Tribute to Willie by his brother, Hugh McIlvanney

From William McIlvanney's Funeral Service, 16th December 2015

I hope you’ll forgive me if restraint isn’t particularly conspicuous when I talk about my brother.  I think it’s a realistic hope because so many of you feel, as I do, that Willie was more than a wee bit exceptional.

That I loved him deeply is no more than natural.  Blood alone would account for that.  Our lives could hardly have been more entwined when we were young -- sleeping in the same bed for quite a few of the early years and mingling our boyish adventures and dreams of the future. The bond created was almost bound to be beyond the possibility of erosion.

Being immensely proud of him was also pretty much automatic.  How could I not be proud of somebody with an intelligence that worked like a blowtorch on the spurious and the pretentious, and whose ear was so attuned to the intricate poetry of seemingly ordinary lives?  I say seemingly because Willie knew that scarcely any lives, if looked at closely enough, are all that ordinary.

The rewards of all his accurate listening and observing were conveyed by a writing voice that achieved universality through uniqueness.  Willie’s readers felt that in the most personal way he was talking directly to them.  That’s why he was so rich in what he called street reviews, why he would be thrilled when a wee woman in the taxi queue at Central Station made a point of telling him how Docherty or The Kiln had affected her.

It’s why he was amused and pleased that one of his most-quoted lines was given theatrical treatment when a man standing beside him at a bar suddenly spoke while gazing fixedly ahead at the gantry, and recited:  “It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.”

Few major writers -- and Willie was unquestionably a major writer -- have forged as intimate a relationship with the people who read their books.  He did that, of course, without the slightest effort to be profitably populist.  Part of his appeal was that he never sought to dilute the seriousness of what he had to say.  He often wrote with an epigrammatic eloquence, spilling forth memorable phrases, but always there was a predominant spareness.  His is a prose that can deliver profundities out of the side of its mouth.

In person, too, he could have a riveting effect.  Plainly he did, to the benefit of his students, when he was a schoolteacher and later when writer in residence at universities in this country and in France and Canada.  Many of those he taught will tell you of an inspiring influence that goes on reverberating through their lives.

The magnetism was deployed more lightly in his annual sell-out appearances at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and similar performances elsewhere.  Such occasions were frequently awash with laughter, for Willie was adept at developing hilarious riffs on ostensibly banal subjects.  It’s true that in charming those gatherings, especially the invariably large female contingent, his looks were no disadvantage.  He was a braw boay, even when he was an elderly man.  My attempts to appear rough but interesting didn’t really cut it when I was near enough for comparison.

Willie could be just as effective when speaking in public with purposes more weighty than the provision of entertainment at the book festivals.  You’ve all heard him on politics.  He believed that fundamental human values made it natural to embrace socialism.  We shared a detestation of Thatcherism and its Darwinian economics, the creed that distorts the virtues of individual initiative into polices suggesting the success of a life can be measured according to a capacity for trampling down those less fortunate or less able.

When the referendum on independence came along, he had a say but I, having worked in London for 50 years, did not.  However, we agreed that it would be sad if Scotland, an unmistakably left-leaning country, opted for continued exposure to the English electorate’s recurring willingness to vote in right-wing governments.  A majority of Scots regard themselves as too enlightened and too compassionate to be aligned with such regimes. Willie said it was time the nation called its own bluff.

He put the case powerfully, if unavailingly.  His polemical skills had progressed noticeably since they were first exercised in the couple of council houses in Kilmarnock that were our homes through childhood and youth.  Ours was a warm and loving family in which basic relationships were never fraught.  But we were a disputatious bunch.  Opinions collided like dodgem cars and -- whether the subject was books or politics, religion, sport or just the ways of world -- our working principle seemed to be:  why settle for a discussion when you could have the richer pleasures of argument?  Late-night debates in the living room could reach an intensity that would have been difficult to subdue without the use of water cannon.

Willie wrote quite a lot, both explicitly and indirectly, about the family and some of you will know that my father was a man of scant education but high intelligence and with a strength of nature that meant vehemence was never in short supply.  He had no hesitation about becoming a pragmatic, rather than a theological, pioneer of the ecumenical movement.  His children were all baptised Catholics but, having enrolled the first two, Betty and Neil, at St Joseph’s in the middle of Kilmarnock, he subsequently sent me and then Willie to a protestant school which was by that time closer to where we lived.  Presumably, citing the dangers of negotiating traffic as justification would have left the Pope unconvinced.

Our father was a tough wee man, teetotal and muscularly fit until cancer took him early.  He was also a romantic with entrepreneurial tendencies, forever dreaming up extremely minor business ventures that duly failed and left our mother dealing with the debris.  But there was no faltering in her love for him or in her sense of his worth.  “When he was there,” she once told me, “I never knew a moment’s fear.”  He gave his children the same sense of security.

Our mother was much the more literate of our parents.  In spite of having gone to work in a textile mill at 13, she wrote well and was a lover of poetry.  Day in, day out, she was a self-sacrificing wonder of our lives, often easy to mistake for a saint with cardboard in her shoes.

It wasn’t simply because Willie and I were the youngest of four siblings in the house that we were deeply impressed and influenced by our sister Betty and brother Neil.  They were formidable characters, with brains that deserved better educational opportunities than circumstances allowed them.  It was nothing less than a joyous triumph for our family when Willie came to this great house of learning.  My sister and my brothers have gone but many of their qualities are vibrantly represented in their offspring.  The present generation of cousins now constitutes the basis of our family. 

Today we are especially concerned with supporting Willie’s two brilliant children, the distinguished doctors Siobhán and Liam, and we are remembering with gratitude how much their mother, Moira, did to help make them as remarkable as they are.  They in turn gave Willie the immeasurable joy of seven delightful grandchildren.  I’ve no doubt Siobhán and Liam can feel the loving empathy and sharing of grief coming from Neil’s sons, William, Neil and David, from my own cherished pair Liz and Conn, and from Betty’s daughters Elaine and Trish, who were far closer to Willie (and are to me) than any uncle-niece connection could ever explain.

We all know nobody is experiencing greater pain today than Willie’s adoring and adored partner Siobhán, who brought such happiness and nourishment of spirit to his later years.  She and we can be grateful that she has the support of her own splendid family, particularly of her sons, Kevin, Mickey and Barry and daughter Clare, and of her three sisters. I’m sure Una and Nuala won’t mind if I single out Deirdre, whose help in caring for Willie near the end was a monumental marathon of kindness.

We’ll all have our special memories of Willie and my archive is obviously vast and varied.  Prominent will be recollections of our musings on the greatest of all writers.  Willie’s devotion to Shakespeare was as close as he ever got to worship, though he wasn’t exactly lukewarm about such as Proust, Montaigne or the Russian he liked to call Big Fyodor.

More trivially, I’ll recall the loony competitiveness that would stretch a series of scrabble games between us non-stop over 24 hours, and how Willie revelled in the tales told to us by a Kilmarnock worthy, Mick Murphy, who would casually let slip that he could lip-read in 10 languages.

After Laidlaw was published to notable acclaim, I suggested it might make commercial sense for Willie to move to London or even to America, where the book had evoked some fairly rapturous reactions.  I wasn’t surprised, of course, when he decided he wanted to stay close to the roots of his inspiration.  Had he travelled south and met up with the literary circle of such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes, the results could have been intriguing.  One or two north London dinner parties might have had need of bouncers.  Willie wasn’t by nature physically warlike but he was inclined to swing the odd verbal haymaker.

It breaks my heart that he’s no longer around to throw a few at me.

Hugh McIlvanney

(This tribute featured in the Sunday Times December 2015)