Friday, December 11, 2015

Two Good Men


There was a programme on recently about the Beatles and what the nation’s favourite Beatles song is. (Hey Jude). My own favourite is Paperback Writer for obvious reasons. Paul Gambaccini commented that the Sergeant Pepper’s album had five number one hits on it and the fifth single to come off that album stayed at number one for seven weeks.  (Hello, Goodbye).
My other half is a musician who never really rated the Beatles.  On a recent visit to Central Park, I guided him in the direction of the 'Strawberry Fields' without him knowing where he was going.
'What are all these people doing? Lying on the ground, getting their picture taken?'

They were, of course, paying tribute to John Lennon.

It was the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s death on Wednesday.  The problem is that growing up the Beatles were always there for me, I have never known a life without them.  I cannot possibly envisage how popular music would have been without them and that huge creative energy they had. Prolific. Innovative. Inventive. And such talented musicians.  What was that quote? 'Ringo is not the best drummer in the world. Ringo is not even the best drummer in the Beatles.'


And equally as a writer, I can’t envisage what Scottish crime writing would be without William McIlvanney (Willie) as he has always been there, in my life. I read The Papers Of Tony Veitch when I was about 12!  Would Rebus have existed without Laidlaw?  Would commercial publishers take a punt on gritty Scottish crime fiction if the TV show Taggart hadn’t been so popular worldwide. Without Laidlaw would there have been Taggart?  No! 'There's been a murrderrr' ( please do appropriate accent.

As you all know, he passed away last Saturday.

I knew he had been ill for some time, indeed I had emailed him the previous Monday and got no response so I had guessed he was pretty poorly.  That email was about a sixth year student of English who was doing a comparative essay on myself and 'Mr McIlvanney' as the student called him to which I said 'just call him Willie, everybody does.'  The essay was about our crime fiction and the nature of our 'monsters'? External or internal.  However that is all a digression.


I have to say that I’m slightly ambivalent about the way that the press are elevating Willie to the status of a saint.  I was talking to someone yesterday who knew him much better than I did. 'A difficult wee rascal.' was his affectionate comment.

Willie was  all those things that everybody says about him. I know that some of you met him at Bristol and would have been deeply affected by the charisma of the man but that charisma was hard boiled and don’t ever forget that. That great voice was honed by years of good malt and nicotine.

I can remember the time I first met him 'person to person' so to speak.  I was sitting beside his other half, Siobhan at a book launch and Willie was sitting at ninety degrees to me.  The person who was launching their book will remain nameless but they have always had a very nice life, middle class in the extreme, private school. The biggest disaster to strike her writing career was when her cleaner fractured a hip, and aforesaid author  had to do her own hoovering. So this writer was going on and on  about growing up in the mean streets of Glasgow.  I rolled my eyes thinking what a lot of crap and Willie caught my expression gave me the same look back.  There was a connection there that we never really lost over the next six or seven years. 

My favourite memory of him was when he was standing outside a pub in Edinburgh after another book launch where a heated discussion had occurred and the battle lines were very much drawn,  the hard boiled Glaswegians on one side and the soft centred Edinburgh people on the other.  He put his arm out to stop me as I was going into the pub and his exact words were “I like you Ramsay, you don’t talk shite” and shite was to rhyme with right, not shit to rhyme with writ.

As I am sure those of you who attended the panel he did at Bristol will recall that comment, 'Glasgow people are not violent. They are just confrontational.'

He would know, he was from Kilmarnock. They have been known to eat their own young out there.

Ian Rankin called him  a truly inspired and inspiring author and an absolute gent. 
He has always been thought of as the Godfather of Tartan Noir. Not a title he was always comfortable with. It was the book, Docherty that put him on the map (1975) and then Laidlaw came along and the rest was history.
His brother Hugh, is famous sports writer in these parts and famously  said that  his brothers work will live on a shelf forever. His own words will be wrapped round a fish supper 24 hours later,

For those of you who have not read Laidlaw, the cop describes his tipple as “low-proof hemlock” and he hides his books by  Camus and Kierkegaard at the back of his drawer.
The newspapers this week are putting him up there, not with Chandler and Hammett, but with Dostoevsky, Zola and Céline. Being a truculent Scot, I asked my patients this week about him. 'Oh he was great man,' they all said. When asked if they had read his stuff, most of them had not. I can count on the fingers of one hand those who had.
 And I don't know why. Was it because his books were only reprinted in 2014/5 that he needs to be appreciated by a new audience?  Was he left behind with his one book every 4 or 5 years production? 
One of his phrases has moved into popular culture; calling  us a  ‘mongrel nation’.
I guess the point of this blog, my musings on John and Willie, is best summed up by  Joni Mitchell. 'You don't know what you've got til it's gone.'
Sad times. Two great men. Their work lives on.

Caro Ramsay 11th Dec 2015


  1. Caro, I have to admit that I haven't read any of his books. I'll correct that right away.

  2. PD James at the end of last year, Ruth Rendell earlier this, Henning Mankell, and now William McIlvanney. As you said earlier in the week, Caro, it's been a bad year for people of letters to be fading from our pages.

  3. When I met "Willie" at Bristol a couple of years back, it was brief, but the impression was immediate, inspiring, and lasting. Gracious and damn funny is how I remember that moment. God bless his Glaswegian soul, no matter his Kilmarnock roots.