Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

Our national mirror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of Graithnock, which is a lightly fictionalised version of Kilmarnock, an industrial town in Ayrshire in the West of Scotland. The stories take place just as the ‘70s were giving way to the ‘80s – a time when hope seemed to be turning to despair in light of the Thatcherite policies that would rip the industrial heart out of Scotland over the next decade. McIlvanney rarely addresses politics directly in his work but it infuses everything he writes and, as a result, his books catch the national psyche at a given moment in time. His characters’ stories grow out of their social and cultural circumstances.

The stories here often overlap and share commonalities – many of the characters know each other, drink in the same pub, share the same histories. So they gradually build together to give a full picture of the town and to show how, in any society, the actions of the individual arise from and add to the prevailing culture. With his usual wonderfully insightful prose, McIlvanney makes us care about these people – we laugh with them and cry with them, celebrate their victories, sorrow over their disappointments and mourn their griefs. And we (certainly the Scots among us) recognise ourselves in at least some of them, as we recognise our friends and neighbours in the others.

Margaret and John Hislop had one of those marriages where there wasn’t room to swing an ego. All was mutual justice and consideration and fairness. He only golfed between the hours of two and six on a Sunday because that was when she visited her mother. Her night-class was always on a Tuesday, regardless of what was available then, for that was when he worked late. Both watched television programmes which were neither’s favourite. They didn’t have arguments, they had discussions. It was a marriage made by committee and each day passed like a stifled yawn. It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it.

I love McIlvanney. Having come late to his work as his long career drew to a close, I am reading his books with a retrospective eye and a feeling of profound familiarity – the twentieth century Scottish world he recorded is the one that I too lived. His culture and language and humour are mine too, his people are people I knew, his view of Scotland and the world aligns largely with my own. My only hesitation about him, and I wonder if this is the reason that despite his huge talent he’s still not as widely known as he should be, is that perhaps his books are so deeply embedded in our small society that possibly they don’t have the same resonance for people not so familiar with it. The humanity of his characters is undoubtedly universal, but perhaps a Scottish reader’s instinctive understanding of their cultural hinterland is why he’s so much more revered in Scotland than outside it.

Book 7 of 25

The first story in the book is an example of what I mean. It tells of a young lad asking his boss for a large loan and three months off work. The boss not unnaturally wants to know the reason, and the lad tells him he wants to go to Argentina to see Scotland play in the World Cup. The boss first tries to talk him out of this ridiculous dream, then realises that the boy is a younger version of himself – that he once dared to dream big too – and reflects on how his life has narrowed into a staid middle-aged routine. Standard short story fare, as I summarise it, although wonderfully written, but oh! If you’d been young in Scotland in 1978 when we qualified for the World Cup! If you’d experienced the ecstatic excitement, the national pride, the Mohammed Ali-like hubris of the team manager, Ally MacLeod, the half-believed dream that we might, like Jack, kill the giants and bring home the cup! If you’d stood in the national stadium with thousands upon thousands of others in Ally’s Tartan Army to cheer and sing the team on their way! And if, three games later, you’d wept bitter tears of heartbreak when they slunk home – out in the first round – beaten on goal difference – humiliated! Then you’d understand! This isn’t just a story of two men – it’s a story of Scotland’s crushed dreams!

Ally’s Tartan Army send off – that’s me in the crowd!
Life lesson: Never hold your victory parade before the tournament…

Few of the stories are based around such a specific event, but many of them make use of aspects of working class Scottish culture of the time, especially from the male perspective – football, pubs and getting drunk, dog racing, gambling. What they’re about, however, is men and women trying to survive the things life throws at them – love, marriage, divorce, jobs and unemployment, bereavement, petty crime, violence, prison. Makes it sound much gloomier than it is – while some of the stories made me cry, just as many made me laugh, and a couple made me do both at the same time. McIlvanney’s characters are mostly resilient – the walking wounded of the title. Life may knock them down but they crawl back up, often with a pawky quip at fate’s expense, and ready themselves to face tomorrow.

William McIlvanney

McIlvanney hailed from the same area as our national bard, Robert Burns, and I suspect that Benny’s thoughts in the following quote may be McIlvanney’s own…

Benny loved Robert Burns, not just the poetry, which he could quote at great and sometimes pub-emptying length, but the man, the hard life, the democratic stance of him, the sense he gave of effortlessly incarnating Scottishness, the fact that he, like Benny, was an Ayrshireman. Scottishness was very important to Benny. He wasn’t sure what it was but, whatever it was, it bit like lockjaw and the fever of it was in his blood. When he read Burns, he looked in a national mirror that told him who he was and forbade him to be diminished by what other people had. He was enough in himself.

