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The Papers of Tony Veitch

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An Afternoon with Willie McIlvanney

AN AFTERNOON in Scotland’s biggest city in the company of Willie McIlvanney is akin to taking a donder round the ancient agora of Athens with Euripides. His words may not have defined Glasgow, a city so animate and unbridled as to defy an absolute narrative, but in delineating slithers of its life, he has given the most acute voice to the dynamics which otherwise assume inchoate forms: the rolling gait of the swagger worn as street armour; a language sandblasted to reveal a brusque poetry capable of rebuilding obscenity into terms of endearment; the sudden accost from the stranger whose posture disguises conviviality as carnage. A human cartographer, McIlvanney knows them all, cutting through the topography with his pen to what flows beneath.

Euripides, legend has it, sought sanctuary in an island cave in the Saronic Gulf to compose masterpieces which rendered the ordinary mythic. McIlvanney, though he now resides in a serene pocket of East Renfrewshire five miles south of Glasgow city centre, seldom strays far from the source of his nourishment. On a Tuesday afternoon in Battlefield Road, we meet up in an Italian restaurant, an occasion which will prove wet and lengthy, winding up over Scotch and a mutually glowing assessment of Leonard Cohen some five hours later. “I’m not a great luncher,” he acknowledges early on, an unopened menu lying before him. “I like lunch for talking.”

The author, Tony Black, recently wrote of how a good friend described an encounter with the writer as “like meeting a statue that’s come to life.” It is a fine description which hints not only at the esteem in which McIlvanney is held, but the arresting presence he projects. An impeccably dressed, lean figure of 76, he wears his years like Florentine leather, a sweep of greying hair framing a benevolent face and piercing blue-grey eyes. A neatly trimmed silver moustache last glimpsed on the backlot of the Louis B. Mayer-era MGM ties together a decidedly old Hollywood image. It is as if Montgomery Clift, having wrapped up filming on From Here to Eternity, escaped his sorry fate by cadging an ordnance survey off Deborah Kerr and flitting across the Atlantic to age gracefully in the environs of G42.

Our meeting, which resulted in a story in today’s Scotland on Sunday, was sparked by the creation of a nascent yet flourishing online mosaic of McIlvanney’s work, spanning writing both unpublished and incomplete, as well as extracts from his existing body of work. For those who harshly bemoan his output as slender – it comprises not only nine novels, but a considerable canon of poetry, journalism, and essays – it is a mine of treasure as glittering and expansive as the Staffordshire hoard. Initiated at his suggestion, the archive has skilfully been given shape, purpose, and character by his nephew, Neil McIlvanney, an English teacher at Kilmarnock Academy. The website, Personal Dispatches, has only been live for a few months, but few people outside of the extended family clan are aware of its existence. I happily stumbled across it one night last week while searching for a copy of Surviving the Shipwreck – a 1991 collection of essays and journalism – as a present for a friend. As I delved beyond the title page, the rest of that evening’s plans were swiftly put on hold as essays, poems, and vignettes revealed themselves, supplemented by a generous welter of handwritten notes, audio readings, and photographs.

It may seem incredulous that an established writer would give so freely and fully of their work in a domain divisive among those who make a living from art. Ordinarily, the authorial online presence extends to a cursory digital frontispiece, complete with links to Amazon and an agent’s email address. The concession to a world credited with shifting the tectonic plates of how literature is consumed and paid (or not) for is minimal, the message blunt: buy the book. Factor in the fact that this is the website of McIlvanney, a septuagenarian who has never used a word processor, let alone a computer, and it would not be unreasonable to presume it the invention of an ardent fan, rather than the writer and his relatives.

Any sense of surprise, however, is dulled with some consideration of the man’s craft, and the way he has come to interpret it. In 1977, the year of Laidlaw’s publication – a crime novel where the enduring mystery is the nature of its protagonist – his publisher casually informed him that were he to write a book a year, it would not take long for him to become a millionaire. McIlvanney did not so much refuse, as concede that the idea of embarking on a grinding, systematic schedule was impossible. As he tells me: “I’d like to say it’s the nobility of my purpose, but I can’t even tell myself what to write.” Instead, his focus has always been about the writing; the physical book, though it may be mysterious, tactile, and charming, is only the end. It is the means with which he has always concerned himself. If there is any malaise which has afflicted McIlvanney over the years, it is publisher’s block. The words have never been a problem.

