William McIlvanney is one of the prodigiously talented McIlvanney brothers who, along with his journalist sibling Hugh, have played a significant part in Scottish cultural life for more than 30 years.
William McIlvanney was Visiting Professor in the School of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde, where he taught the emerging generation of Scottish writers. His work might be characterised in three ways. Firstly, there is his novelistic output, in particular his detective stories based around the eponymous character, detective constable Jack Laidlaw. These stories are in keeping with a tradition of British thriller writing, and stand at the opening of the later proliferation of crime writing in Scotland which Elmore Leonard has described as ‘tartan noir’. Secondly, in his short stories and in other novels such as The Big Man (1985), there is a more considered literary and lyrical McIlvanney who has explored the Scottish male psyche and the way in which it forms and is formed by violence. Thirdly, his journalistic prose has offered a profound reflection upon the state of Scotland from the point of view of a certain socialist intellectual, documenting the drift of Scottish culture from an industrial base to late Capitalism.
It is remarkable that the limited geographic space of Scotland and in particular the even more limited geographic space of the motorway corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh has given rise to such an abundance of detective fiction. There is a tradition of Scottish thriller writing which predates McIlvanney, and includes John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, McIlvanney was the first Scottish writer to combine the emerging interest in crime writing with a depiction of Scottish working-class life and its violent conditions, as exemplified in novels such as Archie Hind’s Dear Green Place and Alexander McArthur’s No Mean City. McIlvanney’s first novel, Remedy is None (1966), won the 1967 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His second, A Gift from Nessus (1968), won a Scottish Arts Council Award in 1969. His third, Docherty (1975), won the prestigious Whitbread Novel Award, but it was his fourth novel, Laidlaw (1977), which secured his international reputation. In the character of Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw we can see all the anti-heroic characteristics which have shaped tartan noir and, more generally, British crime writing, since its publication. Laidlaw is a loner with an antipathetical relationship to authority and who is motivated by an idea of justice which occasionally exceeds the boundaries of the law. Here one can see the basis for characters such as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. However, Laidlaw is also a humanist manqué, he does not accept that there are ‘fairies or monsters’; only people caught up in circumstances beyond their control and shaped by socio-economic forces not of their own choosing. In this respect, we might consider McIlvanney’s writing (reminiscent of The Hard Man) as part of a tradition of Scottish Socialist Realism. However, politicised as it may be, this is no agit prop. Laidlaw has a considerable amount in common with Kafka’s K or Joyce’s Bloom as he wanders the mean streets of Glasgow in search of the truth.
With a writer such as McIlvanney, one can begin to see why Scotland should be such a ripe locale for detective fiction, and why its writers should speak to readers in Europe. Firstly, the land of Macbeth is propitious for murder. The dark nights and dark psyches depicted by McIlvanney are suggestive of the scene of considerable crime. McIlvanney (and those who write after him) construct a Glasgow as bleak as any modernist or postmodernist distopia. His interest is not in the macro level configurations of a city and its political and public spaces, but in the lives led in back streets by characters sketched in charcoal with nicotine stained fingers. His is the Glasgow of smoke-filled bars, newspaper stands, public buses, cheap hotel lobbies, dark street corners, empty parkland and dimly-lit night clubs. It is a warren as complex as any labyrinth imagined by Dedalus and as evasive as any Castle encountered by a confused Kafka. Laidlaw, like a Scottish bladerunner, occupies his own imagined space, all the more powerful for its recognisable referents and familiar auditory patterns. McIlvanney expands his writing beyond the formula of the detective novel to offer a profound engagement with process, temporality and human agency. Laidlaw imagines that it is a mistake to think of murder as the culmination of an aberrant sequence of events. It is only that for the victim. For the living, those who live on in the half-light of unknowing, it is only the beginning of a sequence of events which can lead to the undoing of lives that still have to be lived.
The opening of Laidlaw provides us with an opportunity to read several salient aspects of McIlvanney’s writing. It begins:
'Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other. It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning. And it was useless to notice these things. It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him.
A voice with a cap on said, "Where’s the fire, son?"
Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal.'
The first thing we might note is that the voice here is considered and literary. It does not invoke the wise-cracking conventions of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, nor does it turn to demotic Scots. The vernacular is always inside inverted commas. It plays on several stylistic features characteristic of the European novel, notably here the use of style indirect libre as a way of blurring the boundaries between the third person narration and the interior monologue of the character it describes, moving between the complex sentence and the flustered reporting of 'Stroll' and so on. However, this passage is one which exemplifies the work of the book in general and of McIlvanney’s characters in general. It is concerned with reading. It reads the body language of the runner for signs of the symptomatic, working from signifier to signified to reconstruct meaning and to work towards truth. All of McIlvanney’s characters are good readers, not only the detective who operates a hermeneutics of suspicion but all the anti-heroes who engage critically with the world around them, taking nothing at face value, decoding the world as they attempt to make sense of it for themselves and their reader.
