powered by FreeFind

Home > Publications > Periodicals > Laverock > The Work of William McIlvanney
 



 

Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney

Alan MacGillivray

SEE ALSO:
William McIlvanney’s
Laidlaw
Scotnote
AND:
Article: "William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw Novels"
There are acute dangers lying in wait for any critic seeking to comment on the urban writers of the West of Scotland. A school of thought exists in that part of the world which holds that, if you have not been born into the West of Scotland working class and brought up in conditions of what we would now call ‘social deprivation’, you have none of the basic qualifications and have no right to be commenting on the artistic works of those who have been so born and brought up. All your statements will be suspiciously scrutinised for signs of middle-class prejudice, your tone will be listened to intently for any hint of the patronising or the pretentious, and the best you can hope for is a grudging recognition that you have avoided giving major offence.

After all, William McIlvanney has taken many opportunities in his writings to voice a suspicion of school and university education in Scotland. We all know about young Conn Docherty’s brush with the Anglicising tendency in the traditional primary school: the tawse for his impertinence in excusing himself in his own Scots, ‘Ah fell an’ bumped ma heid in the sheuch.’ In The Big Man, Dan Scoular had given up an academic course at school because it separated him from his friends. In the same novel, the student Vince Mabon is the spokesperson for academic unrealistic Marxist theorising. Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw left university after one year. He had not failed.

University failed me ... I took acres of fertile ignorance up to that place. And they started to pour preconceptions all over it. Like forty tons of cement. No thanks. I got out before it hardened.

At the beginning of Remedy is None, McIlvanney’s first novel, his protagonist, Charlie Grant, is listening to a pretentious Glasgow University academic voice turning the passion and fire of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ into a boring pre-lunch endurance test. Of his own university education, even although it fitted him for a successful career in English teaching before turning to full-time writing, McIlvanney says:

“After the initial awe, I became progressively unimpressed ... With some very honourable exceptions I couldn’t accept the mechanistic shallowness of much that was on offer.”

So the warning is clearly there on the wall for any academic critics. Nemo me impune lacessit. As Laidlaw says: “The wee message carved on the heart of Glasgow. Visitors are advised not to be cheeky.”

Yet it is not McIlvanney himself that is unduly sensitive to criticism from those outside the family but rather the self-appointed guardians of the proletarian ethos. McIlvanney at the moment is riding on a wave-crest of success and high-profile publicity that has been long in coming although long deserved. His novel The Big Man released as a major film for the international market; his collection of short stories, Walking Wounded, awarded the Glasgow Herald People’s Prize by library users in Scotland and his latest novel, Strange Loyalties, given a Scottish Arts Council Award; his novels now at last all issued in paperback editions; two of his best-known novels, Laidlaw and Docherty, also published in school and college editions (Hodder and Stoughton’s Textplus Series); and the man himself being given a great deal of attention with hid journalism and television appearances. There is a sense of virtue and effort rewarded, and those of us who have regarded his work highly over many years should feel pleased that he is finally receiving the rewards of dedication to the writing craft after too long a period of scant recognition. One of the criticisms made of McIlvanney, even by his own agents, has been that he did not write enough to consolidate his early modest success in the minds of the book-buying public. Seven novels, a collection of short stories, a book of essays and journalism, and some poetry in twenty-five years is not a phenomenal output; and in the lean years between 1968 and 1983, only Docherty and Laidlaw breaking the virtual silence. Which is not to suggest a period of idleness, but rather a period of adjustment to the business of full-time writing, a period of great personal difficulty, a period in which a significant change of direction in the writing thrust takes place. In this consideration of William McIlvanney’s prose writings, the concentration will be on the later works, from Docherty onwards, the works that most clearly reveal McIlvanney’s strengths (and perhaps weaknesses) as a writer, and certainly reveal his strong convictions and purposes.

McIlvanney has recently written about the origins of his writing in his boyhood in a working-class family in Kilmarnock, living in a council house where books were accepted as part of the practical furniture, there to be read and talked about. His mother was the source of that activity, his father being, in McIlvanney’s words, “educated spectacularly below his abilities” and being a presence on the edges of the family’s immersion in reading. He identifies one particular moment as a boy drowsing in fantasy before the fire on a winter afternoon as it grew dark and being jerked awake by the entry of his parents and the switching on of the light.