In this light, the internet seems as natural a habitat for McIlvanney as the red sandstone thoroughfares of Glasgow’s southside. While he would never profess even a rudimentary understanding of the medium’s workings, he is keenly aware of its potential. He views his website as a “weird, obfuscated version of a serial,” a distant relative of Sketches By Boz. As lunch arrives – a few bites of a plain omelette make do – he talks of the possibilities it offers. “I know it’s somehow all connected, and I like the riskiness of it,” he explains. “The truth is it’s a chaotic phenomenon. In a way it’s got to be formless and amorphous, the only coherent dynamic in the website is that I believe in everything I’ve written there. It might die on the vine, but we’ll see what happens. It’s a new form of communication for me, and it’s very interesting, a way of resurrecting ideas that would otherwise never be heard of again.”

Along with the new writing, extracts from the novels will appear online, complete with introductions by McIlvanney. Neil is currently scouring through old cassettes and VHS tapes featuring his uncle which he intends to add to the site. There is even a Facebook page set up where McIlvanney is able to interact directly with his readers, at least provided his grand nephew is to hand. As Neil explained via email: “Willie provides the content and responses to people’s posts on his page but, as he has not yet learned to work a computer, my son Euan uploads Willie’s posts. Willie dictates the responses over the phone and Euan types them onto Willie’s Facebook page.”

For many readers, the highlight of Personal Dispatches will be the excerpts from Almost a Book About Sean Connery, a nebulous project which has occupied McIlvanney on and off for several years. No mere authorised account of a life and times, slavishly following a chronological path, it is envisaged as a reflective, impressionistic work, an ambition not readily embraced by a publishing world accustomed to certain conventions. As he writes in the introduction: “I found that the abandoned thought of writing about him was still breathing. I decided to go on with the idea. But I knew my approach was going to be strange. To me it seems that an individual life isn’t amenable to continuous and authoritative delineation. It doesn’t form into a rock of facts. It’s an endless drift of time and place and circumstance, each sifting into and blurring the other, a burial mound of experience. Any attempt to understand such a life can’t seek to be definitive. What it can possibly do is, like archaeology, sink some speculative shafts into those times and, from what it finds, elicit some impression of the nature of the person, arrive perhaps at the salient features of the life. I wanted it to be an original kind of depiction of a life rather than a story.”

Intrigued though some were, the publishers were unable to share McIlvanney’s vision. ‘Couldn’t see how I could make it work in a properly mass-market way’ came one response to his agent, Jenny Brown; ‘A very unusual reading experience – unconventional uncategorisable. I can’t actually think of any comparable books’ stated another. One wrote: ‘Going to have to pass. I’m really sorry about this as I think the material is great and it’s clearly going to be a very special book but, as you know, we don’t really do books unless there is support from every part of the team. And, to my massive surprise, in this instance it didn’t happen.’ Says McIlvanney of the latter reply: “Blessings on the man who wrote it. It was as if he had seen where I was trying to go, although I hadn’t got there yet.”

To date, he has eked out over 90,000 words on Connery, but he is currently stalled, frustrated at his lapses towards the preconceptions of genre, like a man battling against the tide, all the while insistent on conceiving of an entirely new swimming stroke. “I just kind of gave it up for a time, it was too much a biography,” he admits. “So I’ve thought, we can put some of that online. I’ve put a lot into writing the book, and what I’ve written I believe. It’s just that I felt it lost direction. I might finish it and I might not.” That creative stasis is the gain of Personal Dispatches. Currently, an introduction and four chapters from the book have been reproduced online. It is the first time McIlvanney has let a publisher catch sight of uncompleted work, let alone release it wild into the ether, but he is optimistic that new avenues may emerge from the process, explaining: “Just putting it on the internet made me look at it more carefully, and it may come to something more significant.”

McIlvanney’s personal relationship with Connery has been defined by a mutual respect. At various times, the two men have discussed collaborating on an official biography, creating a big screen adaptation of Laidlaw, and working on a 80 page-long film treatment known as Streets, where the Camus-reading detective inspector is retired from the police force, at least officially. At other times, McIlvanney has donned his reporter’s hat to pen profiles of the actor for several quality newspapers. For all their shared beliefs, however, there has never been an uncomplicated kinship between the two men, which might explain the approach to the book. McIlvanney says: “Connery is a very well hidden man, he doesn’t give a shit, basically, and I like that about him. He’s a working class superstar, he’s still the same guy he was. But if you do something wrong, that’s it. He really has iron shutters that can just go down. If you fall out with him, that’s it, and I’m quite easy to fall out with.” If a relationship exists between the two, it is not so much a friendship as the civil terms on which two neighbours meet after one accidentally reversed over the other’s dog.

Almost a Book … is an attempt to deduce Connery’s character, an exploration of the issues the subject himself would never deign to discuss. “He’s not into self revelation,” McIlvanney points out. “All you can do is try to deduce him from his life.” The chapters unveiled so far focus on his childhood, fused with sections where McIlvanney chases the shifting shadows cast by the Fountainbridge boy who became a restless icon. Articulating Connery’s appeal as an actor, the writer compares his screen presence to greats such as James Cagney, Steve McQueen, and Robert Mitchum, musing: “He has the kind of magnetic physical authority that would make him the man you notice in a crowd scene. He has that invaluable commodity for an actor: watchability.” That poise, McIlvanney supposes, transcends physicality. Instead, he notes the unselfconsciousness with which Connery carries his looks, “just as a beautiful woman is more engaging when caught naturally than when she is pouting deliberately for the public.”

If the publishing world is uncertain how to square such probing lyricism with the constraints and expectations of biography, McIlvanney is cheered by the resurgence in interest in his career, heralded by Canongate’s reissues of seminal novels, Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalities, with others to follow. With the food long dispensed of, he takes a drink of white wine and lets an infectious smile spread over his face as he assesses the past few months. “It’s been stunning, a genuine resurrection for me,” he says. “Last year at Edinburgh, I was in a wee tent with three other writers and we got 120 people, and I thought, ‘Aye, this is where we are’. Just before that event, Francis Bickmore [publishing director at Canongate] said to my agent he’d just read Laidlaw and loved it, he thought it was terrific. I remember thinking, ‘That’s great, but it doesn’t pay the rent’. But within the month, he came forward, and the talk about reissues began. Utterly amazing.” Success the second time around, he believes, is more rewarding, even if he is mindful never to take it for granted. “It’s like discovering folk like you. Where I come from, you don’t assume that.”

The plans for new novels, meanwhile, continue to evolve circuitously. In confidence, McIlvanney tells me of several defined works in progress, as well as one concept for a book he concedes may sound “pretentious and doo lally,” but nonetheless remains compelling. Even in the twilight of his career, he remains restless, mindful not of the novels he has produced, but the genesis of books to come, of sheafs of ideas squirrelled in the desk drawer. “If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder,” he once emphasised. “What you did before defines what you don’t need to do again. You have to find something else to do, the way to go further.”

He writes as he always done: in longhand, and by compulsion. Whatever the focus of his energies, it is likely that Glasgow will be a character lingering in the background, quietly informing the tone and the theme. Should the idea present itself, he is unconcerned by the prospect of bringing to life the city of 2013. “It wouldn’t trouble me to write about now, because if you’re serious about writing you always try to go beyond the surface of the now,” he reasons. “People still feel understandably alienated from society, and I don’t think human nature changes.”

There are also tentative discussions underway to make a three-part adaptation of the Laidlaw books for television, a pursuit which would go some way to assuaging the unsavoury circumstances surrounding the birth of Taggart (It would be an understatement to describe McIlvanney’s DI as a formative influence on the long-running STV series. The first book in the trilogy even features the line of dialogue, ‘There’s been a murder’). “With television, you have to trust the people doing it,” he says. “I’ve met the people involved, and to me it sounded very convincing. But it’s the chance you take. You can’t take the money and then say, ‘Wait a minute’.”

Another first has been an audiobook of Laidlaw, an unabridged seven-hour version which gave he writer cause to revisit the work in its entirety for the first time since its inception, even if the proposition of narrating it was “slightly terrifying” at first. “It was something new and I enjoyed it,” he enthuses. “It’s the first I’ve read the book line by line, and I thought it was like a historical novel. It’s only set in the 1970s, but the changes between then and now … the conductor on the buses, the pubs shutting at 2.30pm in the afternoon, the way the internet and mobile phones have changed our lives. Laidlaw wouldn’t know what he was doing. I quite liked the fact all he had was streetwork and brains. Now, so many crimes are committed and solved with online elements. The loneliness of the detective would be less now.”