I wish very much that I could have told him that, what Burns meant to Benny, McIlvanney has come to mean to me. Our bard of the twentieth century – our national mirror.

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46 thoughts on “Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney

  1. What an excellent post, FictionFan, and it sounds like a great collection, too. It sounds as though McIlvanney has really captured what it was like to be Scottish at that time, in that part of the country. To me, that takes skill. And I love the way the stories intersect with one another. They’re about different characters, but they all relate. It’s a tribute to his skill that the stories are that engaging.

    • Thank you, Margot! Yes, it reminded me a little of Joyce’s Dubliners in the way all the stories and characters crossed over each other and formed connections. His vision of Scotland is so clear-sighted – the flaws and prejudices are all on display, but so is his profound love and compassion for the Scots as a people. Consciously or unconsciously (probably the former), he was part of that late twentieth century revival in Scottish self-confidence. We owe him a debt… 😀

    • McIlvanney seems to be a Scottish secret, which is what makes me wonder how well his stories travel. But there’s so much similarity between West of Scotland and Northern Irish culture I’m certain you’d “get” him… 😀

  2. Wonderful post, regardless of whether one intends to read the book or not. You’ve raised such a fundamental point: a writer capturing the zeitgeist of not just a period but a slice of society – the heart of a community which speaks loud and clear to those who ‘belong’ and hopefully conveys those unique ingredients to others outside the tribe. To achieve that is a gift.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, it’s partly because I just can’t seem to like a lot of American literary fiction that I’ve realised how important it is to share a culture with an author to truly “get” him – at least when the author is writing so specifically about that culture. I know plenty of non-Scots love McIlvanney too, but he doesn’t get the level of recognition the quality of his writing demands, which is why I wonder if he’s just *too* Scottish…

  3. Beautiful review! Each time you review McIlvanney, I feel like I should read him though I’m also curious whether he would have the same punch for a reader outside of Scotland.

    • Thank you! 😀 I know plenty of non-Scots have loved McIlvanney too, but he does seem to resonate more deeply for Scottish readers. Some of his books have a lot of Scottish dialect too, which makes them harder for non-Scots and even for young Scots, but this one is almost entirely dialect free. It would be a great way to sample his style… 😉

        • Haha! Taggart, I wonder? There used to be an old sit-com called Rab C Nesbitt which was done in the broadest Glaswegian – far broader than mine! At that time I shared a house with a New Zealand friend and I loved watching it with her – her face, as she tried to puzzle out what was going on, was far funnier than the actual programme… 😂

  4. I’ve loved McIlvanney’s novels, but have never read any of his short stories. The extracts you have posted are brilliant though, so I will definitely be adding this collection to my TBR. His ability to capture the culture, experience and even mentality of what it is like to be Scottish is not equaled by many other writers, and I think that is probably his greatest strength for us, but perhaps the main drawback for non-Scottish readers.

    • I’m not a hundred per cent sure but I think this may be his only venture into short stories, which is a pity since he’s a real master of the form. Exactly! And he does it on the levels of both the individual and society, and without ever overtly becoming polemical – he’s superb at using his characters to make his points for him, like Benny in the Burns quote. Part of me is sorry I didn’t start reading him years ago, but I don’t really regret it because I still have so much of his work to discover now… 😀

  5. While I’m of the right age for his work, I’m not from the right place. So… I really don’t know if I’d be able to connect to his writing or not. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot one day.

    • I’m not sure either. One of my blog buddies from New Zealand loves him, but she has Scottish heritage and knows a lot about our culture and history. I know I struggle with a lot of the American lit-fic writers because I don’t get their references and it becomes an annoyance. If you do decide to try him some day, I hope he works for you… 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m so glad I found my way to him at last even if it took me several decades too long! If you do decide to try him sometime, this one might be a good starting point – some of his books have quite a lot of Scottish dialect in them, but this one doesn’t, and he really is a master of the short story form…

  6. This is such a wonderful review that it’s on my list and I just hope that something of the humanity will travel south, from your quotes I think it will!

