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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Buddhaland Brooklyn


I now believe enlightenment is a simple state: it is the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy. – Richard Morais, Buddhaland Brooklyn

Alan Spence’s Night Boat, which I reviewed a few weeks back, is a fictional book about Buddhism. Buddhaland Brooklyn is a book about fictionalised Buddhism. In the acknowledgements the author admits:

The writing between these two covers is purely an act of imagination and should in no way be taken as a doctrinal explanation of Buddhism. The Headwater Sect is invented, and while some readers knowledgeable of Buddhism might spot some similarities with Nichiren Shōshū … please know these similarities are superficial and meaningless.

So this is not a serious novel about religion but it still manages to say a few thoughtful things about family and culture albeit in its own light-hearted way. On the surface Buddhaland Brooklyn couldn’t be more different to Richard Morais’s first novel The Hundred Foot Journey (which I reviewed here) but actually they’re more similar than you might first imagine. In The Hundred Foot Journey an Indian boy winds up in France where he finds himself through the local cuisine. In Buddhaland Brooklyn a Japanese monk gets sent to New York where the locals help him reassess his beliefs. Both are novels of self-discovery and transformation.

In my review of The Hundred Foot Journey I wrote:

At the end of the day I’m not sure about this novel. I suspect that Morais’s ambitions for the book have been just beyond his reach but all credit to him for not simply writing a jolly book about food. The New York Times reviewer Ligaya Mishan called the book, with her tongue a little in her cheek I hope, “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille,” adding, “The novel’s charm lies in its improbability.” I think that’s a bit harsh but I can see where she’s coming from.

You could say much the same about Buddhaland Brooklyn. At its core we have an innocent thrown into a melting pot, stirred and left to simmer for a few months. The priest is an innocent alien and by that I don’t mean he’s an extra-terrestrial; I mean ‘alien’ as in ‘illegal alien’ only in his case his papers are all in order but he might as well be from outer space because New York is so different from the world he’s used to. That said, even in the Buddhist monastery he was the quiet one more interested in art and poetry than people. His inability and lack of desire to understand his peers prevented him from thriving. The other monks found him unapproachable, a man set in his ways. He even scurried along the paths behind the buildings in order to avoid running into any pilgrims, whom he viewed as inferior in their practices. Out of the blue, however, he’s ordered to get on a plane and take charge of the construction of an American temple. The job comes with a promotion—he’ll now be chief priest—but Seido Oda is the least ambitious man you can imagine; nothing about the job appeals to him. He acquiesces, reluctantly—on the condition that he’s replaced by a more suitable candidate as soon as practicable—and obediently heads off to the New World. Nothing could’ve prepared this quiet and unassuming man for what he encounters next:

After the long stillness of my life at the Temple of Everlasting Prayer, Brooklyn appeared through the haze of my jet lag as a singularly belligerent attack on my central nervous system.

“[Q]uiet and unassuming” is exactly how I describe Hassan in The Hundred Foot Journey by the way.)

We’ve seen it all before. He’s the country mouse , the naïve newcomer, the fish out of water. As TV Tropes puts it:

A character is placed in a situation completely unfamiliar to them. Humour and/or tension is created as the character adapts—or doesn't.

Buddhism for Dummies bookHe’s probably more like Chance from Jerzy Kosinski's Being There than Mork if I’m being honest. At least at first. His parishioners—not sure if Buddhists have parishes—include some very wealthy people who (and this is not entirely their fault) have some very … let’s just go with American … ideas about what Buddhism is all about. Up until Oda’s arrival they’ve been happy to refer Buddhism for Dummies, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedia of Religion for guidance:

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar…”

“Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.”

Oda manages to keep his aghastness to himself. Just.

If I had to hear one more time from the Americans that “Buddhism is not really a religion but a philosophy”, I believe my samurai ancestors would have risen up from the dead and run them through with the point of a katana sword. The Americans seemed to believe … that praying for material benefits and receiving them somehow proved that our religion “worked”. Some did not address me respectfully as Reverend Oda but slapped me on the back and called me “Seido” or “Rev” or “Reverend O”, and I had no idea how I should respond to this inappropriate informality, for I had never experienced anything quite like this before.

He institutes a few immediate and sweeping changes—for one, the removal of all chairs during study-lectures (“We do not modify the formal practice of the Eternal Teaching simply because Americans are fat.”)—which his believers find hard to swallow but since most of them are actually sincere they go along with him. For a while.

The problem is Oda’s natural reserve stops him connecting with his flock (again another Christian expression—sorry); he goes about his duties … dutifully—attending meetings, praying, lecturing—but he never opens up to anyone. We, the readers, only know what we know about his past because Morais devotes the first few chapters to his backstory which is interesting but the book only really starts on page 81 when he steps off the plane at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and it might’ve been better to jump straight there and dribble in details about his past as flashbacks. It might’ve been better if we got to meet him and judge him solely on his behaviour. Morais did the same with The Hundred Foot Journey, spent longer than I would’ve liked in India. But maybe that’s just me, in a rush to get where I’m going and not terribly interested in the journey.

There are other similarities between the protagonists in both books. I said of Hussain:

He starts off with nothing, next to nothing anyway, and ends up a success. I’m really not giving anything away by letting you know that things work out well for the young man. But he’s not a particularly interesting young man out of the kitchen. Kitchen work involves notoriously long hours and so Hassan doesn’t have much time to do anything bar hone his skills.

Oda starts off with next to nothing, spends thirty years honing his skills—most of that time, thankfully, we skip over—and he ends up enlightened (I’m being slightly facetious here) thanks to his involvement with the American Buddhists. He’s really 100 foot journeynot a very interesting person. The only thing of consequence that happens to him is as a young boy when his parents are killed in a fire that his depressive father may or may not have started deliberately. So, although he doesn’t really realise it, part of his quest is for family and that’s what he finds in America. You can choose your friends but not your family, so the saying goes. I guess that truism applies to spiritual families too.

When I talked about Hussain in The Hundred Foot Journey I remarked that he was not unlike Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The same is true here. The supporting cast are what save both books. The Americans are pretty much what you would expect, loud, opinionated, status conscious but friendly too. The girl who meets him off the plane, for example:

The woman waiting for me in the crowd was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. She was in her late thirties, I guessed, with frost-tipped hair that stood up spikey and ragged. This could not possibly be my official greeting party, I thought, for her attire was entirely inappropriate for formally welcoming a Priest.


I bowed. The look of relief on the woman’s face was great, and she pushed her way through the crowd in my direction. I panicked, not sure if I should bow in a Japanese greeting or shake hands Western-style. The woman did neither. She threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly to her bosom.

I stood stiff as a winter cherry tree holding out frozen limbs, as the woman grappled me like a sumo wrestler. It took what seemed like an eternity before she was satisfied I was of flesh and bone…

And they’re all like that, larger than life, some more eccentric than others. And yet they are—for Americans—very, very patient with their new priest but not endlessly so. After several months one of Believers interrupts Oda who’s in the process of delivering one of his dry lectures expounding some technical feature of the priesthood:

“What’s enlightenment? No one ever tells me.”

So he stops what he’s doing and over the course of the next page instructs her. Her response?

“Reverend Oda,” said Mrs Symes, rummaging in her purse for chewing gum. “I can’t follow a word you’re saying. It’s like you’re talking Swahili.”

Eventually it all comes to a head. Jennifer, the woman who met him from the plane and who had been assigned to be his assistant but who eventually became his lover (apparently in this sect such things are not disallowed) addresses the problem head on:

“Who are you? Look, I know you have a real understanding of Buddhism and the world we live in, knowledge I am sure you are just dying to share with us. But the fact is you’re just not good at communicating your understanding of Buddhism. It’s not just the language barrier. Everything you say and do gives the impression you’re secretly sneering at us, like you think Americans are not really smart enough to understand Buddhism, that only the Japanese are sensitive enough to really get the subtle depths of this faith. It’s really incredibly insulting. And, when you think about it, actually slanders the teachings. It makes a mockery of the whole premise that we all have the Buddha nature.”

