Tribute to Willie by his brother, Hugh McIlvanney                           From the Memorial Service, 2nd April 2016

Willie’s literary status and the fact that I was doing some writing of another kind could produce a few peculiar effects years back in our home town of Kilmarnock.  A bar we visited together from time to time was run by a couple we knew quite well and when Marie was in charge she had a standard greeting for us.  “Ahhh,” she would say as we entered, “the Brothers Grimm.”

I don’t think Marie was implying that our company was particularly gothic, though we had to plead guilty to turning barroom discussion a trifle intense occasionally.  Certainly we couldn’t be accused of dispensing fairy tales.  Enough of the locals around us were adept at that.

Willie took pleasure in being an audience at the story-telling sessions.  He was especially pleased when Mick Murphy, a Kilmarnock worthy I mentioned at Willie’s funeral in December, hit his stride.  Mick could be defined as a tongue-in-cheek fantasist.  When adjacent to a pub gantry, he practised a version of Magic Realism that Gabriel Garcia Marquez wouldn’t have recognised but which had plenty to commend it.

One of his narratives began with the arresting words:  “When I was on the Murmansk convoys during the war…”  Well, we were entitled to assume that Mick was never closer to those Arctic voyages of World War II than the Harbour Bar at Troon -- and I’m not referring to a topographical feature of the Ayrshire coastline but to a seafront hostelry where very few dry martinis were served.

“One day I was on the bridge with the captain,” said Mick.  Willie and I suggested the captain must have felt privileged to be allowed on the bridge along with him but he pressed on:  “All of a sudden, a U-Boat surfaces, the lid of the conning tower is raised and up he comes.  The usual paraphernalia -- goalie’s jersey, skippit bunnet, binoculars.  But I’ve got my binoculars on him, tae.  So I nudged the skipper and told him:  “He’s gonnae torpedo us, sir.”

“How do you know that, Murphy?”  “Because,” I said, “I can lip-read in 10 languages.”

Another of Mick’s claims was that he was the onlie begetter of the James Bond stories and that they had been larcenously removed from his possession by Ian Fleming.  Willie sympathised but asked why, in spite of the disheartening setback, Mick wasn’t carrying on with the writing.  “Y’know son,” answered the victim of plagiarism, “I’ve scoured the toon and there’s not a sheet of foolscap to be had anywhere.”

Now Willie was no more fond of practical jokes than I am.  But he decided to make a minor and fairly benign exception in Murphy’s case.  So a couple of days after the revelation of the foolscap famine, he sought out Mick in his regular haunt, moved aside the statutory pint of heavy and slapped down a small pile of virgin paper.  “There you are, Mick,” he said.  “You’re ready to go.”

The wronged writer looked at Willie with a mixture of the knowing and the plaintive.  “Would you happen to have a pen on you, son?” he asked.

Though Willie’s light-hearted side was a big part of his appeal, it went nowhere near explaining the depth of affection -- I think we can call it love -- he drew from so many people -- especially, of course, in Scotland.  A far more profound magnetism was at work.  For any writer as serious as Willie to have become such a familiar and cherished figure in the life of this country is, I think, something more phenomenal than we sometimes realise.  Any explanation of it is bound to sound simplistic but I’m sure we have to start with the absolute and inviolable authenticity of his writing voice, whether in his fiction and poems, his journalism or the pieces that made his appearances at book festivals, particularly in Edinburgh, so riveting.

When I said at his funeral that his intelligence acted like a blowtorch on the spurious and the pretentious and that he had an ear attuned to the intricate poetry of seemingly ordinary lives, I had to add quickly that the word seemingly was essential because Willie knew that scarcely any lives, if looked at closely enough, are all that ordinary.  I suspect the committed recognition of that reality, which pulses through his work, is one major reason why he stirred such a warm and personalised response in his readers.

The people who went up to him in the street or wanted to talk to him in restaurants or at taxi ranks weren’t reacting as if to a celebrity.  They felt in an important way that they knew him.  But often it seemed there was more to their attitudes and I don’t believe I’m over-reaching when I say it was a sense that they recognised he had been doing something vital on their behalf, something as basic as championing the relevance of their lives.

They could afford to feel they had a genuine heavyweight in the ring, a big hitter both as a creative artist and at the highest levels of intellectual debate.  Willie’s credentials in that second sphere don’t have to be underlined but anybody who wants to check them out should read the essay entitled “The Sacred Wood Revisited”, which was published as accompaniment to his poetry “These Words:  Weddings and After” in 1984.

“The Sacred Wood”, a collection of essays on poetry and criticism by T.S. Eliot, dates from the 1920s but between then and Eliot’s death in 1965 he showed little sign of adjusting or diluting the fundamental principles expressed in it.  And at the heart of those principles was an elitism of such chilling patrician rigour that Willie was compelled to expend about 10,000 words vigorously challenging it.  I think he succeeded impressively with arguments much too detailed and carefully constructed to be summarised here and the case he built tells us quite a lot about the processes of mind that drove his own endeavours.

Naturally, he showed huge respect for Eliot’s intelligence and his mighty erudition while reeling slightly before the total absence of the self-doubt that Willie considered a crucial pivot of the highest intelligence.  He found Eliot’s pomposity sufficiently breathtaking to speculate that he left not a note for the milkman but an illuminated manuscript.  The central problem, however, was with what Willie saw as the malignant premise underpinning Eliot’s criticism, which my brother described as a kind of literary capitalism that declared:  “Your heritage belongs to me because you wouldn’t know what to do with it and I’m the man with the erudition in the bank.” 

Willie wrote the Sacred Wood essay because he felt the cultural elitism of such as Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound -- their severely hierarchical concept of sensibility -- had continued to flourish long after they were dead.  He conceived it as saying:  “Since the public is such an unappreciative rabble, poetry should not concern itself with them.  Let it develop the sensibilities of the few.”  Willie despised the patrician eagerness to dismiss a vast swathe of humanity as beyond the pale as far as culture was concerned.  In that confrontation, he ranked himself among the plebs against Coriolanus.

He was proud to be of the working class but he didn’t romanticise it.  He accepted that on any council estate or in any pub you were liable to find individuals as spectacularly immune to principle as Boris Johnson is.  And he never imagined that there could be equality in the capacity to gain maximum reward from great literature or the other arts.  He was sharply aware of the culturally disenfranchising effect of inadequate education.  He recognised as indisputable the preciousness of erudition, and had accumulated a fair amount of it along the way.  But he stated his abhorrence of what he identified as the attempt to teach most of us that our lives can at best provide fodder, raw material for that marvellous art which will eventually feed the esoteric sensibilities of the very few.

Willie believed fervently that there were sufficient commonalities in the experience of being human to oblige a writer  (and this is a quote) to make his words comprehensible and relevant to and concerned with as many people as possible while sacrificing as little as possible of the complexity of what he is trying to articulate.  His unflagging openness to the constant wonders of that human experience is vividly conveyed in these lines:

          In any street an epic, any room
          Strange stories never told, testaments dumb.
          The richness overwhelms.  A chance remark
          Can touch new land, unload another ark.
          Transactions of small change will sometimes yield
          Coins of a minting you have never held.
          Break any casual stone and find strange veins.
          The colours blind.  The anecdotes will range
          Through wild geographies of spirit, form
          Plain men with unknown flowers in their arms.
          In each face new horizons, any day
          An archaeology more rich than Troy.

When it came to the digs associated with that archaeology, we all benefited from having Willie’s hand on the trowel.

Hugh McIlvanney