William McIlvanney, 1936 – 2015

I was saddened to hear of the passing of William McIlvanney.

Mr McIlvanney had a very expressive face.  I thought of his face as that of a man who had lived, and, perhaps, suffered, much, but who always retained his sense of humanity.

When I read Laidlaw, the first in the Laidlaw trilogy, I recognised instantly the world in which Laidlaw moved; I recognised its authenticity.  I understood the geography of Laidlaw’s world.  This was because my Dad was also a Glasgow cop.  And he spent the greater part of his career working out of Police Headquarters as it then was, by St Andrews Square on the edge of the east end.  This is ancient Glasgow, the Glasgow of the Toll Booth and the Cathedral and Provands Lordship and the Necropolis and Glasgow Green.  It’s on the edge of one of the most deprived and disadvantaged precincts in Europe.

Mr McIlvanney captured the atmosphere of this environment perfectly.  The atmosphere of the gangster underworld is faithfully recorded in a Glasgow accent.  It’s full of dark humour.  And also, surprisingly, compassion.

When I was a child, struggling to wrestle the best of three falls with words, it would never have occurred to me to write about Glasgow.  On the contrary, I wanted to escape from Glasgow and fly to the Caribbean and dine off oeufs en cocotte with a sophisticated mademoiselle and bla bla bla.   It never occurred to me that I was living right in the middle of one of the craziest, most bizarre, exotic places on earth.  That much did occur to me, in a slow witted way, later on.  This is what happens when you stop thinking of writing as escapism and start thinking of it as therapy.

Let me tell you about something I once witnessed from that ancient tract of land bordered by Saltmarket, Gallowgate, Glasgow Green, and the Clyde.  I had gone to Glasgow Police HQ to meet my father for lunch.  It was July 15th, 1969.  I’d often come here for lunch, and enjoyed the joshing and ribaldry of my father’s colleagues, the policemen and the typists and the dinner ladies.  But today was different.  The place was buzzing.  Two policemen had gone out on a routine enquiry to a flat in the city’s west end, to interview a man from Rochdale named James Griffiths about his connections with an alleged Glasgow criminal.  Mr Griffiths himself had a troubled background and had in fact spent 17 of the last 25 years of his life in various corrective institutions.  He opened fire on the police, then started firing at passers-by from an attic window.  He then escaped the flat, hijacked a car, and went on a shooting spree across North Glasgow.  He crashed the car in Possil.  He went into a public house, had a drink, and shot and fatally wounded another customer.  Unbelievably – and this part of the tale is quintessentially Glasgow – the barman said to him, “Why did you do that? He was just an old man!”  And he grabbed Griffiths by the scruff of the neck and chucked him out of the pub.  Griffiths hijacked another vehicle, drove into Springburn, broke into a flat and carried on with his shooting spree.

Meanwhile I carried on with my tomato soup, mince and potatoes, and Eve’s pudding and custard.  Half way through, a friend of my father’s came in briefly and joined us.  He was carrying a rifle and pouring with sweat.  We got an update.  Mr Griffiths was cornered.  There was a stake out.  Another friend of my father’s shot Mr Griffiths through the letter box.  By that time Mr Griffiths had shot thirteen people.

Looking back on it, I’m amazed at what little effect it had on me, a big mass shooting of the sort that now makes international headlines and calls from the US president to reform gun laws etc etc.  I just wolfed down my Eve’s pudding.  You sometimes see pictures of kids in trouble spots where life is disrupted by war, famine, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism.  There’s no security; it’s hell on earth.  What do the kids do?  They play a game of football.

Now, I can hardly bear to read the newspapers.  We are at war.  It’s nothing new; the war has merely been extended.  People are desperately trying to migrate out of zones of chaos.  Sea levels are rising.  Storm Desmond is wreaking havoc in Cumbria and the temperatures for December are preternaturally warm.   Mr Obama is wringing his hands about the latest atrocity in California.  But he has been rendered powerless by the Senate.

I wonder about the position of the Church with respect to Syria.  What is the position of the Lords Spiritual?  How do they interpret the words of Our Lord – love thine enemies, do good to those who hate you?  What makes William McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw unusual, and something of a maverick, is his ability to solve a crime, and apprehend a murderer, by understanding the humanity of the murderer.  He gets his man.  Then he visits him in his cell and offers him a cup of tea.


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