You tell him girl! The student has become the master. If only for a few minutes. Could it be that his mother’s contempt for Americans following the Second World War has affected him more than he might have imagined? Of course it all works out in the end but not before Oda learns a few more life lessons from these seemingly uncouth souls. It’s an old story. But it’s one that still needs to be told as long as people look down their noses at others. Oda is a flawed man. Literature is full of flawed men. We like flawed men. We like them to succeed despite their flaws. We like them to overcome their flaws, to turn them to their advantage if possible. And that’s what happens here. It’s not exactly a Hallmark moment but I’m sure if they bought the rights to the book they could turn it into one; all the building blocks are there.

If you’re keen to read a novel about Buddhism then go for Night Boat. If you want a light read with a spiritual edge then Buddhaland Brooklyn is a fine way to distract you during a long flight.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


richard_c_moraisAn American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland, Richard Morais has lived most of his life overseas, returning to the States in late 2003. He was stationed in London for 17 years as Forbes’ European Correspondent (1986 to 1989), Senior European Correspondent (1991 to 1998), and European Bureau Chief (1998 to 2003.) He wrote numerous cover stories for Forbes, from billionaire profiles to corporate dissections, but he was best known for unusual business stories on everything from the hashish entrepreneurs of Holland, to the ship breakers of India, to the human organ traders of China. Morais has won six nominations and three awards from the London-based Business Journalist of the Year Awards, the industry standard for international business coverage.

Morais started his career in New York as a news intern for the PBS TV program, The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, and eventually rose to selling freelance film features to The New York Times. While he was in the UK, he appeared regularly on Sky News, BBC News, ITV News, and various radio stations, including the influential Today show on the BBC’s Radio 4. In the United States, his work has led to an editorial credit on 60 Minutes, plus appearances on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, ABC, CNN, and various NPR radio stations.

Morais is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Why I write (after Orwell)


george-orwellThe summer 1946 edition of the short-lived magazine Gangrel included an essay by George Orwell entitled, ‘Why I Write’. It opens with the following short sentence:

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.

I never did. Apart from a single poem—a macabre thing written in Scots about, of all things, a public hanging—I never wrote anything that wasn’t part of my schoolwork. If given a topic I would hand in an essay or a story or a poem, I suppose. I don’t actually recall ever being asked to write a poem but I also can’t imagine going through Primary School without ever doing so, so let’s just assume that I did. The first thing I wanted to be—this would be about the age of seven—was a mathematician; I remember being asked—the class I was in was in one of the huts that had been constructed in the playground—and I also recall Brian S. at the back of the class saying he wanted to be a giant when he grew up. I’ve no idea what anyone else said they wanted to be or whether any of them got to be what they wanted to be although I’m fairly certain Brian never got to be a giant. I’ve always been good at maths, always in the top maths class and always in the top percentile of that class but I never became a mathematician. That said all that algebra certainly came in handy when I started programming which I also loved and was good at.

He continues:

Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

By the time I was seventeen—and by this time I’d left school and already quit my first job (I’d wanted to be a draughtsman and although I was top of my year I didn’t cope well in the workplace; I realised very quickly that that wasn’t the job for me)—and I was wondering what exactly I was going to do with my life. The idea of trying anything that involved anything more than Basic English—for example, journalism—never occurred to me. A family friend pointed me towards a vacancy in the Civil Service and that’s where I went. It was a good fit. The job required business English, modest arithmetical skills and a modicum of common sense so, having two out of the three under my belt, I muddled through until I could fake the third. I’m still faking it.

I began to write poetry so I would have something to submit to the school magazine and for each of the four years I was at Secondary School I had more poems published than anyone else; this was between the ages of twelve and sixteen. After leaving school at sixteen I found I still wanted to write poetry, that it filled a need other than the need for attention, and so I continued and began submitting to small press magazines with, I hasten to add, modest success. I even got paid for one and not just a contributor’s copy. But I still viewed writing as a hobby although I hated the word and have never referred to my writing as a hobby other than on a CV and even there after a few years I changed ‘Hobbies’ to ‘Interests’. I was never going to make any money out of it—that was blindingly obvious—and yet when I looked in the mirror I saw a poet looking back at me and I gained some comfort from that. I never, not for a second, considered writing prose and then one day I came home from work and, without giving it a second thought, wrote a play. It was a bad play—it clearly needed that second thought—but it had a good title—The Normalpath. Why I thought I could write a play I have no idea. An idea came a-knocking, it evidently wouldn’t work as a poem, so I let the content dictate the form. Little did I know that this was to become my first Rule of Writing. I was twenty-one when I wrote what technically can be described as my first book; motivated by the birth of my first and only child I dashed off a children’s book, H M Mole, with the great opening line: “Henry Martin Mole was a mole which is a useful thing to be with a name like Henry Martin Mole”. She was eighteen before I got round to reading it to her but that’s another story.

Orwell continues:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

I was the eldest of three; my brother is three years younger than me and our sister is three years younger than him. I don’t think that was planned; I suspect that’s just how things worked out. I was not an especially lonely child although I was not uncomfortable spending lengthy periods of time in my own company—it was good company—and I grew increasingly tolerant of solitude as I grew older or rather intolerant of others. I did not have an imaginary friend. I recall a child in the street, a girl called Maureen I think, calling me a recluse once: “Here comes the recluse,” she said. Not sure how old I was when she did but I remember being a bit taken aback because, to my mind, a recluse was like a hermit and, at least in kids’ stories, hermits were never the most likeable of characters. I didn’t have a label to 260px-A_Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_Earth-1874describe what I was other than me and being me was the most normal thing under the sun. I didn’t do much writing at this time. I discovered classical music when I was about twelve; that and art absorbed me for the next few years. I wrote music, painted pictures and read although mostly non-fiction. I never bought any fiction bar comics until I’d left school. What little I did read came from the local library and the only book I can remember taking out was Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Don’t get me wrong, words interested me, they fascinated and delighted me, but apart from an expanding vocabulary I didn’t have much use for them. In this regard I was the same as Orwell:

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee’ for ‘he’ was an added pleasure.

Yes, at sixteen (and even younger), I knew that words were a source of pleasure. I loved prefixes and suffixes. I thought the word ‘hemidemisemiquaver’ was just wonderful, so much more magical than the boring old American ‘sixty-fourth note’.

Orwell completed his first novel, Burmese Days, when he was thirty. This, I have to say, surprised me. From the way he describes his childhood I assumed that he would’ve begun much earlier. I was only four years older when I wrote my first novel; you can’t really call H M Mole a novel.

Orwell continues:

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.

I’ve read those three sentences over and over again. They read like a statement of fact, the kind of thing a university lecturer would trot off and his students would scribble down frantically and try to decipher (in more ways than one) later on. Whether one agrees with him or not Orwell certainly gives one reason to pause. What was my motive for writing and has that motive changed? No one does anything without a reason even if that reason isn’t reasonable. (I can feel the kid in me here delighting in that play on words.) Is ‘motive’ the same as ‘inspiration’? What inspires me to write? Inspiration is not unlike attraction. I get ideas all the time, hundreds of the buggers running through my head every day, but I’m only drawn to a few and even fewer get developed into a piece of writing. It’s like women. I like women. I’ve always liked women. But I don’t have a type. I’ve considered the women I’ve had relationships throughout my life and the ones I would’ve liked to have had relationships and they have very little in common when it comes to looks, build, personality or intelligence. But each of them has that certain je ne sais quoi. Attraction is not unlike taste, in fact we talk about a man’s taste in women, but when I consider my palette there are all kinds of flavours and textures that appeal to me. I love chips and I probably could live off them forever but I would get bored with them eventually. And so it’s true with what drives me to write. Yet I can see certain recurring themes in my work. The earliest is a preoccupation with the notion of truth.

