Edinburgh Book Festival Review – William McIlvanney

August 23, 2007

William McIlvanneyLooking not a day over fifty, 70-year old William McIlvanney arrives on stage to a tumultuous applause in the RBS Main Tent. Until last year’s publication of his latest novel, Weekend, it had been ten years since he last tread the boards in Charlotte Square. And now he was here, in one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Edinburgh Book festival in recent years.

McIlvanney was born into a close-knit mining family in 1936, in the Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock. He graduated in 1960 from Glasgow University and worked as an English teacher until 1975. He has published 16 novels, been a highly successful journalist, and is one of the most respected commentators on Scottish society in recent decades.

He has collected an impressive range of awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1966 for his first book, Remedy is None; the Scottish Arts Council Book Award twice (1968, 1975); the Whitbread Novel Award in 1975 for Docherty, the Saltire Society Book of the Year for The Kiln in 1996, and has twice won the Crime Writers’ Association MaCallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, in 1977 and 1983, for Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch respectively. He is also an acclaimed poet.

And it wasn’t long before McIlvanney’s special brand of humour was making its mark. Slightly humbled by the wondrous reception, he said it reminded him of an old Bob Hope film. Bob had disembarked a plane to a magnificent reception from the locals, who had a reputation for being somewhat sensitive. “My people!” he proclaimed with his hands held aloft. Then mutters to the pilot over his right shoulder, “Keep the engine running.”

McIlvanney brought with him some older works to read for the excited audience. “I’m fed up reading from Weekend,” he explains, in his distinctively deep Glaswegian accent. “It’s been out long enough now, so if you want to read it, buy a copy.”

On The Side Lines is the story of a man and woman going back to an Edinburgh flat to make love. The woman’s child is put to bed, and the Wendy House at the end of her bed ignored, as the process of the fumbling one-night stand gets under way in hilarious fashion. The drunken arrival of the woman’s ex-partner at the door, and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat into the nearby Wendy House, made for a wonderfully realistic and funny story.

McIlvanney insisted the story was relevant to Edinburgh because while doing a reading in a George Street bookshop many years ago, a man stood up and shouted: “See that thing about the Wendy House – has that happened to you, too?”

It turned out the story was about one of McIlvanney’s friends, and some years later he took his friend for a drink, owning up to him at having printed his friends secret in one of his books. Alasdair, the man the story was based on, is apparently still glorious with glee.

While McIlvanney has an obvious affection for Glasgow, he fondly recalls the few years he spent living in Edinburgh. “I love both cities,” he says. “This whole Edinburgh versus Glasgow thing, it’s just a fall out of old friends.”

He recalls the time he was drinking in Clark’s Bar on the north side of the city, when a man slid a piece of paper across the bar towards him. The note simply read: ’thanks for all your books.’ “That’s great,” said McIlvanney, in an enhanced emotional tone, switching back to Glaswegian as he followed up with: “How very Edinburgh!”

“Had the same incident happened in Glasgow, the punter would have been far more direct,” says McIlvanney, “and that’s what I love about the place; the in-yer-face mentality.” He continues: “Take that terrible incident at Glasgow airport. If one thing good came from it, it was that guy John Smeaton. That’s the directness I like, even in an awful situation like that.”

McIlvanney continued his readings, this time with a poem entitled, Women Die. He based it on “every human’s right to an understanding of our own life experience.”

This was followed up with a poem called Sadie, written when he was only 19 in the living room of the council house he grew up in. He goes further back in his memories when he tells us when he was 18, and was trying to write a working class novel. Then his father died, “and I was hurt into writing about his death.”

When he came to write his acclaimed novel, Laidlaw, his publisher told him of he was to write another few in a series for the next four years, he would become a very rich man. “But I didn’t want to,” says McIlvanney. “I had other things I wanted to do.” A member of he audience later asked if there was any chance of another Laidlaw novel being written, McIlvanney said: “I’m too old to write more Laidlaw. Never say never, but I wouldn’t put your mortgage on it.”

McIlvanney tells us of the way his approach to his life is as similar to his approach to writing. “I operate by impulse and compulsion,” he says categorically. “I still have lots of ideas, though they don’t always get finished.

“I’m going to start dropping names here, so forgive me.” He goes on. “Sean Connery called me up and asked if I would write something for the screen about Laidlaw. I had this great idea so I began writing it. But before you all get yourselves over excited, I never finished it. Connery’s still waiting.”

Laidlaw has proved to be McIlvanney’s most popular and most famous of works, and there is a sense of disappointment at his non-committal to write any more. One member of the audience relates the story to McIlvanney the story of when Alex Salmond, the current Scottish First Minister, went for a job interview at BBC Scotland.

As the story goes, the interviewer asked Salmond near the end of the meeting what kind of reading he enjoyed, to which Salmond replied, “McIlvanney’s Laidlaw”. The interviewer turned slightly grim and showed Salmond the door. The audience member asked McIlvanney what he thought that said about Alex Salmond, what it said about McIlvanney, and perhaps more importantly, what is said about the BBC. To which McIlvanney replied, “Well it shows us Alex Salmond is a true appreciator.” The audience erupted.

Perhaps the reason McIlvanney was looked upon so disapprovingly was, he recalls, “because I was lambasted for degenerating to detective fiction, after my previous novels.” The love-hate he enjoys with the BBC is highlighted when McIlvanney tells us his opinion of what the BBC HQ in Scotland was like in those days: “It was like a diseased building and everyone in it had Legionnaires of the mind.”

After his two year initiation to teaching, McIlvanney describes to us his sheer love of the industry, which persuaded him to stay in it for so long until the mid-70’a. “But then it all went sour. Nowadays we have refugees from teaching coming back in to try and run it with a ridiculous amount of red-tape.”

His attack on the teaching industry in Scotland goes deeper, too. “There has been a disgraceful disempowering of the teacher in this country. A teacher should have the authority to teach in the manner they wish. But these half-baked idiots are coming along and setting all the rules.

“The remit of a teacher has been confused by all the problems it can’t solve, and burdened by all the problems society should be looking at.”

And if that wasn’t a fitting enough end to an hour session that would linger long in our memories, McIlvanney left us with a tear-jerking poem dedicated to his father, written when he was 18. The applause at the end of it was as much for McIlvanney’s talent with words, as it was to the appreciation of him just coming along.

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~ Colin Galbraith ~



  1. […] gig, cleaned the rabbits out, and generally got ready and sorted for tomorrow. I finished up the William McIlvanney review from Sunday.. The bulb blew on my aquarium, I’ve ran out of hay for the rabbits, and I couldn’t find any […]

  2. […] William McIlvanney (Aug 19th) […]

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  4. I have recently discovered William McIlvanney and am gobbling up his books one by one. Today I read “Weekend” in one sitting!

  5. Makes me very proud to be his 2nd cousin. I now live in Australia and would love to contact him personally if that is possible. Could you let him know I am Johnny’s daughter.

    Kind Regards,
    Audrey McIlvanney.

  6. Long Time 45 years

    Remembered-walk up from the Academy

    Recommended “Swann’s Way”

    Always read you as well


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