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Interview: Author Gordon Williams on Straw Dogs and being Scottish

Gordon Williams. Picture: Graham Jepson

Gordon Williams. Picture: Graham Jepson

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

He was the first of only six Scots to make the Booker shortlist, and wrote the novel that became Straw Dogs, yet Gordon Williams isn’t a very famous name. In a rarely granted interview, he talks to Aidan Smith

In the Star Café, Soho, the giggly Polish waitresses are ready to pounce whenever Jude Law requires a refill, but proprietor Mario, who must have seen a few hotshots dazzle then fade, is attending to his long-time regular and friend, the Great Lost Scottish Writer. Gordon Williams, a coffee-slurper these days, is telling the one about Sam Peckinpah and even though Mario must have heard it a few times, some stories are worth repeating.

Before we get to the mad movie director, you might need some reminding about Williams. Or Jack Lang as he’s sometimes been, or PB Yuill or Norman Leigh. Williams wrote science fiction and Acker Bilk’s memoirs. He ghosted footballers, making them articulate, and penned the greatest novel about newspaper hackdom, ever. When he needed money, and quick, he bashed out “thick-ear paperbacks” (record: three and a half days). But he was also nominated for the first Booker Prize.

The latest Booker winner will be revealed tomorrow. When this year’s shortlist was announced there was some debate about why so few Scots get chosen. Only six ever have: George Mackay Brown, James Kelman (the only winner), Andrew O’Hagan, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, and our man. The Caledonian under-representation prompted grumblings of English middle-class bias but there was no such issue in 1969 with Williams’ From Scenes Like These, an unflinching portrait of growing up in the wild west (of Scotland) in the bleak post-war years.

This small stooshie was all the excuse I needed to dig up one of my scribbling heroes, a sardonic chronicler of Scots trying to escape or already on the make. “I’ll meet you as long as you write ‘ … in a rarely granted interview,’” he said on the phone. “Graham Greene’s interviews used to say that, but he seemed to be in the papers all the bloody time.”

Williams – even though he’s destined to be remembered as the man who wrote the book that became Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, the movie shocker – isn’t. In fact, the Guardian once reported he was dead. “They did that twice,” he corrects with a smoker’s rasp (though the fags have gone, too).

He’s 78, a Paisley buddy who grew up on the same street, Ferguslie Park Avenue, as John Byrne and Gerry Rafferty, and there’s something of Chic Murray in his lugubrious delivery. A favourite phrase this afternoon will be: “Not everything is true, but that is.” When staff start to hurry us, he’ll remind Mario that his interviewer has come down from Edinburgh, a very polite city. “And do you know why Edinburgh folk are way they are? Because they were conceived while their parents were fully-dressed.”

Ask him what he makes of Scots being so rarely-quoted for the top literary award and he’ll say: “That’s Scotland’s problem.” Williams has been away a long time and his relationship with the old country is complex. “My father was a beat constable, very moral, loved Gilbert & Sullivan, called himself British and I’m with him on the last bit.” He was happy to leave Scotland and yet has put an equally complex Scot into almost all his fiction. Of course, he’s pretty complex himself. Viewed from up here his life, during the drinking years, seemed Hemingwayesque, and yet he’s been married to the same woman, Claerwen, for almost half a century.

Asked by a flag-waving newspaper to supply 50 words on “Why I’m proud to be Scottish”, he remembered a Tartan Army invasion of Wembley – “Guys bare-chested and paralytic in the gardens of a street called Acacia Avenue, a roasted chestnut vendor in tears over his smashed-up cart, the stadium corridors awash with piss” – and said sorry, he had a book to write. He did sum up the national character thus: “Obsessiveness, megalomania, suicidal guilt, paranoia, cowardice when sober, loudmouth hostility in drink, a fetish for minutiae and a belief that conversation is a series of interruptions.” Chuckling, he asks me to be gentle with him. “I’d quite like to be invited back one day.”

What does he remember of the inaugural Booker? “That I was supposed to win it. My editor, who was a judge, told me I’d won. In fact my wife and I had already spent the 5,000 quid on a new bathroom. When my name wasn’t read out [and PH Newby’s was] I was bloody pissed off. The trip up to London from Dartmoor took a lot of organising. Our young daughters had to be left at my agent’s and then there were the animals.” Donkeys, geese, ducks, hens, and 100 specially-bred obese rabbits, although presumably they weren’t put up in Bloomsbury. “John Updike was the big literary lion star-guest, although he didn’t speak to the likes of us. I got my own back later, slagged him off in a novel.”

From Scenes Like These was also nominated for a Scottish Arts Council prize. By that stage Williams had decided he didn’t really like awards – “Fine for the would-be dairy queens of Kentucky, not writers” – so in the pub beforehand he suggested to fellow nominees George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith they split the £1,000 no matter who won. “Crichton Smith, a funny wee guy, was amused but Mackay Brown was having none of my flyboy London notions. He knew he’d won! A lot of drink had been taken and Crichton Smith went to shake the hand of some notable and missed, live on TV. The editor of the Scottish Daily Express was watching. His orders were, ‘They’re pissed – get two men down there!’ He didn’t like the literary establishment, you see.”