I was brought up in a religious household and the need to be honest and truthful in all things was a big thing—Satan was the father of the lie but we would know the truth and the truth would set us free—and yet quickly enough I found myself telling little fibs, quite naturally. I say no one taught me to lie but the reality was that I was surrounded by liars. All of us are. We aspire to be truth tellers and that’s not a bad thing to aspire to but it’s very hard to fight human nature. If there’s a single theme underlying my entire oeuvre it’s the search for truth. Even in the kid’s book we have a reclusive mole whose eyes are opened when a young and worldly-wise mouse (Fingal O’Mouse, would you believe) takes him on a trip to London. Twenty-odd years later who’s the protagonist in my first novel but a reclusive bookseller whose life is turned upside down by the appearance of a young man who purports to be the personification of the truth? In all my books you’ll find the same dynamic: ignorance forced to face the truth.

Orwell goes on:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.

These four great motives are: Sheer egoism, Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical impulse and Political purpose. He defines the first as:

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.

This is a dangerous one because I am clever. I don’t need to try to seem to be clever. I can’t help but be clever. I’ve no great need to appear cleverer than I am, however. Despite the fact being clever has often distanced me from people, I wish I was cleverer; the damage has been done. At school I never studied. I never felt as if I was studying. I never really got what the other kids were moaning about. To my mind there was only learning and learning was fun; it continues to be fun. Work is satisfying especially if you can be creative in that work. It’s what passes with me for play; play I find hard. Anyway I have a modicum of cleverness comprised of a fair amount of knowledge derived from fifty-four years’ worth of experience which distils down into a fair bit of understanding and a soupçon of actual honest-to-goodness wisdom and insight. I think it’s wrong not to share that. I don’t make more of it than it is—there’s so much stuff I know nothing about—but the stuff I do know is good stuff and I’d hate for it all to be lost when I shuffle off this mortal coil. It pleases me that when I die my daughter will have a small library on her bookshelf all written by me.

So what’s Aesthetic enthusiasm when it’s at home? According to Orwell:

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

200px-NoExit_coverIt’s not enough to say something that’s true or important. There are ways to say things, effective ways, and a lot of the time they’re neither fancy nor clever. Advertisers are masters in this regard and all you have to do is look at a book of quotations to realise that often all we remember from a work an author might have slaved years over is a line like, “Hell is other people.” I don’t know how long Sartre laboured over No Exit but I wonder how he would feel to know that that’s all most people know of his play and a lot of the people who know that don’t even know it was him that wrote it? But it’s a good line. It deserves to be remembered. It is the essence of the whole play. It’s what you take away with you.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (I wonder who first said that.) Not all writing—or art or music, come to think of it—is or ought to be beautiful because it’s asking us to experience or remember something unpleasant. The words ought to be well chosen and appropriate. They might not be beautiful but they should satisfy a particular need; they should be fit for purpose. I’m with Taylor Coleridge who said, “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.” Beauty is not mentioned.

Orwell has little to say on the subject of Historical impulse:

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Seeing things as they are is not easy. We’re ill-equipped for the task. We don’t see, we perceive; we don’t remember, we imagine. We think because we’ve remembered something that we’ve remembered it accurately. And then there’s the problems caused when we attempt to translate our thoughts into words. What, for example, does Orwell mean when he talks about “true facts”? Is there such a thing as an untrue fact? I am continually impressed to find that lies are capable of containing the most profound truths. By ‘lies’ I mean ‘fictions’, made-up stuff. I’m not really interested in history. I’ve obviously been affected by it and am continuing to be affected by it but I think all important truths, the most profound truths, exist outwith any specific historical framework. I have very few pieces of writing that commemorate any kind of historical event. Here’s a rare (and not especially good) exception:


A million flowers died today,
maybe more

laid down at the gates of palaces
in public parks and private homes
at the mouth of a tunnel in France

by mothers, fathers and children,
dying men and old women,
all strangers to each other

but not to this sense of loss.

2 September, 1997

I can’t say I was entirely unmoved by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but—and this is unusual for me because I’m not much of a nature lover either—I was taken aback by the incredible number of flowers that we went through on the days leading up to her funeral. And every one of them died too. And to what purpose? To add a bit of colour to a bleak day?

Finally onto Political purpose:

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

I have no interest in party politics although Gerald Ford does get name-checked in a very, very old poem. I think politicians are all as bad as each other but they’ve all got some good in them too. Even the Nazis weren’t all bad; they’d never have got into power in the first place if they were all bad. But do I have a desire to “alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”? I’m not really much of a social animal. Groups of people don’t really interest me. I didn’t mind studying sociology, learning about all the different –ocracies for example, but I’ve always enjoyed psychology more. I don’t address groups in my writing. I’m only ever talking to one person. Before you improve society one needs to improve oneself. I address issues I am capable of addressing. Reading one of my poems isn’t going to change the world but it might change an individual and the world is comprised of billions of individuals so the effect I’m likely to have is going to be miniscule but as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

Orwell doesn’t say that a writer needs to have these four motives in equal measure:

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature—taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult—I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.

On-WritingHe also says nothing about writing to entertain or for financial gain. These are by-products of the writing process. Even for a writer like Stephen King. He’s lucky in that’s he’s able to write what he wants and others find the work entertaining and are willing to pay him for the pleasure of reading it. But that’s not why he writes; read his On Writing if you doubt me. He doesn’t need the money and yet he writes daily. I expect most writers these days don’t need the money. They have jobs that pay the bills and if their writing brings in a few quid extra then that’s a nice bonus. I think if I had to write in order to put bread on the table I’d feel very differently about my writing. I remember reading Hunger many years ago and disliking the fact that the writer had to bend his art to meet the needs of others.

Another thing Orwell never mentions is pleasure. A hobby is something one does for pleasure. Writing can be pleasurable—I’m enjoying writing this—but mostly it’s not. The pleasure comes on completion and is short-lived. Orwell concludes:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

He wrote this essay, as I said at the start, in 1946. He died in 1950. He had one book left in him. As it happens it was his masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and yet this is what he had to say about it beforehand:

I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.

That smacks so of Beckett. You know the line about failing better. Woody Allen is a great example here. In a 1976 interview in Rolling Stone he said, “I would like to fail a little for the public…What I want to do is go onto some areas that I’m insecure about and not so good at.” He admits he could be like the Marx Brothers (who were heroes and early influences of his) and make the same comic film every year but he didn’t want to do it. It was important for him to evolve, to risk failure, to risk failure in front of everyone. And his movies did that, going from the early slapstick humour of Sleeper to the darker Crimes and Misdemeanours and Match Point. I remember so well the fuss that was made when Interiors and Stardust Memories came out. He says, “If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.”

Stranger than Fiction coverThis is one of the reasons I’ve shied away from sequels. Been there; done that. I was actually a little disappointed with myself when I was working on my novella Exit Interview because I set it in the same universe as Living with the Truth and the situation is not entirely dissimilar to the setup in Stranger than Fiction; I felt it was unavoidable. When I sit down to edit it—which I leave for a long, long time usually—I may well try to distance the book a little; it stands on its own well enough; it doesn’t need the references even if they don’t hurt. Maybe I’m just doing what I always do when I’ve finished something new: I’m tearing it to pieces. The novelty of a new novel never lasts for long.

