374 pages, 1998, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
One of life’s little ironies: the morning after this book won the Booker Prize, I was taking part in an undergraduate tutorial looking at ways of deconstructing poetry. I had to report our group’s progress back to the whole class, but owing to a bit of stage fright and a thick accent, the lecturer didn’t understand a word I was saying. No amount of enunciation could get through to this person, and it required prompts from the other class members in order to get our points across, accompanied by no small amount of sniggering. That incident remains a big embarrassment to me, like something out of a nightmare.
James Kelman might have written this scene himself, glottal stops and all. After 20 years of successfully employing the Glaswegian accent in his short stories and novels, in the mid-90s he produced How Late It Was, How Late. It’s one of the most controversial Booker winners – an accolade which prompted one of the judges to threaten to quit, for reasons only they can know. Perhaps they were the type of person who would tut, frown and make a diffident public speaker stutter and repeat himself in front of a class of his peers. Perhaps they “didn’t quite catch the accent”.
Ah, it’s just one of those things. You’ve got to get on with it, I suppose, and learn your lessons. And that’s the tenor of the entire novel in a nutshell as it follows Sammy, a 38-year-old Glaswegian who wakes up in a whirlwind after a lost weekend of hard drinking and god knows what else in his home city. Sammy attracts the attention of the police – or “sodjers”, as he calls them – and after an unfortunate incident Sammy ends up in a jail cell, not only blind drunk but just plain blind after being given a beating.
From then on we follow Sammy’s internal world as he feels his way through his predicament, sightless. We piece together his family life and his past, his time spent inside prison, his relationship with his teenage son and also life with new partner Helen – who has gone missing, incidentally. He meets a variety of people along the way, some who help him – like Boab, his kindly neighbour – and others who might be of a less charitable disposition.
The Glaswegian dialect didn’t seem that difficult to follow; certainly it’s less broken, apostrophised and glottal than Irvine Welsh’s representations of east coast/Edinburgh speech. But the working class cadences are spot on, as is the swearing and slang talk. It’s almost as if a somewhat shrill, gallus little guy was narrating in your own mind.
Sammy is a chancer, and as we find out a little bit more about his life we see hints here and there of what he was up to when the drink took hold of him. As Sammy adjusts to his new, dark world, he has to learn to interact with his surroundings afresh. Next-door neighbours and passers-by seem kind enough – but are they all they seem? He’s desperate to get to Glancy’s, his local pub – but will the patrons take kindly to his presence once he gets there? Why are the police so keen to find out what he was doing that weekend, and just what is the “political” stuff they keep mentioning?
Classic Kelman traits are on show. First of all, the common man’s struggle against any form of authority. Sammy is faced with doctors, secretaries and form-fillers of every description as he attempts to gain medical attention for his blindness, and he is driven to rage by their bureaucratic natures and middle-class diction. Then there’s Kelman’s cute touch with snobbery regarding the use of language, particularly Scottish dialects. Sammy hears a story about a former prisoner who writes into a broadsheet newspaper, and makes a spelling error. The newspaper chooses to reproduce the error, with “sic” printed alongside it, a wink and a nudge on the part of the editor telling readers of a certain background all they might wish to know about their correspondent. Given the negative attention Kelman received for this novel based on its central character, subject matter and use of the English language, this proved beautifully prophetic.
I’m fascinated by a current theory called “the Glasgow effect”. Studies have been carried out into why that city in particular has such an atrocious record with early death, poor health standards, drink and drug abuse and violence compared with other UK cities which share its deprivation indicators and also geographical location, temperature and weather. The answer is... nobody knows. This theory argues that it’s purely psychological – that there’s a peculiar fear and anxiety which stalks Glasgow’s streets, a cycle of grief and oblivion that spans generations and snuffs out lives too soon.
Kelman’s book addressed “the Glasgow effect” nearly 20 years before it came into being. Sammy is subjected to an odd psychoanalysis by several characters, including his persistent lawyer Ally and a doctor who examines him. It looks into Sammy’s problems with anxiety and panic, and his responses to this in life. You wonder where all that came from; you wonder if the author is trying to analyse an entire city. Prophetic words, in any case.
The storyline is simple, and yet I wondered whether or not it was possible to read more into what goes on. Ally the lawyer, who offers to pursue Sammy’s compensation case, had something of the divine about him. There seemed to be a number of Homeric references, too – a man trying to get home; his missing partner is called Helen; he’s trying to reach his son... and blindness? Polyphemus? Again, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Blame that bloody English lit class.
And there was something that disturbed me about Sammy. He wasn’t quite Kelman’s stock-in-trade – cheeky but loveable chancers, trying to put one over the authorities - but something altogether darker. I’m not sure I liked him. I can’t decide if this was because he partly reminded me of someone I knew, the person I used to be, or the person I might still become. The answer to how Sammy ends up on the tiles isn’t perhaps one we’d like to hear.
But How Late It Was, How Late, is still an odyssey worth taking, a great Glasgow novel by one of the great Glasgow writers. Ultimately, it’s about having hope, in spite of your circumstances and sometimes in spite of yourself.