“My consciousness and the room came into the light together. My eyes were bruised with brightness. What I saw seems in retrospect to have had the shiningness of newly minted coins, all stamped unmistakeably as genuine, pure metal, the undepreciable currency of my life.
     “What I saw in fact was pretty banal. My father had his hand on the light-switch he had just pressed. My mother was beside him. They were both laughing at what must have been my startled eyes and my wonderment at being where I was. Around them was a room made instantly out of the dark. It was a very ordinary room. But it was wonderful. How strange the biscuit barrel was where my mother kept the rent-money. How unimaginable was the image of Robert Burns with the mouse, painted on the glass by my uncle. How incorrigibly itself the battered sideboard became. The room was full of amazing objects. They might as well have come from Pompeii.
     “And at the centre of them were two marvellously familiar strangers. I saw them not just as my mother and father. I knew suddenly how dark my father was, how physical his presence. His laughter filled the room, coming from a place that was his alone. my mother looked strangely young, coming in fresh-faced from the cold and darkness, her irises swallowing her pupils as she laughed in the shocking brightness. I felt an inordinate love for them. I suppose what I experienced then was the transformation of the ordinary into something powerfully mysterious.
     “ ... if it is possible to trace any work effectively to all its origins, I’m convinced that that moment in the living room at St Maurs Crescent is one of the experiential paradigms from which Docherty (and perhaps everything I’ve written) grew.”

It was only, however, because of his skill at football that he managed to get away with ‘the limp-wristed activity of scribbling’. Years of flirting with writing were finally given a push into seriousness by the shock of his father’s death.

“When I was eighteen and in my first month at university, my father died of lung cancer. The impact of that terrible event was indescribable and I was compelled to try to describe it. My love of words had come upon a personal reality it must try to confront. ... I kept returning to struggling with my own necessity, which was to make an understanding of my father’s death.”

Out of that struggle came the first novel, Remedy is None, eleven years later and a long poem on his father, ‘Initiation’, published after another four years. It seems that this was something that McIlvanney had to work through, even though it was unlikely to provide the fuel for a lifetime’s creative endeavour. In reading Remedy is None, and its successor, A Gift from Nessus, we must be struck by a sense that these are not the stuff of an enduring reputation. In Remedy is None we have the story of a university student from Kilmarnock, Charlie Grant, whose father’s death from cancer has such a devastating effect on him that he gives up his studies, breaks with his girl friend, becomes alienated from his own family, kills his mother’s second husband in a drunken rage and comes to a final understanding of his own true guilt in denying the people around him the right to fail in their imperfect lives on their own terms. The impetus of the novel comes out of McIlvanney’s personal loss; the development owes more to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with supplementary echoes of Camus’s The Outsider and The House with the Green Shutters.

In A Gift from Nessus, the marital and career problems of Eddie Cameron, sales representative for Rocklight Ltd., an electrical equipment firm based in Glasgow, are quite briskly handled but perhaps never deeply engage us; Cameron is too self-consciously an awkward gritty character, alienating us with his both small and large deceptions and weaknesses: his worries about his health, his fiddling of the firms expenses, his running quarrel with his wife, his insensitive treatment of his mistress, his boorishness with guests and lack of tact with his boss, his wilting under pressure from the boss and his mistress’s brother, and his ultimate rather feeble crack-up on a sales trip to Dumfries and Galloway. The mess is again too easily resolved: the stomach pains turn out to be harmless; his mistress obligingly commits suicide; a moment of violence towards his wife convinces them both that they can make a cautious start to repairing the rift between them; and he has the possibility of a more satisfying job in a bookshop that will take him back to a less stressful and more intellectually enriching way of life. It is not presented as a happy ending, but we must have the feeling that Eddie Cameron has been more fortunate than he deserves. The final image of the book, of Eddie crying in his front garden, seems too contrived to be more than a pose allowing the utterance of a few cryptic McIlvanneyisms by way of a moral : “To become whatever we are we need everybody’s help.” It might be more felicitously phrased. Looked at in the context of McIlvanney’s whole work, what may be of most interest is that Eddie Cameron is the first of McIlvanney’s recurring characters, turning up again in one of the short stories in Walking Wounded.

