The big Gray man

 

© Canongate

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.

 

To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

© Canongate

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.

 

One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.

 

From austinkleon.com  

 

F*ckety-bye

 

From qz.com

 

When I was in the United Kingdom for a few weeks earlier this year, and got chatting about politics with friends, family-members and acquaintances, I’d hear a common sentiment: “Well, I don’t like Theresa May.  But I do feel sorry for her.”

 

The reasoning behind this sentiment was that Theresa May, who yesterday announced her impending resignation as British Prime Minister, deserved sympathy for her doggedness in carrying on despite overwhelmingly adverse circumstances.  Indeed, having lost her House of Commons majority after an epically misjudged general election campaign in 2017, and having had her attempts to pass a Brexit Bill in the Commons thwarted again and again, she’d become the political equivalent of Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).  By that point, you may remember, Pacino’s Tony Montana character was massively bloodied and bullet-ridden, his body apparently having absorbed more ammunition than was fired in the whole of World War II.  Yet he kept stumbling on and kept blasting away at his enemies with an auto-converted AR-15-cum-M203 grenade launcher, which he referred to with the memorable line, “Say hello to my little friend!”

 

The difference being that May, although similarly (metaphorically) bloodied and bullet-ridden while she stumbled on, didn’t have any friends.  Not even little ones, to say hello to.

 

Well, count me out of that sentiment.  I do not feel sorry for Theresa May.  When she delivered her resignation speech outside Number 10 Downing Street yesterday and teared up at the end of it, I felt not one shred of pity.  In fact, you could examine my soul at a sub-atomic level and you still wouldn’t find anything approaching sympathy for the person who spent six years as Britain’s Home Secretary followed by another three, monumentally hapless ones as its Prime Minister.

 

Let’s look at May’s record.  She ascended to the role of Home Secretary with the advent of David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 and presided over the notorious ‘hostile environment’ policy, which was meant to make living in the UK as difficult as possible for people deemed to be undesirable foreigners and so bolster David Cameron’s image among right-wingers.  May herself announced that the intention was to “create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”  The reality was that she helped engineer such horrors as the Windrush scandal, where West Indian immigrants who’d spent their entire lives in Britain were deported in their old age for not having the right documentation – documentation that during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s they’d been told they didn’t need.

 

Also on the charge sheet against Home Secretary May are the rapes that were allegedly committed at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire – seemingly, the allegations were hushed up to avoid damaging the business interests of Serco, the company that took over the centre’s running in 2014, under May’s watch.  Plus the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back to repressive regimes where they were likely to be persecuted for their sexual orientation.  You can read Stonewall’s report on this nasty affair here.

 

May’s tenure at the Home Office was summed up by the Orwellian ‘go home’ vans that in 2013 her department sent out to patrol the streets of London, emblazoned with the threat: “In the UK illegally?  Go home or face arrest.”  Even right-wing rabble-rouser Nigel Farage said he found the things ‘unpleasant’.

 

2016 saw the referendum about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union and the surprise – if narrow – vote to leave it.  David Cameron promptly resigned and May became Prime Minister because her competitors for the position, like Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, were so rubbish that they made her look like the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’.  With hindsight, you appreciate how utterly rubbish those competitors must have been.  May had campaigned, quietly, for a remain vote during the referendum campaign but once installed as PM she threw her principles, and the 48% of the electorate who’d voted to remain, under the bus and became a full-blooded Brexiteer.  For a little while, she was the darling of Britain’s gung-ho right-wing press and the xenophobic nutters in her party who believed that Brexit would somehow turn Britain back into the imperial superpower it’d been in the 19th century.

 

In January 2017, when she announced that Britain would quit the single market, renegotiate the customs union and leave the European court of justice, the Daily Mail bore the front-page headline ‘STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY’ while crowing above it, “We will walk away from a bad deal and make EU pay.”  How long ago that seems now.  And on March 29th, 2017, she activated Article 50, giving the EU notice that Britain would be leaving in two years’ time.  Again, the Brexiteers roared with approval, but the idea that Britain could conclude negotiations with the EU and leave the organisation in so short a time with a deal that didn’t entail economic disaster was jaw-droppingly stupid.

