Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty 2Scottish wrath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”

Tam is a miner in the fictional town of Graithnock in Ayrshire. He’s a hard man but a good-hearted one, with a fierce belief that the working man deserves better from his masters – a belief that he passes on to his sons, though each comes to interpret it in different ways. In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. Graithnock may be a small place, remote from the centre of power, but these influences will be felt even there.

McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. All the speech in the book is in dialect and since it’s largely the dialect I grew up with it’s hard for me to know for sure whether it would cause problems for non-Scots to read, but I don’t think so. Other than speech, the book is in standard English. The characterisation throughout is superb, from Tam himself right down to the people who make only a brief incidental appearance. McIlvanney has the ability to get to the heart of a character in a few sentences, often using powerful metaphors to paint vivid portraits. The book is emotional but never mawkish – these are real people and the things that happen to them are real too, never exaggerated for effect.

He thought he understood why it was he had always liked Tam Docherty so much. He was more than anything in his life showed him to be, and he knew it. The effect on Andra was as if he had come across some powerful animal in a cage, kept fit on its own frustration, endlessly restless, knowing instinctively that the bars are an invention, nothing final, and feeling contempt for its keepers. Andra sensed quite simply that Tam was not defeated. And if Tam wasn’t, neither was he.

Although the female characters are strong and well drawn, fundamentally the book concentrates on maleness, in a community where physical strength is of vital importance for economic survival. The men forge strong bonds as they work in the dangerous conditions down the mine and at night gather together on street corners, where they tell each other again and again the same stories that give them their sense of communal identity. McIlvanney shows effectively and movingly how, when physical strength begins to fade, the men are somehow diminished, giving way to the new generation in the first flush of their power, with all the rivalry this causes between fathers and sons. And as men reach the point where they can no longer go down the mine, they become dependent on their children to keep them out of the poorhouse.

High Street, Kilmarnock - the town on which fictional Graithnock is based. "High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary."
High Street, Kilmarnock – the town on which fictional Graithnock is based.
“High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”

The book covers the period of WW1 and McIlvanney takes us there with one of Tam’s sons. Again, where other authors might become self-indulgent with descriptions of the horrors, McIlvanney practices admirable restraint, using brief episodes to illustrate the wider picture – an approach that I found as effective as many of the books that have wallowed too luxuriously in the blood and the mud. His perspective is more to look at the after-effects of the war on those who lived through it or lost someone to it, both in terms of emotional impact and on how it fed into the politics of the post-war society.

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

It’s strange how sometimes it depends on when we read a book as to how it affects us. While I think this is an excellent book, I found its impact on me somewhat lessened by having so recently read The Grapes of Wrath. Docherty was, for me, the easier and more enjoyable read, but I found I was drawing comparisons all the way through; the major themes – of exploited workers and the strength that comes through the bonds of male physicality, of women as the nurturing backbone who hold families together, of the despair that drives men towards more extreme political systems – are at the heart of both books. Different societies but with similar issues and both showing man’s fundamental struggle for survival in an unfair and unjust world. And though I would say Docherty is by far the better structured of the two, and mercifully much briefer, I must give the award for emotional power to Steinbeck, even though I object to the manipulation he used to achieve it. And, though McIlvanney’s writing maintains a much more consistently high standard throughout, he never quite reaches the sublimity of some of the passages in The Grapes of Wrath. I suspect I would have found Docherty both more powerful and more emotional if I could have avoided the comparison. Definitely still a great novel, though, and one that I highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

66 thoughts on “Docherty by William McIlvanney

  1. This does sound like a really compelling read, FictionFan. As I thought about your comments about The Grapes of Wrath, it occurred to me that so many of our experiences are more universal than we sometimes think. The life of the exploited worker is one of those themes. I think that’s been a part of most societies, actually, so it’s interesting to see how writers from different places and times address it.

    • Yes, a lot of comparisons between these two books – and between the societies and politics of the time too. In fact I suspect there might have been more similarity between US and UK culture back then than there is now – we seem to have diverged politically a bit since then, although we still fundamentally head in the same direction. And I do think looking at what happened to our societies between the wars sheds quite a lot of light on what is happening in other areas of the world today…

  2. Whew! Glad you enjoyed this, since I recommended it. I read GOW when I was about 14, and Docherty when I was about 20, which was probably enough of a gap to stop me drawing such a direct comparison between the two. Glad you’re back after a somewhat mixed US Open.

    • He’s a great writer – I’ll need to gradually work my way through his other stuff. Yes, it was unfortunate really that I read them so closely together – with my memory a year would have been enough of a gap, but GOW is still too fresh in my mind. Didn’t stop me enjoying and appreciating this one though. Yes it was a strange Open, but in the end I thought we got two good finals and there were a few excellent matches along the way – not to mention Rafa’s lovely new kit…

  3. Love the review and welcome back! I think I’d struggle with this because of the dialect – it took me an age to read the speeches you highlighted but I suppose it depends what the speech to non-speech ratio is? As you know I do enjoy this period of history, and that added to a small community has me highly tempted…

    • Thank you! 🙂 Hmm… to be honest I’d say the book’s quite heavy on dialogue, so you might find it a bit of a struggle. It’s always hard to know when it’s your own dialect – I suspect you’d get tuned in to it after a bit, but I can’t be sure. Did you ever get around to reading Laidlaw? If you coped with that one, then I’d think this one wouldn’t be much tougher…

  4. This does sound interesting. I’m familiar with McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series but I hadn’t realised he’d written other novels. How does the prose style compare between the two (assuming you’ve read some of his Laidlaw books)?

