THE KEEPER OF SCOTLAND'S SOUL

FLETCHER OF SALTOUN AWARD 

One of the things you could call our guest of honour today is a crime writer; but that would tell but a small portion of the tale.

It’s true, that in Jack Laidlaw, he created an iconic detective, a complex, largely self educated man who changed the course of crime fiction and emboldened a generation of subsequent writers in that genre to reach above and beyond previous stereotypes.

It’s no accident that the re-published editions of the Laidlaw trilogy are garlanded on their covers with praise from Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid.

Jack Laidlaw, like his creator, is a man rounded and shaped  by learning, but suspicious of the formulaic, pre-packaged nature of the academic variety.

“University failed me,” says Jack. “I took acres of juvenile ignorance up that to that place. And they started to pour preconceptions all over it.  Like 40 tons of cement. No thanks.  I got out before it hardened.”

Willie however stuck “the yooni” rather longer than the 12 months Laidlaw  felt able to manage, and, armed with his degree, became an English teacher. 

An inspirational English teacher, who still today has former students approach him to say how they connected with the enthusiasms of the young McIlvanney.

As Willie tells it, teaching was to be a two year diversion whilst he wrote the great novel which would have the world beating a path to his doorstep. But the world, he noted later, seemed to have carelessly mislaid his address.

Instead he spent some 17 years spreading the news about the joys to be harvested from  a love affair with words; with writing and reading and assembling their shape and form and trying them on for size  in your mind before committing to anything as serious as paper.

Sadly all this classroom success ended in tragedy.  He got promoted. And promoted again. Until he became deputy headie and knew he had to leave before they found out that sorting so much as a bus party was well beyond his organisation skills.

And, played no part in his ambitions either.

He was saved by a telegram from his agent: “Masterpiece accepted” it said, though it was delivered not to Willie, who was at work at the time, but to the downstairs neighbour Chrissie, who popped it through his letter box. An ecstatic Willie dashed downstairs later to hug and kiss her.  I daresay Chrissie, spinster of that parish, was quite ecstatic too.

Willie McIlvanney, who writes in longhand pen because his quills supplier  went out of business,  advance edits his prose, giving his publisher’s editors freedom to comment or query, but not, not ever, to mess with his prose.

Do not for a moment be fooled by the presence of a shiny new McIlvanney website.  It was constructed on his behalf by his nephew Neil;  and his own contributions are scanned  from his  handwritten archive and pasted in.

Let us return for a moment to one of Glasgow’s more idiosyncratic detectives.  A streetwalking man who knows the city doesn’t give up its secrets to officers racing past the clues the pavements might have offered in police vehicles with go faster livery. 

Like his creator, Jack Laidlaw  is not averse to letting the water of life  lubricate the creative process when the occasion demands.

Like his creator he knows that the world is not inhabited by good people and bad people, but rather by those whose ability to deal with the human condition is helped or hindered by the circumstances in which birth finds them.

Willie McIlvanney’s heroes then are not men, or,  somewhat too occasionally women, in white Stetsons riding to the rescue of lesser mortals, but rather those who bring their intellect and humanity to bear on the problems, anxieties, complexities, and challenges which confront us all.

Watching the colourful cast list which inhabited his family home in Kilmarnock he determined  to give a voice to people who lacked the opportunity and sometimes the articulacy to speak for themselves.

People whose struggles with poverty and lack of opportunity rarely troubled the radar screens of those who employed them.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Docherty, in whose working class life and times, and in the choices made by his sons, were such rich echoes of Willie’s own boyhood experiences in Ayrshire.

As he later said of one of his own favourite works:

 “I wanted to divest heroism of its incidental historical robes and put it on the street.

It wouldn’t be the impressiveness of the experience that made people heroic but the impressiveness of how they confronted it.

I would try to express heroism through working-class life.

If my belief was that heroism could be found anywhere, not just in arched chambers and among dissolving dynasties, I would locate it in the most unlikely place.

I brought it into the family. In time, I thought it settled in quite well.”

Like his later protagonist, Dan Scoular in The Big Man, the heroism was played out in a minor key, but one which would strike a chord in the lives of people everywhere who strive to let decency trump despair.  Another arresting example of his talent in making the ordinary vividly extraordinary.

As the novelist Frederick Raphael noted: his novels were “full of the joy in writing, and alert to the anguish of life”

That comment from another master wordsmith was one of two cuttings Willie kept carefully folded in his wallet for a while, the other, equally flattering, coming from the critics’ critic Irving Wardle who thought those who peopled McIlvanney’s novels were “characters so strong, you feel you might not put up much of a show in their company.”

Words of praise from these luminaries, says Willie,

served as iron rations when self confidence became too much of a stranger.

There are recurrent themes in McIlvanney’s writing, the aspiration for a communitarian society against capitalist odds, the difficulty of maintaining personal morality in a world where the road to hell is paved with good but regularly frustrated intentions.

And recurrent dynasties too…The Kiln brings us Tom Docherty, grandson of Tam, wrestling with familiar issues within a habitat his forebears would have thought profoundly unfamiliar.

But the thread that weaves through all the work is an immeasurable respect for words; Scots words, English words,  words always chosen and deployed with infinite care and thought.

Wordsworth’s assertion that the child is the father of the man certainly applies to a young Kilmarnock lad who sat at the kitchen table translating Latin verse, not because he had to at that particular moment, but because it brought him pleasure.

It’s heartening to know that a new generation will now find the same pleasure through his own writings thanks to the vision of Canongate in re-publishing all his work and on both sides of the Atlantic.

What Manhattan will make of Jack Laidlaw we have yet to find out, but if we can cope with Philip Marlowe they can surely handle Glasgow’s finest.

And I’ve a notion Dan Scoular and Tam Docherty will resonate  loudly with Americans untangling  the perennial conundrum of family survival with personal honour.

For good writing finds a universal audience. Especially when exported beyond the myopic  preoccupations of London’s literary set.

Fletcher of Saltoun was perhaps not best known as a philosopher. But he gave the world one mantra by which I suspect Willie McIlvanney has, consciously or unconsciously, lived his life.

“If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”.

Willie, for all the ballads, the prose and poetry, the journalism and, most especially the  integrity, a heartfelt thanks from all your many admirers.

We envy the generation who will read you for the first time.