Lanark by Alasdair Gray and Docherty by William McIlvanney are two novels by two contemporaries which are often collected together in lists of the best which Scottish writers have ever produced. A further similarity they share is that within the past six months I finally got around to reading both.
On a BBC Scotland programme around 1980, I remember McIlvanney saying something highly provocative about the role of a writer, such as that Shakespeare’s only flaw as a writer was that he didn’t write about the working-class. In a later (1992) STV interview which is still available on You Tube, he described Docherty as an attempt to celebrate working-class life, which he felt that most literature ignored, or at best, categorised as something which should be escaped from.
Docherty is set in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, mostly during about 10 years on either side of World War One. Much of the book does evoke powerfully working-class life during the period, especially male working-class life. Scenes take place in the tiny Docherty house in High Street, Kilmarnock (which McIlvanney renames Graithnock), and in the streets around, in the coal mine where the Docherty men work, at weddings and funerals and in the countryside outside the town.
“High Street was the capital of Conn (Docherty’s) childhood and boyhood…Both as a terrain and as a population (it) was special”. Part of the present-day High Street in Kilmarnock.
“In one of the yards in Soulis Street they made wheels…you could creep into the stables under the railway arch that marked the beginning of the Foregate”. Behind is the Old High Kirk.
McIlvanney’s tone is serious and grave, moralistic, even pious. He seems to see himself almost as an anthropologist, explaining a way of life which the reader might not understand or appreciate without his help. In the 1992 TV interview he conceded that he did a lot of research, oral and reading. The result, as Alan MacGillivray suggests, is that McIlvanney’s style can be a bit too dense with imagery and that the words he puts into his characters’ mouths are often too heroic or sentimental.
For example, in these two pieces of description,
“High Street… was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”
“(Tam) saw families as little fortresses of loyalty and sanity and mutual concern, set defiantly in a landscape of legalised looting and social injustice”
However, that may be a reminder only that some of the literary giants who influenced McIlvanney (he mentions Balzac, Flaubert and Melville in a 2010 interview with the Scottish Review of Books) are figures from a hundred years or more ago.
“High Street and its continuations of Soulis Street and Fore Street made a straight line to the Cross at the centre of the town”. Only a tiny part of Soulis Street still exists. The road would have led approximately across where this car park is now located and towards the right.
Tam Docherty, who lives “in a personal climate of squalls of sudden temper, spells of infectious pleasure that couldn’t be forecast (and) brief winters of brooding isolation”, and is “several men, not all of them nice”, dominates the first half of the novel. Later, we read more about the lives of his three sons, Mick, Angus and Conn.
For me, the best parts of the novel are those which depict how his sons, each similar to their intimidating father in some ways, are able to develop differences and independence from him partly because the world they are all growing up into is different. A phenomenon which of course repeats itself every generation.
The eldest, Mick, joins the army when war is declared, even though his father thinks it a “dishonourable…capitalist war”, and his battlefield injury seems to be the point which pushes Tam to a profound sense of his failure and lack of control over his life and environment.
Angus’ more individualist impulses, shown, first, by his joining a new coal mine and “contracting for the coal” in a system of payment by results with a group of other miners, and, then, by his preferring to support financially a girl whom he has made pregnant rather than marry her, appal his father and prompt violent responses. “Ah’m better aff deid than needin’ the likes of you,” says Tam.
Finally, Conn, despite an aptitude for learning, prefers to leave school and work as a miner, ignoring his father’s statements about the importance of education and his potential for intellectual development.
“To walk through Graithnock with (his grandfather) Mairtin was (for Conn) to be ambushed at every corner by the past. From the fluted pillar inset in the wall of the Old High Kirk ‘To the memory of Lord Soulis AD 1444’ (of whose murder Mairtin was able to give an eye-witness account)”. This inscription can still be read on the curve of the arch to the left.
Because all three sons have taken key attributes from their father, the true heir of Tam Docherty is a combination of all. As Mick and Conn have been compatible from childhood, the former feels that “you an’ me’s whit’s left o’ ma faither”: he with his clear political ideas although with one arm missing from the war and Conn with physical strength and greater intelligence and imagination but ideas which are less defined. However, Angus’ capacity for hard work and belligerence is also an obvious bequest from his father, regardless of the fact that, as Angus says, “Ah wisny punching the right faces…Ah’m no playin for his team. An’ whit he kens is his team is gonny lose. An’ ah’m gonny win….”
A sharp piece of description of the social attitudes shifting around the young men shows Angus coming into the family home at a New Year party with three friends. “They were all respectful enough but their self-confidence was somehow so gaudy that they couldn’t help making the others feel that they were bystanders at a procession. Like the soldiers of an army that has never been defeated, they didn’t know to come into a place without taking it over…The others felt their separateness, each being partly defined by not being one of that vigorous group who wore their smiles like badges (and) seemed to have taken out a joint lease on the 1920s”.
“(Conn) found that thirty people had once been crushed to death in the old Laigh Kirk during a panic when the congregation thought the roof was falling in.”
Kilmarnock Cross, to where “(Tam Docherty and Tadger Daly) had just stepped down…to bring in the New Year.” At the time when the novel was set, another statue, of Sir James Shaw, would have stood here rather than this of Burns. The street to the right of the curved building is the present-day version of Fore Street.
“Conn tended more and more to happen offstage. His favourite place was in the Kay Park..”
Many are McIlvanney’s statements of working-class solidarity in the novel but no suggestion that political parties might be the conduits of that solidarity, until the last three pages when we hear that war veteran Mick has joined the Communist Party. This perhaps is a summary of how class loyalty for a man like Tam is a deep, inbred natural practice, which needs no formal leadership or assembly point. His shouted arguments against Angus’ proto-capitalism are not fully formed: “It’s too late for arrangements. A copper here, a bit of paper there…ma joab (is) tae deny them every day o’ ma’ life.” His admiration for Keir Hardie is mentioned as a “familiarity with a friend” rather than a follower of political ideals.
Likewise with trade unions. There is clear evidence of the solidarity between working men, such as at the pit accident at the end. However there are few mentions of union organisation, and one of the most noticeable is that of a strike which has failed, which leads Tam Docherty to say bleakly, “This is the feenish”.
In the story it tells and the way it is written, Docherty definitely reads like a book from a different era.
McIlvanney, William (1987) Docherty London: Sceptre