    • I’d say the style is very similar, but then I thought the Laidlaw series was as much lit-fic than crime really. The dialect in this is Ayrshire rather than Glaswegian but I doubt the tiny differences would be noticeable to anyone other than a native. Personally, I preferred Laidlaw to this one, very slightly – partly because I felt the crime element gave it a tighter structure (in general, I’m not a big fan of the family saga type of book), and partly because in Laidlaw he was writing about the Glasgow of my youth so it was a real trip back in time for me. But I’d say they are equally good overall. Definitely recommended, especially if you liked the Laidlaw books.

  5. I agree with Cleo. Although the book sounds interesting, I found it difficult to make my way through the dialogue, but it might be something I’d get used to. Not sure if I’d get frustrated before I became adept at “translation.” Maybe my mind is just feeling weak this morning. Not enough coffee. Must have another cup.

    • I suspect you would get tuned into it after a while, but it’s hard to be sure. Did you ever get around to reading Laidlaw? If so, the dialect in this one is no harder though there’s a lot more of it, I think. And if not, I’d probably recommend Laidlaw first – overall I preferred it, though only slightly, and it has the added interest of being set in the places and time of my youth – you could imagine me in all those pubs as you read… 😉

  6. You’re BACK!! You’ve been missed, you know, though I imagine everyone needs a break now and then (and what better time, huh, than during the U.S. Open?!?) Anyway, I’m not sure this one would capture my interest. I find dialect very hard to read — slows me up and causes frustration! But it sounds like a good story anyway, and you’ve done a great job with the review!

    • Aw, thanks, Debbie! Yes, I have a tendency to disappear during the four big tennis tournaments though not usually so completely! Yes, I think there’s quite a lot of dialogue in this one and it is hard for me to tell how difficult it would be for non-Scots. The passage I quoted is probably as hard as it gets – I hoped it would let people have some idea of whether they’d find it too annoying. I know I do with dialects that I’m not familiar with…

    • I only read him for the first time a couple of years ago with the great Laidlaw trilogy, but he’s now one of my top favourite authors – so definitely recommended! And as a fellow Scot you’ll have nae probs wi’ the dialect!

  7. FEFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF! Glad to see your back. Now, about this Tam chap. *laughs* Funny about him being a five foot flower. I hope he was an evil flower.

    Also, if I was an animal, I’d be that rhino on the side.

    • No, pretty understated I’d say, thankfully – more about the emotional impact than actual descriptions of the horrors. It really is a great book – McIlvanney is a wonderful writer and I guess it’s probably his use of dialect that stops him from being more widely read, which is a pity.

  8. Glad you’re back.
    I love the idea of a book about the male influence on other males. Having read the sample dialogue above, I would probably have to listen to an audiobook for the pronunciations. Sorry. I’m from the States, and I might pronounce a word differently in my head if reading it on my own.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I like books about masculinity too, especially written by men – hmm! Does that make me sexist? Oh, well! Unfortunately because this is an older book (1970s) I don’t think it’s been done as an audiobook, but yes that would be a great way to get past the dialect problem. McIlvanney’s having something of a revival at the moment over here, so maybe they’ll do audio versions soon…

  9. Docherty is already on my list and I love the idea of tuning my inner ear to Scots writing. A belated thanks for your review.

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I think becuase he does the dialect so well it begins to flow after a bit and becomes reasonably easy to get. Although he uses the speech patterns and pronounciations, there aren’t too many actual non-English words… I think, but it’s always difficult when it’s your own dialect to know how other people will find it. When you get around to reading it, I’d love to hear what you think of it… 🙂

  10. I’ve just read Docherty and love its raw and rich lives and language. Wonderful writing. I read another book between A Scots Quair and Docherty and it felt so flat. It was such a pleasure to return to the fullness of this Scot’s writing. I slipped into the rhythm and meanings of dialect quite easily (though had to look up ‘squeeb’). I wish I had a stronger Scots (or specifically Ayrshire or Glaswegian) dialect in my head (and also Irish) so I could ‘hear’ more of the language as I read it. My Irish grandmother died when I was young and my Scots great-grandmother before I was born: but I’d love to have known their voices.

    • So glad you enjoyed it! I think he writes the dialogue so well that it does become relatively easy once you get into his flow. It’s funny – even though I live here, we were all educated to talk ‘English’ so the Scottish dialect doesn’t really come naturally to me either, and when I try to speak it, it sounds a bit false. Have you thought of trying audiobooks? I see Audible has McIlvanney’s Laidlaw narrated by McIlvanney himself – in fact, now I’ve spotted that, I have to get it myself! And Ian Rankin’s Rebus books are narrated by James MacPherson who has a lovely Scottish voice and does any dialect really well.

      • Belatedly, yes, that is a good idea to listen to the book. I do like to have a sense of language as spoken by the people who ‘own’ it. The part of the story where children were punished for speaking in Scottish dialect reminded of similar stories of Māori children speaking Māori in NZ schools and Deaf children signing during oralist phases of education: the world wide story of oppressed cultures.

        • Indeed! I’m not suggesting the Scots were oppressed to anything like the same degree as many other peoples but even in my youth we were still told to ‘speak properly’ any time we slipped into dialect – meaning speak English. And I bet kids still are, even though there’s been a bit of a resurgence of respect for Scots as a real dialect rather than slang. The problem is so few educated Scots can actually speak dialect naturally now that it always sounds a bit false – even a bit patronising – when we try to do it.

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