“But he wouldnay get his fucking Dysfuckingfunctional Benefit man he would be lucky to get fucking re-registered … and the actual compen was a joke. Nay chance.” (Kelman 248)
The epigram belongs to James Kelman’s Booker Prize winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late. Published in 1994, the novel documents the travails of the protagonist Sammy, whose one-sided violent encounter with the police lands him with permanent sight loss. The text unravels the experience of the onset of midlife blindness, in parallel with what is figured as a blinding rigmarole of registering for disability benefits. Blindness, then, is deployed as a trope that refers to blindness as a sensory condition, and to a Kafkaesque political construct that “blinds” an individual once he or she is trapped in it.
Though that metaphorical deployment of blindness might suggest harmful associations of blindness with limitation and frustration, the novel also challenges that characterization, portraying blindness as a gradual process of attunement. Kelman’s captivating metaphor of “pat-a-caking” to describe his blind protagonist’s tactile engagement with his environment establishes how navigating the world can become a dynamic, interactive exploration. I suggest that “pat-a-caking” is a generative alternative to mainstream understandings of reorientation proceeding sight loss, which is usually understood in terms of a rather demeaning verb “groping.” This metaphor emerges in the first moments of the protagonist’s blindness, when he exits the police station and makes his way home:
He poked his foot forwards to the right and to the left … down the steps sideways and turning right, his hands around the wall step by step, reminding ye of pat-a-cake game ye play when ye’re a wean, slapping your hands on top of each other then speeding up (33).
This excerpt depicts Sammy’s transformed proprioceptive awareness that alters his sense of spatiality. His efforts to reacquaint himself with his changed sensory apparatus and the immediate environment show his embeddedness in the given world, where he orients himself while simultaneously etching out a separate space in it. This action is indeed more similar to the synchronic, rhythmic, and collaborative aspects of pat-a-caking than it is to the imposing, one-sided, desperate act of groping.
This difference can help us to understand representations of blindness more broadly, such as in the 2016 film Blind and 1983 documentary Notes on Blindness. The former features a protagonist who is a blind novelist and professor, while the latter is an account of Emeritus Professor John Hull’s experience of going blind after years of steady decline in his eyesight. Notes on Blindness entwines fact and fiction, where Hull’s original auto notes are replicated into acting.
Professor Hull’s autobiographical experience of vision-loss in Notes on Blindness could well be compared to pat-a-caking. In his audio-diary, he chronicles his gradual progression of re-tuning himself with his world after confronting sight loss. As he puts it, “You have to learn everything again.” To this end, Professor Hull slowly pat-a-cakes the doors, walls, furniture of his house; he counts the steps from house to work to his class. The touch of the bannister lets him know that he is on the path to his classroom. Through these rituals of touch, he establishes “linearity, predictability, same objects, same movement, a steady environment.” But pat-a-caking does not only grant familiarity to Professor Hull ; it also provides him with “a new horizon, and new ideas,” as it opens new contours of the world to him where echoes and spaces become sharper and assume novel connotations. It offers a different kind of consciousness.
Blind, however, takes a very different approach. The only congruity between the title of the movie and its subject matter is the protagonist Bill’s blindness. Blindness, here, is primarily an accessory to showcase love between two people, one sighted and another blind. The plot of the film would remain largely unaltered if its protagonist were sighted. Both Bill and Prof. John Hull are academics, yet there is no point of confluence between the two characters’ relationships to their environments. The former lectures seamlessly without resorting to notes, for instance, while the latter must gather a community of people to record audio books from various disciplines so that he can prepare for his lectures. I contend that this unsettling dissimilarity is representative of commercial portrayals in which disability is nothing more than a gimmick, a fashionable prop. In this mode, to be convincingly blind, the actor just needs to grab a stick and pair of glasses and look the part.
As noted above, both movie characters hail from an educated, middle-class backgrounds, placing them in a privileged position. Prof. Hull is not worried about losing his job or having to prove his blindness to Disability Services to register for benefits. Nonetheless, these are real struggles for those coming from a working-class background. The epigraph that began this essay attests to that difference: Sammy belongs to the British working class. To apply for jobs that are suited for blind workers, he must first prove his blindness. Unlike more visible disabilities, blindness here is subjected to a burden of proof. This brings to the fore the politics involved in living with sensory disabilities. Unlike the two professors, Sammy’s pat-a-caking also involves his grappling with the stultifying and invisible power structures around him. In this context, complementing the novel’s title, Sammy’s pat-a-caking is a doomed effort since it is already too late to win.
- Hames, Scott. “Eyeless in Glasgow: James Kelman’s Existential Milton.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 50, no. 3, 2009, pp. 496–527.
- Honeycutt, Todd C, et al. “Youth With Disabilities at the Crossroads: The Intersection of Vocational Rehabilitation and Disability Benefits for Youth With Disabilities.” Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 3, 2017, pp. 131–144.
- Kövesi, Simon. James Kelman. Manchester University Press, 2007.
- Lindsay, Colin, and Houston, Donald. Disability Benefits, Welfare Reform and Employment Policy. 2013.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception. Taylor and Francis, 2002.
- Paterson, Mark. Seeing with the Hands : Blindness, Vision, and Touch after Descartes. 2016.
- Saffer, Jessica, et al. “Living on a Knife Edge: the Responses of People with Physical Health Conditions to Changes in Disability Benefits.” Disability & Society, vol. 33, no. 10, 2018, pp. 1555–1578.
- “New Films on Blindness and Visual Impairment.” Public Health Reports (1974-), vol. 89, no. 4, 1974, p. 395.
- “‘A Hand of the Blind Ventures Forth’:: The Grope, the Grip, and Haptic Perception.” The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-Reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
 Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, in his seminal work The Phenomenology of Perception defines proprioception as “the subject’s felt sense of the body in tune with itself and the external environment” (305).