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How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

A Lesson in Scottish

A few years ago, there arose a point of controversy within British TV broadcasting concerning regional accents. At the time, newsreaders were mostly Oxbridge graduates, or at least educated at "public school" (an Orwellian term which the British use to denote its exact opposite: "private school"). As a result of their education, these newsreaders sounded nothing like the millions of working- and middle-class people who tuned in each day -- most of whom only expected such dialectal purity from the Queen during her annual Christmas speech.

James Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late relates the unrelenting stream of consciousness of Sammy Samuels, a Scottish ex-con, and one of the most regional of these regional men. Like his words, his thoughts are relayed in a thick Glaswegian brogue, with "wasn't" becoming "wasnay" and "didn't", "didnay". The police are "sodjers", "bampots" is a preferred pejorative and much of Sammy's internal diatribes are peppered with hardcore profanity. Most popular in Sammy's vocabulary of regional expletives are "fuckt" (ubiquitous throughout), some x-rated tmesis ("energfuckinggetic") and, of course, a well-known, four-letter synonym for the female genitalia. Veteran Irvine Welsh fans should have no trouble.

The novel starts with Sammy waking up after a two-day drinking binge. He's lying in the gutter wearing someone else's too-small shoes and the whole of Saturday is a blank. Soon he's up and starting trouble, and almost immediately he becomes involved in a fracas with two plainclothes policemen. After a severe beating and night in the cells, he wakes up bruised and completely blind. This represents only the beginning of his troubles, as he has the Kafkaesque protocol of the welfare department to traverse, the persistent "enquiries" of the sodjers to avoid and the disappearance of his girlfriend to explain.

The jumpy narrative is sometimes a bit impenetrable. Sentences go unfinished as thought processes are abandoned and then picked up again a paragraph later. Punctuation sometimes appears to be placed at random. Initially, this mix of dialectal expression and unconventional grammar are distracting. In fact, I had to read back a few times early on, because I found myself concentrating on the novelty of the words as written instead of their meaning. But as you learn to translate as you go, these features become little joyous idiosyncrasies that help give the novel its own voice.

Most of the terms, if not immediately guessable, are made clear through repetition. The unwary (that is, unScottish) reader will be forgiven for initial bemusement (and even glee) in the face of lines like: "ya fucking bampot fucking fuckpig grassing bastard." It's safe to say, those readers looking to expand their repertoire of colourful invective won't be disappointed.

And nor will those who want a good, insightful read. Because Sammy's internal meanderings are relayed with wit and accuracy of expression. He ruminates on fate, love, sex and Willie Nelson with the same frenetic, malformed logic. And you can't help but like the guy.

As Sammy gets frustrated, so do we. The few moments of jubilation he feels, Kelman also expertly shares. This is where the novel really succeeds, in its ability to convey Sammy's thoughts and surroundings -- a whole sensory world -- without any visual description at all. Everything is put across through Sammy's limited perception -- half-heard sounds and the occasional (sixth) sense of another person's presence by his side.

One marvels at the dedication of such a technique, where the convenience of establishing a setting or a character through physical descriptions is completely denied. Sammy's blindness is our own. We feel his vulnerability as he stands on a street corner amid heavy traffic; we sense the unseen eyes watching him as he enters a pub or scrapes his homemade white-stick along the pavement. Kelman leaves his readers with the inescapable claustrophobia of blindness, and the voice of an anti-hero whose harsh but plaintive thoughts stay with you long after you stop reading.

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
W.W. Norton & Co.
October 3, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-32799-X
374 pages