Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2015

How Late It Was, How Late, by James Kelman, Winner of the Booker Prize in 1994

How Late It Was How Late

How Late It Was, How Late is on my Booker Prize collection wish-list and I will buy it one day when I find a nice First Edition, but in the meantime I was quite happy to read the Vintage Classics edition which turned up at my library last week…

The novel is also included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. (1996 Edition) where I discovered that the Booker win caused a furore because of the bad language which characterises the voice of Sammy Samuels, the narrator.  It is indeed very bad language, and it is so inescapable that I am hard pressed to find a quotation suitable for this ‘family-friendly’ blog.  I can well imagine that some readers might take one look at the book and demand its removal from the library shelves, but that would be a pity because it is well worth reading and deserves its place in literary history.  Like Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor, How Late It Was, How Late brings us the voice of the unheard underclass, and it’s also innovative in style and form.

Apart from the bad language, the narrative voice takes a bit of getting used to because it is written in working-class Glaswegian vernacular.  Chez ANZ LitLovers we are getting used to this dialect courtesy of a couple of TV programs, but even so, The Spouse can sometimes be heard to mutter ‘Subtitles, please.’  On top of that, the text alternates between Sammy’s somewhat muddled stream-of-consciousness and an occasional third-person narrative voice, and Sammy himself is none-too-sure about what has happened, and he keeps changing his mind about things and he dissembles when caught out with some uncongenial truth.  It is not until the reader absorbs the rhythmic poetry of these narrative voices that the novel takes on a life of its own beyond the challenge of making sense of it.  And then it becomes impossible to put down…

Sammy is a petty criminal who wakes up in the gutter after a spectacular booze-up with his mates to find that he’s been relieved of his wallet and his good leather shoes.  He has vague memories of Friday, but Saturday is a blank.  When he staggers to his feet on Sunday he imprudently picks a fight with some off-duty policemen and they beat him up, leaving him with what appears to be kidney damage, some broken ribs and the loss of his eyesight.

Sammy seems remarkably philosophical about all this, masking a sense of alienation so profound that he simply accepts whatever is dished out to him either by fate or by the brutality or indifference of the society in which he lives.  We see this at the police station where his predicament seems to be an occasion for general hilarity…

He rubbed at the base of his spine then sat forwards, hands clasped on his knees.  He had a lot to consider.  When ye come to think about it.  And that’s what he had no been doing: thinking. He had just been

who knows, who knows; his brains were all over the place

All the auld ways of living, as if they’ll go on forever.  Then ye wake up and find yerself f—kt, all gone man, that’s that.  So okay, ye have to accept it; what else can ye do, there’s f— all, everything’s fixed and settled as far as that’s concerned, it’s happened, past tense.  So now it’s down to you.  (p.18)

So he expects no help, and asks for none.  Released onto the street, he makes his way home, where he finds that his girlfriend Helen has disappeared.  He makes himself a stick by sawing off the top of a broom, and finds his own way to the DSS to file a claim for a Dysfunctional Benefit.  There he submits to an impersonal interrogation, leavened only by a chat about soccer with the Preliminary Officer.  No one seems the least little bit concerned that an apparently healthy man in his thirties has suddenly lost his sight, but he has to attend the PDMBO (Police Department Medical Benefits Office) – not to have anything tested but to have the date his sight was lost determined because it affects the date from which his benefit might, or might not be paid.   Kelman renders these scenes deadpan:

Sammy stood for a moment then he said: Can I take a form away with me and fill it in myself?

Ye can yes, but ye do realise there is a stipulated period of time in claims like these: you assert the dysfunction took place on Tuesday last?

Tuesday aye.

Then ye’ve eight more days excluding Sundays.  I must also advise ye that even should you fill in a new form the present one remains on file as part of the scheduled evidence.

Can ye no just scrub it.

No.  I can however withdraw yer application.

Well ye might as well I mean I’m as well just bloody chucking it.


Mr Samuels if ye feel that you have sightloss then it is in yer own interest to register it in respect of the physical criteria required for full-function job registration.


What happens if you are sent on Community work Provision under the current terms of contract?  If ye cant see then ye’ll prove incapable of fulfilling these terms.  I strongly advise ye to register just now.

Aye but…

It’s only a matter of registering the dysfunction, in your case sightloss; if it is established then the physical criteria in respect of job registration will alter accordingly.

I know what ye’re saying.

This means you become available for certain types of work and only those types of work.  Some jobs demand the capacity of sightloss dysfunction; others don’t.  (p. 108)

(This scene had me imagining how these bureaucrats would process the Monty Python Black Knight with ‘just a flesh wound’…)

Any pathos is negated, however, by the mystery of Helen’s disappearance, by the interrogation about one particularly dubious drinking pal, and by Sammy’s reluctance to use the system on the rare occasions when it seems to work for him, as when he gets a referral to a charity for help.  There is something suspicious about the way he conspires in his own entrapment but the reader can’t identify what is going on. Clearly the police can’t be trusted but they may have a legitimate line of enquiry; Sammy’s drinking mates and Ally the would-be ‘rep’ helping with his claim are just as likely to be ‘spooks’ or ‘grasses’; and Sammy himself has obviously been up to no good beyond nicking a few shirts and leather jackets.

All this, together with the humour and Sammy’s engaging personality, makes for very interesting reading.  I was particularly charmed by his encounter with his teenage son, and by his sometimes naïve interpretations of Helen’s point-of-view and of women in general.

James Kelman has two other novels listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: The Bus Conductor Hines (1984), and A Disaffection (1989).   Like How Late It Was, How Late, they both apparently explore existential crises in the lives of working men in Glasgow, and have influenced the work of other Scottish writers.   I like the sound of A Dissatisfaction which features a teacher alienated from his working-class roots, a sentimental man in ‘a callously unsentimental society’.   It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Author: James Kelman
Title: How Late It Was, How Late
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 1998
ISBN: 9780749398835
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: How Late it Was, How Late


  1. I was trying to find some Kelman books, that I thought I owned, just the other day. I especially wanted to find some of his short story collections – no luck though.

    If you likedHLIWHL then I think you’ll also like ‘A Disaffection’. Kelman’s style seems to me to be similar to Nelson Algren’s.


    • That’s an author I’ve never heard of… I’ll have to check him out too. I’m definitely going to track down Dissatisfaction…


  2. I read this when it first came out and remember liking it a lot. My paternal grandparents were workingclass Glaswegians and I used to have to act as interpreter for my friends who couldn’t understand them! When I read Kelman’s novel I had my grandfather’s voice in my head, which helped a lot with understanding the dialogue. It’s all very phonetic, anyway.

    I was lucky enough to meet Kelman at a Penguin bloggers evening a few years ago when he was promoting Mo Said She Was Quirky… it was a rare public appearance — he was lovely and gracious and very quietly spoken, not at all what I expected!


    • Wow, that is a wonderful personal connection:) How I would love to live in London as you do and have a chance to see and hear these authors in person!


  3. Great review! It’s been a while since I read this and you’ve reminded me how funny it is, alongside the bleakness. I’ve not read any other Kelman but I really must.


    • Hi, thanks for dropping by… it’s really good to know that we are not alone in liking this book, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Hill blogs at ANZ LitLovers where the full version of this review first […]


  5. […] to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906); John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939); James Kelmann’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) and Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (2010).  Closer to home there are the great […]


  6. […] in working-class Glaswegian vernacular and featured spectacularly bad language.  As I noted in my review, it was hard to find a quotation suitable for this ‘family-friendly’ blog.  But I thought when […]


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