    • Thank you! Oh, I do hope you enjoy him, and this one would be quite a good place to start, I think. Some of his books have quite a lot of Scottish dialect which makes them a bit harder for non-Scots, but this one doesn’t and he’s really great at the short story form… 😀

  7. Pretty sure I’ve never read any of his works, but this collection of short stories sounds most interesting. This statement — “It was as if the family crypt had been ordered early and they were living in it” — seems pretty illustrative of the way some people grow together in a marriage. I suppose some would consider it “comfortable,” while others would call it “dull, boring,” though who can live with a steady dose of drama?!

    • I love the way he can make a phrase like that which sounds humorous but at the same time really makes the reader recognise exactly what he means! He’s one of these writers who’s extremely quotable – I’m often tempted to skip the review and just list a ton of quotes from him. And I think we’ve all seen marriages that look a bit like a family crypt… 😉

  8. Brilliant post! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this author and can tell that his writing means a lot to you. I haven’t read much Scottlish literature or books set in Scotland but I can tell that McIlvanney’s writing is about much more than setting.

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m ashamed of how little Scottish literature I’ve read (being a Scot!) but I’m trying to make up for lost time, and finding McIlvanney has been a major joy for me. His settings are great but you’re right – his books are always about the people more than the places or even the plots. And he’s such a compassionate writer, which means his books are always an emotional experience… 😀

    • He is! I just wish he was better known outside Scotland – even inside Scotland, in fact! But he is having a revival up here now and being recognised as one of our literary greats, so hopefully he’ll be more widely read than he has been in the past… 😀

    • He is a wonderful writer, and so quoteable! He actually wrote poetry and I think considered himself a poet first and novelist second, but the rest of the world prefers his novels…

  9. What a powerful endorsement! Thanks to you and Big Sister I have found and do love William McIlvanney’s work. While I won’t be able to identify with the specific Scottish context to the level you do, his writing does provide a rich window into those times and social contexts and it’s great to hear from you that this is deeply authentic. Of course, his great capacity to understand and convey human concerns is universal. This is another book I’ve requested our library to purchase but, after your passionate recommendation, I’ll certainly be getting it myself if they don’t choose to buy it. William’s son Liam is a professor at Otago University here. He’s written crime books; I read one a few years ago but it didn’t have the same resonance for me and I haven’t read more.

    • Yes, I always think of BigSister too when reading or reviewing McIlvanney – he was such a favourite of hers. I’m always so glad to hear he works for you too, because that makes me hope he’s not “too Scottish” for non-Scots to enjoy, even though it is his Scottishness that makes him so special to me. Ha! Your library will be putting a ban on me soon! 😀 Yes, I read one of Liam’s books too and never read another – they’re well enough written but I didn’t feel the Glasgow he described was authentic at all. It could have been any city anywhere in Britain. It always surprises me he’s chosen to write in the same genre and location as his father since it means comparisons are always drawn, and rarely in his favour. However, his books do seem to sell quite well over here. Funnily enough, I was talking to my brother about Otago in connection with Liam McIlvanney just a few days ago, and we were wondering if there’s a specific link between Otago and Glasgow – the reason being that there’s an Otago Street in our West End. After much debate, we decided we didn’t know! 😂

      • Dunedin (the main city in the region of Otago) has the tradition of being the most Scottish of NZ cities but I’m not sure about links to Glasgow specifically. (Apparently the name Dunedin comes from the Scots Gaelic word for Edinburgh.) Most of my Scottish (and Irish) ancestors entered NZ at the Otago Harbour. The name Otago is from the Māori word Ōtākou which was the name of an existing Māori settlement in the area. There’s a Glasgow Street in South Dunedin!

        • Interesting! It must be the Otago Harbour link that registered with Scots, I guess, enough to call a street Otago St. I always love seeing Scottish names pop up in the old dominions side by side with names from the various other emigrant communities. So don’t you go changing them all back to Maori names just because they were there first! 😉

  10. I think your assumption is correct FF-I can see why you’d love this book, this writer, and his stories. As a Canadian, it wouldn’t resonate much with me. That being said, I’m sure we’ve got a few Canucks that wouldn’t make much sense to the wider reading community either…hmm now that’s got me thinking!

    • Yes, I’ve struggled with some books from other cultures, especially American ones, where they’re just so full of cultural references I don’t get that I feel I’m missing most of the point. It’s tricky for authors and lots of Scots authors choose not to write about Scotland specifically, presumably because the books don’t market so well elsewhere…

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