[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how it would turn out until I got to the end.]
1 February 2016
Eighteen chapters covering eleven years, starting with the birth of Conn Docherty (short for Cornelius, his grandfather’s name) in a prologue set in 1903. The working world of Graithnock, a fictionalised Kilmarnock, seems timelessly unchanging. That’s how McIlvanney wants it to seem, and he also wants the sense of stasis to be illusory. Before the penultimate chapter in Part 1 there is never any sense of the turning year, only the occasional scene when a cold winter or a balmy summer night becomes a key detail. Nobody notices the first time in spring when a shift ends in twilight, ending a winter during which Monday to Friday are one long night for these men. What McIlvanney wants is for the reader to be like the denizens of the dark town, unaware of the unstoppable forward momentum towards an even darker time. By the end of Part 1 – and yes, I had been waiting for it – it’s 1914. Oh dear.
There are things I like about this book. McIlvanney seems to have decided to make working class life heroic, starting not with Conn but with Tam, his father. I suppose it’s clear from the start that Conn will be the main character – why start with his birth otherwise? – but for whole chapters of the novel we’re with Tam. We are inside the points of view of almost every character at different times but, before the final chapter of this section, never for long. We don’t know about Tam’s experience down the pit because we never follow him there. The action, with only one exception I can think of, all takes place within the geographical limits of what a child knows. We might get inside the thoughts of Conn’s devoted, hard-working mother, or any of the other characters for that matter, but it’s only in the context of a particular moment. We rarely follow his mother, or any of Conn’s siblings, Kathleen, Michael and Angus, outside the family house. It makes the narrative a strange hybrid: multiple points of view, but with its wings clipped.
But I was talking about heroism. We see Tam’s from the start – he behaves like a good father should at the birth of his fourth child – and it is confirmed regularly. He is uneducated, not in full control of his own emotions – he feels an almost constant rage at his own powerlessness in a system with everything stacked against the working man – and he is as thoughtful and open to the poetic possibilities of existence as any man. There is a set-piece chapter in which he accompanies a neighbour on an expedition to poach salmon, and it becomes a kind of epiphany. The summer night seems to open up a future full of possibilities… and then, before the chapter is over, reality returns.
Mostly, what we see in Tam is the good man, the one who stands up for what is right. He might not be big, but you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with him on a matter of principle. He was brought up a Catholic, and feels unmoored by his loss of faith. But he won’t have any priest telling him how to bring up his children. He let two of them go to the Catholic school, but Conn and one of his brothers go to the local primary. When the big, bullying priest turns up to harangue him, he stands up to him. Of course he does. We’ve seen something like it before, when once a big, drunken stranger is staring into the front window of the old lady fallen on hard times who lives opposite. Whilst other men gather around, doing nothing, Tam, roused from inside his house, becomes Gary Cooper in High Noon. He outwits the man in a fist fight – but then, to his own mortification later, he goes too far and kicks the man when he is down. His own anger doesn’t usually get the better of him like that….
Another incident, following the death of his mother, sums up his heroism in a different way. He hears his own siblings talking about how they couldn’t possibly take their father in, now that he will be unable to live on his own. They talk of the ‘Home’, and Tam angrily forces them to use its proper name, the poor-house. He tells them all, of course, that he will have no problem taking the old man in. The father as hero. I’m hoping that McIlvanney is deliberately giving us the childish view of the parent in order to subvert it further down the line. But I have my doubts.
The arrival of the staunchly Catholic grandfather becomes one of the times when McIlvanney turns the focus on to Conn. This doesn’t happen in every chapter, but now we see the effect on the family partially from Conn’s point of view. He works out the new dynamic, at first joining in with Angus, the would-be hard man, in making fun of their grandfather’s boring old stories of Ireland. You can imagine Tam’s reaction – he reminds them, with that unswerving sense of justice that is becoming completely predictable, of their heritage – and Conn learns something else to go with all the other lessons of the street. McIlvanney has been as diligent as an anthropologist – far too diligent, in my view – in his presentation of the street’s moral codes. He explains the protocols concerning cheating and theft – nobody would dream of either of them – and, if adultery ever does take place, it is usually sorted out in the Graithnock version of a duel. Fist-fights on matters of principle are rare, but not unknown.