There is an insecure self-consciousness about these two novels that marks them as the ‘prentice works. The arty allusiveness of the titles may be symptomatic of the whole tone : Remedy is None, an Anglicised quotation from the Dunbar poem ‘Lament for the Makaris’; A Gift from Nessus from the Greek stories of Hercules. McIlvanney has written that the next novel he started was called ‘Tribute to the Minotaur’ – again the allusive title. He wrote 20,000 words of it before stopping, never to return to it. “The reason wasn’t so much a revulsion away from that book as an overwhelming compulsion towards another.” We may be glad of that compulsion; it ended the sequence of novels imitating other novels, and began a sequence of master works, based on people, as clearly signalled by the simple titles : Docherty, Laidlaw, The Big Man:

“I wanted to write a book that would create a kind of literary genealogy for the people I came from, the people whose memorials were parish registers. Since their history was largely silence, I would be constructing a communal fabric of myth. That didn’t bother me since I had long looked on history itself as being a form of decadent mythology. I wanted the sort of feeling I had experienced in the living-room at St Maurs Crescent, an almost mystical conviction, to be given flesh ... I began to write Docherty.”

McIlvanney has tried in some of his written comments to dissociate his own works from possible Scottish predecessors, as if somehow he as a writer has avoided being involved in a tradition established by earlier generations. There are, however, observable connections between McIlvanney and some earlier Scottish writers, in particular the group, we might even use the word ‘school’, of Ayrshire writers that has flourished since the time of Burns. When we look at the technique of writers like John Galt and George Douglas Brown, both concerned with Ayrshire, we may see an obvious surface connection. Just as Galt created communities like Dalmailing or Gudetown that are thinly disguised real places, Dreghorn and Irvine, and George Douglas Brown used the village of Ochiltree as the model for Barbie, so McIlvanney developed the Ayrshire town of Graithnock as the setting for Docherty, some of The Big Man, some of the Walking Wounded stories and, most recently, part of the action of Strange Loyalties. Graithnock, of course, is McIlvanney’s home town of Kilmarnock, so closely modelled on it that the street names are the same, the public buildings are the same, the park, the river, the rural surroundings, the now closed pits, all the same. And the High Street where the Dochertys live, where Conn goes to school, where most of the action of the novel occurs, is the High Street in Kilmarnock where William McIlvanney’s own parents lived for a time. This flimsiest of disguises for a real place must serve some purpose. For Galt, the purpose of blending documentary realism with a fictional narrative was to present what he called a ‘theoretical history’ of his own place. When McIlvanney speaks about creating a kind of literary genealogy for the people he came from and constructing a communal fabric of myth, he may be coming close to Galt’s intention; for the emphasis is being laid, not on Tam Docherty and his individual stance in life, but on the social community, the working class ethos, the forces that operate on the Dochertys as representatives of a class, an occupation, a way of life.

So it is probable that we have in Docherty a kind of theoretical social or class history of the first quarter of the twentieth century in industrial Ayrshire, and so we see the appropriateness of the choice of the name Graithnock – ‘graith’ being at one and the same time tools or equipment for working with, something despised or unvalued, and yet something precious, a treasure (according to the Concise Scots Dictionary). The town is named for the working class whose home it is, in their different aspects as tools of the employers, the despised underclass ignored or merely gawped at by the middle class, and the real treasure of the place or indeed of society as a whole. When McIlvanney is creating the history of Graithnock, narrated by Old Mairtean to young Conn, it is the history of Kilmarnock taken from the standard local history by McKay and Findlay, yet in that history there is not a single mention of the coal mines or miners of Kilmarnock, although when the history was written at the turn of the century, these were abundant and important within the life of the town. Truly, as McIlvanney says, their history was largely silence, and Docherty has given them a voice.

When we look at Docherty in this way, we can begin to see how McIlvanney has constructed his communal fabric. The Dochertys live in High Street and High Street is the microcosm of the class that McIlvanney is celebrating.

High Street was the capital of Conn’s childhood and boyhood. The rest of Graithnock was just the provinces. High Street, both as a terrain and as 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.

Its values are the working class values par excellence, and it speaks with a voice of authority. And over and around High Street, McIlvanney has built his symbolic Temple of the Winds, housing the forces that play upon the Dochertys from every direction.