In an article written for the Daily Telegraph the playwright William Nicholson wrote:

In my play about C.S.Lewis, Shadowlands, I gave Lewis the line, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ That has been my own experience. It’s through books that people I’ve never met have reached out to me, saying, ‘This is what matters most to me. Does it matter to you too?’ This feeds something very different to the appetite for entertainment. It feeds, I suppose, the hunger for meaning.

Ah, finally, meaning. In my novella, Joe Kaye is asked what he thinks the meaning of life is. His response?

[I]n my humble opinion meaning is the meaning of life. You need to be doing meaningful things for life to be worth living. It’s not enough to get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed and repeat ad infinitum ad nauseum. Life is like a pot. It can contain meaning or it can be left empty. It can be functional or decorative. You need to make a difference.

I confess: that’s me talking here, not Joe.

Of Orwell’s four primary drives I’d have to say that the third one is dominant within me, the desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity, to give those ‘facts’ meaning. What I write—what I’m writing right now—has to mean something. Otherwise, what’s the point? My books matter. My stories matter. My poems matter, even the not very good ones like ‘Death of an English Rose’. Every time I read it I’m reminded of that day and how I felt. The same happens when I pick up my novel The More Things Change. It means something to me that it’ll never mean to anyone else. I remember sitting at home working on it when my wife phoned me and told me to turn on the news; there was something happening in the skies over New York. There’s nothing in the book that reflects that but a book only contains spaces for meaning. The actual meaning is jammed into these nooks and crannies by the readers. Some are a bad fit. Occasionally though one reader comes along who has all the missing pieces. At least in theory one has. Personally I’m still waiting. But while I’m waiting I keep writing.

You can read Orwell’s entire essay here. There’s also a blog called Why I Write which is also worth checking out. Let me leave you with one or two entries:

#184 – Because who I am on paper is better than who I am in reality.
#181 – Because I can.
#156 – Because I don’t know what else to do.
#144 – To get revenge without going to prison.
#88 – Because I like writing better than talking to people.
#45 – Because it’s a part of who I am.
#14 – Because I want to recreate the world.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Docherty and The Kiln

No trains stopped here. Yet they went on waiting. […] It couldn’t go on. But it went on. – William McIlvanney, Docherty

DLF-william-mcilvanneyWe’ve known since 2012 that Canongate were planning to republish William McIlvanney’s fiction back catalogue. They made a start last year with Laidlaw, which sold in the tens of thousands, followed quickly by the next two books in the trilogy; there’s even talk (finally!) of a TV adaptation[1] and “McIlvanney has also spoken of plans to write a fourth instalment”[2] but I’m not holding my breath. As the “the godfather of tartan noir[3] (not a term he himself coined or even appreciates that much[4]) a lot of people will be pleased to see that. 2014 sees the rest of his novels come back into print including (arguably) his greatest work, Docherty. As part of Book Week Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust asked the public to vote for their favourite Scottish novel of the last fifty years and Docherty came in at number 10.[5] Top of the list was Trainspotting. It’s interesting that Irvine Welsh in his foreword to Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice ranked Docherty as one of the top five most critically well-regarded Scottish novels since the 1970s. It’s not a competition though; who said Scotland’s only entitled to one literary landmark? We’re Scottish, for God’s sake—we don’t do things by halves.



DochertyOstensibly about one man, Tam Docherty, a miner at the beginning of the twentieth century, Docherty’s focus expands to encompass his whole family, then the High Street, the town of Graithnock, Ayrshire and ultimately it reaches out towards the maze of trenches in France with ridiculous British names like Strathcona Walk and Finchley Road that long ago were filled in and have vanished under grass fields and poppies. Docherty is William McIlvanney’s ode to the human spirit. I originally wrote ‘elegy’ but the human spirit’s not dead; not yet—it’s just not what it once was. Where there’s life there’s hope, though.

Tam and his youngest son Conn, born in the book’s prologue in 1903, vie for the reader’s attention right from the opening chapter; the rest of the family have their moments in the spotlight but this is feels at times like a two-hander between father and son, one whose star is in the ascendant, the other whose future he sees mapped out in the life of his own aging father, Old Conn, and which is inevitable. The book is about a name, it’s about what it means to be a Docherty. And in Graithnock at the turn of the century being a Docherty meant something, a bit like being a Corleone in Palermo about the same time only Tam is no Godfather.

On a train journey about halfway through the novel the perspective shifts as it does often throughout the book and settles on young Conn for a moment:

When some of [the men] got seats for his mother and Kathleen [the family’s only daughter] and his grandfather, and recognised his father, Conn felt suddenly taller to think that he had connections with them. Their conversation fell on him like a magic formula releasing itself into him.

‘It couldny be Tam Docherty.’

‘Hell it couldny by onybody else. Tam Docherty.’

The name rippled among a few of them, causing looks Conn couldn’t understand at the time, that lens-adjustment by which the blurred hearsay of the past is crystallised into present fact.

That it happens to be set in Scotland is by the by—you could shift the action to Wales or Nova Scotia or Sicily (they have coal mines there) and it would still work—but by having his characters speak in their natural Ayrshire brogue McIlvanney extracts all the colour he can from the bleakest of lives. McIlvanney, in his novel The Kiln—which focuses on Conn’s son, also called Tam (at least by his parents)—describes Scots as “English in its underwear,” and adds, quite rightly:

Scottish vocabulary is like a fifth column operating within the sonorous pomposity of English, full of renegade plosives and gutturals that love to dismantle pretentions.

Conn despairs of English. There’s a point where he writes down things he couldn’t find any English equivalents for:

When something sad had happened and his mother was meaning that there wasn’t anything you could do about it, she would say ‘ye maun dree yer weird’. When she was busy, she had said she was ‘saund-papered tae a whippet.’ ‘Pit a rake roan the fire.’ ‘Hand-cuffed to Mackindoe’s ghost.’ ‘A face tae follow a flittin’.’ If his father had to give him a row but wasn’t really angry, he said ‘Ah’ll skelp yer bum wi’ a tea-leaf tae yer nose bluids.’

and he gets in trouble with his teacher over his refusal at one point to use the King’s English.

Writing in dialect is always problematic and there are cases both for and against. In his defence McIlvanney says:

I think if you disenfranchise people from their own speech you take a bit of their head away as well, you disenfranchise them from their own experience to some extent.[6]

He’s also noted elsewhere that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical, the more idiomatic and, quite bluntly, the more poetic the language gets. The High Street of Graithnock is the last place you’ve expect to hear poetry and yet even the most mundane everyday expressions come dusted with it. And yet it’s not only the dialogue that’s rich in imagery. From an interview with Bram E. Gieben:

“I’ve always believed in images,” [McIlvanney] says with firm conviction. “I write in an imagistic way because I think that an image is a very succinct way of putting across a meaning; and it’s also a very democratic way of doing it. We all understand images.” I put it to him that this is the essence of good writing, but he rebuffs my point with self-deprecating humour. “You would have to tell me what the essence of writing is—I just write the stuff, I don’t know.” He smiles again.

“To me it feels like the essence is that it’s concrete. I love concretion, I love not getting airy fairy, and I think images keep you nailed to the earth.[7]

I can’t imagine anyone other than a Scot writing this book. It sometimes feels like there’s hardly a sentence in the book that doesn’t contain a metaphor or a simile and to be honest if most other writers tried to pull this off they’d fall flat on their faces. An example: a respectable middle-class family walk down the High Street; the Dochertys are sitting outside and the man happens to pat Conn on the head:

Looking up, Conn felt his father's hand fit tightly, like a helmet, over his head.

And his father's voice cleft the calmness of hi's play like a lightning-flash.

‘Why don't ye bring fuckin' cookies wi' ye? An' then you could throw them tae us!’

