Obituary: Iain Banks, author

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Born: 16 February, 1954, in Dunfermline. Died: 9 June, 2013, in North Queensferry, aged 59.

THE bestselling author revealed in April that he was suffering from terminal gall bladder cancer and was unlikely to live for more than a year. He began writing his final novel, The Quarry, earlier this year and it is due to be published in two weeks. It tells, in graphic detail, the last weeks of a man dying of cancer cared for by his 18 year-old son. While the novel is fiction, the story is largely autobiographical and Banks’s harrowing descriptions of the ravages and horrors of a cancer sufferer are clearly very personal.

Such a sad demise should not detract from Banks’s eminence as a writer. Banks was a most inventive author producing an extraordinary range of work: from family sagas set in contemporary Scotland to science fiction spanning vast gulfs of space and time.

To both genres Banks brought a vivid imagination and a writing style that involved the reader. He enjoyed breaking literary traditions and delighted in merging a straight-forward narrative with futuristic and fantastic storylines. The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity – along with some 20 others – were all best sellers. He was named in the Times list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.

Iain Menzies Banks was the son of a serving officer in the Admiralty, who was stationed in Rosyth, when he was born. His mother was a professional ice skater, but by the very nature of his father’s work he led a somewhat nomadic childhood being educated at schools in North Queensferry and thereafter at the High Schools of Gourock and Greenock. Banks then read English, philosophy and psychology at Stirling University from 1972-75.

He graduated and took himself off on, what he described as, “a grand hitch-hiking holiday throughout Europe”. North America was later included and the material he gathered throughout those adventures was to prove invaluable in later years. Banks was a close observer of people and events. Throughout his life, he walked the Scottish hills taking in the beauty and the people.

He had already written two novels as a student – Banks knew he wanted to be an author from the age of 11. But to fund his writing, he took a whole lot of day jobs that left him free to write in the evening. He was an expediter analyser for IBM, a technician for British Steel and a costing clerk for London Books.

His first published book, The Wasp Factory, came out in 1984 – many critics argue it is his best book. It was an immediate success and allowed Banks to concentrate on writing. It has many of the qualities for which he was to become famous: a dark ruminating story with wonderfully comic passages.

The Crow Road (1992) was a fascinating study that involved several generations of a family living in the Highlands. Banks combined many strands of a family saga: death, sex, the children’s relationship with their father, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, a missing uncle and drink. The, at times, gruesome story, unfolds among the glories of the idyllic Scottish scenery. It was a glorious yarn and bounced off the page with refreshing abandon.

Banks wrote one of the most absorbing opening paragraphs for The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”

The book was magnificently filmed by BBC Scotland with a fine cast of Scottish actors, led by Bill Paterson, Peter Capaldi and Gudrun Ure, It was nominated for a Bafta in 1997.

Banks met his first wife, Annie, in London before the 1984 release of his first book. The couple lived in the south of England until 1988 before returning to Scotland to live, first, in Edinburgh then in Fife. They married in Hawaii in 1992, but the marriage was dissolved in 2007.

Complicity (1993) has two principal characters: one a journalist on The Caledonian (which has more than a passing resemblance to The Scotsman) and a serial killer. The novel is set in Edinburgh and Banks writes the journalist in the first person, and the murderer in the second person. Banks builds a sense of mystery and of mounting tension as to who – and what – should be believed.

Again, it was made into a film, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Brian Cox in 2000.

Banks also wrote sci-fi titles under the name Iain M Banks. He set these books in an interstellar Utopia called The Culture. Walking on Glass (1985) tied together three stories, while The Bridge brought together elements of schizophrenia and delusion. Much of it was set against the background of the Forth Rail Bridge — close to where Banks lived in North Queensferry. But Banks delighted in never fitting the traditional mould of a best-selling author.

He produced Raw Spirit (2003), which detailed his life-long passion for Scotch whisky – he took much pleasure in visiting all the Scottish distilleries during his research. In 2006, he captained a team of writers which won University Challenge against members of other professions. He chose whisky as his specialist subject when he appeared on an edition of Celebrity Mastermind – and won.

Banks had a finely-tuned political mind and made memorable appearance on Any Questions? etc. He was certainly of the Left, but took strongly against Tony Blair’s foreign policy and recently admitted he had voted SNP. Despite living 100 yards from Gordon Brown, Banks maintained, they never met. He summed up his views on the former prime minister succinctly: “I never had any illusions about him, so I wasn’t disillusioned by him.”

Banks was an exceptional wordsmith who allowed a story to unfold at a gentle and sophisticated pace. His sense of drama, his fertile imagination and a canny and personally distinctive sense of humour were qualities that made him popular with readers worldwide. His grizzled features would graciously break into a welcoming and endearing smile. Banks was a popular speaker at literary conferences and spoke with ease to guests. He enjoyed meeting his readers and often stayed chatting over a whisky. It was his informality, wit and charm that many will especially remember.

The Quarry, it is thought, will be a heart-rending read. Banks has captured the agonies and pain of cancer with a vivid candour. He writes in one passage: “You can’t catch cancer from someone. That’s the thing about cancer. It’s all yours –it’s entirely, perfectly personalised.”

Banks married Adele Hartley this year at Inverlochy castle. He proposed to her with typical bravado by asking her to “do me the honour of becoming my widow”.

They honeymooned in Venice and Paris and then holidayed on the Isle of Barra, “walking on pristine beaches, listening to the quietness, eating just-caught fish and” as Banks wrote “chatting with the islanders”.