These unspoken conventions are what Conn is learning – and, as I’ve already hinted, I wish McIlvanney had let the reader learn them along with him. There’s a lot of telling, when we could have worked things out for ourselves…. But never mind that. Conn has a reputation from an early age of being the clever one in the family – he soon takes over from the reluctant Angus the job of reading the newspaper to his grandparents – and, for some chapters, I assumed that McIlvanney was going to go the well-trodden route of the child estranged from its parents through education. (It’s the route taken, then not taken, by Chris in Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, that archetypal Scots novel about a working community before and after WW1. McIlvanney himself, university educated, was the son of a miner.) But, when Conn is around the age of ten, that possibility seems to be closing down. He is doubly punished after a fight because he refuses to use Standard English in explaining himself, and it seems to create in him a determination to stick with his roots. With hands still painful from having been strapped, he scrawls a Scots-English glossary for himself, then scratches out the English. Ok. The bullying teacher already seems to have given up on any idea of Conn being able to go to a better school when the time comes the following year.
Part 2 ends, following the bombshell revelation of the fateful year, 1914, with a chapter entirely focused on Conn. The countryside surrounding the town, which had always been a place of adventure and exploration ¬for him, has almost entirely lost its magic by the time he reaches the age of eleven. It is as much a symbol of his life as the glossary, this time representing the childhood he feels he is leaving behind. ‘Scattered throughout … lay hopes of an impossibility such as only a boy’s heart can encompass, preposterous ambitions, fragile dreams.’ In the final paragraph his fate seems sealed. He returns to his street and decides that ‘the geography of his future would be discovered among these things that greeted his return.’ He sees men walking home from work. ‘One day he would be one of them. And he was glad.’
Augh. For over 130 pages we have seen Conn’s father chafing against the limitations of his own upbringing and the working life he and everybody else have been forced into. And here is Conn, eleven years old, looking forward to exactly the same thing. He is turning his back on the green promise of another world because – because what? There is a gritty, stolid attractiveness in the life he knows, one that McIlvanney has been keen to establish, and he seems to have been taken in by its allure.
Where to start? There’s a lot that I hugely admire in this section, which takes us through the War years and, in the final chapter, to the eve of the 1920s. Mick, the mild eldest brother, suddenly becomes as important a character as Conn and Tam when he enlists. Three or four separate chapters are focused entirely on his experiences, and two of these chapters are amongst the best things I’ve ever read about WW1. In one, Mick attempts to write home following the death of the boy he enlisted with. Even before the wretchedness of his death – I’ll spare you the details – he had been descending into a life of obsessive, syphilitic sleaze. Mick starts to compose the usual lies, and gives up.
A few chapters later, we don’t know where we are. (McIlvanney often disorientates us in this way in the openings of new chapters.) Whoever’s head we’re inside – we only slowly realise it’s Mick’s – he is obsessively, piece by painstaking piece, attempting to assemble his surroundings into a recognisable space. He doesn’t mind it, although it is taking him days and days, and he begins to realise that he’s piecing together some kind of sense of himself at the same time. When he becomes more or less fully conscious (which is a concept that ceases to have much meaning for him, ever) he is pleased that he has only lost one eye and the lower half of his right arm. At least he is alive, not like… and he remembers the wretched deaths he’s witnessed over something like two, maybe three years. The War is over for him. Except it isn’t. Whenever we encounter Mick from now on, he is a stranger not only from all those who have no experience of the War, but from the person he was before. Between them, he and Tam are able to bring him a little closer to everyday reality, but we know it’s always going to be a struggle.
