Just listened to William McIlvanney talk for an engaging hour. McIlvanney is one of Scotland’s finest authors, though the flame of his reputation has perhaps dimmed in the last decade or so, only to be rekindled recently.
One of the milestones that bloody Scotland celebrates is the 35th anniversary of the publication of his LAIDLAW, cited by Ian Rankin (let’s be honest, my primary influence) as the key inspiration behind Rebus – bloody Scotland also celebrates 25 years since KNOTS AND CROSSES.
I read LAIDLAW for the first time this year, after finding an absolutely mangled paperback copy in a charity shop in Alnwick in Northumbria. Part of the reason his flame has perhaps dimmed is illustrated by that – I had to trawl a charity shop for a copy that fell apart as I read it. If it’s noted as the inspiration behind Rankin’s run with Rebus then that’s all well and good – he has subsequently inspired many writers as well as producing such electric fiction – but it ignores a magnificent novel.
LAIDLAW is both a classic and astoundingly contemporary at the same time. It evokes a Glasgow that doesn’t so much not exist any more but which has been squeezed into the margins, behind Italian centres, knocking down The Gorbals and a Bohemian creative scene second only to London in the UK. Glasgow still has that spirit, the rough edges, but the novel portrays a city modernising even 35 years ago. The themes are starkly 21st century – I will let you read it yourself – and demonstrate a remarkable freshness.
The prose is wonderful, at times hard-boiled, at others flowery, but never distracting or extraneous.
His speech was down-to-earth and honest. He’s an old man and not one who has had the monetary success his work deserves, but then he eschewed the serial fiction that would have made him richer than an Aberdeen oil man. He staggered on stage in dated clothing, the books he was reading from brought on stage in the sort of blue carrier bag a corner shop would sell eight cans of lager in. He read from all three LAIDLAW books and, at the end, teased a fourth.
His books have largely been out of print but a recent deal with Canongate will mean reissueing them and it has fired his enthusiasm for revisiting him.
Check LAIDLAW out: