GOING by the books he has written over 45 years, you would expect to see William McIlvanney in particular places and situations. Football grounds and dog tracks. High flats and low company. Certain pubs in which anecdote and incident come as chasers with each drawn pint. So persistently has he hymned the nobility, authenticity, laughter and sorrow of west of Scotland working-class experience that it’s difficult to imagine him in any other milieu.
What a surprise, then, to find him living in one of Glasgow’s most middle-class and culturally bland areas. I first noticed him one morning while walking my eldest son to school. It’s a busy, preoccupied time of the day, the road choked with 4x4s, and suddenly there was McIlvanney, silver-quiffed and dressed to the nines though he was only nipping to the newsagent for a paper and a bag of rolls. Re-emerging, he strode in his Crombie past the chatting mums with a regal bearing, tall and slender and apparently lost in his own thoughts, away back home to his desk and notebook and hours of – as he puts it – “howkin’ for ideas”. To see him there on the street, amid the geometric hedges and expensive sandstone terraces, was to catch a glimpse of a creature violently out of context – a lion prowling the suburbs.
About a year later, I meet him in Bella Napoli in the city’s Southside. He orders empire biscuits and an Americano into which he pours four sugars. McIlvanney is 72, a surprisingly high number, quite thin and craggy, with intensely blue eyes which he inherited from his father’s side of the family. He has a rich Ayrshire accent with the edges smoothed down. If you followed the road south from the cafe, you’d come eventually to his home town. “Kilmarnock was friendly but rough,” he recalls, “like a brickie’s handshake.”
William Angus McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock in 1936 and moved away in 1978 when his marriage ended. He returned to the town last year, commissioned by The One Show to reflect upon the impact of the Johnnie Walker closure. It was a rare public outing for an increasingly private man. He doesn’t, for instance, give many interviews. Doesn’t need to as he has no new book to promote. He agreed to talk to me after I put a letter through his door. I had followed him home, a ludicrous and melodramatic thing to do, but it felt appropriate as a nod to Jack Laidlaw, the detective hero of three novels by McIlvanney which are often said to have established the “tartan noir” genre.
Cradling his coffee, McIlvanney makes it clear straight away that he won’t talk in detail about what he’s writing at the moment. “That’s like buying the pram before the wean comes.” But it becomes clear over the next two hours that he is working on several projects at once, including a book about Sean Connery and a new poetry collection, “though the way my poetry sells, you could hold the book launch in a phone box”.
He is aware that at his age there has to be a certain urgency about the remaining work, and will admit to having up to five serious projects that he would like to complete. Not that he’s ever been prolific. He has written nine novels in 45 years. His last, Weekend, came out in 2006; the book previous to that, The Kiln, was published an entire decade before.
Despite its relative slimness, however, his collected work adds up to some of Scotland’s best fiction and non-fiction. Docherty, published in 1976, is as good a novel as you’ll read, and among his journalism there is the classic Journeys Of The Magi – an account of travelling with the Tartan Army to World Cup campaigns, including a Quixotian expedition from the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow to Argentina in 1978. Football writing is more usually associated with McIlvanney’s elder brother Hugh, the great sports journalist.
Given how well-known and regarded they were to become as men of letters, it’s extraordinary to think of the brothers as children sharing a fold-down bed in the living room of the family home. This was St Maurs Crescent in Kilmarnock’s Longpark housing scheme. Their father, William, was a miner turned general labourer. Of the four children, Neil and Betty were the eldest. He and Hugh would stay up late, McIlvanney recalls, listening to family discussions and arguments while the coal fire blazed, lulled to sleep by the sound of clashing voices.
“It was a house where argument was normal,” he says. “About politics, books, culture, anything. I loved aggressive argument. It wasn’t about, ‘I beg to differ,’ it was, ‘Does your brain work?’ It was benignly aggressive. It took me a while to realise, ‘My God, this is not what everybody does.’ I think sometimes folk have thought I’m really aggressive. But I’m not. Maybe I talk aggressively because where I come from you had to be aggressive to be heard.”
