Glasgow was an exciting place. I once went for a coffee with Edwin Morgan, I had friends from every corner of the world and I could fit into a pair of size 10 jeans. Yes, life was good. I was studying for a BA honours degree in English Lit and it was the early 80s. In my final year I had to write a dissertation and since most of my ENGLISH degree was based on SCOTTISH literature, for me, the choice was obvious - the writer who had moved me, chucked me...woken me up from the romance of Jane Austen and introduced me to gritty reality. A reality that was actually my own culture written down on the pages and that had a huge effect on me.
Willie McIlvanney is a Kilmarnock lad and I'm a Kilmarnock girl. I first read Docherty - a coming of age story not only for the main character but also for society as WW1 tore through people's beliefs, destroying hopes and dreams in equal measure. The life that McIlvanney describes was a familiar one to me as I had been brought up listening to similar tales of old Kilmarnock by my papa - a great story teller who would sit by the fire and entrance me with stories of his childhood. I couldn't believe that I was now reading these stories in a book. McIlvanney had me hooked.
I moved onto A Gift From Nessus and Remedy Is None -tales of young men trying to make sense of their lives, trying to break free from their shackles and responsibilities. The ability to hope and the possible loss of hope are themes in all of McIlvanney's books - a good Calvinist hypothesis, after all, should we dare to hope? Are we not all damned already?
Laidlaw was my first ever crime novel. I always imagine Edward Woodward - he of Callan fame (showing my age again) with a bit of Sean Connery thrown in for good measure - brooding, moody, never happy. I liked him. I don't think I like happy...I didn't really know that then, but if you've read any of my stories, you'll know why that's funny now.
Anyway, I wrote my dissertation on McIlvanney - very contemporary at the time. The title was 'The Loss of Hope in the novels of William McIlvanney' and to this day, I've never read it since it was handed in. It sits in the back cupboard, a sheaf of papers held together with some metal butterfly clips, typed up in double spacing by my mum... (pre computer days finding a typist was a tricky business).
I met Willie at Bloody Scotland last year and I shook his hand. I wanted to tell him that his writing changed my life. Instead I mumbled something about being pleased that his books would be back in print again. I bought a new copy of Docherty and he signed it for me - one of my little treasures.
This week I started to read Laidlaw on my kindle. I was worried that it wouldn't live up to my younger and more innocent memory. Maybe it hadn't aged well. Maybe I've now read much better. I was worried. I didn't want to see my literary hero fall to his knees. I needn't have worried. Laidlaw is much better than I remembered. In fact, I don't think that when I was 21 that I would have been able to fully appreciate just how good it is - how startling the writing is, how well observed, how beautifully crafted. I find myself stopping and re-reading paragraphs and chuckling to myself at the simile McIlvanney has devised or the complex explanation of human emotion that he manages to sussinctly describe in a few well chosen words. The man is a master - untouchable - he is still the champ and he's back.
Go read him. Really - go read.