It seems that every time I consider how I was introduced to my favourite novelists, I’m reminded of the fax my father passed me in the autumn of 1997 containing the 100 books that had recently been voted the nation’s favourite in one of those interminable and ultimately meaningless quantifications of popular culture that appear every so often. My father offered to buy me a selection of the books for my Christmas, so I perused the list and formed my shortlist.
Some of the books I selected were by authors that would go on to become my very favourites; Tolkein, Orwell and Adams in particular. The Hobbit, 1984 and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were titles that piqued my curiosity, and I was eager to see if the books were quite as good as their rankings made claim to be (1,2 and 24 respectively). However, there was another novel that would end up being added to my manifest; the oddly titled Wasp Factory.
I can’t claim to have heard of either the book or its author, but I suspect my father must have known of its infamy and suggested I read it. And so I did. And thus began my time as a fan of Iain Banks.
I was both horrified by the plot of the Wasp Factory and thrilled by its author’s playful use of the English language (“He hit and fatally injured my innocent and unfortunate uncle whose muttered last words in hospital, before his coma became a full stop, were: ‘My God, the buggers’ve learned to fly….’”). I don’t think I’ve re-read it in the intervening 15 years, and I’m not sure I ever will. But it sparked something.
Shortly afterwards I learned that he’d written several further novels, one of which was about a rock band, from Paisley. I was from Paisley (sort of…), and I was saving up to buy a guitar! This was incredible. I bought the paperback and devoured it (‘Espedair Street’, in my opinion, has the finest opening passage to any novel ever written). What thrilled me more were the mentions of the mundane geographical locations from my own existence; the ‘new overly plush bar called Corkers’ was the facade I stared at when the bus was stuck at the traffic lights, on my way home from school and college. The ‘new pizza place, just at the Causeyside end’ was a matter of yards away from my uncle’s flat, and from where we got chips when we visited him. That was before he died of cancer.
The next of his novels I read was arguably his masterpiece, ‘The Bridge’, and is my personal favourite. Despite the complex psychological structure, I loved the more conventional romantic aspects of the story. To an extent, I empathise with/want to be Alex, and to fall in love with Andrea. It’s only in the last year or so I’ve discovered that my great-uncle worked for Arrol’s, the firm that constructed both the Forth Rail and Road Bridges, and whose founder’s name is borrowed for a character in the novel.
Over the last 13 years, I’ve slowly made my way through all of his mainstream fiction novels, and his book that was ostensibly a travelogue about Scotland’s whiskey distilleries, but which turned out to also be a platform to have the odd political rant. Of course, he was also known for writing science-fiction under the nom de plume Iain M Banks (the ‘M’ standing for Menzies, the middle name his father was allegedly supposed to register him with, but forgot). I’ve read only three of these 13 sci-fi books, for no real reason; it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the ones I did read. Still, it means I still have ten books by one of my favourite novelists to look forward to devouring.
I never met Iain Banks as such, but I did attend an audience with him during the promotion for ‘Surface Detail’ in the Waterstone’s on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. He was warm, funny, intelligent and I wondered if I would get on with him, despite our political differences, and despite me being suspicious of meeting my heroes. Iain Banks announced he had terminal gall bladder cancer in April of this year and died just eight weeks later. When I was younger, the passing of someone I idolised would have hit me with much greater force; I’m not sure what this numbness says about me. Have I accepted the certainty of death the way Banks himself appeared to?
But this isn’t about me. This is about eulogising a damn fine novelist who’s gone the crow road far too soon. I’ll continue to dodge the cat’s eyes in your honour and I’ll miss your beautiful words. Maybe someday I’ll write something that you’d have been content to put your name to. Thank you.