Unfortunately, for the umpteenth mysterious time, this blog exceeded its bandwidth in June. The June malfunction irked me particularly because it happened just one day before Scottish novelist Iain Banks died from the gall-bladder cancer that he’d been diagnosed with only two months earlier. This prevented me from posting a tribute to him – until now.
Banks became a big thing for me – and for many people like me – when he found success, fame and a certain notoriety with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. This was because he seemed to tick a lot of important boxes. Like me and the crowd I hung out with, he came from a Scottish background, so we were familiar with many of the places he wrote about. Like us, his politics were left-of-centre, with a leaning towards Scottish nationalism because independence seemed the best way to avoid being saddled with those right-wing Tory governments whom very few people in Scotland voted for. And like us, he was obviously into literature, but he was also into some strange, off-beat writers whom stuffy literary critics would dismiss as being too ‘genre’ for serious consideration – Mervyn Peake, Brian Aldiss, M. John Harrison, etcetera.
You could argue that Alasdair Gray had blazed the same trail a few years earlier with his 1980 novel Lanark, but there was one important difference. Gray had been a young man in the 1950s. Banks, like us, was clearly of the 1980s. (Like it or not – and we did not – Banks and us, his readers, were Maggie Thatcher’s children.)
The Wasp Factory made an immediate stir with its blackly funny plot about Frank Cauldhame, a maimed delinquent living in a remote part of Scotland, who amuses himself with the shamanistic killings of insects, seagulls, rabbits and young children. In quick succession Banks followed it with Walking on Glass, which showed the influence of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; The Bridge, a paean to both the Forth Rail Bridge and to Gray’s Lanark, with a healthy dose of the J.G. Ballard short story Concentration City mixed in; and in 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first of many epic outer-space novels about an interstellar anarcho-utopian society called the Culture. The Culture novels were attributed to Iain M. Banks, a move by his publisher to help fans of ‘serious’ mainstream fiction and fans of science fiction distinguish between what was what in his oeuvre. At the time, the speculative fiction magazine Interzone remarked that it was delighted to see Banks at last ‘come out of the closet’ as a sci-fi writer.
In August 1987 Banks was scheduled to appear on a discussion panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Around the same time I’d agreed to edit the latest edition of a small literary magazine called Alma Mater, published by some fellow-students at the University of Aberdeen’s English Literature Department. Dr Isobel Murray, who’d been my tutor at Aberdeen for the past year, was chairing the Book Festival panel and I used my connection with her to persuade Banks’s agent to let me interview him after the panel, for Alma Mater. (I later apologised to Dr Murray for so brazenly using her name as a calling card.)
The discussion panel, which I attended, produced its share of sparks. In addition to Banks and Murray, it featured the Glaswegian crime writer Frederic Lindsay, whose 1983 novel Brond had been recently made into a TV series, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring a very young John Hannah. (By a sad coincidence, Lindsay died this year just ten days before Banks did.) And the panel was completed by another Glaswegian, Ronald Frame, author of the recently-published novel Sandmouth People. It might be unfair to say that the tweedy Frame was a young fogey at the time, but he certainly gave the impression of being one. When somebody in the audience asked the authors about their views on self-censorship, he said pompously: “I would never include anything I might regret in five years’ time.”
Banks immediately spluttered, “But those are the best bits!”
Afterwards I met up with Banks and a couple of his friends and conducted the interview in a pub in Edinburgh’s Rose Street – I think it was either the Kenilworth or the Auld Hundred. Banks, who proved to be a gregarious and instantly-friendly Fife man, spoke into the mic of the clunky tape recorder I’d bought with me, transferring his voice onto a crackly cassette tape. (Like just about everything else I possess, that tape now resides inside a cardboard box somewhere in my Dad’s attic.)
I asked him about the hostile reception that The Wasp Factory had received in some quarters. (The Irish Times had described it as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’.) Banks had been surprised by this. He’d expected some flak from animal rights groups, but not from the critics. He’d learned that one reviewer who’d blasted the book as ‘the literary equivalent of a video nasty’ also worked in the Conservative Party office in London, which pleased him no end – offending that guy had been an honour.