That’s one thread. There are three others main ones, to do with staging-posts in the lives of the Docherty males, and who knows how many minor ones. As in Part 1, there is so much else going on in the immediate neighbourhood that their individual stories are inextricable from the world of the pit and the town’s dirty industries. Tam’s own crisis, especially, comes to be about his tragic realisation that whatever he is, whatever he has always been, is utterly circumscribed by the economic realities of working life in the early decades of the 20th Century. In his forties, he realises that any idea that he was ever going to somehow come out on top was just a fantasy. It’s seeing his eldest son in hospital that brings this on. He knows that the War was pointless, that nobody in their community will benefit from the so-called victory… and that there is absolutely nothing he can do to change any of it. He is never quite the same again.
Meanwhile there’s Conn. McIlvanney likes to move things on by way of set-piece moments, like Mick’s aborted letter home, Tam’s dark night of the soul after he’s seen him…. For Conn it’s the Christmas when he asks for all his presents to be miners’ clothes and equipment – another moment signalling the end of childhood – then the first day down the pit – another – as he takes his place alongside his father, brother and the other men. And then… what? The beginnings of a realisation, deferred to the very last sentence of Part 2 (he’s sixteen now): ‘He found himself wondering why it wasn’t enough.’ Right up until this moment Conn has been staunchly loyal to the decision he made at the age of eleven, at the end of Part 1, that he would make his life among his own people. Education is a pointless activity, for the likes of Mr Pirrie – Tam makes a big mistake during another set-piece scene when he cites this teacher, the one Conn hated in Part 1, as a model of self-improvement – and Conn will have no part of it. Or will he? We await developments in Part 3.
That moment of realisation comes at the end of New Year’s Eve at the beginning of 1920. This, in the longest chapter so far at the very end of Part 2, one that is full of the kind of key moments that have become the book’s signature. It also becomes a staging-post for a lot of ongoing stories. We hear of the unhappy marriage of Kathleen, the sister, to a husband whose violent tendencies are not helped by the loss of a job that was awful in the first place. (He has a worse one now, in a tannery.) There’s the pain of the mother whose son, the one Mick tried to write about, was all she had before he was killed. There is Angus, a late arrival at the party (as usual) with a bunch of loud mates, who vies with Tam for position as the alpha male. McIlvanney allows him no more than a score draw at this point – even though he’s stronger, he somehow can’t beat his father at arm-wrestling – but he also has Angus remind his father that he is getting stronger all the time.
And all of these are subsumed into a bigger argument. I haven’t been able to convey the weight of McIlvanney’s insistence, in more or less every single chapter of the book, that the lives of these people have as much significance as those of any in the land. From the start he wants to demonstrate that they have as much right to the epic rendering he gives them as any more conventional hero. It’s what leads McIlvanney into so much explicit exposition of his case, so much of the telling that I mentioned in Part 1. The final chapters of Part 2 form a kind of crescendo, beginning on the night after Tam has seen Mick in hospital four chapters from the end of Part 2. Following an uncharacteristic bout of drinking, he is reduced to impotent rage. He throws his pit-boot across the room, and the destruction of a picture becomes the symbol of his powerlessness. The portrait, which arrived with old Conn when he moved in, was of the king – and just because it ends up on the ash-heap doesn’t change a damned thing.
Something in Tam is broken. You wouldn’t know it – nobody but his wife Jenny ever realises – but this is when he comes to understand that neither his life nor those of anybody around him is going anywhere. (I realised while writing that sentence how secondary the female characters are in this book. McIlvanney has made Jenny a heroine of sorts, but only in a completely subservient supporting role.) The final chapter, set on the eve of the 1920s, is deliberately full of ambiguities. Despite Angus’s easy certainty of his own ascendency, McIlvanney doesn’t allow him an easy take-over of power. And Mick, now mostly concerned with helping the mother of his dead friend, is pessimistic. According to him the Armistice, which came in the previous chapter, is only a step on the way to the next war. Conn…. Well, even though he has what he always wanted, and on this New Year’s Eve has unexpectedly made his first tentative step towards real sexual experience, we know that he is not content.
