In Memory: William McIlvanney by Michael J. Malone
I went through the Scottish education system in the late sixties and seventies, a system that shamefully ignored our own home-grown talent. The writers that I was alerted to were all English or American. Apart from one day a year in which Robert Burns was trotted out with a silent, “Let’s get this over with”. Consequently when I was of an age to buy my own books I would avoid the Scottish section in the bookshops, thinking they were somehow sub-standard.
Willie McIlvanney was the first writer to break through that block in my education. A friend thrust Docherty in my hand with the admonition, you have to read this – and I became a fan. And subsequently woke up to the various talents that my education had denied me.
An avid reader, his was the first book signing I ever went to and whenever the chance presented itself, I would go and hear him speak. I could listen to him for hours. Not only was his voice and delivery captivating, but he had an easy articulacy I have rarely encountered, before or since.
He was a wonderful speaker. Warm, self-deprecating, honest, patriotic, fiercely intelligent and funny. He was acutely aware that humour was a large part of the social currency of Scotland and that was a coin he spent wisely and with generosity.
Then he faded from public view, his books were out of print and sadly he was forgotten by almost all of us. But then he was claimed by that unruly mob: the crime fiction writers. Many of our luminaries (inc. Rankin, McDermid, Brookmyre) talk about how Laidlaw was THE book that gave them permission to write crime. ‘”If Willie can do it” more than one author has said. And after his appearance at the inaugural Bloody Scotland in 2012 he was signed up by the clever people at Canongate who released his entire back list and he re-emerged from the literary wilds.
He himself was unsure of the Crime Writer tag. He was a writer who wrote about a character who happened to be a policeman. He also wrote poems, essays and newspaper columns. He was less concerned with the crime itself than with the socio-economic situation in which the crime was fostered. He was a man with an extraordinary mind and in a happy co-incidence, one with a facility with words that held its measure. He saw and gave witness to the value in our lives; gave us a window in on ourselves. Calling Willie McIlvanney a crime writer is like saying Tolstoy was a bit of a dabbler.
BBC Scotland filmed a programme about him earlier this year, ‘Living with Words’, which was a tribute to the man and his work and allowed those writers who were influenced by him to publicly acknowledge that. In typical fashion, Willie described his literary resurrection as being like a “pension of esteem”.
While I watched the programme, with a huge lump in my throat, I couldn’t help but be delighted that all of this was happening to him. Few of us are afforded the truth of how we have affected people, while we are alive. It was fitting that a man like Willie got to experience that.
I remember hearing John Connolly at an event, talking about a writer he revered and saying that when this writer died, we would all move up one. William McIlvanney is without doubt, one of those writers.
Thanks for the words and the warmth, Willie.
Michael J. Malone is the author of Beyond the Rage and The Guillotine Choice.