I’d already read a few of Iain Banks’ novels, but none of the sci-fi stuff. I was having a think about picking up one of his Culture novels – with the M appended, of course.
I had a flick through Use of Weapons. It was the edition with a front cover featuring stacks of weapons in silhouette, against a dark purple background. In the foreground, of course, was that bloody chair.
Anyway, on the title page I discovered a signature. Iain Banks’ signature. The fly bugger had obviously been in the shop, and decided to make his mark on the editions of his books on the shelves. I'm told Stephen King likes to do the same thing.
I cannot tell you how much I regret not buying that book. I’m sure you can imagine. It’s on a par with not going to see a screening of Jason and the Argonauts at the GFT, with Ray Harryhausen himself in attendance.
It’s funny how we finally come to accept deaths in our lives, but
we never quite resolve failure.
I think I had good, spartan, austere reasons for keeping the wallet closed, to be fair; messy split; legal issues; money flying out of my pockets and floating away. Couldn’t I just have stretched to it, though? Put it on plastic?
Of course, we have a far bleaker Iain Banks scenario to deal with, now. I can still walk into a bookshop and buy any of his books, and who knows? A wee signature might be dotted around here and there. But there will be no more new Iain Banks books after The Quarry.
I won’t draw out the pain with reviews and gushing tributes – save to say that The Crow Road is still my favourite book.
But as a famous Scot, he was unusual. He reminds me of a lovely tribute Billy Connolly once paid to Sean Connery before big Tam was given an honorary Bafta a few years ago. “He had a bigness about him that Scotland doesn’t normally have.”
To paraphrase a review I once put together on The Crow Road, Iain Banks managed to make Scotland seem quite magical without resorting to nostalgia, ancient historical grudges or sentimental, phoney romantic White Heather Club stuff. As I remarked then, this is a difficult trick to pull off – in terms of high profile modern work, only Bill Forsyth has managed a similar feat.
Lots of successful Scots fly the coop once fame and riches come their way. But after a few years away, Iain Banks went home. Not only did he stay and pay his taxes, but he seemed to love the place, in particular that big old bridge over the Forth. While he took pride in being a Scot, and was open about his support for independence, he also had a self-confidence to go with it. There was no chip on the shoulder.
Sometimes there’s a fear of success in Scotland, and a need to debase oneself once it arrives. Part of this is out of simple working class necessity – in many homes across the nation, you had to do something useful, and that was all one should strive for. Even the middle classes aren’t entirely free from this sentiment. Any attempts at “getting above oneself” can be summarily, brutally put down, by friend, family or foe alike. It’s that viscous mix of catholic guilt and presbyterian joylessness, dampening down any attempts to shine, far less any moves to take oneself or one’s art seriously. We're getting better, but it's still there, particularly in Glasgow. You’ll work, and you’ll die, and you’ll like it, boy. Art? Whit?
Iain Banks never had that, bless him – though that’s not to say he was arrogant. As well as confidence, there was an insouciance about him that set him apart from his contemporaries. Even in the darkest depths of his novels, there was a light touch, cackling laughter. If you can, pop over to iPlayer and
watch Raw Spirits, the BBC interview with him, recorded two weeks before he
died. Watching it, and his good humour, it’s hard to believe that the lights
could be switched off so suddenly on that imagination and intellect.
His closest contemporary, Irvine Welsh, has the intellectual power, but he also has the baggage. Iain Banks was Scottish, he liked it, he liked the land, he liked the whisky, he liked the people, he was a humanitarian, he was an atheist, he was very firmly on the left, and he didn’t give a fuck.
Here’s to him.