Conn's mother hissed, ‘Tam’'

Immediately Conn had a feeling he would forget but would experience again. It was a completely familiar and secure happening transformed instantly into something foreign and frightening. He saw and heard but couldn't understand…

Some of the dust of that brief, explosive moment settled on Conn for good.

We can see how Conn is affected by what happens here in his reactions when his teacher chides him for his use of Ayrshire Scots (that they would squabble about the word ‘gutter’ is obviously significant) and similarly with their neighbour, Miss Gilfillan, who takes a shine to Conn and tries—half-heartedly admittedly—to make a gentleman out of him but he’s having none of it:

He was going to be a man like his father ... because to be that would include all … other ambitions. The feeling suffused him like a passion...

Docherty is also, despite its subject matter, a surprisingly funny book. The humour is often deadpan or dry and frequently self-deprecatory. As Beckett wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”[8] And as many nameless others have noted, “You’ve got to laugh.” If you don’t you’ll cry.

Of course it’s a political novel too—and he has a fair bit to say about religion—but I can’t say I ever felt McIlvanney was beating me about the head and neck with his own beliefs. No doubt he had an agenda—don’t we all?—and he has been accused of “dogmatic tub-thumping ‘social realism’”[9]—but the book’s bigger than that. If anything he’s very restrained. The same goes for The Kiln. In fact the best example of McIlvanney’s biting his tongue comes from it. His opinions regarding Thatcherism are no big secret—in his (in)famous ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’ lecture in the 1980s he "actually dared to suggest that Thatcher wanted to wipe Scotland as a set of values and ideas off the map, and reduce us to geography"[10]—and yet he devotes a single sentence to the Iron Lady: “One woman with all the vision of a soldier ant, had managed to screw up the UK.” It would’ve been unrealistic to write about being a miner in the 1900’s without politics rearing its ugly head. Most of the politics in Docherty, however, takes place off the page to be honest. An eleven week strike is covered in a couple of sentences:

I write from an attempt to perceive the truth, and politics are part of that truth. Writing a novel, I’m not constantly thinking of politics. The politics comes out of writing the novel, it isn’t that the novel comes out of the politics. When I write a novel, I try to write as honestly as I can about the life I see around me. The compulsion to write came before I was politically aware. As a spin off from a desire to understand the nature of experience come political convictions.[11]

Graithnock is a fictitious place in name only. It’s really Kilmarnock where McIlvanney was born—“the street names are the same, the public buildings are the same, the park, the river, the rural surroundings, the now closed pits, all the same”[12]—and if you have any doubts about that he tells you how to drive there from Glasgow in his novel Strange Loyalties although the High Street in Kilmarnock I remember from the sixties and seventies is a far cry from the High Street at the centre of Docherty, a place redolent with poverty; the poorest of the poor eke out a living on High Street:

High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary

The Cross Kilmarnock

Graith is an old Scottish word. In an article on the Scottish Language Centre’s website they have this to say about it:

“GRAITH n equipment, wherewithal”

Graith comes from Old Norse. We find it occasionally used in English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but it is predominantly found in Scots, where it is still in use today, often in the sense of tools, hence this piece of practical advice from Neil Munro in The Looker-On: “A man should ha’e all his workin’ graith aboot him before he starts on a roof for a job o’ ony kind”.

In English then, Tooltown, I suppose (Tool Hill would be more accurate), but I’d expect a place with a name like that to be home to Bob the Builder and Postman Pat to be honest. Graithnock is a hard-sounding word where life is hard work and only those with the wherewithal to live “a pot of soup away from hunger” survive. There really is no English equivalent although the northerners—whom most Scots regard as cousins—will know where we’re coming from.

The book opens in 1903 with the birth of Tam and Jenny’s fourth child and third son, Cornelius:

The name seemed to drown him, like regal robes on a midget. The doctor sipped [his whisky].

“That’s a terrible size of a name for such a wee fellow.”

“He’ll grow tae fit it. Don’t you worry.”

Over the next three hundred and fifty pages or so we do indeed see Conn as he becomes known grow from an infant into a strong sixteen-year-old who, despite the fact his father would’ve wished anything else for him but can’t afford to do a damn thing about it, ends up down the mine with his father and his brother, Angus. Mick, the other brother, goes off to war. So it’s also a coming of age novel, in more ways than one.

There’s no real story to Docherty. Although fictional the novel reads like a memoir dipping into the lives of Tam, his family, neighbours and friends here and there at key moments in their lives from 1903 through 1919. Indeed the book could easily have been called The Dochertys were it not for abiding presence of the family’s patriarch. At five foot four he would never have been described as a big man but he is a hard man—“in High Street the most respected measurement of a man tended to be round the chest”—albeit a hard man with a soft centre. He is, as are many of his peers, a man of principle:

'Ah'll tell ye the sense,' Tam said. 'We walk a nerra line. Ah ken hoo nerra it is. Ah've walked it a' ma days. Us an' folk like us hiv goat the nearest thing tae nothin' in this world. A' that filters doon tae us is shite. We leeve in the sewers o' ither bastards' comfort. The only thing we've goat is wan anither. That's why ye never sell yer mates. Because there's nothin' left tae buy wi' whit ye get. That's why ye respect yer weemenkind. Because whit we make oorselves is whit we are. Because if ye don't, ye're provin' their case. Because the bastards don't believe we're folk! They think we're somethin' ... less than that. Well, Ah ken whit Ah believe. It's only us that can show whit folk are. Whit dae they ken aboot it? Son, it's easy tae be guid oan a fu' belly. It's when a man's goat two bites an' wan o' them he'll share, ye ken whit he's made o'. Maist o' them were boarn blin'. Well, we areny, son. We canny afford tae be blin'. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it's like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a' kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o' who we are, we're deid. We're wan anither. Tae survive, we'll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we'll a' move forward thegither, or nut at all.’

Docherty is about family in the broadest sense and family’s everything to Tam, his “one oasis”:

He saw families as little fortresses of loyalty and sanity and mutual concern, set defiantly in a landscape of legalised looting and social injustice.

But times are changing and so is his family. After the upheaval of World War I the whole world begins to change and as strong as he is there’s nothing Tam can do to but batten down the hatches and hope to wait out the winds of change. Don’t get me wrong, he wants change, he believes in change, in some respects the only thing that keeps him going is trusting that change is coming but he’s still not quite ready for it:

“Ah’ve been waitin’. That’s whit Ah’ve been daein’. Ah’ve kept somethin’ alive that they’ve been tryin’ tae kill. An’ that’s ma joab. Tae deny them evey day o’ ma life. Tae show them they can neither brek us nor buy us. Fur oor time’s comin’.”

Tam Docherty may not be an educated man but he is a thinking man. He’s like the Jew who’s been looking for the Messiah all his life but when Jesus turns up on his doorstep fails to recognise him and goes on waiting. Change too often comes from unexpected quarters and shuffles forward so slowly that it’s hard to notice any movement at all. Tam himself is actually an agent of such change. He was brought up as a Catholic but married a Protestant girl. His eldest two get sent to the Catholic School and the other two to the High Street state school. His reason? “It’s nearer,” was all he said when pressed.

As I’ve said this is a novel that jumps about through the lives of the Dochertys and so it presents a selective—as opposed to idealised—picture of what life was like back then:

In that harsh climate people developed certain characteristics common to them all. Where so little was owned, sharing became a precautionary reflex. The only security they could have was one another. Most things were borrowable, from a copper for the gas to a black suit for funerals.

So: identity, family, community. In that order.

