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In Loving Memory
IN THE COMPANY OF GREATNESS: Author and Highland Times columnist Tony Black enjoys a laugh with fellow Ayrshire author, William McIlvanney, who died on Saturday after a short illness.
Writer Tony Black recounts the times he spent with the late William McIlvanney.
Everyone has their favourite William McIlvanney story, but only the luckiest have their own tales to tell about meeting the great man.
I have plenty, not because I was around him that much — I met him when he was already in what we sadly now know was his final decade — but because every encounter with Willie was a keeper.
"It was like meeting a statue that had come to life," a friend summed up after I had introduced them. Another, showing signs of the adulation Willie inspired, stole the wine glass he was drinking from when he left the table. He had that sort of impact on people, they never quite knew whether to shake his hand or bow.
He was McIlvanney, the lionised golden boy of Scottish letters, but Willie was never starry with it. Compliments were accepted graciously, especially the deeply felt ones, because that was a living return on his words. I saw people stop him in the street, offer a hand and their gratitude for the books. Willie loved these "street reviews" as he called them, a heartfelt response to his work mattered. I once told him, after reading a scene from a novel of his, that I sensed it had actually happened, wasn't a fictional creation. "That's because it did," he told me; he appreciated the appreciation.
My first introduction to Willie came from director Pete Martin, who was making a video for the Glasgow singer James Grant. Willie and I were recruited to play the roles of father and son for the music video of His Father's Coat. My first sighting of him was in the Barras market, surrounded by gallus Glaswegians, all dispensing street reviews. The woman on the stall beside me tapped my arm, "Who's that they're fussing over?" When I told her, she seemed disappointed. "Och, I thought he was a movie star."
That was always happening with Willie; even in his seventies the matinee-idol good looks were intact. He was latterly known as the Godfather of Tartan Noir in the media but in writers' circles he was thought of more like the Clark Gable of crime fiction. A suave, dapper gentleman, with the emphasis on gentle.
When Willie first met my wife he was stirred to hear her father had, like himself, come from good Ayrshire mining stock. He extracted her family history and most of her life story that night, leaving her with an admonition to "be good to that husband of yours, but not too good". Next time they met Cheryl was pregnant and he reacted with, "I see you didnae take my advice, you've been too good to him!"
He laughed a lot, liked to talk, but liked to listen more. When I returned from a stint in Australia and was still debating where to settle he suggested returning home to Ayrshire might be "good for the writing". His advice may only have been a contributing factor to my move back to Ayr but it was certainly a valuable insight that I later exploited in my own work.
He was always generous, with his time and patience, the wisdom that he wore lightly. I recall wrangles when he demanded to pay for our drinks, or pick up a hefty bill at Rogano in Glasgow. At the Bloody Scotland writing festival one year I tried to stop him shoving a £20 note in our baby's pram. I didn't succeed. That was just Willie — he also signed a book of his I held out, ”For Cheryl, great news about Conner (our new son)." He knew just the right words to make you cast the rarest smile.
I don't recall a sore, or even a stinging word. Others do, some have in excoriating detail. I only remember arms-wide greetings and farewells. Once, after a guid bucket and lengthy send off on Edinburgh's Lothian Road, there was even an approving kiss or two planted on my head. Willie only ever let me see the best of him — I'm sure he sensed anything else might irretrievably wound his sensitive idolator.
These days, most writers rail against playing the dancing-bear on the promotional circuit. Festivals and book signings are a distraction from the page, but Willie — perhaps more in demand than any other Scottish writer towards the end — enjoyed this aspect of the job. He loved meeting the "anonymous people in anonymous rooms" who read his work and the love was always reciprocated. At every literary event he attended someone from his past would present themselves. Once, he told an anecdote about a landlady he'd had as a struggling author many years previously and immediately an excited hand shot up from the very landlady, who added her own memories to the story. Everyone, it seemed, cherished their encounters with Willie and could loyally recount them, even decades later. I will always remember one particular Edinburgh Book Festival appearance that I struggled to exit, not because my event was so popular, but because I'd pointed out Willie was in the audience and he was waylaid at the door by admirers. His books were out of print then, but he joked about "signing napkins if necessary”. He eventually caught up with me in the pub over the road, long after my own book signing had sputtered out.
By every account Willie was as fine a teacher as he was a writer and he was highly thought of in Ayrshire by those he taught. I know at least one librarian whom he influenced greatly and I once overheard a woman boasting in a supermarket queue that she'd been a pupil of his. Willie himself told me about a former pupil who turned out to be an actor, playing Liam Neeson's bare-knuckle opponent in The Big Man. On the set, the pupil-turned-pugilist presented himself to Willie, recounting, "You were a great teacher ... We were all scared of you, mind." This amused Willie, who answered the hefty pug with, "That's funny because I was bloody terrified of you!"
He was able to laugh at absurdities, and liked to hear about the friend of mine who had gone to look for a 'how to stop smoking' book on my shelves and, misinterpreting the title, came away with Willie's poetry collection, In Through the Head. He laughed hard at that.
In recent times, he'd been busier than when I first met him. The reprinting of his backlist brought a renewed, and much-deserved success. It was always a wonderful surprise then to see him show up with Siobhan at a book launch of mine. To find he'd read the book too created an even more surreal form of pride. By this stage Willie must have been receiving new books by the dozens, daily — the trade inundates name writers this way — yet I know he always took a new book when it was offered by an author hoping for a cover blurb; many big-name writers flatly refuse.
As I round off this piece, a photographer friend emails me to say he was saddened after hearing the news about Willie. I'd taken Ian Atkinson along to Rogano once to help illustrate a newspaper interview I was doing about the recent re-launch of Willie's crime fiction. We'd touched on what Willie termed "reality starvation" in cosier detective works and his remark "murder at the vicarage, gis a brek" still makes me chuckle today. It's Ian's reflection on that one afternoon he spent with Willie, however, that sums up much of what all those he encountered felt: "He was a lovely man, nae nonsense. I'm grateful to have met him."
The writing — a world-class output that all of Scotland can take the greatest pride in — will speak for itself down the years. The panegyrics are universal. It's the personal memories of William McIlvanney that will sustain all those who knew and loved him from here on. In life, as in print, Willie simply didn't do reality starvation.
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