Neither does Williams. He remembers seeing Julian Barnes swanning about London’s West End: “A big star moving through the common people.” Fellow Scot Allan Sharp was a “‘See-me’ kind of guy,” though maybe there’s a Paisley-Greenock rivalry at work there. “Everyone’s an individual by definition,” he adds. “When you become a self-employed writer you’re even more of one. What’ve I got in common with James Kelman? Bugger all. I don’t like writers as a group. They seem repressed and malevolent. Always thinking things, devious, cannae trust them. Of course, it takes one to know one.”

AS A BOY, Williams was encouraged by his dad to read Sir Walter Scott and to play the violin. I can’t imagine there were too many violin-cases being lugged along Ferguslie Park Avenue, at least not with violins inside. “The estate was known as ‘the Jungle’ and was voted the worst slum in Britain for violence, drunkenness, incest, you name it. I thought it was quite genteel although we were lucky: we had shoes on our feet.” From the moment, aged three, he was held up at an aunt’s kitchen window to see world flyweight champ Jackie Paterson box at St Mirren’s old Love Street stadium, sporting heroics filled his young head. A great-uncle having written a book – “about his missionary work in Venezuela, saving pagan Indians from Rome” – convinced him words should be his game, first as a cub reporter on the Johnstone Advertiser at £2 a week.

Trying to move up, he wrote to 20 bigger Scottish papers. “Because I was taught at the school they all got a stamped addressed envelope. I didn’t get one reply and so had to come south. My father gave me two blue police shirts, plus collars, two pound notes and a stern warning about drink.”

As we reach the point when the ambitious scribe took flight, we must vacate the Star Café. “It turns into the Star at Night, a lesbian cocktail bar,” says Williams, leading me on a Soho tour. There’s one of his old garret-offices where he’d receive Scots journalists in the 1970s – many of whom, aspiring to be him, would note the teeming local colour: fortune-tellers, detective agencies, strip-joints. And there’s the street-corner of the three-card-trick which routinely relieved “carrot-crunchers from Norwich” of their cash, inspiring one of the Hazell detective yarns Williams wrote with his football chum Terry Venables and which were turned into a hit TV show.

Big Morning Blues was his Soho novel and The Camp was inspired by his National Service. He was never a pop mogul, the subject of The Man Who Had Power Over Women; that began with him seeing the title in lights in a dream and ended with Hollywood paying £27,000 for the rights. But was he Andrew Menzies – a journo on the make in my favourite of his books, The Upper Pleasure Garden – who fabricated sensational stories? “No, but lots of other guys I met in papers were already writing fiction for deadline.” Then we pass the former office of another enterprising Scot, Ian Watson, a publisher of wham-bam paperbacks. “I’d hand in a title and opening paragraph on a Monday. If Ian liked it, he’d come back downstairs with a cheque for 150 quid. Then, typing with a will, I’d be back on the Thursday with the finished book to collect the other £150.”

WE’VE found another café and Williams has moved on to orange juice to recall nights out with Denis Law: “He always wanted to finish with a game of ‘capitals of the world’.” Williams gave up drinking in 1979. “Thank God I did. My old address book is now page after page of the dead.” When a Glasgow newspaper was still describing his voice as “whisky-soaked”, he got annoyed. “I thought about suing, gouging £1,000 out of them. They offered me a three-part series on ‘My drinking exploits’, which seemed very Glasgow.”

One such exploit was a 24-hour pub crawl which, at that time in London, involved military planning. “First stop I met the bus conductor on the Tarbert-Cambuslang route who’d just absconded with all the takings. Afterwards I headed straight to the office and carried on with the latest book.” That was Walk Don’t Walk, a very funny American odyssey inspired by his first US book tour. At their St Louis hotel his manager – struggling to keep him fresh for breakfast TV – decided not to let on that Judy Garland had requested a nightcap or four with “the crazy Scottish author”, and has never been forgiven.

We’ve reached the point where we’re going to have to talk about Straw Dogs. Williams called his book The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and – remembering that he dashed off the final page to catch the post office van – thought it another £300 job. His agent saw more potential and so did Peckinpah. The result was one of the most notorious films in cinema history, mainly because of a rape scene involving Susan George’s character, which wasn’t in the text. Williams was horrified.

“That was also the year [1971] of the film of A Clockwork Orange and because of copycat attacks Anthony Burgess had fled to Malta. Something happened in Falkirk, I think, which the papers tried to pin on Straw Dogs. I had to defend myself so I went on TV and called the film ‘neo-Nazi crap’, which it was.” The discussion-show circuit was bizarre. “In Manchester, I was alongside two horny-handed trade unionists, hardened pros of late-night chat who showed me busy diaries of upcoming appearances, and a churchman who cornered me in the bogs and asked, ‘How was I?’ Then in Glasgow I tried to explain to Bill Tennant how Peckinpah had justified making the film, ‘Because I’m a male lesbian whore.’ But you can’t use these words on STV. The programme was pulled.”

You might wonder if relinquishing the “props” of booze and smokes was the cause of the book-writing slowing up but Williams says not. “I just kind of lost the notion.” After 26 in two decades he’d earned a break, but this fan is pleased to report there’s a new one on the way. “It’s about a ghostwriter, pretty experimental, further down the line than others I’ve tried to write and I’m currently searching for an ending. I had the same dilemma with my first book until I decided to blow everyone up so there’s always that option. Oh, and we finally got that new bathroom. Last year’s remake of Straw Dogs paid for it. Not everything is true, but that is.”

 

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