Des Dillon Goes Eclectic
Des Dillon is probably best known as the author of several acclaimed novels, starting with Me and Ma Gal back in 1995. But, not content with simply writing novels, Dillon has also turned his hand to poetry, plays, screenplays, short story collections, and most recently stand-up comedy. “I’m the only Catholic in Scotland with the Protestant work ethic, know what I mean?” is one of his comments about his output. I say ‘one of’ because Dillon tends to produce lengthy, well structured and well argued comments on any question put to him. He’s a dream to interview, but a nightmare to edit down – because I don’t want to lose any of it.
However, there are a couple of problems with writing down his comments. Swearing features regularly, but I'm told we can’t print that, so I’ve replaced the swear words in an obvious way where it’ll be clear what the originals are. Dillon’s thick Glaswegian accent is fantastic, but I’ve (mostly) resisted writing down his words in such a way as to reflect that accent – because he’s that good at writing dialect himself that my imitation of him would be a pale one. Also, though some find reading accurately rendered Glaswegian accents hard, Glaswegians, myself included never have trouble reading ‘conventional’ prose out in their own accents – that’s how to read this piece, if you’re able. So, consider this fair warning: if you’re offended by swearing, don’t come to this gig, and you probably shouldn’t read on either. If you’re offended by Glaswegian accents, don’t come to this gig, but you probably should seek help.
So what’s a Dillon gig like? “Will I tell you how I start my act?” he asks me: “See where I come from in Coatbridge, ‘runt’ means person, one runt, two runts, three runts, four runts, five runts, skinny runt, fat runt, us runts, youse runts, I was 35 before I even knew what it meant, it was flipping pissed off man, I was saying ‘What? What? I’ve been saying that to my maw for flipping 30 odd years, maw there’s two runts at the door, she’s like, ‘bring the runts in… aw it’s youse two runts!’ If there’s any walkouts, that’s when they walk out! That’s how I start my act.” You see what I mean about the swearing, but get past that, please get past that – because Dillon goes on from this amusing, and necessary, start to make a point about how one person’s use of language can be used by others to enforce cultural differences. I’m not ruining that point by putting it down here – go to the show!
All this concern about the audience is not without foundation. Dillon had sworn off Edinburgh recently. “The Book Festival audience just wasn’t my audience” he says. “They asked me to go this year, and I said, ‘that’s just not my audience’ so they said ‘well, we’ve got this Unbound thing, so you can do your stand up comedy’ so that’s what I’m going to be doing.” Brace yourselves. Dillon’s book readings had been evolving into performances in any case. “I’ve always been a guy that tells stories anyway,” he says, “and the stories I wrote were the stories I used to tell my pals. Usually quite funny stories, sometimes moving”. But a change was forced upon him. “My eyes started to go, and I couldn’t flick from the book to the audience to get the reaction, and so a lot of the time I was just coming in and going ‘I’ll just tell youse this story,’ put the book down and just tell them the story. When I was doing that it was a laugh.” He’s not wrong – whenever Dillon tells me one of his stories, I fall about. He considers the general culture of storytelling he grew up in one of the foundations of his success as a writer too. “My maw told me a story, ‘Did you know Danny McCall had a shotgun?’ ‘No?’ ‘Well they do down in Asda…’ and then she’d go on with the story. I picked up a lot from hearing these stories.”
This didn’t mean he was a natural storyteller on stage. He admits nerves at his first gig “I walked in, right,” he says, “walked across the hall, everybody’s staring at me, I turned round, my heart was beating like frick, right. Now, nowadays in a fifteen minute session, I’ll do about two/three stories, right. I did five stories there that I just rattled off, couldn’t stop talking. Soon as I started talking they started laughing, right, and I just couldn’t stop. It was like watching yourself from afar, like an out of body experience. Fricking terrifying, most scary thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve done some scary things by the way, in my life.” He doesn’t say frick, and he doesn’t say fricking.
Scared or not scared, he embarked on a successful tour. It’s important to Dillon that he isn’t just seen as – and here’s a Glaswegianism for you – a patter merchant. He says, “I think there’s a misconception about my writing that some of the simplicity I write with makes me simple. But I’m actually looking for simple language to create profound ideas – I’m not looking for profound language that communicates shallow ideas.” He’s working hard for profundity too - he describes his writing process to me in considerable, lengthy detail, during which he casually mentions a book in progress about the Leningrad Siege, currently in its 25th full draft. What motivates this? “I think the work ethic came to me when I stopped drinking,” he says. “You get bored flaming stiff when you don’t drink or take drugs, where you used to be out your face quite a lot. So it’s like, for me I’m obsessive with anything I do. I was obsessed with drink, then I was obsessed with drugs, then I was obsessive with women. So I’m just obsessive with anything I do.” That obviously includes stand-up too, and Unbound will benefit from that.
Because of all the work he puts into writing, Dillon ends up with stories he can explore on stage. He takes a small list of subjects on stage with him to jog his memory, and that’s it. “It’ll say ‘neds in glen’ and that’s a fifteen minute story about me meeting these neds in the glen, and I’ll put one down that’ll go ‘bunch of runts’ and that’s a story of me and my mates and all that doing a joke on this guy, and then one will say ‘Our lady’ about the time our lady appeared to me” he explains. He doesn’t say runt. “So I’ve got so many stories” he continues “I can go that, that, that and that. I’ve got all these stories with great punchlines, and so I can explore the story a bit because I know there’s a punchline coming.” His enthusiasm for these stories is such that he blasts off a couple of them for me, and he’s not wrong about the great punchlines. It’s a while before I stop laughing and get to ask him if he’s done his stand up in Edinburgh before. He hasn’t. So, I ask, how does he think it’ll go?
He doesn’t say anything. He just laughs.