Dr M. McQuillan, 2003
I apologise for the rather odd salutation. "Willie" is what I would prefer to use but old habits die hard and, even at the venerable age of 61, this former pupil of yours at Irvine Royal Academy feels that a certain deference is appropriate. Hence the equivocation. It has been some time since we last spoke (some 20 years ago in Kilmarnock High Street) but I happened on a Youtube interview you gave to a rather unimaginative journalist and wanted to write to you. Despite the interviewer's shortcomings it was clear to me that you remain unchanged from the man who was my English teacher all those years ago. The uplift that this simple observation evoked is essentially what I want to explain to you.
I have recently retired from the world of work, have reassessed my life, and have started to practise as a qualified hypnotherapist. You may think that this is a rather effete occupation (more a passtime perhaps) but I have faith in hypnotherapy as a therapeutic device. This is something I had wanted to do for many years but the inconveniences of life and family obligations dictated otherwise. This work now brings me more fulfilment than anything I did previously because I have the opportunity to help other people correct some of the erroneous conditioning that their childhood imposed on them. My clients leave my consulting room happier, more confident, and with enhanced defences against the absurdities of modern life (your piece on Shakespeare alludes to them perfectly) and this gives me no end of satisfaction.
Anyway, subconscious conditining being due to the positive and negative influences on you in childhood, I have had the opportunity recently to reflect on those who influenced me. Of course, my parents topped the list as you might expect and, as you might also expect, I can now differentiate between the constructive and damaging attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that they imprinted on my developing mind. But who were the others? Well, hard though I've tried, I can only think of three individuals (one of whom you may remember, one that you certainly won't know, and another that you know intimately) that had any meaningful impact on my development.
The first was Mrs McGill, my French teacher in my first few years at Irvine Royal. If you remember her you'll know that she wasn't a Sophia Loren or, even in your baser linguistic currency, a Geri Halliwell. Despite this, her smile could eclipse her face and her brown gallic eyes radiated (on rare occasions) a warmth that belied her austere presentation and gave an insight into her private self. I never knew the real Mrs. McGill but she inspired me with a passion for French culture and language (now equally as debased as our own) and Charlemagne's promise that, "to have another language is to have second soul". Mrs. McGill opened the veil on a language that has enriched my life through Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Boris Vian, Jacques Prevert and other cultural icons of the last century. She couldn't have known this, of course, and I didn't either - but I'm very grateful to her for the subliminal influence she exerted.
The second was Bobby Brownlie, a guy who used to drink in the Victoria Bar, High Blantyre. Bobby earned his living painting white and yellow lines on the roads but he was a man who had missed his vocation - but didn't miss it. Not super-hero material you might think, but Bobby was a peerless philosopher in my eyes; a sage. Articulate, composed, reasonable, informed, generous of spirit, contented, witty and good fun, Bobby was as kindly and well-meaning a man as you could ever be privileged to meet. Bobby simply confirmed what I already knew; that good people are accidents of nature and nurture rather than products of any class or God. I lost touch with Bobby in 1973 when I decamped to London but think of him still and try to follow his example on how to respect and treat others.
Thirdly, there was you. I'm conscious of the fact that, throughout my life, I have always been synthesising; distilling what I see, read and hear into essence, reducing bulk through redaction into meaning. This isn't always a popular thing to do and it has caused me to be, on occasions, a more challenging companion/colleague/parent than modern social mores would deem ideal. I found that I could never settle on vagueness, ambiguity, or opinion without justification, and, when I saw your interview and read some of the articles on your dispatches website, I could at last retrace the estuary of my tendency to its probable source. The French categorise understanding into the "savoir" (knowledge), the "savoir faire" (knowing how to do), and the "savoir etre" (knowing how to be). At school we were taught a fair bit about the first two but precious little about the last. The exception was you - and the frustrations you expressed in your interview about the lack of a meaningful relationship between most teachers and their pupils hit a chord with me immediately. That was your skill; to convey more than facts, to spark imaginations to query and investigate, to search for meaning and to express it. You started a process in me that has been irreversible and I am a better person (in my eyes at least) for having looked at life through a lens that magnified as much the viewer as the subject matter being viewed. In short, you provided the model of a better man than I would otherwise have been and, even if I have fallen short of my own aspirations on occasions, it's surely better to aim too high and miss a target than to aim too low and hit it.
You have secured for yourself a legacy in Scottish literary culture that will prove enduring. You richly deserve it. However, when you weigh your achievements, please don't forget to add to credit side of the balance the positive influence you had on impressionable youngsters. I felt this impulse to write it down and tell you but, for every one of me, there must be hundreds who can attribute at least some of their life's success, and their way of being, to your example. Legacy is what is left behind even if it isn't always apparent, tangible, or easily accessible. The truth is that no critic or librarian will ever be able to fully quantify, classify, archive, or evaluate your life's work but, whatever they conclude, others who knew you could add to it significantly from their personal recollections.
With kindest regards and every best wish for your future success and happiness,