William McIlvanney, 1936-2015

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William McIlvanney

My Italian translator, friend, musician and frequent collaborator, Seba Pezzani, asked if I would contribute to an article he was writing about the Scottish author, William McIlvanney, and I was pleased to agree.

Here’s the link to Seba’s article – useful if you want to brush up your Italian … and below is my little contribution …

The first time I met William McIlvanney was at a crime writing festival in Frontignan in the south of France, a country where we were both published by François Guerif, chef of Rivages Noir. I’d already read much of McIlvanney’s work, of course, the crime novels featuring Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw, as well as other titles, including ‘Docherty’ and ‘The Big Man’.

McIlvanney didn’t often attend these kind of events and I think only his long-standing friendship with François had brought him all the way from Scotland. As can often be the case when people are known more from their absence than their presence, rumours about him abounded: he was a heavy drinker, hard to get along with and possessed of a strong if not violent temper. The man I met could hardly have been more different; quite softly spoken, sober, charming even – handsome, certainly. We were staying a little way out of Frontignan and each evening we were there, at Willie’s suggestion – Willie, that was what he insisted I call him- we would stroll along to the café at the end of the street and sit at one of the corner tables outside, talking of this, that and everything else over a glass of single malt. I think it was Abalour.

Ian Rankin has made no secret of the fact that Laidlaw and McIlvanney’s portrait of Glasgow were a strong and direct influence on his character Rebus and his portrayal of Edinburgh. In my case, the influence was less direct, but no less strong. I’d also read – at around the same time, though they’d been published earlier – the Martin Beck novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which, in a not dissimilar way to McIlvanney, used the medium of crime fiction and the figure of the detective as instruments to open up and explore contemporary urban life. Resnick and Nottingham were not so far away.

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This is Your Life (so far …)

The writer, Jack Trevor Story, used to tell how he looked at the list of Birthdays in The Guardian each year to see if he were alive or dead. In his case that little ritual would have occurred on the 30th of March. Never having existed as far as the compilers of said list are concerned [And just who are they? Grizzled old obituary writers? Or interns let loose on Who’s Who?] whenever December 21st comes round I try to be disciplined and not look at all, thus avoiding the inevitable disappointment. But this year, somewhere between seven and eight in the morning, first coffee of the day at my side, I flicked open the relevant section and there I was. John Harvey, crime writer, 80. It would be lying to say that my initial prick of surprise was not followed by a small surge of pride.

Bday

Pathetic, you might think, but hey … 80. And in what company! Flanked by perhaps my favourite tennis player of all time, and one of my favourite guitarists [last glimpsed, some while back, in the Everly Brothers’ band at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall], and closely guarded by no less than Jane Fonda and Samuel L Jackson. What a pair!

And it was not only The Guardian … Totally unknown to me, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature had put considerable time and energy into creating an entry on their website called simply John Harvey at 80. A lengthy survey of my life and writing career, together with a broad choice of book jackets and contributions from a number of people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, including Giles Croft, former artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, screenwriter Billy Ivory and, in a brief but welcome video message, crime writer, Ian Rankin, You can check it out here …

Finally, the photographic evidence, birth certificate included. From the angelic lad in the tin bath (things were hard back in those far off days), through heaven knows what strange incarnations to the bald and bespectacled sage of today.

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