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Kelman, James. How late it was, how late.


Sammy wakes up on Sunday morning after a "boozer" (a drinking marathon) which started on Friday evening. He does not recollect anything that happened meanwhile, but realizes someone has stolen his new leather shoes and replaced them with a pair of trainers, also his money is gone. He does not take care not to offend the "sodjers" (police), is arrested and "given a doing" (beaten up). In the police cell he realizes he has lost his eyesight.

Sightless, he struggles to find his way from the police station to Helen's, his girlfriend's flat where he stays. He borrows a saw from his neighbour Boab and makes himself a walking stick out of a chair. When his "giro" (social security system money) arrives, he goes out with the stick to buy himself a pair of "shades" (sunglasses) and register at a medical centre to get an actual walking stick and a guide dog perhaps. When having his form filled at the centre, he states that he does not seek any compensation from the police for his loss of sight. He arranges an appointment with a doctor for Monday morning.

At home, he recalls the argument he had with Helen on Friday morning. He told her about his attempt to steal a car when he was much younger, only to demonstrate that he has changed. Helen fails to accept this. He tells Boab about the loss of his sight and asks him for help: he needs to find some white paint in the lobby to paint his walking stick white. Boab paints the stick for him.

On Sunday morning, when he takes a bath, he is surprised by police and arrested. The police questions him about Helen who "disappeared in highly suspicious circumstances" (p. 184). The police also questions him about how he managed to bet on the winners and win a large sum of money; this gain was the reason why he went to a boozer to get drunk. Also, he is suspected that he stole several shirts, which were found in the flat, and intended to sell them illegally. Also, he is suspected of manslaughter when the "cunt" (person) whom he shared the cell with is found dead. The most serious suspicion is however about his contacts with whom the police calls political terrorists and Sammy claims to be but drinking buddies.

On Monday morning, the police takes him to the appointment with the doctor. There is a man called Ally who forces himself upon Sammy as his "rep" (legal representative) and intends to put the case on the trial and demand compensation on Sammy's behalf. If the case is won, the compensation will be shared between them. Sammy stubbornly refuses and tricks Ally to get rid of him. Under nightmarish conditions, he undertakes the journey home from the medical centre, alone and without his walking stick.

Sammy goes into a pub, hoping to meet Helen there, but she is nowhere to find. His "auld" (old) drinking buddies do not want to have anything in common with him because they do not want to be seen by the police with the man whom the police hold for a political terrorist.

Ally finds Sammy in his home and makes him discuss his case. When he leaves, Sammy decides to run away and packs his things. In heavy rain and wind, he feels too feeble and returns home to try later. Before the weather abates, his son Peter with his friend Keith come to visit him. Sammy pretends that everything is all right, but his son guesses what is going on. The both boys help Sammy with the escape; Peter gives his father all his money. The novel closes when Sammy says goodbye to his son, promises to write him soon and when alone, waves for a taxi. He gets in the car and is "out of sight" (p. 374).




- a novel written in Glaswegian (the Glasgow dialect)

- offensive language, abundance of fillers, idiosyncratic capitalisation, punctuation and paragraphing

- not divided in chapters or any other units higher than paragraphs

- the stream of consciousness of the protagonist Sammy (Samuels), no other narrator

- emphasis not on action, its explanation or description x but on the accompanying thoughts, either related to the action in progress or diverting from it

- much black humour, grotesque situations (esp. the examination of Sammy by the police in the case of his supposed involvement with political terrorists (p. 180))

- a strange detachment between the audience x the protagonist and btw the protagonist x his actions

- despite the emotional language, a mood of neutrality and objective attitude determine the narrative

The Protagonist

- Sammy, 38 years old, based in Glasgow

- divorced, father of the teenage "wean" (boy) Peter; now living with his girlfriend Helen, a barmaid

- with a criminal record, esp. formerly a thief, now dependent on the social security system, sometime a season labourer, but mostly avoiding work

- a heavy smoker and a weekend drinker ("boozer")

- lover of songs - the novel frequently uses quotes of song lyrics

- surprisingly likeable for his characteristic vitality, optimism and both physical and mental strength

- not unemotional, but pragmatically oriented, "never a moaner" (p. 112), always "a fighter" (p. 244)

- surprisingly well-meaning, even honest in his own way

- capable of peculiarly human feelings: love to his son, memories of his dead father, ...

- unlike the police (who beat him up) and the character of Ally (who tries to make us of his cause to make it a trial and share the compensation money) refuses to make use of the situation

- extremely self-reliant, strong-willed when he sets his mind on something (esp. his journeys with blind eyes and no walking stick) x (though unable to give up smoking, to avoid getting drunk too much when he has money, to seek and manage regular work, ...)

- not at all resigned, but ready to accept his life (p. 133), says "ye do yer crime ye take yer time" (p. 299)

- his actions seem to rebel against the conventional society and the conventional way of life, refuses to have something in common with the red tape, with rules and formal procedures (p. 321)

- opposes the opportunist character of Ally who tries to force "consistency" upon him, that is lies which would contribute to winning his case (p. 310)

- emphasises hope, claims "boozers" (pubs) to be waiting places where people stay and wait for "something better" and meanwhile they spend the time with drinking (p. 213)


- a strong, self-reliant individual forced to come to terms with a situation in which he is dependent on other people, forced to trust their good will and good intentions because there is no other way

- the nightmarish labyrinth of the city for a helpless blind man who only wants to get home = the state of the world and the condition of the mankind

- the fall of (in their way) honest characters (Sammy) x the rise of opportunist figures (Ally)

- the positive value of family relationships x the emptiness of drink friendships

- note: the author pays tribute to Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Agnes Owens, and Jeff Torrington


  • Author

    Kelman, James. (b. 1949).
  • Full Title

    How late it was, how late.
  • First Published

    London: Secker and Warburg, 1994.
  • Form


Works Cited

Kelman, James. How late it was, how late. (1994). London: Minerva, 1995.


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