An appreciation: William McIlvanney

The Times, 7 December, 2015

By Kenny Farquharson

Late in 1980, in a hall of residence at Aberdeen university, two first-year students stood in front of a door trying to pluck up the courage to knock.

One was a small and scrawny girl, the other a gawky boy. Eventually, they knocked and took a step backwards, holding their breath.

The door was opened by a tall man in his early 40s, luxuriously moustachioed and impossibly handsome.

The boy stammered an explanation. They wanted to borrow £40 to start a poetry magazine. Would he maybe be able to lend them the money?

The man gave them a quizzical look, then invited them in for a coffee.

The girl was Ali Smith, later to be shortlisted three times for the Booker prize. The boy was me. The man was William McIlvanney, who had taken a job for a year as the university’s writer in residence, and been given a flat at Johnston Hall, in Old Aberdeen.

McIlvanney died on Saturday aged 79. Some fine obituaries have been published over the weekend. This is more a personal appreciation of the 35 years I knew him. He made a deep impression on many lives, including my own.

McIlvanney stumped up the £40 and we started a poetry magazine called Scratchings. A creative writing group met weekly and soon became all-consuming for those who attended.

It wasn’t so much that he taught us how to write, it was more that he taught us how to be writers. The real lessons took place most afternoons in the Machar Bar, a thin, low-ceilinged howff in Old Aberdeen that served huge pillowy sandwiches, the better to soak up the beer. There, Willie would hold court. Conversation ranged widely: politics, football, literature, language, gossip, anecdotes, philosophy, social history. Yet the actual topics seemed to matter less than the way they were discussed. The true subject matter was tacit: how to conduct yourself with people; how to live with grace; how to be true to yourself; how to treat people with respect; how to live an examined life.

McIlvanney once told me: “We are part animal. Humanity is an aspiration, not a fact of our everyday life.” Those long afternoons were a seminar on that lifetime’s work.

We were devoted to him. Women adored him. Men adored him no less. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see he was a bit of a father figure for me — my father had died in a car crash four years before. Willie patiently helped me to explore my grief through my writing.

At that time, McIlvanney was enjoying the frisson he had caused in the Scottish literary world by writing a crime novel, Laidlaw. It was a very different proposition from Docherty, the novel set in the fictional Ayrshire town of Graithnock that had won him his literary reputation in the 70s.

Always a man for a good simile, he said it was “like taking your fancy woman to your wife’s funeral”.

When his stint at Aberdeen ended, we kept in touch and when McIlvanney started his successful run as a newspaper columnist, first at the Herald and then at Scotland on Sunday, where I was political editor, we would meet occasionally for a pint or a boozy lunch. The pub was McIlvanney’s element, and the setting for all his best stories.

When he lived in Edinburgh, on the days when words were refusing to flow he would retreat to Clark’s, in Dundas Street. There, one lunchtime, there was only one other person in the bar, a hulk of a man who kept staring at McIlvanney with what seemed to be malevolent intensity. Finally, the man got up and marched over. Here we go, thought Willie. The man threw a piece of paper on to the table, then walked out without a word. On the paper was written: “Thanks for the books.”

As well as seeing him in his pomp, I saw him in his cups. One evening in 2006 I took Willie and his partner, Siobhan, out for dinner. I needed to interview him for The Sunday Times about his latest book and I thought we might as well make an occasion of it.

He was in the kind of mood his friends dreaded. He had weighed himself in the balance of his own expectations, and found himself wanting. What he said to me that evening seems all the more poignant now that he has gone.

“I don’t think I’m going to be significant. I don’t believe it,” he said without a shred of self-pity. “I don’t know how many people will be but I don’t think I’ll be one of them. I didn’t achieve what I’d have loved to have achieved, but I’ve tried and I’m going to keep trying.”

The expectations he had as a 20-something acolyte of Balzac were, he said, probably unfulfillable.

“I didn’t meet my terms,” he said. “I’m capable of being depressed but, when I think clearly, I know that I’ve tried. What I have had is a good inner life. I’ve thought about things and tried to express them, and that enriches your life on your own terms. It’s better than walking through life like a slab of cement.”

With the tape recorder switched off, Siobhan and I tried to convince him that he was being too hard on himself; that his work was a touchstone for a generation; that he was setting the bar too high. But he was having none of it.

McIlvanney’s sense of dislocation at that time was, in large part, political. In the 1980s and 1990s, the campaign for a Scottish parliament and the fight against the Tories had been the twin engines of his purpose. He was a talisman of the home rule movement. His description, in a speech to a huge crowd at a democracy rally in Edinburgh in 1992, of Scotland as a “mongrel nation” was one of his finest moments.

With the parliament won, and New Labour muddying the waters of ideology, McIlvanney’s political compass no longer found true north. “I’ve always written from an implicit political point of view,” he told me, “but my sense of the politics of Scotland has shifted so dramatically. I don’t want to be glib about it. I don’t want to say that where we are is a terrible place. But, for me, it’s a very confusing place.”

In the early days of devolution, people kept telling McIlvanney he should stand for election to Holyrood. There was talk of a slate of independents — prominent people from outwith politics — who would campaign together, but be elected as individuals.

He asked me what I thought. I told him it was a terrible idea. He would hate it. The day-to-day reality of politics, the compromises and ruthlessness required, would appal him.

I was all too aware that, despite the hard-boiled image, McIlvanney was at his core quite a sensitive man. He was not in the least bit cynical. He was not as tough as many assumed he was. Politics would have disappointed him. It risked souring him. That would have been a tragedy.

The independence referendum last year saw a renewal of his sense of political optimism, although he took his time to declare his intention to vote “yes” and remained wary of the SNP and political nationalism.

In Living With Words, the fine BBC Scotland documentary about his life, there is a lovely scene with McIlvanney in George Square on the night of the referendum vote, savouring the hope and idealism of the young campaigners for a better Scotland. His face is a picture of delight.

I last saw McIlvanney in February, at the party following the Glasgow Film Theatre premiere of that BBC documentary. It was a great night. The party was in the Blythswood Square Hotel, and there must have been about 100 people there.

There was champagne and there were canapés. It struck me as an overly lavish affair for the launch of a half-hour TV programme.

I now realise this was Willie’s farewell party. It was his leaving do. When he saw me come in he said: “Ah, here’s one of mine.” And he gave me a big hug.

It was true. I am one of his. So are thousands of others whose lives he changed for the better.

Thank you, Willie. We will never forget you.

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Columnist and senior writer with @TheTimes in Scotland. Using Medium to archive some of my writing from 35 years in journalism.

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Kenny Farquharson

Kenny Farquharson

Columnist and senior writer with @TheTimes in Scotland. Using Medium to archive some of my writing from 35 years in journalism.

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