The project, to McIlvanney’s irritation, also revealed an error which has been perpetuated in every edition since the first, even creeping into the Canongate reissues. He explains: “There were moments where I realised I could have written things slightly better. There’s a misprint in the book from the very first edition which is still there in the reissue. Laidlaw is trying to meet John Rhodes, and the barman is being evasive. Laidlaw says, ‘Maybe you should tell me the code. Then we could talk ov that’. It’s meant to be or, a very Glasgow phrase, that, ‘Then we could talk or that’. It’s a strange thing, but it’s very Glasgow. But I’ve never been able to catch the mistake, I think some people read into it, but it’s haunted me for thirty years.”

Typography aside, McIlvanney’s greatest frustrations lie with the quality of the dialogue surrounding next year’s independence referendum. If the ruinous effects of Thatcherism roused him in the 1980s, today’s muddled and misleading debate draws his ire. “The main feeling is obfuscation,” he reflects. “Like most punters, I’m getting so many contradictory messages – ‘This is a huge problem’, ‘No it’s not’ – I would like some kind of authoritative clarification of where we are. I doubt that will come, but that is what people deserve; not just the decoration of an argument to support a case effectively, but a serious, neutral attempt to define the issues, the problems, and the possibilities. The country deserves as much honesty as can be mustered.”

It is easily forgotten that for the space of a generation, McIlvanney’s political fervour made him a talismanic figure, advocating home rule. As recently as the summer of 1997, the devolution question impelled McIlvanney to join a diverse cabal of writers, artists, and academics known as the Bus Party. Commandeering a 15-seater, the group – including Neil Ascherson, Tom Nairn, and Billy Kay – toured the nation. The only consensus was to impress upon punters the significance of the times, and the influence they could have at the ballot box. In 2013, it is unlikely the bus will once more take to the road, but McIlvanney believes the need to caution against apathy remains the same. “This time, I would mainly just want people to vote so that the decision is significant with a serious majority taking part,” he explains. “It’s a ‘come ahead’ moment for Scotland, and whatever the decision is, a massive silence wouldn’t impress … for several generations, this is the last throw of the dice. This is not going to recur for a long time.”

Long associated with the SNP’s cause – he memorably gave a speech to the party’s 1987 annual conference in Dundee, describing himself as “an interested layman” … “a thoughtful layman” – McIlvanney’s politics are not so much nationalist as egalitarian. When he articulates what Scotland means to him, he offers a gentle but certain faith that the nation he experienced in the microcosm of post-war Kilmarnock – where a commitment to social justice and equality reigns – remains. “It has sometimes vanished into the mists of authority, but it’s there, I think, and one of the things that will guide my decision is the desire to celebrate and perpetuate that spirit,” he says.

Last month, the national press ran a series of stories which seemed to have been sourced from Alex Salmond’s inner circle. The crux of it argued that the white paper on independence ought to inspire, and a writer of McIlvanney’s calibre would be best placed to do the job. He has not, however, been approached so far. In any case, he has no inclination to follow in the footsteps of Bernard of Kilwinning by drafting such a monumental document in a nation’s history. “If I felt I’ve cracked it and I know what everyone should do, I would say, but I don’t,” he concedes. “What’s the point of saying, ‘This is what I think, but I don’t know if you should think that’?” I think I know how I’m going to vote, but I don’t know if I’m confident enough in my decision to try and persuade others to do the same.

If the prospect of being a figurehead in the independence question rests uneasily with McIlvanney, he offers little in the way of ambiguity when asked about Westminster. “If the status quo continues as an undisturbed continuation of where we are, that’s it. I think British politics is dead in the water, there is no Labour party, just two different forms of management systems – one, Labour, hopefully marginally more benign – but neither are about to interfere in the status quo. Politics isn’t about management systems, it’s about creatively trying to form a new kind of society. The NHS, along with the emancipation of women, was one of the great legislative acts, and it’s in danger of going down the tubes. Folk say, ‘Willie, are you still a socialist?’ I am, but call it a social idealist if you want. If you lose the desire to create as benign a society for all as you can, you’ve lost the will to live. It’s a humanist philosophy, I don’t see the point of politics without the desire to create justice.”

Genial yet exasperated, as purposeful as he is pensive, Glasgow’s Euripides drains the last of his small Grouse and water, shaking hands and exchanging warm words with a wellwisher on his way out the door. In the shadow of the new Victoria Infirmary, he lights a cigarette, surveying one of the latest additions to a city where nothing or no one is innominate. The axis shifts, but McIlvanney will always be at the centre.

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