If I was to label it I’d say the novel was a work of sentimental realism which sounds disparaging but it’s not intended to be. I look back on the seventies—when McIlvanney was writing Docherty—with genuine affection. It was a bleak time in British history but it was where I grew up—it was my time—and it’s impossible not to dwell on the good stuff even though it’s difficult to completely shrug off the bad stuff. Twenty-three years older than me McIlvanney feels the same about the fifties: “I think the fifties get an unjustifiably bad press,” he writes “The surface greyness of the fifties was like a patina on good metal: if you polish it, you'll see there's something there.”[13] (This is what he does in The Kiln which I’ll get to in a minute.) Clearly the same can be said about the early 1900’s. It is possible to be nostalgic without becoming mawkish.

So, yes, Tam is presented as something of a working class hero—McIlvanney admitted as much when he said his novel was “an attempt to democratise traditional culture, to give working-class life the vote in the history of heroism”[14]—but he’s also a flawed character and as time goes on his flaws become harder to ignore especially at home when his guard is down. Only Conn, the youngest, still clings to the pedestal on which his father stands desperate for him not to topple. He’s certainly no rebel, not politically anyway; if anything Tam could be accused of being a conformist unlike his sons Mick and Angus who both in turn square up to him and are disappointed to see their father back down. He makes a lot of noise but that’s about it. To be fair Tam’s not a fighting man—by that I mean he never goes looking for a fight (unlike his son, Angus)—but he also never walked away from one no matter what the size of his opponent.

StrangeLoyaltiesIn Strange Loyalties, Jack Laidlaw describes Tam Docherty as “a legend in Graithnock before we were born, a street-fighter for justice”[15] As can be seen from the scene on the train even within his own lifetime Tam was lionised by his peers and yet McIlvanney doesn’t present much evidence to justify his heroic status other than the fact that people need heroes and they’ll kluge them together from whatever’s available. The miners go on strike at one point but there’s no indication that Tam was at the front bolstering the troops. He did his bit, showed solidarity but when the bosses refused to back down he, like the rest, tucked his tail between his legs and trudged back to work. What confrontations we do get to witness are nothing to write home about like the time he beats up a man for peeking into a neighbour’s window.

What he is is a man. When you have nothing to speak of how do you measure your worth? If you’re a woman it’s probably all to do with fertility; good childbearing hips may not have been a sign of beauty in the traditional sense but they are nevertheless a means of measurement available to all. If you’re male it’s by how much of a man you are and what it means to be a man hasn’t really changed for hundreds of years. Only in recent times has the notion of honour started to lose meaning. I wonder if there’s still honour amongst thieves. Tam Docherty is a decent bloke. William McIlvanney’s a decent bloke. They have values. (Just think about the word for a minute.) That used to be the measure of a man. Strength has always been a consideration but no one idolises a bully no matter how much they may kowtow to him.

The problem McIlvanney faced was how to end a book like this. Or to be more precise where to end it. What we’re witnessing is the end of a generation but most generations fade in and out; there’s rarely a sharp cut-off point (the Sixties, for example, probably ended somewhere around 1972). He could, of course, have presented us with Tam Docherty standing like some old Communist statue staring into the future convinced that better days are coming or he could’ve left him like Vladimir or Estragon or ‎Greyfriars Bobby blindly waiting because anything else would mean giving up. What he chooses was an act of … I’m going to call it redemption. It’s a popular trope: good guy turns bad and then at the last minute does the right thing (think Darth Vader in Star Wars as a classic example). Tam, of course, doesn’t give in to the dark side but he does lose something along the way; as I noted above, his fight becomes bluster. But something happens and life offers him one last chance to be the hero and he jumps at it—literally. What was he thinking? We’ll never know. And when people don’t know stuff they make it up. Just look at Robin Hood.


The Kiln

TheKilnBut what of Tam Docherty’s legacy? Change comes but is it the kind of change he would’ve hoped for or approved of? That question gets addressed in McIlvanney’s sequel, The Kiln. The book focuses on Conn’s son. Tam would’ve loved his son to get an education. Unfortunately he doesn’t live long enough to see his grandson not only go to secondary school but to university and his great-granddaughter to Oxford, no less, to undertake postgraduate research. At the beginning of Docherty McIlvanney writes:

There was a real High Street. This isn’t it but this is meant in part to be an acknowledgement of the real one. For that reason I was to make it clear that at no point are any of the people in this book identifiable with actual people who lived there. But I hope there survives in the book some of the spirit with which those people imbued the place.

What he says at the beginning of The Kiln, however, is:

‘At the moment of writing the author is fictive. Only the story is real.’ – Tom Docherty

This is a very different book and I couldn’t help but being a little disappointed with it which is a shame because it’s probably the better novel. (Allan Massie certainly thinks so.[16]) My fault for reading it straight after Docherty and for imagining that it was going to be a sequel in the traditional sense which it’s not; one interviewer called it a semi-sequel. The only person who appears in both books is Conn Docherty but he’s not the huge presence his father was. Surprisingly neither of his brothers is even mentioned which I thought was just a little odd; I would’ve liked to have known what became of them.

The Kiln, unlike Docherty, plunders McIlvanney’s own past. It fictionalises it but there are actual events from his childhood memorialised within its pages. In several interviews he tells this anecdote:

I remember coming home from the dancin' around the age of 17, and there was my mother sitting with the pinny on, reading The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I don't think where we came from that was a common phenomenon. I also remember having impromptu poetry readings, though I think we pulled the curtains in case anyone stoned us.[17]

The same for:

The first thing I wrote was a poem when I was fourteen. It was like a piece of extra-terrestrial material that landed in the living room, and I thought I think that’s a poem! I chose my judge carefully. My brother Neilly was out back sawing a bit of wood; I went to him because he was tolerant of all my half-baked ambitions. Neilly said, You didn’t write that, did you? It’s great. If Neilly hadn’t said that, I might have packed it in there and then.[18]


All of which and more appears in The Kiln. And so this is a very personal book. He’s asking: Do I measure up? Would Tam Docherty be proud of me? In his famous poem ‘Digging’ Seamus Heaney wrote:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

McIlvanney uses a similar metaphor. He talks of "howkin' for ideas" rather than for coal. His father was indeed once a miner like Conn but—also like Conn—he gave up the pit and became “a general labourer”. In the novel Tom struggles at school when asked what his father does because after quitting the mine Conn seems unable to hold a job down for long and drifts from one to another; it’s easier to call him a general labourer than try to explain about his get rich quick schemes. Conn doesn’t go to night school to try to improve himself. In fact, to his father’s shame I would imagine, he’s willing to step in to dissuade Tom from going to uni which reflects a conversation McIlvanney overhead his parents having:

My father was saying, 'Willie should leave school, get a job and bring money into the house.' I heard my mother saying: 'Do not even dream about it.' My father just murmured: 'Aye, all right.' Now, that was important. Because I would not have minded going out to work. I would have said: 'Why no'?'

Politics and religion aren’t absent from The Kiln but there’s even less there than in Docherty. The book focuses on a single year, 1955, when Tom is seventeen and rock and roll was born; it’s the year leading up to his leaving for university. To earn some extra cash before heading off he gets a job in Avondale Brickworks. The kiln of the title is a literal kiln but it also becomes a metaphor:

The kiln was not only in Avondale Brickwork. It was between Maddie Fitzpatrick’s legs. It was in his head. It was where you found who you were.

