great Scottish writers – William McIlvanney

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I was out watching the fitba yesterday, having a couple of pints and old Lawrie was trying to explain what pub he’d been in, years ago, not by telling us where it was, rather by telling us who’d once owned it and who’d given him the money to buy the pub, but he couldn’t remember that either. ‘It was a great Scottish author.’ That was the clue to unravelling the mystery.

‘William McIlvanney,’ I said.

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘A great Scottish author’.

Let me tell you a wee secret, William McIlvanney is a great Scottish author and like Spike Milligan with Hitler, I’ll explain my part in his downfall. I’m going to read Docherty again just to prove that point to myself again. If you’re Scottish and you’re of a certain age and generation you’ll remember Taggart.  You might even remember it if you’re not Scottish. And if you’re drunk and want to overdose in nostalgia Taggart is still part of STV broadcasts in the same way that Dad’s Army still pops up on BBC (too frequently). The classic line in Taggart, ‘There’s been a murder,’ was so recognisable that talk show hosts used to mouth it cast members and smile, inviting the audience to laugh at them. Taggart became a cliché, to be mocked and so Laidlaw and Scottish noir also became something to be looked down on.

You probably don’t remember me being in Taggart, but at one point in time everybody in Glasgow featured in Taggart. You may have saw me featured in a bar chatting to someone, or walking past Taggart (Mick McManus) and looking very much like me, with the wrong coat on. I did also feature in a tracking shot as the back of Dr Finley’s head. A J Cronin is another of Scotland’s writers greatly neglected.

William McIlvanney allegedly tried to sell a series to STV featuring a straight talking Glasgow detective. But they didn’t fancy the idea. The next thing Taggart appears. Ahem. Do the maths. One-word detectives, that human aphorism, with the answer to a question you don’t know, in the title. Taggart. Laidlaw. Taggart is an older dour detective inspective showing a fresh-faced new start behind the ears the ropes. There’s been a murder. No son, there’s been a theft, the stealing of a body of work from an author. Detective Inspector Laidlaw is an older, dour detective, much given to philosophising and doing what he’s got to do, even though it’s not in the handbook, but because it’s the right thing to do and there is no handbook. Just life.  His sidekick Detective Constable Harkness, a fresh-faced new start has been appointed the higher-up heid yins to keep an eye on Laidlaw, and also, incidentally to help him in the murder of Jennifer Lawson.  That line – there’s been a murder – appears in the first of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, Laidlaw, followed by The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties.  Laidlaw doesn’t attempt to solve murders, he attempts to understand them and does so by wrestling to the ground Glasgow punter’s prejudices and inhumanity to humanity. Murder comes in many forms, in hopes and dreams.

The reader already knows who the killer is in Laidlaw’s first case, when the reader meets the detective. It’s the guy running away from the scene and we know he’s a poof and we know somebody is protecting him and we know why, because they love each other, or once did. But Jennifer Lawrence is not just another wee lassie that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, her da is a Glasgow hardman that lives in Drumchapel. Laidlaw has a soft spot for hardmen, he speaks their language and knows how their arcane rules work, and he knows where to find them in their natural element, Glasgow’s pubs.

Poppies was in a court behind Buchanan Street, along with a couple of abstruse businesses and an anonymous second-hand bookshop. It was the most recent example in Glasgow of a pub with adjoining disco, recent enough for Harkness not to know it. He knew The Griffin and Joanna’s in Bath Street, Waves and Spankies at Custom House Quay. The pub here, the Mavrick, was closed just now but the door to Poppies was open.

An open door is always an invitation. Laidlaw and Harkness need to find the murderer of Jennifer Lawrence before his poofter pal helps him to escape, or the Glasgow underworld help Lawrence’s dad find him first and bring the Old Testament eye for an eye vision of justice into view. The smart money is always on Laidlaw, but if you think it’s about solving a murder you’re missing the point. It’s about the writing. It’s about Laidlaw’s epigrams for living and way of seeing the world.

The Papers of Tony Veitch is a case in point. Laidlaw gets a tip off from a reporter, who talked to a porter in The Victoria Infirmary. ‘Old bloke brought in. Chin like a Brillo-pad. Smelling like a grape harvest. Just about conscious. But he kept asking for Jack Laidlaw’.

A doctor explains their predicament to Laidlaw.  ‘Having trouble with his airwaves. They had him in E. God he was filthy. Didn’t know whether to dialyse or cauterise. A walking Bubonic.’

Laidlaw does know the old bloke, he appears in his first part of the trilogy, an alky and a tout who no longer had his finger on Glasgow’s underworld pulse, because he doesn’t have a pulse. But Eck Adamson leaves Laidlaw a cryptic message. ‘The wine wasnae really wine.’

For colleagues such as Laidlaw’s nemesis Milligan it’s an open and shut case. An alky dies the world applauds, one less problem to worry about. The same wipe-your-eye principles apply, another thug, Paddy Collins, who died of stab wounds in the Victoria Infirmary at around the same time. But Paddy Collins is connected, his wife’s brother is one of the dons of the Glasgow underworld and he insists on finding the killer, before the police. Characters from the first Laidlaw novel bleed into the second. And Laidlaw applies the same detective methods, he solves crimes by osmosis. One clue lies in the deranged idealism of a potential murderer, with connections of a different kind, into Scotland’s elite society. Tony Veitch like Laidlaw has dropped out of the University of Glasgow because he believes it cannot give him the education he requires. None of these things, in isolation matter, but for McIlvanney and Laidlaw nothing ever happens in isolation.

In Strange Loyalties Laidlaw’s brother Scott is killed in a car accident. Nothing is ever an accident in Laidlaw-land. McIlvanney and Laidlaw’s strength is in documenting the social nuances between people. Here, for example, he goes to meet Scott’s father-in-law and his mother-in-law, Martin and Alice.

Their togetherness looked as cosy as an advertisement for an endowment policy…Martin had been a building contractor and a friend of many local councillors. The word was that the two aspects of his life hadn’t been always kept effectively apart…Martin was one of the smiling ruthless. Self-interest and callousness had been so effectively subsumed in his nature that they emerged as a form of politeness. He never raised his voice because he hadn’t enough self-doubt to make it necessary. He could listen calmly to opinions violently opposed to his own because he never took them seriously. He offered the conventional forms of sympathy effortlessly because there was no personal content to mean they might not fit…How long does it take to analyse a vacuum?

Alice, Martin’s wife, is beautiful enough to think the world is beautiful too, but that allows her to be empathetic, in the way that Martin is pathetic.  In Laidlaw-land the perpetrators aren’t all locked safely behind bars. They are pillars of society. Everybody is in some ways culpable and knows something, even if they don’t understand what it means. Neither does Laidlaw, but by the end of his book the reader might. That’s why McIlvanney is a great writer.

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2 thoughts on “great Scottish writers – William McIlvanney

  1. When I first read this Jack, I thought, blimey…didn’t know the guy could write as well as play football, shag birds and drink like a fish. But I was confused, I was thinking of Frank McAvennie, the West ham legend. I haven’t read any of his books ( Loved Taggart), but I will now. I’m now going to look out for you on re-runs of Taggart. You look out for me on The Sweeney and Minder!

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    1. the legend that is Frank McAvennie lives on. Alas William McIlvanney who was prone to a drink or too as well, is no longer with us. Star quality jolono. Of course I remember you in Sweeney and Minder. I think I’ve also seen you in Eastenders, but that might not have been you. A good place to start with McIlvanney (apart from Laidlaw) would be Docherty. Classic.

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