One pressure, unacknowledged but present as an influence on Conn, Tam and Mick, is the pull, from different sides, of the urban industrial community of Graithnock and the natural unspoiled world of rural Ayrshire, especially the Bringan just outside the town; for childhood play, for poaching, lovemaking, or the settling of the brothers’ differences in a fight, the natural world is a deliberate contrast with the dominating world of High Street with its social demands and economic tensions. The latter is the world that claims young Conn for life, but the former is what remains deep inside him like truancy from himself, a repository of “preposterous ambitions, fragile dreams”. This contrast embodies the sense of the displaced non-industrial Scotland from which so many of its people have become for ever separated, experiencing it only in postcards and calendars. This is an image that McIlvanney vividly realises in Strange Loyalties in the description of the painting ‘Scotland’ which Jack Laidlaw acquires from his dead brother’s house.

Another force is the sense of social division and injustice. Young Conn observes his father’s reaction to the comfortable middle-class couple sight-seeing among the slums of High Street – “Why don’t ye bring fucking cookies wi’ ye? An’ then ye could throw them tae us.” This observation surfaces regularly throughout the book, reaching its most vehement expression in Tam’s exposition of working class ethics to his errant son Angus – “Us an’ folk like us hiv goat the nearest thing tae nothin’ in this world. A’ that filters doon tae us is shite. We leeve in the sewers o’ ither bastards’ comfort. The only theing we’ve goat is wan anither..... 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.” The possibility of climbing in the social scale is presented to Conn on a couple of occasions : firstly, when the displaced middle-class spinster Miss Gilfillan sets out to repay Tam Docherty’s kindness to her by teaching his youngest son the graces of life, like how to take tea and use cutlery in a genteel manner; secondly, when he makes his well-known choice between the Scots speech of his family and friends and the English of the educational system. His rejection of both the courses that would separate him from his background renders it inevitable that he will follow his father down the pit, cancelling out the shame that Tam feels because he has been unable to provide any of his children with anything more than their personal sets of shackles instead of an education. It is actually part of McIlvanney’s larger purpose in Docherty that it should not be a novel of escape from a working-class upbringing. Unlike a novel such as D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Docherty would not be the familiar story of the boy of abilities and sensitivity winning his way out of an underclass into a more enriching form of life, for, as McIlvanney says, “this is to presuppose the comparative shallowness of the life he is leaving – an assumption with which, having experienced the old life left and the new life found, I have never been able to agree ...” He proceeds to argue this through.

“There is a simple reason for the consistency with which this erroneous assumption has been maintained : it is that to judge working class culture, once you have left it, by the standards of the established literary culture you have entered is to judge it by terms that were created to deny it. You have no option but to impoverish your past. The rules are made to work that way.
     “For one of the keys to working-class life is precisely that it lives along the edge where thought and feeling keep fusing in experience and are not formally ‘culturised’ into separate entities. Both live in dynamic interrelation, as I believe they should. In my sense of it, working-class life is rich in an intelligence that re-earns itself constantly on the pulses of life and doesn’t abstract itself into mere intellectuality, which is then able to pursue ideas for their own sake, regardless of how they may fail to relate to the realities of experience. Therefore, I believe that to judge the passion of working-class life by the clinical procedures of middle-class culture is like assembling the data of an autopsy and calling it a life-story.
     “It was for that reason that I was determined that Docherty wouldn’t be an escape story with the escapee patronisingly looking back on the lives of those who were still inmates. The vision would be from within, frontal not tangential. In this connection, Conn’s instinctive refusal to seek an alternative life to the one he has is central to the book.”

There are other forces that operate on Tam Docherty and his family: the Catholic/Presbyterian Scots/Irish tension so close to home in Tam’s own split family; the miners’ struggle for better conditions, with the conflict between the staunch union men like Tam and the contractors like Angus; the associated portents of the future, embodied in the different paths taken by the Docherty sons (Mick the Communist ideological theorist, Angus the private enterprise capitalist, and Conn the decent unpolitical democratic Socialist following his father on the middle path). There is not the space to deal with these here, but their importance should not be ignored. However, if Docherty is looked at mainly as a symbolic battlefield swept by winds of social change,it will remain pretty dull. What makes it come alive is, of course, its presentation of the Dochertys as a realistic family with all their family concerns, of Conn docherty as a boy growing up in a warm rich environment, in accordance with McIlvanney’s vision of ordinary life, and of Tam Docherty as a Common Man hero. This last element is at the heart of McIlvanney’s conception of his novel. He is concerned to present heroism in a way that will be supremely relevant to the kind of people we are and to the place and time in which we live. Tam is conceived to be such a hero.

