With the recent success at home and abroad of Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks, Ali Smith, Ian Rankin, A.L Kennedy etc, it’s perhaps odd to think of a time when having Scottish novels post R.L. Stevenson in a Scottish house was the exception rather than the norm, at least with most of the people I knew. In the 70s and 80s if a family had only one writer on their shelves there was a good chance it would be William McIlvanney, and I’ll give you good odds it would be one of ‘Laidlaw’, ‘The Big Man’ or ‘Docherty’.
McIlvanney is the overlooked giant of late 20th century Scottish writing, perhaps too prolific and popular to be taken critically seriously. More likely is that he was writing when even Scots didn’t take Scottish writers that seriously as evinced by their near absence from the country’s education system of the time. But I doubt the man cries himself to sleep over this.
McIlvanney’s writing is as good as anyone else around today, and although some claim it falls into gritty, urban, cliché (it doesn’t), it does depict a West of Scotland that many were looking to distance themselves from; an apparently masculine, violent place where people are quick witted and quicker with their fists. I only write that last sentence to show you the sort of thing that critics of McIlvanney believed he wrote, but he would never stoop so low.
It would be wrong to think of McIlvanney’s writing as being confined to a time and place, or even genre. The best introduction to his work is his superb 1989 collection of short fiction, ‘Walking Wounded’, but this month I want to look at his 2006 novel ‘Weekend’, which was ignored by many critics on its publication, perhaps because it confounded their expectations of just what a McIlvanney novel should be or because they had dismissed him already.
Set over the unlikely setting of a weekend of a university study trip, it still touches upon his favoured themes of class, morality, youth vs. maturity, guilt, and gender, but it also examines the complex issue of education, the power it has to change lives, but also how it often divides. This is something which recurs in Scottish writing. The idea that getting an education can be seen as a betrayal of friends and family, even when they pledge their support, is a powerful one in Scotland. It is in the work of writers such as Robin Jenkins, George Friel, Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and perhaps most memorably in James Kelman’s ‘A Dissafection’.
Most of the central characters in ‘Weekend’ are entering a world which is unfamiliar, and to which some people may feel excluded due to class, age or gender. By switching narrators at ease the novel manages to convey various points of view, and in this sense it is a master class in how to incorporate different characters while never losing focus. As the weekend begins the scene is set for a titillating, even farcical tale, of bedhopping and the promise of playing away. Some of the characters could have been stereotypes; the teenage virgin Kate, the womanising lecturer David, the troubled mature student Vikki, and the invited guest writer Harry who it is tempting to view as McIlvanney’s conscience in deed and thought, a man who has suffered slings and arrows but is still able to inspire and create.
As the novel unfolds their different stories intertwine while their lives simultaneously unravel. As they discuss great works of literature the novel asks us to consider what is important. Education and understanding has not led to any sort of fulfilment for lecturers David and Andrew, both needing to dull the pain of their lives with different vices. They are admired without being understood, and it does seem that McIlvanney is warning readers to be careful what you wish for. Or, more likely, he is suggesting we judge people on how they treat others rather than what they know.
A trait of McIlvanney’s writing is that behind the dry humour and his way with a winning one-liner, he is concerned with humanity and the harm, and help, that it individuals can do to each other, angered by life’s injustices, if not surprised. He is a deeply moral writer who never preaches to his readers, rather he shows them slices of life and asks them to consider their own. For all the cheating, lying and resulting sadness in ‘Weekend’ this is not a book that gives up on people and their capacity to do the right thing, and if there is a lesson to learn it is that it is never too late to begin.
One of the books they discuss is ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, so here’s Men At Work and Colin Hay, like McIlvanney from good Ayrshire stock, (Kilwinning to be exact) almost singing about those two. This is ‘Dr Heckle and Mr Jive’:
‘Weekend’ was McIlvanney’s first novel for ten years, and we are still waiting on the next. There is talk of his entire back catalogue being reissued soon, and it certainly deserves to find a new audience, but I want to read something new. There are not many Scottish writers that can deal with serious subjects with his sense of perspective and humour. Some people may think that the perfect Scottish writer would be someone with the political sensibility of James Kelman married to the broad appeal of the Ia(i)ns, Rankin and Banks. Well, perhaps he’s been with us all along.
Next Month’s Novel: Jeff Torrington is the Pete Best of Glasgow’s famous Hobsbaum group of writers. Where James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Agnes Owens have all had varying levels of productivity and success, Torrington only ever completed one novel, ‘Swing Hammer Swing’.
But what a novel it is. Like ‘Weekend’ it is set over a few days, but is a Joycean journey through Glasgow’s Gorbals, surreal in places, only too real in other. I may make the claim that it is Scotland’s great lost novel, but you’ll have to read next month to find out.
- Jeff Torrington Swing Hammer Swing (Dec)
- Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
- Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
- Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
- George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)