 

© Daily Mail

 

The peak of the nauseating, Little Englander parochialism that accompanied the honeymoon part of Prime Minister May’s reign came during 2016’s Conservative Party conference.  This was when she declared, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  To which I – someone who’s spent a good part of his life living overseas and working in a variety of Asian, African and European cultures, and is proud of the fact – responded by thinking, “F**k right off.”

 

Meanwhile, with Brexit consuming her energies and her not-substantial intellect, it was business as usual on the domestic front.  The austerity programme inaugurated by David Cameron and his little helpers in the Liberal Democrats continued, with brutal measures imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions taking a hideous toll on the weak, disadvantaged, vulnerable and disabled.  It’s no surprise that the United Nations has just published a damning and shameful report about the millions of folk currently living in poverty in Britain.

 

June 2017 saw May holding a general election on the assumption that she’d win a massive majority in the House of Commons and so would be able to implement her version of Brexit with ease.  “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS!” thundered the Daily Mail on cue.  But she fought the election campaign with such astonishing ineptness that her party ended up losing the slim majority it already had.  To maintain control, she had to do a deal with the sectarian, homophobic, science-denying and generally medieval Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland – a deal the DUP sewed up by insisting May threw a billion-pound bung at them.  All of a sudden, everybody, including the Daily Mail, had stopped calling her the ‘new Iron Lady’.

 

After that, with her authority in tatters, and with realisation sinking in that leaving the EU without a deal would wreak terrible damage on the British economy, May shuttled back and forth between London and an increasingly bemused and contemptuous Brussels whilst trying to get some sort of compromise deal passed by the House of Commons.  Predictably, her efforts were shot down again and again by the remain-favouring politicians whom she’d pissed off with her original uncompromising pro-Brexit stance and by the leave-favouring politicians who’d been stoked up by her original rhetoric but now saw her as a sell-out.  Anyone with an ounce of intuition would have avoided getting themselves into this predicament in the first place.

 

Theresa May is the author of her own downfall, but should she be considered a bad person?  Her lack of imagination and empathy with her fellow human beings is legendary – see her visit to the aftermath of the Grenfell fire disaster in 2017, where she determinedly avoided meeting survivors who’d lost their loved ones, homes and possessions.  It puts me in mind of a quote from the 2007 novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale by the late, great Iain Banks.  At one point, the novel’s narrator muses on the connection between being right wing and not having an imagination: “We got talking about how some people were selfish and some weren’t, and the difference between right-wing people and left-wing people.  You said it all came down to imagination.  Conservative people don’t usually have very much, so they find it hard to imagine what life is like for people who aren’t just like them.  They can only empathise with people just like they are: the same sex, the same age, the same class, the same golf club or nation or race or whatever.  Liberals can pretty much empathise with anybody else, no matter how different they are.  It’s all to do with imagination, empathy and imagination are almost the same thing, and it’s why artists, creative people, are almost all liberals, left-leaning.

 

So yes, I think May’s disdain for immigrants, asylum seekers, struggling DWP claimants, remain voters and people like me who consider themselves ‘citizens of the world’ is due to her chronic lack of imagination and, consequentially, her lack of empathy.  But there’s also a famous saying attributed to Socrates: “to do is to be”.   She did a lot of bad things as Home Secretary and Prime Minister that define her as a person and, as a result, I regard her as being bad.  So no, I didn’t sympathise when she lost her composure during her resignation announcement yesterday.

 

Still, though May was a shit Prime Minister, there is the unhappy likelihood that her successor as Prime Minister will be even more shit.

 

I was tempted to finish here by featuring a picture of Boris Johnson doing something stupid.  But that joke isn’t funny anymore.  So here’s a picture of Tony Montana from Scarface instead.  Even he’d be better as Prime Minister than the idiotic and conniving Johnson.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Goodbye to Banksy

 

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.)

 

 (c) Abacus

 

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.

 

(c) Abacus

 

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, ComplicityThe 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.