There was a lot of humour in those evenings, too, and McIlvanney felt he was learning just by being there. It was more educational than school. Everyone was sharp, he says, and with the exception of his father they were bookish. “I remember coming home from the dancin’ around the age of 17, and there was my mother sitting with the pinny on, reading The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I don’t think where we came from that was a common phenomenon. I also remember having impromptu poetry readings, though I think we pulled the curtains in case anyone stoned us.”
How formative those early years must have been. McIlvanney’s cutting-edge as a polemicist and literary stylist was sharpened on the whetstone of family life. His political views were etched then, too. In an article on Tony Benn, written for this paper in 2008, McIlvanney described himself as “an itinerant socialist looking for a home” and that is still his position. It’s a phrase that speaks of his disillusionment with the Labour Party but also the depth of his own roots in the left.
He recalls with great love his late Uncle Josey, a Communist, “more beast of burden than Russian bear” who died at the age of 34. McIlvanney did not share his uncle’s politics, but found him “the most benign, helpful man I think I’ve ever met” and in this Josey was politically influential. McIlvanney’s socialism has always been rooted in a basic kindness and compassion for one’s fellow human beings. It’s telling, I think, that one of his earliest political memories – hearing news of the 1945 general election, the Atlee landslide, coming over the wireless – is framed by a memory of watching his mother, Helen, listening to those results. His parents are the parentheses around his politics.
What was his mother like? “A very bright woman,” he smiles. “Beautiful handwriting. A great reader though she left school at 12 to go and work in a mill. She was just a testament to terrific values. She once said to me her father was the warmest man in the world. This was a man who fought in the Boer and First World Wars, got gassed at Passchendaele, and lasted just a few years when he came out. But she said he was so kind. He’d been a soldier and could take a drink but she said he never let it interfere with the well-being of his family. I think that was a crucial dimension to how my mother handled our family. She saw a great example.
“Everything was hard for my father. He came home from the pits at 14 with no food in the house and no mother there. Off away drinking somewhere. My mother taught him what family could be. So that’s why I think she was really special. She was the saviour of all of us, I think.”
Though McIlvanney has known Gordon Brown since the 1970s, and likes him very much, he is revolted by the “disembowelling” of the Labour movement by New Labour’s leaders. An outspoken advocate of home rule, McIlvanney considered standing as an independent in the Scottish Parliament election of 1999. “But I don’t think I’d be good at dealing with the minutiae, the real problems that people have. I’d forget things.”
He saw himself as the “wait-a-minute man” who would stand up and speak truth to power. He would have adopted causes out of principle, free from the influence of party or private interest. “One of the conscience-keepers for the house is all I would have wanted to be. Someone like that would be incorruptible. I would have liked to try it, but I think it would have been pretty expensive to run your own campaign. I couldn’t afford it and never will.” He shrugs. “It might have been a disaster, but it would have been an honest disaster.”
I wish he’d stand in 2011. It would be good to see him focus. There is a strong sense, meeting McIlvanney, of a man out of kilter with the world. Politics and society seem to baffle and disappoint him, where once he was engaged and enraged. Where and how he lives seems emblematic somehow. Ridiculous to say so, but it feels wrong to see him in Sainsbury’s buying pizza. It’s too settled, too private for a man who is capable of inhabiting, defining and critiquing the public sphere. In his books, he has often seemed hostile to domestic life, but has now declared a truce.
He lives with Siobhan Lynch, a primary teacher (McIlvanney himself is a former English teacher) in her early fifties with four grown children from a previous relationship. They met in 1995. “I was lucky to meet Siobhan,” he says. “She’s a terrific person and I’ll stop there before I start singing love songs in public.” He seems to enjoy having a role in the lives of the children, describing himself as “a secondary influence”. Their father lives in London.
McIlvanney has a son and daughter from his marriage, and seven grandchildren. “They are sensational,” he grins. “Every grandfather says that, but I happen to know that it’s true in their case.”
