… the Father of Tartan Noir
“His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.”
I’ve just heard the sad news that William McIlvanney died yesterday, aged 79.
I came late to McIlvanney’s work when the Laidlaw trilogy was republished a couple of years ago. He is recognised as the progenitor of what has come to be known as Tartan Noir – gritty, realistic crime novels set in Scotland’s cities – and many of our top current crime writers, such as Ian Rankin, acknowledge his influence on their work.
But McIlvanney also wrote what would be classed as ‘literary fiction’ and indeed the quality of his writing lifts even his crime novels to a literary standard seldom reached in that genre.
“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”
“Coulda made something o’ himself. But a luckless man. All his days a luckless man. The kinna man woulda got two complimentary tickets for the Titanic.” The unintentional humour of her remark was like her natural appetite for life reasserting itself. Harkness couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if Glasgow couldn’t shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave.
From his vantage point in Ruchill Park, Laidlaw looked out over the city. He could see so much of it from here and still it baffled him. ‘What is this place?’ he thought.
A small and great city, his mind answered. A city with its face against the wind. That made it grimace. But did it have to be so hard? Sometimes it felt so hard…It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground. And what circumstances kept giving it was cruelty. No wonder he loved it. It danced among its own debris. When Glasgow gave up, the world could call it a day.
“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.”
But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.
William McIlvanney was one of those few writers who could truly move the stars to pity. He will be greatly missed, but his words and his influence will continue to live on.