Why William McIlvanney should be world famous – Pete Martin

Pete Martin, left, with William McIllvaney, says the late writer concealed high art as conversation
Pete Martin, left, with William McIllvaney, says the late writer concealed high art as conversation
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William McIlvanney, the writers who invented Tartan Noir and turned everyday conversation into high art, should be better known around the world, writes Pete Martin on the third anniversary of the Kilmarnock-born writer’s death.

I’m not jealous of that many writers. Not really. These days I rarely read anything and think “I wish I’d written that”.

You can’t count magicians like Marlowe or Shakespeare or, closer to our own times, Joyce and Eliot. So, it’s mostly the more effortless, less obvious verbal alchemy that makes me envious.

When you read PG Wodehouse, it looks so easy. Just a few simple words and there’s the endlessly entertaining Jeeves and Wooster. And, if it weren’t for his ill-advised wartime broadcasts from Germany, anyone might wish to be Wodehouse.

Likewise, Raymond Chandler. You’d kill for a cool draft of genuine American noir like The Big Sleep – if it weren’t distilled out of a weird cocktail of English middle-class pettiness, alcoholism and impotence.

But, if you’re Scottish, there’s one name that’s revered without reservation by anyone who’s ever lifted a pen. And that’s McIlvanney.

William McIlvanney, novelist, poet and true gent, switched off one of the brightest lights in world literature when he left the building on 5 December 2015.

I first met William about 20 years ago in Glasgow’s Central Hotel. At the bar, he asked for a Grouse and a small jug as an aside: “It’s just the water I like.”

A model of working-class urbanity, McIlvanney was the epitomé of cool and warmth: author of ten novels, two books of verse, some great short stories and a shedload of journalism. Despite his actual output, he was oft-lamented for his lack of productivity, but as he said himself: “I can’t write to anyone’s command – not even my own.”

READ MORE: Five of the best William McIlvanney novels

Had he been more interested in money, he might have followed up fast on the critical and commercial success of his crime novel Laidlaw. It took him six years to produce his next book.

In the meantime, he’d unwittingly invented ‘Tartan Noir’. The line “there’s been a murder” – if not the whole idea of the TV series Taggart – was lifted from his work. Allegedly, a young Ian Rankin sent him a long, effusive letter. The aspiring writer enthused about his own plans for a detective story set in Edinburgh. It’s said McIlvanney replied with a single wry line: “Good luck with that.”

As well as humorous, William was generous. I once bumped into him at the Edinburgh Book Festival where he was an unerring attraction. We had a young relative in tow and, charmed by the girl’s chattiness, he pulled a tenner from his wallet. He gave it to her to buy a book, not even one of his own.

It was at a point in his life when it wasn’t obvious that he had many tenners. To his surprise and cost, he had discovered that his long-time publishers had quietly stopped printing his books. It was close to a scandal: here was Scotland’s greatest living writer and he could barely make a living.

To their eternal credit, Jamie Byng’s publishing house, Canongate, came to his aid and did a wonderful job of re-producing the entire McIlvanney catalogue.

Obviously, the man could write. But, boy, could he talk too. With a voice like music, he could hold forth on any subject and hold a room. Growing up in a family that enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate, he didn’t mind a verbal dust-up either.

READ MORE: Obituary: William McIlvanney, teacher and novelist

I only made the mistake of crossing swords with him culturally on a couple of occasions.

At his favourite restaurant, the traditional Italian, La Lanterna, in Glasgow city centre, we’d got into a discussion about Sinatra.

As a bit of a wind-up, I’d casually suggested to him that the Welsh diva Shirley Bassey had a better singing voice than The Voice. I thought he might choke on his veal Milanese. “That’s like owning a Ferrari and not knowing how to drive,” he riposted. McIlvanney must have liked the line too as, a few years later, it appeared in his last novel, Weekend.

It seemed as if he felt the clock ticking too. He graciously agreed to appear in a music film I shot for James Grant’s My Father’s Coat. It was a latter-day Hamlet’s-father’s-ghost role, if the Prince of Denmark shopped at Paddy’s Market. In a bar scene, wreathed in smoke, William still had movie-star magnetism. Looking through the lens, I told him he looked great.

“Aye,” he said. “As the old guy.”

He always said he was working on a few things. At one time, he was meant to write the official biography of Sean Connery. McIlvanney admired the movie star but perhaps saw the man too clearly for Connery’s comfort, and the project was cancelled. A few fragments appeared online, but somewhere the rest of his musings must be gathering dust like gold.

One of the last times I was with William, we went to see Alan Cumming’s bravura one-man Macbeth. McIlvanney was blown away by the power and audacity of Cumming’s performance. Talking about the show in the bar afterwards, he could casually recite any passage from the Bard at will. It suggested that his own seemingly easy ability was as hard-hewn from the studied rock of literature as coal from Scotland’s mining communities.

And that’s where his sympathies stayed – with the common man and woman of Scotland’s west coast. He had a magical talent for squeezing humour and humanity from the humdrum sadness and violent flashes of daily life. It’s something of a vanished world, no more real now than Chandler’s LA ever was. And yet there’s truth in spadefuls, laughs in bucketloads, and high art concealed as conversation.

And if that weren’t enough to make you jealous of McIlvanney as a prose stylist, he also had the one thing which men of maturity most admire in another man: great hair.

Born in Kilmarnock in 1936, passed away in Glasgow aged 79, it’s hard not to think that, by now, McIlvanney should be world famous. And he may be yet, when and if the world ever comes to its senses.