I also asked him about his fondness for peppering his novels with references to the popular culture of the time. In The Bridge, for example, just before the car accident that sets the surreal plot in motion, the hero slots a copy of The Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash into his car stereo. Wouldn’t that make the books look a bit dated after a few years? “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’ll date them. But what the hell?” He believed that characters living in a particular time and particular place would be influenced by the current popular culture, so he didn’t see why he should shirk from mentioning whatever music, books, films and TV programmes were fashionable at the moment.
Then I quoted Brian Aldiss at him – Aldiss had famously said that all good science fiction hovers at the edge of being something different from science fiction. Banks agreed with that, sort of, but he also disagreed. Enthusiastically, he told me how Consider Phlebas came with all the trimmings of a traditional Isaac Asimov / Robert Heinlein space epic: giant spaceships, laser cannons, inter-planetary battles. He didn’t want it to be different from people’s normal perceptions of science fiction.
Did he, I asked finally, worry about being pigeon-holed — being pigeon-holed twice over, with one half of the world viewing him as a ‘Scottish’ author and the other half viewing him as a ‘sci-fi’ one? Not at all, he said. He was quite at ease with being regarded as Scottish. And being seen as a sci-fi author didn’t bother him either, since science fiction was an ‘old love’ for him.
From Rose Street, we moved on to Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar in Candlemaker Row, just behind the statue of the famous Edinburgh terrier who’d spent 14 years in the adjacent cemetery guarding the grave of his dead master. Poor wee Bobby, I remember musing, wouldn’t have lasted long if he’d been a character in The Wasp Factory. By then a good number of pints had been drunk and the conversation had descended somewhat from the lofty heights of literary discussion. I recall talking to Banks about Arthur Montford, the lugubrious Scottish TV football commentator famous for his eccentrically patterned sports jackets and for his catchphrases that included ‘What a stramash!’ and (uttered all too often) ‘Disaster for Scotland!’ At another point, somehow, we got onto the 1966 Hammer horror film Dracula Prince of Darkness.
The next issue of Alma Mater, containing my interview with Iain Banks, was published later that year. A series of cock-ups by the typesetter meant that it looked pretty ropey, though thankfully the pages featuring Banks were okay. The following year, I heard that Banks would be making an appearance at Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop in West Crosscauseway (now long-since vanished) and I went along to give him a copy of the magazine. To my surprise, he remembered me and enthused about the mini-pub crawl we’d done that day: “That was a good afternoon!”
(c) Brown, Little
After that I read several more Banks novels: Espedair Street, Canal Dreams, The Crow Road, Complicity. The Crow Road, his stab at writing a sprawling eccentric-family saga, is the book that everyone talks about, although I have to say that it’s not one of my favourites. Sure, it has one of the best opening lines in modern literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”), but as with most other sprawling sagas about eccentric families, I find it too contrived for its own good.
On the other hand, I think Espedair Street, which is about a hapless rock musician who’s found fame, fortune and much unhappiness and is now trying to live anonymously in a rough part of Glasgow, is marvellous. It’s certainly the warmest Iain Banks book I’ve read. If I had to identify my all-time favourite novel about rock ‘n’ roll, in fact, it’d be a toss-up between this and Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss.
And I like Complicity, which welds a serial-killer plot onto Banks’ immense distaste for the corruption and inequalities of the recently-ended Thatcher era. Much of it is set in Edinburgh, where scuzzy journalist-hero Cameron Colley boozes in a series of pubs ranging from the upmarket Café Royal on West Register Street to the desperate, late-opening Casbah in the Cowgate. By then I’d lived in Edinburgh and I knew Colley’s haunts well. I’d even had an experience similar to one he has in the Café Royal, when he stands in front of the bar’s gantry (which doesn’t contain a mirror although it looks as if it does) and in a drunken panic he believes himself to be a vampire.
(c) Brown, Little
After Complicity, however, I stopped reading Iain Banks, probably because by then there were just too many young Scottish writers competing for my attention: Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, James Robertson. (Banks’s success in the 1980s, of course, had helped pave the way for all these newcomers.) Looking at his bibliography, up to the posthumously-published The Quarry, I see there are some 20 books of his, including the entire Culture series, that I haven’t read yet.
I definitely have some catching-up to do when I get back to Scotland.