Martyn McLaughlin: The godfather of tartan noir

William McIlvanney is steeped in Glasgow's past, literary and physical. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
William McIlvanney is steeped in Glasgow's past, literary and physical. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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METHOD is the key for acclaiming McIlvanney, the man who paved the way for McDermid and Rankin, Martyn McLaughlin maintains.

There is a scene in a new documentary on the life and work of William McIlvanney that demonstrates the importance of acknowledgment in the author’s solitary life. It captures him in his old stomping ground of Kilmarnock, roaming the library where his courtship with the written word began. Browsing the “M” shelves of the fiction section, he finds only a bank of hardbacks by Andy McNab. It takes a few paces to reach the Dick Institute’s modest Scottish section, home to a handful of his works. McIlvanney’s blue eyes glint mischievously as he reshuffles the ledge to give the books bearing his name greater prominence.

Even to a Whitbread award-winning writer regarded as one of the country’s most esteemed novelists, recognition remains a potent and nourishing habit. It does not take the form of acclaim or rewards; simply the knowledge that his voice remains heard.

Appreciation of McIlvanney’s work has come in tides down the years. The latest swell has been the strongest yet, bookended by Canongate’s 2013 reissues of his back catalogue and the new film, Living With Words, which airs on BBC Two Scotland this Friday. It has been a fruitful period which ordained the 78-year-old as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, a title that recognises the influence of his seminal 1977 work, Laidlaw. At the time of its release, some regarded the concept of a Glaswegian detective who thumbed the pages of Kierkegaard and Camus with incredulity, yet the senior polis in whom McIlvanney sought counsel saw no contrariety in his creation. “Listen, Willie, I’ve been trying to write poetry all my life,” one high-ranking confidant explained. “But don’t tell anybody.”

Laidlaw’s enduring gift is the legitimacy it gave to a new generation of writers. It may seem unconscionable in today’s thriving age of Scottish cultural expression, but McIlvanney swept away old stigmas and showed it was possible to imbue popular fiction with the sandblasted language of the everyday and literary ambition. It is a crime novel where the enduring mystery is the nature of its protagonist.

He validated an idea the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina would run with and explore to considerable success. In turn, McIlvanney has enjoyed a pension rich in respect. Yet while his published work has gained a new audience, what has been missing from McIlvanney’s resurrection is regard for his labour. His creative process is one of compulsive torture which can be traced back to his days as an undergraduate at Glasgow University when, revising for a history exam alongside his friend, Frank Donnelly, a latticed window blew open. McIlvanney took his pen in hand, determined to give word to the sound. “I think you should watch that, Willie,” Frank cautioned. “They could lock you up for that.”

He has been an avid note taker all his life, jotting down ideas on scrap paper and menus, placemats and pads, all squirreled away at his home in the southside of Glasgow along with four “official” notebooks. Over lunch a few weeks ago, McIlvanney described the process to me as a harmless lunacy. But its importance is paramount to a writer who explores a kind of human cartography. The notes preserve thoughts and directions, there to be toyed with and recalibrated in hope of finding form in the chaos. Words have never been a problem for McIlvanney; it is publisher’s block he suffers from.

Somewhere in those lined sheafs of elegant longhand lie the seeds for future books. He is currently working simultaneously on four projects and hopes to complete at least two “before they nail the lid on”. As well as an essay-style autobiography, he remains gripped by the idea of two further Laidlaw books – one a prequel, the other a sequel to 1991’s Strange Loyalties – and an “oddly structured” follow up to 1996’s The Kiln that would create a Docherty trilogy.

But the archive runs deeper. It includes an earlier draft of 1975’s Docherty which runs 20,000 words longer than the published edition. There is Almost A Book About Sean Connery, an impressionistic portrait which stalled at the 90,000 word mark, and a screenplay for Streets, a film version of Laidlaw, the draft of which is equally substantial, running to around 100 pages.

The jottings even contain a number of song lyrics exploring universal themes such as love as well as social commentary. No doubt McIlvanney would rather some of these embryonic works never see the light of day, but even if the ideas remain dormant, this handwritten archive surely constitutes one of the most intriguing personal collections in contemporary Scottish literature.

At present, it is being preserved by McIlvanney’s family. His niece, Trish, has spent several years diligently typing up reams of his notes while his nephew, Neil, is collating an engrossing repository of his uncle’s work – a digital Sketches By Boz – which gives new life to forgotten newspaper columns and television reviews. Perhaps in time, a university will take note of the archive’s scope and significance and preserve it for the nation. Given how persuasive his published work has been in shaping the country’s contemporary fiction, a thorough catalogue of McIlvanney’s workings and miscellanies would surely be an instructive reference.

One of the writers he has long admired is Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the 16th century French philosopher. He was among the first to explore that essence of modernity: doubt over man’s place in the world. Montaigne wrote, he once explained, to make sense of mankind’s contradictions, and to stop them from sending him mad. McIlvanney treads the same eternal path with uncertainty his companion.

His many admirers hope to enjoy a few more fruits of his labour, but recognition of how they are harvested is just as vital. “You begin as a writer by wondering if it will happen at all,” he told me. “You finish up wondering if you can survive.”


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