“I was looking for the possible hero ... The key for me lay in the realisation that the greatest thing we can be is definitively human. The hero celebrates humanity above all dogmas, codes, ideas. He becomes remorselessly and undeniably himself, against all proffered chances to imitate mere social mores and evade his own identity. (Hence, the importance of events, of happenings, those things that take us beyond thoughts or ideas and make us occur in fact. Heroic narrative is the record of humanity learning to be itself.) In this way,true heroism does not lie in eccentricity but in concentricity. It is individuality in essence. And those who are most individual are most other people. Individuality is the confirmation of other people’s nature through your own. A hero is someone who is more ourselves than we are because by rejecting the compromises of our nature that we accept, he shows us our potential to be more than we pretend to be. He is our unacknowledged self ...
     “I wanted to divest heroism of its incidental historical robes and put it on the street. It wouldn’t be the impressiveness of the experience that made people heroic but the impressiveness of how they confronted it. I would try to express heroism through working-class life. If my belief was that heroism could be found anywhere, not just in arched chambers and among dissolving dynasties, I would locate it in the most unlikely place. I brought it into the family. In time, I thought it settled in quite well.”

Let us leave Docherty for the moment, although there is much more that could be said about it, and pass it on to later novels.

How does McIlvanney’s concept of heroism apply to the detective novels, Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch? At first sight we seem to be in a different world and a different genre. Many critics and reviewers have tended to regard these novels as a diversion by McIlvanney from his mainstream writing, of which Docherty is seen to be typical. Yet there is now clear and ample evidence, especially since the publication of The Big Man, Walking Wounded and Strange Loyalties, to show that the Laidlaw novels must be seen as integral to McIlvanney’s development as a serious novelist and to his stated purposes as a writer.

Just as Docherty is a statement about Tam Docherty and his world, so Laidlaw and its successor, The Papers of Tony Veitch are statements about Jack Laidlaw (who is more than a Detective-Inspector in the Scottish Crime Squad) and his world, which is the City of Glasgow (and by extension urban Scotland). The change of location from Graithnock to Glasgow is significant only up to a point. In Graithnock, the town was fictional and symbolic but the streets and places were authentic; in Laidlaw’s Glasgow, there is a mixture of the authentic and the invented within the symbolic assembly of ‘mean streets’, the Naked City, the Megalopolis of the detective story genre. Whether it is Drumchapel, or Dennistoun, or Pollokshields, or Hillhead, or Bearsden, the aura of corruption and crime infects and equalises.

One criticism that has been made of Laidlaw is that it has no single narrative viewpoint to give unity to the action. In this respect it is like Docherty, where the community and Tam Docherty and the great and small events of the time are observed by a variety of characters, both major and minor. The effect in Docherty is not to fragment the action, but to round out the picture, presenting a multi-faceted view of Graithnock, High Street, the miners’ life and the Great War. If Docherty is a kind of theoretical history, a communal fabric of myth, this multiple viewpoint certainly enhances it.

Similarly, in Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch, if the intention were simply to present a picture of a murder investigation, multiple viewpoint might be distracting. Laidlaw in fact begins with the murder and we know the identity of the murderer, Tommy Bryson, from early on. A major part of the interest lies not in the solving of the murder, but in finding out who will get to Tommy first – the police or those others who are seeking to kill him. The multiple viewpoint keeps us posted about the movements of the different groups. In The Papers of Tony Veitch, there is initial doubt about whether one of the deaths is in fact murder, but the story resolves itself into the parallel searches for Tony Veitch by the police and by the villains, in particular the heavy, Mickey Ballater. The belief is that Tony Veitch is a murderer; the twist is that, too late, he is shown to be an innocent party. Again the multiple viewpoint focuses our attention on the whole picture, not just the police end of the search.

So why the title, Laidlaw, for the first of the novels? Our gaze as readers is turned by this towards Jack Laidlaw, and we expect to see more than a dedicated investigator. The convention in the detective genre ever since Sherlock Holmes has been that there is as much interest in the detective (whether policeman or private eye) as in the process of detection of crime. Laidlaw fits into the convention – he is not an Identikit policeman. He has the intellectual streak of P.D.James’s Adam Dalgliesh or Michael Innes’s Appleby; the disaffection and insubordination of Kojak or many another TV cop; the anger against corruption and the injustice of Furillo: Policeman as an intellectual and epigrammatist; Policeman as rebel and outsider; Policeman as moralist and humanitarian; but also Policeman as hard drinker and adulterer;Policeman as aggressive sentimentalist. What Laidlaw is not is Policeman as cliche Glasgow boor, like Taggart, the unsubtle melodramatic travesty that found his way on to the small screen in default of a Laidlaw film or TV series.

