Our national mirror…
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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 5 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!
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.
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.