I’ve mentioned Sunset Song before, and McIlvanney will have been very aware of how in that novel Gibbon makes the Scottish Hogmanay into a key set-piece event. (Sunset Song is also set in the years straddling WW1, and has a main character who wonders whether turning one’s back on education might not be the best life-choice after all. I wonder if McIlvanney expects his readers to notice the parallels.) New Year’s Eve is the single event in the year that defines Scottish identity. Jenny hates it, because men lose their inhibitions and old disputes tend to get remembered… but, being Jenny, she goes along with it and provides a good spread for the party to come. And McIlvanney gives himself enough space, in amongst the 20-odd pages, for what amounts to a full-blown hymn of praise to the working people he has been describing all along. Most of the last three pages consists of McIlvanney as combined anthropologist and eulogist.
He starts with the men who had witnessed the arm-wrestling. ‘Something had taken place. As always, the ability to infuse the trivia with a vision lay in their common past and wasn’t communicable. But they had all been a part of that ambiguous nexus where the muscles of the two men were simultaneously opposed and complementary, measuring mutual strength.’ He imbues it with a kind of mythology which, crucially, is made all the stronger by never being spoken. None of it, as he’s warned us, is ‘communicable’. The actions are, ‘much more profoundly, the expression of [their] condition. They gambled to gamble, they drank to drink, they fought to fight.’ Later: ‘Their bondage admitted them to the presence of a truth from which their masters hid, because to live with necessity is the only freedom.’
He is satirical about ‘the champions of reform’ who feel they can get no sense out of proletariat apparently determined not to understand. But I’m not sure that all McIlvanney’s powers of persuasion are enough to convince the reader. This noble, unspoken – and essentially male – way of life has its own heroism which, as we have now seen in Tam, is not enough. Some time before this chapter we have witnessed his realisation of exactly that fact. And at the end of it, we have the beginnings of Conn’s own doubts. It may be that the working class are heroic, and that the best of them lead lives that are as scrupulously well-ordered as any other. But McIlvanney seems to want to have his cake and eat it. Does the oppression of their lives make them heroic? Or merely, as Tam feels, oppressed?
Maybe things will become clearer in Part 3.
Part 3 – to the end
Things do become clearer, in a way. Tam’s failure is made absolutely explicit but, at exactly the same time, so is his position at the pinnacle of humane behaviour. In terms of making life better for anyone, including his own family, he has achieved almost nothing. McIlvanney makes a point of insisting on this by having an eleven-week lock-out end with the men returning to work with no increase in wages. We only hear about it after this failure and, along with everybody else, we realise that this had been Tam’s last stand. His fears about the ineffectuality of his own efforts are confirmed, and he becomes even more a shell of his former self. An argument with Mick after he returns from the pub, drunk again, leads to him overturning the table and little else.
Except… this moment becomes crucial to our understanding of Tam. Conn, observing the argument, at first thinks that his father’s impotent gesture has merely confirmed his failure. But, before the chapter has ended, he realises that Tam’s behaviour after this, his ability to observe the symbolism of it for himself and act with a kind of graciousness, confirms the opposite. He has come face to face with his own failure yet can still be proud of what he has always tried to do. ‘What remained with Conn was the image he had seen – his father standing making everything afraid of him, because you realised that he had learned to live where you daren’t, and in his utter defeat there was an absolute power.’ Tam goes where nobody else dares to tread.
This is only 30 pages from the end of the book, and I was wondering where McIlvanney might go with it. What he does in the next chapter is add to Tam’s heroic, mythic status by having him killed while pushing a workmate out of a collapsing tunnel. I’ll come back to that, and its aftermath…
…because I need to rewind. We don’t know how many months and years elapse altogether after the New Year’s party, but the 1920s are an evil time. Tam does what he can to discourage Kathleen’s husband from hitting her – you can imagine – and it works for a while. But then it doesn’t. He forces Angus, now the preening tough guy of the district, to make a choice after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. (We’ve been prepared for this when Conn notices Angus in earnest conversation with her at a dance some time ahead of the confrontation with his father.) Angus has become used to doing what he wants, and his response to Tam’s ultimatum – marry her or get out of the house – is to leave. It’s something else for Tam to put alongside all his other failures. He can’t believe such lack of basic decency in a son that he has produced.
