Monthly Archives: December 2015

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Greg Hurst, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw (Methuen £16.99)

 

Greg Hurst’s biography of Charles Kennedy was first published in 2006 and updated after Kennedy died in June, 2015. In fact, the book was commissioned before Kennedy resigned as Liberal Democrat Leader and he did not wish to be interviewed for it. One of Kennedy’s great strengths as a politician was his ability to identify long term consequences where others saw only short term gain. If he detected danger to his own legacy in Hurst’s project, he was probably right to do so.

The title initially suggests that that Kennedy’s life was some kind of cosmic error but, on closer inspection, defines it by the fact that he was an alcoholic. That is certainly what the tabloid media took from Hurst’s biography when it was praised in 2006 for revealing the “extent” of Kennedy’s drinking and again in 2015 for providing “additional information” on the same subject. Kennedy’s generosity in giving his approval for political friends and former staff to speak to Hurst only adds to the impression of a good man, ill-used.  Still, the fact that all but two chapters of the biography was written ten years ago means that it is now read with the wisdom of hindsight which makes it more interesting than it was the first time.

When 25 Lib Dem MPs signed a statement urging Kennedy to resign in January 2006, for instance, they had his drinking in mind but there were other motives at work. It is remarkable that a Lib Dem putsch was once national news when the party no longer have enough MPs to mount one and nobody would care if it did. It’s even more remarkable that some party members thought the 62 MPs delivered under Kennedy in the 2005 general election was a relative failure and they would do better with someone else at the helm. The Lib Dems were the largest third party at Westminster since 1923, but not everyone appreciated the achievement. Those who followed Kennedy – Campbell and Clegg – had such a sobering effect that they are now reduced to eight MPs.

It is also clear in retrospect  how young Kennedy was when he first went to Westminster; how different his background from the usual run of metropolitan politicians; and the degree to which he depended on native wit and debating skills honed at Glasgow University. His 1983 maiden speech was indicative of what was to come. His defeated opponent in Ross, Cromarty & Skye, Hamish Gray, was made a peer by Thatcher and Kennedy made hay: “I hope that three million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.”

Kennedy’s objection to preferment for political failure echoes down the years as does his treatment in the Commons during the debate on the Iraq War. Heckled by Labour and Conservative members, labelled “Charlie Chamberlain” and called a coward by a Tory who wanted to invade Iraq from the safety a Common’s seat, Kennedy maintained his opposition even as Ashdown was writing to Blair to tell him he was doing the right thing. Kennedy saw the probable consequences of Iraq as he did when opposing the Tory Lib Dem coalition, speaking out against tuition fees and questioning the conduct of the No side in the Scottish referendum.

One of the chapters that Hurst added to the original biography is a consideration of Kennedy’s place in history and it is surprisingly ungenerous. Kennedy’s success, he argues, was the product of the good work done by those who preceded him and “Paddy Ashdown was the most successful third party leader since the Edwardian Liberals, not Charles Kennedy.” The last few pages are not about Kennedy at all but Nick Clegg who was “right to go into coalition” and will be judged kindly by history. It’s a strange way to end to the story of Charles Kennedy who, frankly, we are no closer to understanding at the end of the book than we were at the beginning. The defining elements in his life seem to be beyond Hurst’s ken. He uses the word “Highland” in two chapter titles without showing that he understands it and Kennedy’s Catholicism is reduced to some routine observations from a priest about sophisticated and simple faith. One suspects that there was a lot more to it than that. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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William McIlvanney

William Angus McIlvanney, Novelist, Poet, Essayist
 
Born, 25 November, 1936 – Died 5 December, 2015
 
 
IN the considered and generous opinion of his contemporary and peer, Allan Massie, William McIlvanney, who has died aged 79, was the finest Scottish novelist of his generation. While others may make the case for Alasdair Gray and, indeed, Massie himself, there is no doubt that McIlvanney found countless, discerning fans, not least among those not normally drawn to reading anything more taxing than newspaper back pages. His books, which taken as a whole may be read as paeans to a lost country and culture, evoke an era when men were hard and women wore pinnies. Some female commentators accused McIlvanney of the crime of male chauvinism but that is to deny reality. The world described by him was often violent and an excess of alcohol was invariably involved. Moreover, it was one from which women were routinely excluded, their role subservient to the men with whom they were  associated.  
 
The west of Scotland was McIlvanney’s heartland, in particular an industrial town that he called Graithnock, which was  based on Kilmarnock, his birthplace. Poverty was commonplace and sharing was “a precautionary reflex”. The portrait McIlvanney drew of that community, which would not have been alien to Emile Zola, was as unvarnished as it was unsentimental. “Sometimes,” he wrote in Docherty (1975), “men would disintegrate spectacularly, beating a wife unconscious one pellucid summer evening or going on the batter with cheap whisky for a fortnight. Such bouts of failure were not approved of, but they also never earned a permanent contempt. They were too real for that.”
 
The eponymous Tam Docherty, though only five foot four, was “a man too formidable to be patronised”. He was the first of McIlvanney’s little “big” men, who could patrol mean streets with impunity and who were conditioned to stand up to authority. Like his soulmates, such as Dan Scoular in The Big Man (1985) and Jack Laidlaw in the three novels he bestrides –  Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991) – Docherty manages to maintain his dignity in a society which has done its best to strip him of it. This is one of his creator’s enduring themes. For McIlvanney, poverty lay at the root of myriad ills and it informed, for example, his approach to tackling crime, which is Laidlaw’s raison d’être. While Laidlaw – whose preferred reading is the Spanish philosopher, Unamuno, the French novelist Albert Camus and Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian – must solve crimes he would also like to confront their causes. 
 