How does this Laidlaw fit in with the McIlvanney concept of the hero? moving through a rich gallery of Glasgow characters in the two novels, Laidlaw carries some of the luggage of Eddie Cameron in A Gift from Nessus, but more expertly packed and appealingly labelled – the drinking, the sense of alienation from his employers and his job, the failing marriage, the mistress, the intense love of his children, the autodidacts’s knowledge from life and books uncluttered by academic weights. He carries with him also the physical force of Tam Docherty (on a policeman’s scale, not a miner’s), the prickliness and potential aggressiveness, the sense of being a total individual. The violence of Laidlaw towards his superior officer, Ernie Milligan, echoes Tam Docherty’s explosive power and looks ahead to Dan Scoular, The Big Man.

The trouble is that Laidlaw may not be the only exponent or example of this definition of heroism. In the Laidlaw novels and continuing into The Big Man there also appears the figure of the criminal boss or racketeer as hero, of a sort. In Laidlaw and Tony Veitch, the Godfather figures of John Rhodes and to a lesser extent, Cam Colvin and Matt Mason carry the purposefulness and controlled aggression of a Docherty or even a Laidlaw. The difference is that they have more than their physical power to carry out their purposes. They are the hero as ‘hardman’ success story rather than sympathetic sentimental failure. John Rhodes sorting out the insolent teenagers in the Gay Laddie Bar, punching Panda Patterson across the hotel conference room, sitting in his slippers by his jealously guarded domestic fireside, proclaiming a simple moral code, is closer to Tam Docherty than laidlaw ever is. McIlvanney seems to suggest that only in the gangland world can the working-class qualities of Tam Docherty exist successfully today, unhampered by late twentieth-century educational and economic complexity. Yet the glamourising tendency that operates upon some of the chief thugs and racketeers must call in question the validity of McIlvanney’s definition of heroism. Certainly in the Laidlaw novels, only the major criminals and Laidlaw himself, with the possible addition of the student Gus Hawkins in Tony Veitch, rise above the general level of ordinary failed and inadequate lives.

There is, however, another level on which the Laidlaw books operate, which takes them out of the detective story genre and brings them closer to Docherty in spirit. This is the background level of ordinariness already mentioned that has been illuminated and enhanced – in Muriel Spark’s phrase from The Prime of Miss jean Brodie, ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’. So much that is memorable about the Laidlaw stories is in the small vignette, the characters met in the street, in the pub, in the factory, in the disco, the stories that are told, the apparent little irrelevances in the action that add up to a major relevance – the spirit of the Glasgow people displayed in what Laidlaw calls the ‘twenty-four cabaret’ of Glasgow. “Glasgow people have to be nice people. Otherwise they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.”

And so finally to The Big Man, Walking Wounded and Strange Loyalties. These three works are best taken together because they collectively represent another development in McIlvanney’s writing beyond Docherty and Laidlaw. They obviously deserve a more detailed consideration that we can possibly give them here, but a few significant points can be made quite briefly.

At first sight, The Big Man has obvious connections with Docherty. Dan Scoular, in his power, his background, the legend that exists around his name in the small town of Thornbank, beside Graithnock, could almost be a Docherty, grandson of Tam. (It would have been a temptation to have made that dynastic connection, given the same fictionalised locality. However, the son of Conn awaits another story, given the references in Strange Loyalties to Tom Docherty the writer, whom McIlvanney in conversation has projected as the possible subject of a future novel.) Yet is Dan really a Docherty figure? The self-doubts that assail him throughout the novel suggest otherwise. Dan seems to learn, in the course of training for his bare-knuckle fight with the ex-boxer Cutty Dawson and in the aftermath of his success, that physical heroism and total individuality are not enough. Has McIlvanney retreated from his definition of working-class and family heroism? Is he more interested in and attracted to the concept we noted in the Laidlaw stories – the celebration and transformation of ordinariness, which he felt as a boy in the living-room in St. Maurs Crescent, to the freedom of people to fail in life on their terms, which Charlie Grant realised to be so important? Walking Wounded is full of such failures. The only character who has a kind of Docherty reputation is McQueen, and he is a convicted criminal. What Walking Wounded seems most fully to exemplify is the community without heroes but with ample supply of the failed and the fallible; the community that has lost its social cohesiveness and its belief in progress but still has to make its way along in a hostile environment taking casualties as it goes. The hero has been replaced by the mere survivor.