Meanwhile Jenny goes some way towards becoming a character in her own right. She and Tam are in their early fifties, and she is beginning to tire. She does what she has always done, but her attempts to clean a house which, despite Tam’s occasional efforts to spruce it up with a lick of paint, don’t stop it feeling like a worn-out, poky little hole. Like Tam, she is coming face to face with the pointlessness of it all. Both Tam and Conn, on different occasions, notice how her endless ironing and folding of clothes seems like a determination not to have to deal with the realities of life.
The daughter and three sons cope in their own ways, none of them satisfactory. I think, maybe, that that’s the point. Kathleen’s life is the most paltry as her husband drinks more and more heavily. McIlvanney doesn’t do much with her story. Angus is making money out of some illicit activity which he lets Conn realise he can join in with if he wants. He doesn’t want. Angus gets married to another woman, and Tam doesn’t come to the wedding. McIlvanney doesn’t hammer the point, but he makes this final (or nearly final) sign of the family’s break-up not a sign of Tam’s failure, but of the impossible conditions they live in. It’s a terrible thing for a father not to attend his son’s wedding, but what else could he have done?
Conn and Mick are both dissatisfied with almost everything they see around them. (There are some chapters about Conn’s success with girls, but it feels like childish stuff when he sees how adult-seeming Angus appears to him at his wedding.) Meanwhile all that Mick can do is to read endlessly and join the Communist party. We see in him the kind of idealism that was possible in the early years following the Revolution in Russia, before the truths about the Soviet Union started to be uncovered. But to McIlvanney’s readers half a century and more later, it won’t do
Mick mocks Conn for constantly being in two minds – or ‘twa minds’ in the dialect that McIlvanney always insists on – because he can mourn his father’s death whilst not doing anything to change the system that brought it about. This is after Tam’s funeral, the one – as though to confirm the inevitability of family break-ups in such a world – that Angus does not attend. Now there are only three people of the original six left in the house, and Mick’s arguments might sound persuasive. But Conn isn’t persuaded that his father’s legacy should be for his sons to unite against capitalism. He is still in awe simply of his father’s success as a human being – ‘I just want them to see how good folk like my father were’ – while Mick only sees the inevitable failure of a man who tried, against all the odds, to fight all his battles alone. Mick sums it up at the end of the chapter: ‘You and me’s what’s left of my father, Conn. It’s between you and me. Me wi’ one arm and you in two minds, eh?’
This chapter doesn’t end the novel. What we get instead is a reprise of the myth-making surrounding Tam that there has been from the start. In fact, the final chapter goes further. We’ve already had a hint of it in Conn’s awestruck realisation that in life, his father had ‘learned to live where you daren’t, and in his utter defeat there was an absolute power.’ This struck me at the time as Christ-like, and after his death the people of the street only add to that impression. Tam sacrificed himself so another man could live, and none of them have forgotten it. Nobody, including McIlvanney, suggest any religious comparison, but every chapter since his death contains reminders of the way that in his own life, Tam replaced the mindless faith of his rosary-fondling father with an iron morality of his own. At first the men define it in terms of his hardness and refusal to give up… but that isn’t where McIlvanney leaves it. ‘“He was only five foot four, but when your heart goes from your head to your toes, that’s a lot of heart.” … They had found his epitaph.’
So this author seems to have gone for Conn’s evaluation of his father, rather than Mick’s. We’ve heard the political argument, but that’s not what makes Tam memorable: he did what was right, always, even when he knew it was pointless and that he couldn’t win. Fine. But I’m left wondering if McIlvanney intended this novel to have been the first in a series. There’s unfinished business when a novel containing so much injustice and misery hints at struggles to come, but ends on a note of unabashed sentimentality. It doesn’t feel like enough.