William ‘Willie’ McIlvanney was born in 1936, the youngest of four children – three boys and one girl – one of whom, Hugh, is an acclaimed sports writer. His father was a miner and his mother looked after the house with matriarchal pride. She was an enthusiastic reader and McIlvanney liked to remember her reciting poetry and relating stories from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Books and learning were part of family life, as was argument. By all accounts, the McIlvanneys were an eloquent, witty and contumacious clan; Willie once said his father held “a PhD in rage”. He attended Hillhead Primary School and Kilmarnock Academy. Thereafter he studied English at Glasgow University. It was the start of an enduring love affair with the place that was to feature throughout his work. His is a Glasgow of garrulous, gallus souls, low dives and dark nights and deeds; “the city of the stare” where “you never knew where the next invasion of your privateness is coming from”, where you are never alone and where every cab driver and bar-tender appears to be auditioning for a slot on the stage at the Empire. 
 
McIlvanney’s chosen career, however, was teaching, which he enjoyed while at the chalk face.  He wrote in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays. His debut novel, Remedy Is None, was published in 1966 to enthusiastic reviews. Its principal character, Charlie Grant, is an undergraduate at Glasgow whose father has scrimped and saved to send him to university. The template was Hamlet. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and nearly half a century later its author could still reel positive reviews off by heart. The Observer, for instance, said: “he creates characters so strong you feel you might not put up much of a show in their company.” Next came A Gift from Nessus (1968), which featured Eddie Cameron, a salesman in the grip of a personal crisis. It, too, was given a round of applause.
 
After a short spell teaching in Grenoble, France, McIlvanney returned to Scotland where he was promoted to principal teacher which – by his own admission – was a position he soon realized did not suit his talents. “I was running about with wee bits of paper. But I couldn’t organize a raffle. All I could do was be in the classroom. I packed it in after a year.” This coincided with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina which he was asked to cover by two newspapers. He spent seven weeks in South America which, he later admitted, may have been a contributory factor in the break-up of his marriage.
 
Docherty, his third novel, won the Whitbread Award, and was immediately decreed its author’s masterpiece. The hero, he acknowledged, owed something to his father, including his height. It was an elegy for a certain kind of man who felt defeated and unfulfilled by life and circumstances. Docherty, he wrote, “lived very much in a personal climate of squalls of sudden temper, spells of infectious pleasure that couldn’t be forecast, brief winters of brooding isolation that were apparently unrelated to events around him.” It was followed in 1977 by Laidlaw, which has since been credited with kick starting Tartan Noir, which McIlvanney took as a compliment without ever accepting he was part of that genre. Though Laidlaw bears the influence of wise-cracking, hard-boiled thrillers written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it is markedly different in style, tone and location. McIlvanney’s detective’s sympathies were very much in  line with his own. On reconnaissance in Drumchapel, Laidlaw is told by a fellow officer that the people who live there must be terrible. “I find the people very impressive,” retorts Laidlaw. “It’s the place that’s terrible. You think of Glasgow. At each of its four corners, this kind of housing-scheme. There’s the Drum and Easterhouse and Pollock and Castlemilk. You’ve got the biggest housing-scheme in Europe here. And what’s there? Hardly anything but houses. Just architectural dumps where they unloaded people like slurry. Penal architecture. Glasgow people have to be nice people. Otherwise, they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.”
 
Unlike typical thriller writers, however, McIlvanney was disinclined – or temperamentally incapable – of churning out the book a year which the market demands. He wrote slowly with pen and paper. Until relatively recently new technology was not something he felt the need to embrace. Blessed with movie star good looks – Clark Gable comes to mind –he was always dapperly dressed. When he spoke it was with the enunciation of an actor whose lines have been written by an aphorist. “A new  book,” he once said, “is a new risk or it is nothing.” He also said: “You first renew your wonder. Then you relearn the techniques to impress.” Not surprisingly, audiences at book festivals and on other occasions hung on his every word. 
 
Though his output was not prodigious he accumulated an oeuvre that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Big Man was published in 1985 and was subsequently filmed with Liam Neeson, Joanne Whalley and Billy Connolly. The Kiln, which features Tam Docherty’s son, Tom, won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award in 1996. McIlvanney was also twice winner of the Glasgow Herald’s People’s Prize;  in 1990 for Walking Wounded, a collection of stories, and in 1992 for Strange Loyalties, the third of the Laidlaw novels. His last novel, Weekend, was published in 2006. He was also an accomplished poet and essayist and wrote pungently on literature, politics and football, about all of which he cared passionately. Whisky was his lubricant of choice. Morality not materialism was his cri de coeur. He was a nationalist with a small ‘n’ and came to believe that Scotland would be better off independent. His prevailing vision was that of someone born and bred to believe that socialism offered the best hope for the most people. 
 
He is survived by his brother Hugh, his son Liam, his daughter, Siobhán, and Siobhán McCole Lynch, a teacher, who was his partner for many years.
 
 
Alan Taylor
 
[This appreciation first appeared in The Herald]

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