Edinburgh International Book Festival: William McIlvanney

Review by Alan Bett | 14 Aug 2014
  • William Mcllvanney

It's preposterous to imagine the works of William McIlvanney being out of print, yet just two years ago this was the case – before the good people at Canongate resurrected his outstanding collection. A new generation of readers weaned on Rebus have now discovered the accidental 'godfather of tartan noir', hopefully to advance on to his more literary works. When questioned here by ex festival director Jenny Brown on the supposed genre slumming of the Laidlaw books – a true yet ridiculous accusation at the time – he responds with well judged humour. “Daaahling, I’ve always been literary.” Going on to explain his tactical writing decision – go where the readers are then colonise the genre.

He begins this day on a political note and speaks of Scots disenfranchisement without fervour, but a reassuring candour and logic. Labour’s tea is out early, labelled as politics with Alzheimer’s, although they probably wish this affliction true, allowing them to forget the next barb – “eunuchs at an orgy”. He speaks first from his recent Saltire Society pamphlet; an intimate examination of his origins and his sick father’s “haggling with death”. The sin of unnecessary suffering from a personal perspective links seamlessly and significantly to wider attacks on the NHS and welfare state. When he makes a superfluous reveal of his referendum leanings, 48% of the audience whoop.

There are those intimidated when the working class speak eloquently of or for themselves and in their own tones, preferring any examination to be conducted externally and end with a condescending pat on the head. Yet it’s impossible to challenge the artistry of McIlvanney’s words, blended with truths rooted in a past that saw both he and brother Hugh (the wonderfully poetic writer of the long lost, long form journalism) sleep together on a fold down bed in the living room, building their own tapestry of stories from colourful language and characters, mellow from the pub, reverberating through their room. His experience and observations overlap with his book's settings – boozers, racetracks and emotionally bare council houses. Also the men who, so afraid to return to them and contemplate their lot, take solace in the palliative of the pint. He paints not only the external landscape of the dispossessed but constructs their inner workings – the trials, compulsions and motivations. Exhibiting not the stereotype’s of Scotland’s working class but the raw reality that spawned them.

His next reading here is a tale of sexual misadventure taken from his excellent Walking Wounded short story collection. The audience erupts during this seasoned performance of humour dwelling at the edge of despair, a principal McIlvanney trait. A personal preference would have been for the tragic lyricism of Docherty or The Big Man, but he clearly wants a contrast to his early serious notes. 

If this is an Indian summer for Willie then he deserves a tan, while his current lionisation through the words of fellow authors demonstrates that he is truly King of the Scottish literary jungle.

William McIlvanney was at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 11 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk