How Late it was How Late tells the story of Sammy a poor, out of work Scotsman who, after a fight with his girlfriend and a weekend of heavy drinking he ends up getting into a fight with some policemen and loses his vision. His inner thoughts are revealed as the reader follows him after his arrest and up until his decision to run away to England where he hopes to gain more control of his life. How Late it was How Late effectively invites the reader into the mind of a type of character who gets little voice. Sammy, throughout his entire life has never had any real power over his situation, “it had happened; they had fucking closed in. He was beat. They had beat him.” (75) because of his poverty he has little respect for police and authority because he sees them as a threat to himself. At the same time, he is not able to pull himself out of poverty because of his own paranoia and quick temper. He’s quick to lash out against even those attempting to assist him to try and regain his power, “That’s what happens but ye get angry for nay reason; yer heart starts pounding away and ye’re wanting to bang the bastard.” (209) How Late it was How Late also explores an uncertain type of hope. Sammy, quick to get depressed, “it was gony get worse, afore it got better,” (133) he still holds on to his optimism, “When he walked out of here the head was gony be held high, he was gony be cleanshaven man, fresh and fucking brand new, clean socks and fucking Christ almighty he was gony stick on one of these new bastard shirts. He was proud. He was fucking proud.” (324) Despite his situation with the police, his unemployment and his own blindness he still believes perhaps he can make life better by leaving Glasgow. It is likely however that this hope will come to no fruition as Sammy changes in no way, other than his sight. He remains quick to anger and paranoid. This story is a story of real life. Sometimes things don’t change. It depicts a real person and his real struggles.
James Kelman is not fore the lover of fine whine of foreign operas. This is not to say that there is no weight or depth to Kelmans work. Kelman is not writing to pander to the masses he is writing as the masses. Kelman is telling the story of the everyday with a twist both in protagonist and language. Sammy is our everyman, or perhaps a little lower.
James Kelman’s Booker Prize winning novel How Late it Was, How Late tells the story of shoplifting ex-con Sammy, who awakens in an alley after a two day drinking binge. After starting a fight with a pair of policemen, he finds himself in jail, abandoned by his girlfriend and completely blind. The story takes off, following Sammy’s life as he attempts to deal with the authorities, gain Disability status and essentially struggle to survive in rough Scottish society.
How Late it Was, How Late is written in an informal style that is quite uncommon in several types of writing pieces. There are no chapters, nor any consistent sentence or grammatical structure. Many readers may find it quite difficult to understand and follow in the beginning due to the disorganization and cluttered thoughts. However, Kelman wrote in this style in order for Sammy to really get into the reader’s head. The words are Sammy’s exact thoughts on paper, making it easy to understand his thinking because it is very honest and blatant.
Trust is a main theme reoccurring throughout the novel. Due to Sammy’s unexpected case of blindness, he is naturally left to question and be suspicious of everyone he meets in order to protect himself. When Sammy meets a neighbour who is referred to as Boab, Sammy says “It wasnay that he didnay trust him, he did trust him…ye just don’t take chances, ye don’t take chances. That’s all there is to it” (149). Kelman does an excellent job of, from the perspective of Sammy, emphasizing descriptive sounds and feelings in replacement of the typically large amounts of emphasis on sight in literature. For example, “The stone wall was wet. Obviously it was wet it was raining. Just it felt funny, damp and gritty. It had a good smell, fresh…” (247). This is another example of how Kelman writes in such a way to highlight the protagonist’s struggle and circumstance.
A new lifelong challenge, and reoccuring theme that is presented to Sammy is learning to become independent. One of the greatest struggles he comes to terms with early on in the book is to break his habit of always asking for assistance with everything he does. When Boab says to him, “I’ll do it for ye son don’t worry about it”, Sammy replies, “Aye but I want to do it myself I mean…”(146). The reader can see here that he needs a lot of help in the beginning but understands he needs to learn to become an independent man.
The language in How Late it Was, How Late is very coarse and vulgar. Because the novel is written as direct thoughts from Sammy’s head, the use of language is a clear reflection of the feelings he has in response to the struggles in life he is faced with. As well the language gives the reader an insight into Scottish society.
By: Justine Burlo and Jennie MacPhee-Woodburn
James Kelman has been known to say make many controversial statements regarding literature, culture and politics. For example, during his acceptance speech for the Booker Prize, Kelman is quoted saying “My culture and my language have a right to exist”. Similarly, How Late It Was, How Late has been deemed but several critics to be a violent, brutal piece, however besides Sammys encounter with the police there are no other examples of physical brutality in the novel.
As Kelman is quoted saying in an interview with Lesley Mcdowell from The Independant newspaper, “It just depends – you have to look below the surface for what the real attack is, and the real attack on my own work is usually quite a political attack, you know. Often it’s just class: I usually get asked at some point, do I still believe the working class exists? Sometimes you forget about notions of class until you realise the class attacks are being perpetrated from the other classes against working-class people,” he explains. “And it might be through the medium of language and the education system, or it might be through claims for industrial disease, which is basically a working-class condition. And then you’re aware that sure, there’s class warfare, but it’s usually directed against the working-class people from above.”
As previously stated, How Late It Was, How Late has been criticized as being an aggressive and violent piece full of profanity. However it is one of Kelmans several attempts to address the issues of the Scottish middle class as well as allow outsiders the opportunity, through the eyes of Sammy, to understand the struggle of survival individuals in the scottish middle class face.
Critics have described How Late It Was, How Late as a violent text. How can it be violent when there are no guns or knives and there is no brawling?
The welfare bureaucracy in How Late It Was, How Late persecutes Sammy rather than helps him. Are there any clues in the text as to why Kelman’s vision of society is so grim?
Why did Kelman choose to call his book How Late It Was, How Late? How does the title relate to the novel?
Mcdowell, Lesley. “James Kelman: Look back in anger”. The Independent. 21 May 2004. 8 February 2009.