who lives on their nerves, much as Ally does when he starts washing Sammy’s dishes because it gives him something to do and helps him think. Sammy had to tell Ally to fuck off, but even that doesnae work. The threat of violence wouldnae work either, so Sammy plays canny and just lets Ally get on with it, even though he’s no intention of playing along. That’s the best way to get rid of him. Knowing people like Ally and knowing how the buroo worked as social satire it also just doesnae work, but I’d give it an A for effort, even though effort begins with an E.  Finding Helen with a H is an entirely different kettle of fish. She might just turn up. Then again she might not. When he goes to Quinn’s Bar to find out what might and what might not have happened, he’s flung out and is none the wiser. Being blind is most folk’s biggest fear. Sammy doesn’t let it get him down. He just soldiers on, regardless.

It takes immense courage to write in dialect and the number of rejection letters from publishers would be exponential to yer ordinary, proper English dialect. Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and more recently Irvine Welsh, to name a few, have taken on the establishment and won. Like Sammy they have shown immense courage rooted in who they are and who they arenae, for those that don’t like them, like Rabbi whatever the fuck, fuck them. The iconoclasts are better men than me, but I’m a better man for having read them.

 

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2 thoughts on “James Kelman (1998) How Late it Was, How Late

  1. My own connection with Glasgow is that my Uncle Hughie was the Parky at Govan, a job his son Cameron Lawrie followed him into, so I’m quite interested in “Glesgae Writin’ “. My own particular favourite (and I don’t care much for Kelman, either, Jack) is Swing,Hammer,Swing by Jeff Torrington. His short stories aren’t bad either.

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  2. God you could have been a Parkie. Not that we have Parkies now, but there’s a thought. I’m 90% sure I’ve read Torrington, but like most books I can’t remember a thing about it. So I look forward to reading it again. My own favourite author, Ralph Glasser, Growing up in the Gorbals. When asked what is my favourite book I always say this one.

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