Docherty is a coming of age novel in the broadest sense; the whole world grew up after 1914. The Kiln is a bildungsroman in the truest sense. In Docherty community and tradition are paramount but only fifty-odd years later a young Tom Docherty finds himself in a very different world with crumbling values. If Docherty was an ode then The Kiln is a lament for a way of life that’s now lost to us bar what’s been preserved in books like McIlvanney’s. Twice in the book we’re told, “You can’t disown your past without becoming no one.” How much do our parents and our grandparents’ pasts affect who we become? McIlvanney refers to it as a “sense of mutuality”,[19] something which he feels only survived until the fifties along with what we used to call “traditional values”: “Tradition doesn't survive in a vacuum—it survives on living re-commitment.”[20]

The book is narrated by an adult Tom. We don’t know his exact age but he says he’d older than his dad was when he died which means he’s at least fifty-two. The book was published in 1989 when McIlvanney was fifty-three and one year before Thatcher was ousted from power, a very different world from when Docherty was published in 1975 but different is not always better. Ways of life have vanished. Yes, on the whole we do live in a more prosperous society but at what cost? It’s a trade-off. Much has been lost—and that rightly should be lamented especially the loss of community spirit (let’s face it half of us don’t know the names of most of our neighbours and have probably never been in any of their homes)—but it’s also a celebration of what was good about the past and the good that came out of it. Now education is guaranteed to all and that is a good thing. From a personal perspective though Tom has lost a lot: his brother (who died of a brain haemorrhage), his marriage has failed and his innocence has had the stuffing kicked out of it. Has progress been made or has his life in fact regressed? He’s sitting alone in a flat beside Edinburgh’s fourteen acre Warriston Cemetery and he’s not sure:

[H]e realised that old griefs were still with him. You didn’t live beyond them, you just found out how to live round them. They were like bad lodgers you learned to accommodate. In that repeated scouring of himself, he had yet again being trying to rebuild the world around him. Wasn’t that what everybody had to do in the light of changing experience? To live in the world was to remake it daily.

TheBigManTom’s an educated man. His father and grandfather were not but Tam sincerely believed that part of the cause of the working man’s problems lay in a lack of education. Tom comes from that stock but education hasn’t made him an especially happy man. When we meet him he’s divorced, alone, miles away from home riddled with self-doubt. Is it any wonder that he would try to find meaning—or at least solace—in dwelling on his childhood’s end when the future still looked promising? In The Big Man Dan Scouler says at one point, “Any future that has to sacrifice the present to get there isny worth goin' to. Don't save me a ticket.” Well, Tom’s found himself in that future. It seems odd that McIlvanney, an educated man and himself an educator for seventeen years, would argue against education—seeing it as often irrelevant and downright harmful—but it’s not education per se that he’s opposed to; it’s the kind of education that’s available and what it costs: you can be a working man or an educated man but there’s no such beast as an educated working man. I went through the Scottish education system and much of it was irrelevant. I never had the chance to study Greek but I did take Latin for a year. Maybe twenty-three years earlier I would’ve had to do Greek. Tom recollects having to study Greek in school and realises that schooling failed to meet his needs:

He remembers having to translate The Anabasis in the Greek class. And that’s another thing: Latin and Greek at school—what does that have to do with living in Graithnock?

Interestingly it’s a fight that’s central to The Kiln, a “square-go”[21] as McIlvanney might’ve referred to it. Tom Docherty is a writer. It’s not that he’s never done a day’s hard work in his life because we know that he has but that’s not what he’s all about; he doesn’t aspire to be a man who works with his hands. (The Scot in me wants to make some flippant remark about writers still needing their hands but that aside…) The fight takes place in the brickworks and it’s between Tom and a bully called Cran Craig; the symbolism smacks you in the face but only once you realise that a ‘cran’ is a crane and ‘craig’ is derived from the Gaelic creag meaning ‘a rocky cliff’. Cran is the anti-Docherty. He hates all Dochertys. We never learn why exactly but that’s not important. What is important is that Tom has to face up to his legacy. What does it mean to be a Docherty? This is his rite of passage. He wins as it happens—a lucky blow coupled with the fact Cran has an Achilles’ heel (well, Achilles’ arse)—and he gets to walk away holding his head up. In much the same way as his grandfather’s brawls became legend, so also will this one.

He walks away from Cran, the brickworks, Graithnock. He has become a Docherty. Now he decides the time has come to redefine what it means to be a Docherty. Can one be a Docherty and, for example, a writer?

To challenge conditioning without trying to eradicate it, to modify it honestly in the light of individual thought, was to become yourself. The rest was an act of psychic self-deceit. He wouldn't be pretending to be who he wasn't.

Being a writer gives you certain tools. There won’t be a serious writer out there who isn’t interested in getting to the truth and how do we go about it? We make up stuff. We tell lies, half-truths at best. McIlvanney was perfectly capable of writing an autobiography as other Ayrshire writers have done—Henry Mair’s Alone I Rebel jumps to mind or Janice Galloway’s This Is Not About Me and All Made Up—but instead he chose to fictionalise his past as so many of us do, the better to get at something like the truth whilst being ever aware that over his shoulder “some aspect of reality that was being excluded was leaning perpetually, saying, ‘What about me?’” I know McIlvanney isn’t a fan of postmodernism but there’s definitely something going on here that’s not your bog-standard narrative:

(‘Author! Author! Right, there he is now. Let’s get the bastard.’)

There’s a lovely scene in Docherty where Tam sits with Conn and gets him to read from a book of poetry that he’s come by. It pleases Tam that he lives in a world where poets exist but how would he feel about a grandson who became a poet? I’d like to think he’d be big enough to be proud of him. Whether he’d be necessarily proud of everything Tom gets up to on his way to becoming a poet I can’t say but I can guess.

As much as McIlvanney is loved in his native Scotland—and for an author for whom years can go by between publications this is especially noteworthy (he wears his “hump”[22] well)—he has also received a fair bit of abuse over the years. Some have, for example, criticised his use of dialect whereas others think he doesn’t go far enough. The simple fact is that he would’ve struggled to express much of his thinking had be doggedly stuck to Scots throughout the text. He recalls:

I spoke Scots until I was five, and I went to primary school, and I was taught English—what I resent is that I was taught English to the suppression of Scots. I think it was necessary that I be taught Standard English in conjunction, as a harmonious marriage, with my own daily speech—it would have been good! […] all I can do, it seems to me, is inhabit the paradoxes as healthily as possible and try to embrace the dichotomies. And I think there can be a fruitful union between the two; it seems to me false to seek a reversion. I think you have to inhabit the contemporary situation as healthily as you can.[23]

In Docherty I used Scots dialogue because that’s how they spoke there at that time. I used English outwith the dialogue because the residual Scots wasn’t flexible or rich enough to convey the complexity of the ideas I wanted to express. Even if, after I had studied a Scottish dictionary, I had found the Scots words. Ninety-odd percent of Scots people wouldn’t have known what the hell I was saying. It’s time to own up. Languages die. Who knows what the Etruscans were trying to say? Scots isn’t dead. But it’s no very weel. I at least tried to recognise it in the dialogue.[24]

Critics often jump all over the violence in his books as if violence was a way of life. It’s not, not for any of the characters, but it is an aspect of life. Even I got into fights at school. I grew up in Scotland, what was I to expect? One area I’ve not mentioned up until now is his attitude towards women. Really the issue is not the author’s attitude towards women but his country’s. His books are set in times and places where men ruled the roost; I just love it when academics use words like ‘homosocial’—seriously, who talks like that? Men were the primary breadwinners, yes, but the women weren’t sitting around with their feet up sipping piña coladas while their maids got on with the housework. All his books focus on men—that would be ‘homocentric’ then?—but the importance of women to these men can’t be (and isn’t) ignored; there are long sections in Docherty devoted to Tam’s wife, his daughter and his neighbour, Miss Gilfillan. Tam gets into a fight with a peeping tom to protect Miss Gilfillan, Angus tackles his brother-in-law for begbiemistreating his wife—women are to be defended—and Conn fights Angus over his attitude towards their father; in every case there’s a principle involved and they don’t simply lash out in frustration. There’s no comparison between the fighting in Docherty and the arbitrary violence of Begbie in Trainspotting (I’m thinking especially of the balcony scene[25]). By the fifties in The Kiln, however, the women have become more powerful and the young Tom is very much in thrall to them especially Maddie Fitzpatrick who basically uses Tom and tosses him out the door when she’s had her fun which is a complete reversal of what happens with Tom’s Uncle Angus. Tom’s mother decides that her son will go to university and her husband, Conn (a shadow of the man he aspired to be), simply accepts her ruling. If McIlvanney does write a third book (which he was talking about back in 2010[26] although in 2013 he let slip that he still had a long way to go[27]) it will be interesting to see how the battle of the sexes is fairing. It would be nice if Tom’s daughter could be the book’s focus.

