All Humbling Darkness

Back in the days when people got letters, it was the most exciting letter I’d ever had.

February 1993, I’m guessing.  The letter announced that the University of Aberdeen’s Department of English had appointed the writer William McIlvanney as a creative writing tutor, and  a course would be starting soon with limited availability, and if students wished to attend they should register as soon as possible, in person, at the Department of English (which in fact did everything it could to deconstruct the word ‘English’ – Scottish, Irish, and American literature held pride of place on the syllabus alongside the tolerated classics).

That morning, overcome with nerves that I might miss the opportunity, I power-walked up to King’s College and after a few minutes of excruciating lingering outside the administrative office, got my name down.  I was dizzy with excitement for the rest of the day.  It was an act that would change the course of my life.

Three years previously, at the age of seventeen, I had discovered McIlvanney. His novel Docherty  distilled the early Scottish 20th-century through the experience of one family – mass Irish immigration, slum life, the First World War and its terrible toll, the grim tyranny of the mining industry, the scramble for a shred of dignity.  It was a story that belonged to all of us and I was smitten.

At the first class I was so nervous I could barely speak. This was nothing new, however – it was a common problem for most of the Scottish state school students.  At our exemplary government schools we had been taught how to read, how to learn, how to write, how to recite poetry – but not how to compete with confident others (especially those who had been privately schooled).  But this class was different.  McIlvanney talked to us like equals, gave us photocopies of brief snippets of literature, challenged us to decipher the code.  He connected with us lost kids, the children of Scotland’s first ever socially mobile generation, and encouraged us to express our opinions and make our voices heard.

As I recall the course lasted for 8 weeks – 16 hours of my life – yet he taught me lasting lessons not only about literature but about communication and connecting with other people.  I still distinctly remember several of those classes.  There was one writing exercise where we started with an answering machine message – from a pompous Professor Clifford – and each of us scripted a message which by small increments destroyed the Professor’s life (mine was a scratchy recording from a pub phone of a mob of students drunkenly singing “Professor Clifford, Professor Clifford, you’re a horse’s arse.” Not exactly creative but my new favourite teacher laughed like a drain).

There was a stunning lesson which introduced me to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.  McIlvanney read us ‘The Refusal to Mourn, The Death By Fire, of a Child in London.’  It was astonishing stuff – perplexing yet beautiful fragments like “all humbling darkness”, “Zion of the Water Bead”, “Secret by the unmourning water.” Willie led us on  a deconstruction and interrogation line by line, but not in the rote manner I’d experienced so far during my degree – this was the work of a master craftsman, taking the engine apart piece by gleaming piece, gently polishing each component and then reassembling the poem to reveal the incredible precision of the inexplicable whole.

And there was the moment that inspired me to dedicate years of my life to writing.  A week after we submitted our first assignments, he asked me to stay back after the class.  We spent half an hour together, just me and my hero.  He took me through my short story, pointing out the strengths and the weaknesses, nudging me in new directions.  I still have those faded sheets of lined A4 with his scribbled notes.

Last night, after driving back to Luxembourg from Frankfurt, I opened the Guardian homepage and saw the news that Willie had died.

Over the last twenty years the magnitude and impact of his writing had finally found worldwide recognition.  He had been acknowledged in recent years for creating an entire genre – Tartan Noir, or Scottish Crime Writing for the uninitiated – but this is an inaccurate legacy (despite the undisputed excellence of his Laidlaw novels) because his ‘other’ writing was even better.  For me, McIlvanney tells the story of our parents and grandparents in a way that no other writer of his generation did.  In his writing, heavy industry always melded with the glamour of cinema – the local and the global smelted together in a messy and unresolvable compound.  In much the same way, he welded high literature to the everyday – he once described the Scots language as ‘English in its underpants.’  Even after thirteen years away from Scotland I still use words like ‘dreich’ (grim, rainy, drippy weather), ‘whersht’ (a sourness that makes you pucker your face) and ‘glaikit’ (a stupidity that is visible on the vacant face of the owner).  McIlvanney celebrated the richness of our abandoned language and integrated it seamlessly with the grand dialect of Shakespeare.

This morning I sit in front of my laptop and think about what he bequeathed to us. There are the novels, the short stories, the poems, the essays, the TV appearances, his teaching. But McIlvanney’s legacy is much bigger than this. He was one of a kind but at the same time an everyman of his generation. He told the story of his ancestors in a way that resonated with all of us – of how community spirit could overcome sectarianism, poverty, and war. His writing mapped the previous Scottish century and predicted the direction of the current one.

In the final class twenty-two years ago we read some of our work and drank wine.  McIlvanney’s son Liam (now an acclaimed writer himself) was there. Afterwards we went to The Machar, the campus pub, and I remember reluctantly leaving the throng, rushing out into the spring twilight to go to my dishwashing job, my feet pounding the pavement in the hope that the walk would diminish my drunkenness. It didn’t.  I clanged around in the kitchen, intoxicated not just on wine and beer but on the thrill of learning and changing and understanding the universe a bit better.

When a favourite teacher dies, a chunk of you dies too.  RIP Willie – thanks for teaching us, inspiring us, entertaining us.  You taught us how to look into the all humbling darkness and see a spark of light.

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