Tribute to Willie - by Francis Bickmore            

In memory of William McIlvanney 1936-2015

Willie and I first met with Jenny Brown, his devoted and tireless agent of recent years. It was in a tent one memorable Edinburgh book festival in 2012. I was immediately in awe and a bit in love with the man.

His composure. The grace of his language. Each sentence considered, correct and transcribable. His handsome face and immaculate suited style, like an Ayrshire Clark Gable. And the dignity with which he spoke.  What an inspiration and example. What a true gentleman.

He also had a way of cutting through bullshit. When telling him how much I and my colleagues enjoyed and admired his work, he looked at me for a second with those sparkling blue peepers of his, then said,
'Well that's very nice to hear Francis, but let's see if that amounts to anything in reality.'

I think they call that a bullshit radar.


Fortunately in reality what Canongate's enthusiasm meant was exactly one year on, at the Edinburgh book festival 2013, the Laidlaw trilogy was relaunched and selling in droves. These were the first of ten of his books brought back into print. They've sold over a hundred thousand copies since. With sales of the Laidlaw novels into eight languages and counting.

We knew Canongate was just a small part of a grand career as a writer that began with publication of Remedy is None 50 years ago this year.

Everyone in the Canongate office loved his visits. One coincided with a staff meeting. With a tear in his eye he expressed his gratitude for what he called our Pentecostal passion in republishing his work. He likened it to a ‘resurrection’. That had us on the edge. Then when he told us how young and beautiful we all were, all forty of us melted. Men and women alike.

What we were thinking was how wise and beautiful he was. By the end of the meeting there wasn't a dry eye in the house....Not what we're used to at a staff meeting. Especially not in Edinburgh.

And it's true it's easy to be evangelical about books you love. But the fact is the passion was held equally by booksellers, by critics, by other writers, by foreign editors and crucially by readers. We've all brought these books back and we'll all help to keep them alive.

What of the books, then? Socially-conscious, morally complex, lyrical, philosophical and laced with sardonic wit. What more could you ask for in a book? Or in a human being? It’s no wonder the books have had such influence.

At another Edinburgh book festival event thirty years ago a young Ian Rankin joined the signing queue. Willie inscribed a book to him with the words 'good luck for the Edinburgh Laidlaw'. I must ask Ian how that worked out...

By distilling a blend of Chandler, Camus and Calvin and playing it out against an unvarnished Glasgow, Willie inadvertently gave birth to Scottish crime writing as we now know it. Something which has now become one of Scotland’s biggest and proudest exports.

There were many highlights of his career. Receiving the Whitbread prize for Docherty in 1975 was bookended with the public voting Docherty one of the 10 Favourite Scottish Novels of the Last 50 Years in 2014. Sean Connery lobbying to play Jack Laidlaw in the 70s was echoed by the books being freshly optioned for TV forty years later. Liam Neeson bringing The Big Man to life on film in 1990.  The standing ovation he received for his lifetime achievement award at Bloody Scotland festival.  Willie being interviewed at Harrogate crime festival by Ian Rankin generating yet another standing ovation. The Saltire Society Fletcher of Saltoun Award in 2013, the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award in 2014. But most of all, the continual love of his readers. It's a mighty career.

As that other great secular humanist, Montaigne, who Willie so admired said,

‘To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.’

Through his books I feel sure Willie will be alive in a hundred years hence.

I can hear Willie now,
‘Well that's very nice to hear Francis, but let's see if that amounts to anything in reality.'

That's up to us all.


Francis Bickmore
Canongate Books
2 April 2016

From the William McIlvanney Memorial Service, 2nd April 2016