Equally, there has been a change in McIlvanney’s perception of heroism in another way? In Docherty, as in the earlier novels, the main discourse was very male-orientated. Look at the number of sections expressing a female point of view in ‘Docherty’ compared with male ones; they are pretty few. There may inevitably be a feeling of insecurity felt by a male writer when trying to represent a woman’s outlook with authenticity, especially when he comes from a very male-dominated Scottish working-class background. However, there has been a serious charge laid against McIlvanney that his ideals or attitudes are chauvinist. If there is truth in this, there may be contra-indications in the Laidlaw stories, signs of attempts at least to give women a due they did not receive in Docherty. Both The Big Man and Walking Wounded more certainly reveal attempts to redress the balance or at least reduce the male domination of the action and thought? There is an attempt to make Betty Scoular come more to life than do the passive women in Docherty. And the chapter in The Big Man where Dan Scoular spies on his wife Betty meeting her illicit friend Gordon Struthers is in some ways one of the finest pieces of writing in any of the novels. Dan struggles towards a sense of understanding of Betty’s motives and of his own failure. Associated with this comes a sense of how women in the working-class social situation were so much more heroic than men like himself. Walking Wounded in its treatment of life’s mobile social casualties definitely continues this trend, and Strange Loyalties contains more developed women characters than any of McIlvanney’s previous novels.

Another point needs to be made about the settings of the novels. Given that the latest three books divide their action between Graithnock and Glasgow, has McIlvanney achieved a fusion of his two locations to make one world of his fiction,the West of Scotland as city and post-industrial wasteland? A Galtian connection suggests itself in the collective title that Galt proposed for his novels, ‘Tales of the West’. Even before Strange Loyalties, characters from the Laidlaw stories flit in and out of these recent works: Fast Frankie White, Matt Mason, Cam Colvin, Eddie Foley,and Jack Laidlaw himself, spied by Dan Scoular being helped drunk into the Burleigh Hotel in Glasgow by his mistress Jan, Laidlaw who turns out to have a brother Scott Laidlaw teaching in Graithnock, to whom Dan puts in a self-protective word to pass on to his policeman brother to try to keep a revengeful Matt Mason off Dan’s back. Has a unity of place and characters been achieved over the sweep of McIlvanney’s fiction as a whole?

Strange Loyalties, of course, is the work that brings all the strands together. It works simultaneously as detective story being the third in the Laidlaw sequence, as natural sequel to The Big Man continuing the events involving Dan Scoular, as social comment returning to the world of Docherty after seventy years, and as study of the flawed Common Man hero revealing the self-doubts of Jack Laidlaw and those like him. Jack Laidlaw’s personal investigation into the events and feelings lying behind his brother Scott’s accidental death widens out into an inquiry into the loss of his brother’s ideals and his self-perceived failure, connects with a current police murder investigation and becomes ultimately an analysis of the betrayal of the Scottish working class by those who have become educated out of it – a return to Docherty territory.

The final main point to be made about McIlvanney’s fiction concerns an apparent move away from the solely realistic mode. From The Big Man onwards, it has been possible to detect a more symbolic or allegorical mode coming into McIlvanney’s writing? In the latter novel there is, for example, the Red Lion pub in Thornbank, with its buckled lion rampant sign.

The sign of the Red Lion had rebounded on itself a bit, like a statement to which subsequent circumstances have given an ironic significance. It seemed meant to be a lion rampant. But the projecting rod of metal to which the sign was fixed by two cleeks had buckled in some forgotten storm. The lion that had been rearing so proudly now looked as if it were in the process of lying down or even hiding, and exposure to rough weather appeared to have given it the mange.
     That image of a defiant posture being beaten down was appropriate. The place still called itself a hotel, although the only two rooms that were kept in readiness stood nearly every night in stillness, ghostly with clean white bed-linen, shrines to the unknown traveller. The small dining-room was seldom used, since pub lunches were the only meals ever in demand. The Red Lion scavenged a lean life from the takings of the public bar.