What kind of father was he? “I don’t know. I did my best. The break-up of the marriage complicated things because the kids remained with their mother. I was in Kilmarnock every week to see them, but maybe that’s not enough, I don’t know. They seem to be in great nick, whoever’s responsible. It’s their mother, that’s fine. I don’t care who gets the credit. I’m just glad they’re such good people and have already achieved so much in their lives.” His daughter Siobhan and son Liam are both academics. Liam is also an acclaimed novelist in his own right.
As someone who found great value, happiness and significance in his family background, the break-up of his own marriage was hugely unsettling for McIlvanney. Divorce was an alien concept where he came from. “There was also a touch of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? at the end of the marriage. There were moments of bitterness. So it was very painful, and then I didn’t know where I was or where I was going.”
Laidlaw had been published shortly before the break-up and it had been a huge success. Did the end of his marriage affect his writing? “It was certainly an angst-ridden time and it took six years for the next book to come out. But I’m hesistant about being too glib in ascribing reasons. The biggest problem I’ve had with writing is believing in myself and not thinking, ‘Ah, that’s no’ good enough’.”
He says this might be because of his working class background. However, his parents were very supportive of his writing, were they not? “Yeah, of course. But writing is a massive exposure for me. You think, ‘This is the one where I’ll get found out’. That’s just my nature. I’m pretty self-critical.”
Strange to hear him say that. His authorial voice is so assured. Yet he insists that his writing emerges from “massive self-doubt”. In order to write he has to psyche himself up like an athlete taking a long run-up to a jump.
This all goes back to a latent belief that writing isn’t a proper job. In his essay Farewell To Polkemmet about the closure of that West Lothian pit, he wrote about singing Burns songs with the miners and how important their acceptance was to him. “When you come from generations of folk who did concrete things with their hands, there is always a slight feeling that what you do is not necessary,” he says. “Howkin’ coal – that’s necessary. But words? Not that I ever wanted to be a labourer, but there is an awareness that what I’m doing is more ethereal than what the folk who went before me did, and therefore it had better be good. The only thing that validates the work is if it’s got real quality.”
William Snr died on Hallowe’en, 1954. McIlvanney was 18 and had just started at Glasgow University. He remembers the death with great clarity. The friends and family sitting silently round the bed, keeping a vigil. Afterwards, there was the wake, the menfolk standing round, smoking and drinking, telling stories from the dead man’s life, making a ritual of anecdote and memory.
He commemorated this scene in his first novel, Remedy Is None, published in 1966. It was that particular passage which persuaded the publisher that they should accept the book. But while his father’s death gave him the beginnings of a career, it was his life which gave him a subject. The character of the miner Tam Docherty is the most obvious portrait of his father in his fiction, but working-class heroism and a masculinity containing physical strength and emotional tenderness have been his great themes.
What does the future hold for McIlvanney, I wonder? He seems a little down on himself – “I’m no’ exactly flavour of the decade” – and says that all he wants to do is write and continue his relationship with Siobhan. He writes most days, and describes it as a compulsion. Yet he is utterly disenchanted with publishing, which he feels has become too focused on money and celebrity. “Jordan has written a novel that sold 2 million copies. I do not imagine it is a threat to James Joyce.”
He smiles as if an idea has just struck him. “I sometimes think I would love to be able to write without having to publish, you know that? If I had the money, I would write over the next years all the things I want to write and leave them. If somebody wanted to publish them posthumously, they could.”
Does he care about posterity then? Is it important to him to be considered an important writer, one of the greats? He shakes his head. “Naw.” Posterity’s not so smart, he says. Just look at all the brilliant writers who are dead and being forgotten.
“I think you can only put your faith in individual readers,” he says. “A man said to me after Docherty, ‘You’ve written ma story, son.’ I like that. A woman came up to me once, grabbed my arms, and said, ‘You’re a great wee writer. I send your books all over the world.’ It makes me proud that real folk read it. That’s my audience, if I have one – unknown people in unknown rooms.”
William McIlvanney finishes his coffee, says cheerio, and heads back out into the street. He is quickly lost among the shoppers, few, if any of them, aware that a literary lion is passing through, and still fewer with any sense of the hard-earned pride in his heart.