Of course in some respects the third Graithnock novel has already been written. The Big Man doesn’t feature the Dochertys but we do get to see what the future really does hold out for the town:

By the time the coal was gone, Graithnock hardly noticed because it had other things to do: there was whisky-distilling and heavy engineering and the shoe factory and later the making of farm machinery. But the shoe factory closed and the world-famous engineering plant was bought by Americans and mysteriously run down and the making of farm machinery was transferred to France and the distillery didn’t seem to be doing so well.[28]


Something like honour, something as difficult to define and as difficult to live decently without, had gone from the people’s sense of themselves. ... An old woman could be mugged in a park, an old man tied and tortured in his home for the sake of a few pounds, five boys can beat up a sixth, a girl raped because she was alone, the houses of the poor broken into as if they had been mansions.[29]

I can see why he might relocate the Dochertys to Glasgow. Graithnock’s story appears done. For now at least.

McIlvanney said in interview:

I think you should read a book as straight as possible if you can. Starting a book should be like arriving in a new country. Hand in your passport and take it as it comes.

Bring your intelligence, as much as you can muster. But surrender your prejudices at the border. They’re contraband.[30]

If you find you don’t like what you meet there then go and read someone else. Enough people stop McIlvanney in the street and tell him how much his writing has meant to them that he won’t be too upset if you don’t appreciate what he has to offer. But at least give him a go. Allan Massie has described him as the Scottish Camus[31]—and, of course, Camus’s not to everyone’s tastes either—and McIlvanney is a fan—“I love the idea that Camus combined a terrific intelligence with terrific humanity,[32]” he says—well, I can say the same about him: McIlvanney’s work combines terrific intelligence with terrific humanity.

In a chat with Stuart Kelly in a pub he mentions that “he is proudest that a review called his work tender. ‘It's always been about love,’ he says”[33] and he’s is right: he loves his family, his community, his language and his heritage. And we love his books. Well I certainly do.

I’ll leave you with a recent BBC TV interview:


Seán Damer, ‘“Sense and Worth”: A Review Essay’, Scottish Affairs, No.22, winter 1998

David Pattie, ‘The Decentring of Docherty: the Scotsman in Contemporary Drama’, International Journal of Scottish Theatre, Vol.1 No.2 (December 2000)

Keith Dixon, ‘Writing on the Borderline: The Works of William McIlvanney’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Volume 24 | Issue 1, Article 13

K. M. Newton, ‘William McIlvanney's Docherty: Last of the Old or Precursor of the New?’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Volume 32 | Issue 1, Article 11

Carole Jones, ‘White Men on Their Backs – From Objection to Abjection: The Representation of the White Male as Victim in William McIlvanney’s Docherty and Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue One, Autumn 2006

Rebecca Hunt, An analysis of the construction of masculinity in Scottish literature using George Douglas Brown's The House With The Green Shutters, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares and Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory

Jürgen Neubauer, Literature as Intervention: Struggles over Cultural Identity in Contemporary Scottish Fiction

Jóhann Axel Andersen, Casting a Long Shadow. A Study of Masculinity and Hard Men in Twentieth-Century Scottish Fiction

Franziska Lipkowski, Docherty II

Gerald Carruthers, ‘The Relativity of Experience in William McIlvanney’s The Kiln in James McGonigal, Kirsten Stirling eds., Ethically Speaking: Voice and Values in Modern Scottish Writing, pp.51-67 (not all pages available online)



[1]Company Pictures have optioned the TV rights to William McIlvanney's Laidlaw trilogy.” – Caroline Carpenter, ‘McIlvanney's Laidlaw trilogy heads for TV’, The Bookseller, 29 November 2013

[2] Brian Ferguson, ‘William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw set for TV series’, The Scotsman, 3 December 2013

[3] James Ellroy apparently described Ian Rankin as "the king of tartan noir" and Rankin’s debt to McIlvanney has been publicly acknowledged. “Rankin tells the story of attending a reading of McIlvanney's back in the day, and letting him know in the signing queue afterwards that he was trying to write a crime novel set in Edinburgh. "Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw," Willie wrote in Rankin's copy of his novel Docherty.” – Doug Johnstone, ‘How William McIlvanney invented tartan noir’, The Guardian, 11 August 2013

[4] McIlvanney has called the term ”ersatz” and distanced himself from the hype. […] “I’m a hung jury about the phrase,” says McIlvanney. “I suppose it works as an adman’s slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin and Tony Black.” – Tony Black, ‘The Past, Present and Future of Tartan Noir’, Mulholland Books, 8 September 2011

[5] 10 Favourite Scottish Novels, The Scottish Book Trust

[6] Radical Scotland interview, p.25

[7] Bram E. Gieben, ‘William McIlvanney: Laying Down The Law’, The Skinny, 1 May 2013

[8] Samuel Beckett, Endgame

[9] Keith Dixon, ‘Writing on the Borderline: The Works of William McIlvanney’, Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 24, p.144

[10] William McIlvanney, ‘Stands Scotland Where It Did?’, Surviving the Shipwreck referred to in Gerry Hassan, ‘Games with shadows: living in Thatcher’s Scotland’, Our Kingdom, 9 April 2013

[11] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[12] Alan MacGillivray, ‘Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney’, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies

[13] Quoted in John Williams, 'William McIlvanney’, Back To The Badlands: John Williams Crime Fiction Resource

[14] William McIlvanney, Surviving the Shipwreck, p.231

[15] William McIlvanney, Strange Loyalties, p.128

[16] “I have no doubt that The Kiln … is a masterpiece. It confirmed [McIlvanney], to my mind, as the finest Scottish novelist of our time.” – Allan Massie, ‘Scotland's master of crime is also its Camus’, The Telegraph, 25 May 2013

[17] ‘Interview: William McIlvanney, writer’, The Scotsman, 17 August 2010

[18] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[19] Ibid

[20] William McIlvanney, 'Stands Scotland Where It Did?', Radical Scotland 30 (Dec 1987 – Jan 1988), p.21

[21] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[22] His reputation—half Billy Connolly, half James Maxton—is "a hump on my back that was put there. It never grew there naturally." It's easy to see: he is still, in Glasgow, a weel-kent face, if not a celebrity. – Stuart Kelly, ‘A writer's life: William McIlvanney’, The Telegraph, 27 August 2006

[23] William McIlvanney quoted in Simon Köves, James Kelman, pp.16,17

[24] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[25] Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, p.79

[26] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[27] "I never like to talk about ideas before they are fully formed. A third Docherty book with Tom Docherty would be interesting. I would set that in Glasgow. I love the city with the zeal of a convert." – Hugh Macdonald, ‘William McIlvanney: following the demon’, The Herald, 5 April 2013

[28] William McIlvanney, The Big Man, p.9

[29] Ibid, p.11

[30] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[31] Allan Massie, ‘Scotland's master of crime is also its Camus’, The Telegraph, 25 May 2013

[32] ‘William McIlvanney Interview’, The Scottish Review of Books, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 13 May 2010

[33] Stuart Kelly, ‘A writer's life: William McIlvanney’, The Telegraph, 27 August 2006

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