The ironic and symbolic associations between the Red Lion hotel and its sign on the one hand and Scotland and its national identity on the other are very clear. This apparently realistic but really allegorical description marks the beginning of a developed symbolism in The Big Man in which Dan Scoular and his situation to a degree represent a plight of the Scottish worker in his own country. To give this weight, there are Dan’s observations on the differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the conclusions he draws about the nature of Scotland’s history. Most of all, there is his growing perception that both he and Cutty Dawson are puppets whose strings are pulled by the racketeers Mason and Colvin to suit their own criminal diplomacy, and a clear suggestion that on a different level they represent the Scottish people divided and set against itself by cynical forces bent on their own profit. The last image of the novel is an image of working-class solidarity, weakened and diminished maybe, but still ready to stand up and be counted. It seems to be another aspect of the communal fabric of myth set up first in Docherty and continued in the evocation of Glasgow spirit in Laidlaw?

Strange Loyalties is even more allegorical in its action. The image of the investigation of a death is easily applicable to the idea of a study of Scotland’s ills. For McIlvanney seems to have become more Scottish in a national sense than West of Scotland urban working-class in his perspectives. The national and class allegories and symbolisms of Scott Laidlaw’s paintings are central to the book, and the very name ‘Scott Laidlaw’ has its obvious interpretation: who has laid the Scot low? Jack Laidlaw turns out to be not merely a Glasgow detective, but a Graithnock-bred man and a Borderer by birth; and his investigation takes him further afield than any previous McIlvanney hero ventures, to the Borders and to Edinburgh, seeing Scotland more fully than any Docherty or Scoular. It looks as if the symbolic mode and the Scottish perspective have been revealed as unifying threads in McIlvanney’s major work.

Nothing has been said so far about McIlvanney’s prose style, something that comes in for a lot of stick over the years. There is an often expressed view that to read McIlvanney is to flounder through a Somme or Passchendaele of muddy metaphor. The justice of this can be seen in the earlier work. The earlier novels display the prose of an English teacher providing exemplars of figurative expression by the multitude. Equally the criticism can be made that McIlvanney’s handling of dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Probably, a reader’s enjoyment of Docherty has always been tempered by a sense that the writing verges on the over-rhetorical in the authorial voice and on the mawkish in the Scots dialogue. Even more so in the earlier novels. However, a study of the writing from Laidlaw onwards clearly shows an increasing crispness of dialogue, a sharpening of metaphor and vivid comparisons to accord, first with the requirements of detective story, secondly with the richer texture of The Big Man, and, most recently, with the demands of the short story form in Walking wounded and the first person narrative of Strange Loyalties. Whatever doubts one may have about his level of success, overall it would be difficult to deny McIlvanney’s skill in linguistic pyrotechnics and his willingness to build bridges of communication with a million strands of articulacy. At his best he can often make the reader laugh with his wit and keep him or her alert with his discourse. If sometimes his effects do not come off, he can always be given credit for trying. Ultimately his faults are those of the ‘amateur’ or lover of words, which is of course the true identity of the dedicated professional writer.

Let the last word be with the man himself:

“What Docherty [and, by extension, all McIlvanney’s writing] is essentially offering as the definitive characteristic of both working-class life and heroism is rebelliousness. That lies at the centre of what it is reflecting, the primal feature of the beast. That is why we are what we are. That is both what we die of and what defies our death. That is why Heaven and Utopia are places on our mental map at which we can never arrive, because we would have to deny our nature to get there. We must improve the shared conditions in which we live, of course, but the essential purpose of that will be in order to inhabit more fully the necessary and unalterable terms of our existence. Take away the avoidable injustices of some lives that we may humanly share in the unavoidable injustice that is in all our lives.”

This is the ideal which McIlvanney so articulately explores, a natural loyalty to and solidarity with common humanity.

WILLIAM MCILVANNEY – BIBLIOGRAPHY

NOVELS

  • Remedy Is None, 1966
  • A Gift From Nessus, 1968
  • Docherty, 1975
  • Laidlaw,1977
  • The Papers Of Tony Veitch, 1983
  • The Big Man, 1985
  • Strange Loyalties, 1991

SHORT STORIES

  • Walking Wounded, 1989

POETRY

  • The Longships In Harbour, 1970
  • These Words: Weddings And After, 1983

ESSAYS AND JOURNALISM

  • ‘Growing Up in the West’, autobiographical essay in Karl Miller ed., Memoirs of a Modern Scotland. 1970
  • Surviving The Shipwreck, 1991

See also:

 

Copyright © Alan MacGillivray 1995

 

Last updated 19 August 2010.