Tribute to Willie - by Ali Smith          

We had no idea how lucky we were about to be.
I was one of the intake of first years at Aberdeen University in 1980.  In those days the notion of a creative writing fellow was exotic.  The notion of meeting a writer at all was quite exotic. The notion that you might be able to show something you’d written to not just a writer, but a writer who’d actually published real books – it was like a dream.  So, first of all, there was that.  And now, when I look back at that time and realise that the writer we were about to meet was Willie – William McIlvanney  – I really can’t believe our luck.  A bit as if that day, when a small bunch of us went to the initial meeting they’d set up to see if any students were likely to want to meet and work with a writer, it’s rather like Isobel Murray, who was one of the people who made this thing possible at Aberdeen – had looked round the room at the seven or eight of us and said, well, we’ve managed to get Albert Camus, then, he’ll be here six weeks every term, I hope that’ll do ... 

We knew our luck, though, as soon as Willie came.  We were a small group of disparate students of differing ages and very different lives, is what I remember, and immediately something about him made us a cohesive group – a group that lasted way beyond the weekly meetings we had, a group that was still running five years later when I left Aberdeen, and whose friendships, for me, have been lifelong.  Then, individually, he took us seriously as writers, I mean really seriously.  He treated what we showed him with a graciousness that still almost makes me blush, and with a real critical attentiveness, and in this he took each of us seriously as the writer that each of us was capable of being.  He took our potentialities to heart.
So that was what a writer was, in the world.  So that was what a writer did.
Myself, I was scrawny and fledgling, so hopelessly lacking in confidence I didn’t even have underconfidence.  Willie didn’t just give me confidence, he taught me that whether I had confidence or not was irrelevant – you had to just do the work, and those are some of the real gifts that I myself owe Willie, and I remember showing him two poems, they were both about pretty much the most epic thing in my life right then, which was taking the train between Inverness and Aberdeen at the weekends, and I mean, first, he understood and allowed such a thing to have an epic nature – first he understood us and where we were coming from.  Second, he took these two train poems and put them beside each other  – one was short, barely sixty words long, just a throwaway thing, and the other I was very proud of because it went to three or four pages, I thought it was really witty, I thought I’d caught the rhythm of train in it, I was proud of myself for having been able to hold forth at intercity length.  He put the long one to one side.  He held up the short one.  He read it out.  It sounded great.  He gave me a nod.  Then he said, see how much more it’s possible to say, Alison, in the not saying.

He knew I wanted to be a writer.  He told me I could be and I should be.  I can’t tell you how much that permission, that passing on of a shared mission, meant.  I know it meant all the more because we all knew that Willie didn’t compromise.  We knew he was true.  He knew that my friend Kenny, Kenny Farquharson, wanted to be a journalist.  He looked round the room and knew us all in our fledgling states for the possibilities we held and we were.  One of the reasons we became the people we became is because we met Willie McIlvanney for eighteen weeks when we were eighteen years old.  And we had a sense that he had made himself himself against odds. We had the inkling of the revelation, in being given time with Willie, that education was a more multilayered thing than we knew, and that the intellect and the world we lived in were in an endless dialogue, and that we’d better be up to both sides of that dialogue.  
At the end of that time with us, he put up the money, out of his own salary, to pay for a book in which we all got published.  He put us on our own map.
The giving of permission. The paying of attention.  The granting of open territory.  The not wasting of words.  Plus, as everyone here knows, his charisma was legendary, his presence made things possible and made things happen, because it granted the ordinary and the overlooked real status.  His charisma was a huge unselfishness.  His charisma gave us charisma.
I met him three or four years later, after that first year at Aberdeen. I went to a reading he was doing in Edinburgh, I literally hadn’t seen him for all that time – I was just a kid, a kid he’d met when he was doing a brief stint at a university – but he remembered me, he remembered my name, he stopped in the middle of the reading he was doing and said something like, isn’t that right, Alison?  To Willie everything was something, everybody was somebody; everything mattered, everybody was engaged with on terms which didn’t just know,but insisted upon, his or her worth.
This I should have expected from his books.  In 1980 we were meeting, we were hanging out with, our scruffy bits of paper were being momentarily lit by, the attentiveness, the deep existentialism in combination with something merciful and human, that makes Docherty, to take just one of Willie’s books, such a core and crucial work.  We were being understood and granted ourselves in the same way as Willie sees Tam Docherty, a man who was so much ‘more than anything in his life showed him to be, and he knew it.’  We were being made to know it ourselves.  Even a brief spell with Willie and you remembered not just your worth but the impetus to know it, and the worth of everyone, and truly.  Docherty – the effect it had on us.  Conn scoring out the English equivalents for the Scots words on a scruffy bit of paper, then keeping that bit of paper close to him, carrying it about for days.  Jenny, sewing a piece of moleskin so it’ll keep her boy dry in the trenches : ‘against the ravening insanity of nations, a cunning skill for keeping out the damp’.  The miners, experts in ‘the art of constructing tunnels that led to blank walls, like entombed men studying the aesthetics of escape’.  The refusal, all through Docherty, in the face of futility, to admit futility.
He wasn’t always an easy man, Willie.  He gave me a hard time once for wearing ‘boys’ clothes’ : ‘is that you wearin boy’s claes, Alison?’  He gave me a hard time, later in the 1980s, for leaving Scotland to go to university in the south.  His giving you a hard time was part of his uncompromising ethos, part of the discipline of his generosity.  He had no time for narcissism.  And now I’m also thinking of his gentleness, and graciousness.  And all through my life, how the writer in me was always understood, how the thin fledglings we were, were given from the start that understanding plus a vision of fierce articulacy, an articulacy that could hold oppositions such as toughness and generosity, Scottish understatement combined with generous hyperbole, the fusing into a very powerful force of all the oppositions that go to make us who we are.

Because of this and him, I will always be a bit uneasy, always checking myself to see that I’m paying the attention, knowing the worth, hearing the dialogue, working at getting it right.  I think any and every writer who had the grace of knowing him even a little like we did, will be familiar with giving themselves exactly this kind of good hard time.
There’s this, from near the end of Docherty: ‘They felt the gratitude always owed to those who enlarge our sense of ourselves.’  I owe Willie McIlvanney big time.  I owe him me.  I was lucky, we were lucky, to be taught what a writer was and what a writer could be by such a writer. 
And this, two lines from one of his poems:
       ‘This is the praise for the generous givers,
        The thanks, unasked for gratitude’

From all of us, from me, here’s endless gratitude, with love.

Ali Smith

From the William McIlvanney Memorial Service, 2nd April 2016