William McIlvanney – he’s still the man

I attended the opening session of the Bloody Scotland festival here in Stirling on Friday night.  It’s a festival of the Scottish crime writing community –  ‘tartan noir’ as it has come to be known.  Ian Rankin was speaking positively about the festival and about the community of common interest among Scottish crime writers.  He paid homage to William McIlvanney by recounting how, as a an Edinburgh undergraduate, he had attended an Edinburgh  Book Festival event where the older man was speaking.  After the session, he had queued in line to have his much read, dog-eared copy of Laidlaw signed by his hero.   Here’s my 1979 copy.

He had talked to the older man, sharing his ambition to write about an Edinburgh detective. McIlvanney signed his copy with the dedication, ‘to the man who wants to write the Edinburgh Laidlaw’ (later, as we now know, to be christened ‘Rebus’).

The next day, Joan and I went to McIlvanney’s session at the same venue and he confirmed the story.  It clearly pleased him that younger writers show him such respect. The hall was only half-full but anyone who thought there was something better to do on an autumnal Stirling lunchtime was mistaken.  I gave up reading McIlvanney some years ago after buying ‘The Weekend’, a tired story, not worthy of his earlier work.  I had forgotten how good that earlier work was.  These are strong, controlled stories, catching the lives of the ordinary people of the industrial West of Scotland.  There are three Laidlaw books (soon to be reissued by Canongate).  McIlvanney told us that his agent had wanted him to get into writing a series.  It was not his ambition.  He was never a commercial writer, as the more laboured later work shows.  His other books of the early period, most famously the statuesque Docherty, are less driven, more descriptive, but these stories of Laidlaw’s crime investigations allow him to explore at pace the good and bad of the city he loves, Glasgow. The writing is peerless.  McIlvanney read three extracts for us.  Hearing his gravelly voice slowly articulating his lyrically descriptive prose was a joy.  If you’ve never read any McIlvanney, you’re in for a treat.  Here’s a little extract to whet your appetite.  I’ve never read a better portrayal of a man, and there are such men, comfortable with his inner violent self.  In a few short paragraphs the language of violence, – the words, the looks, the inner recognition, the Glasgow bar – is revealed:  to be read slowly, with a little gravel in your voice.

The scene takes place in a pub owned by a Glasgow ‘heavy’, John Rhodes.  Laidlaw has been in to see Rhodes, seeking his support in identifying a rapist and murderer.  He, rightly, believes that although Rhodes is a gang lord, he will be repelled by this crime and will agree to help.  After Laidlaw has left, Rhodes gets himself another drink and sits down to read his paper.  It’s near ‘closing time’, after lunchtime opening (2.30 in the afternoon – in 1977 pubs in Scotland still had very limited hours).  The only other people in the bar are the barman and three young men….

They were noisy with drink.  It occurred to him they had done everything to get noticed except let off squibs.  It was a neutral thought to him. That’s what boys were like.

He read the article about Jennifer Lawson again.  He hated that kind of thing.  He hated the people who did it.  He thought they should be put down, like rabid dogs.  But that wouldn’t happen if they caught him.  He would get some years in prison or some other place.   Steal enough money and they would put you away for thirty years.  Kill a girl and they would try to understand.  He hated the dishonesty of it.  Money bought everything, even the luxury of being able to pretend that everybody really meant well and evil was an accident.  He knew different.  He had had to, to survive.

His rage came on him suddenly, as it always did, an instinctive reaction he relied on more than any other.  Whenever the contradictions became too much for him, that terrible anger was waiting to resolve things into immediacy, confrontation.  Its force came from his preparedness always to stand by what he was, at least.  It also implied an invitation for everybody else to do the same.  That at last, it seemed to him, would be a kind of honesty, for what he hated most were pretences, the lies that people get away with – the lie of being a hard man when you weren’t, the lie of being honest when you weren’t, the lie of believing in the goodness of other people when you didn’t have to face them at their worst.  Now he saw the way the courts would handle this case as another kind of pretence.  It shouldn’t be allowed.  He would like to do something about that.

Charlie was having a problem clearing the bar.  The three young men still had some beer in their glasses.

‘Come on now, boys,’ Charlie was saying, ‘Ye’ll have tae go. It’s past time.’

‘Piss off,’ one of the young men said, ‘Ye sold us the stuff.  Give us fuckin’ time tae drink it.’

‘Lock us in if ye like,’ another one said, ‘We’ll look after the place for ye.’

They all laughed.

‘John?’  Charlie referred it to him.

‘Give the man a brek boays,’ he said, stil looking at his paper. ‘He’s got his licence tae think o’.  Drink up.’

‘Oho,’ the first one said.  ‘His master’s voice. Ah don’t see you drinkin’ up.’

John Rhodes looked up at them.  They were day-trippers, probably looking for a story they could take back to their mates like a holiday photo.  They looked like three but they were really only one, the boy who had spoken first, the one in the green tartan shirt.  The other two were running on his engine.

‘Ah work here,’ John Rhodes said. ‘Now on ye go.’

He looked back at his paper.

‘Away tae fuck!’

As soon as the one in the green shirt had said it, they all knew a terrible mistake had been made.  There was complete silence for perhaps four seconds. Then John Rhodes’ hands compressed the paper he had been holding into a ball. that crackling was a frightening as an explosion.  When he dropped the paper onto the floor, the courage of everybody else in the room went with it.

He crossed very quickly to the doorway. The swing doors had been pinned back to let customers out.  He went past them to the the two leaves of the outside door, kicked them shut and pushed home the bolt.  He turned back to the pub. 

‘Ye want it, ye’ve got it,’ he said, ‘Now ye don’t get out.’

It was already too late for the young men to negotiate the saving of face. he left them no room for that.  All they could do was admit their terror to themselves. The shock of it had left one of them struggling for breath.

‘Charlie.  Get  a mop and a pail o’ watter.  For Ah’m gonny batter these bastards up and down this pub.’

‘Now, John.  Please, John,’ Charlie said.

The incredible turn-around of the man they had insulted pleading for their safety finished them.  One of them whispered, ‘Naw, mister.’  The one with the green shirt was trying not to admit it to himself.  But he looked at John Rhodes and knew himself miserable with fear.  With the dim light coming in from the small, high windows fuzzing his fair hair, and the blue eyes flaring, he looked like a psychopathic angel.

‘Please.  Just let us go. An’ we’ll no’ come back,’ the one with the green shirt said.

There was a pause while John Rhodes wrestled with his own rage.  The complete, honest admission of their fear was what finally calmed him. 

‘Apologise tae the man,’ he said.

They said it in chorus, ‘We’re sorry’, like a lesson in recitation.

‘And we’re sorr-‘ the one in the green shirt began.

‘Don’t apologise tae me,’  John Rhodes said.  ‘As far as Ah’m concerned, ye’re jist on probation.’

He nodded to Charlie. Charlie opened the door to let them out, although it seemed hardly necessary to him.  They were so liquid with fear, Charlie felt he could have poured them out below the door.’

Truly, McIlvanney is the man.   He admitted near the end of the question/answer session that he is thinking of revisiting Laidlaw.  Something to look forward to.


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