Mainstream Publishing, 1991, 253 p.
This is one I read for completeness. (And it counts for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.) McIlvanney is one of the most prominent Scottish writers of the second half of the twentieth century, with a string of highly regarded novels to his name, all of which I have read with immense pleasure and admiration. Despite his output being mostly outwith genre (unless the Scottish novel is a genre) he is credited as being the “onlie begetter” of Tartan Noir – not an accolade he sought or even necessarily agrees with – but many Scottish writers of crime fiction speak of him as an inspiration. (And not only writers of crime fiction.) Surviving the Shipwreck is a collection of his journalistic work from the 1970s and 80s.
It starts with a preface setting out the thread of the pieces within – the shipwreck of the book’s title is the loss of social idealism, of belief in our ability to reconstruct society more fairly, of that strand of left-leaning thinking that isn’t Marxist (McIlvanney says the Scots always found Marxism/Communism to be wrong-headed) but had been submerged by the prevailing political climate and, despite the banking crash of 2008, still is.
The first piece was written in the run-up to the first referendum – the one that was won in 1979 but was also lost due to the requirement for more than a majority to bring a Scottish Parliament about. (In effect dead people voted no.) In it he lays out the hopes and fears that Scots had about the prospect, many of which were repeated in the referendum of 2014. In a particularly brilliant phrase he describes the displacement of what might have been political energy into other areas, the most recent example being “the B picture remake of the Darien Scheme that was Scotland’s World Cup sortie into Argentina.” He also predicted the eventual (typically Scottish in its lack of resolution of the problem) result. What struck me on reading this in 2014 is the change that actually having an extant Parliament in Edinburgh has made to the Scottish psyche. There is much less anti-English feeling, much less fear of being too wee and too poor, much more confidence in Scots’ ability to do things for themselves. The displacement of energy into football too is much less pronounced (but that may have been due to the fact that Scots came to realise that by and large our footballers are – at least at present – mediocre at best.)
Then there is a piece on the city of Edinburgh’s manifold dualities, which made me reflect on how perfect that then makes it as a capital for a nation of so many divisions; another on the corrosive effects of poverty and how the benefits system traps people in it; the mysteries of disco and its differences from the dancin’; the experience of the dog track; the delights and miseries of following the Scottish football team, “The train standing at Platform One is the Wembley Football Special. This train has an Inferiority Complex Car where light traumas will be served throughout the journey. This train goes by way of Paranoia, calling at Little Dependency, National Neurosis and Ultima Thule,” not least to Argentina in 1978, when McIlvanney, along with five companions, undertook one of those epic trips through the Americas and remembers most of all the kindnesses received everywhere, but especially in Argentina; the dispiriting experience that is Las Vegas; the reduction of life to personal economics; the accepting nature of old fashioned pubs; the necessity of highlighting the plight of those left behind in the wake of materialism; the mutual incomprehension of men and women; the resorts people will turn to to alleviate their lack of funds; the haunted nature of living in North America, the lack of inter-community feeling; the more humane socialism of Scotland compared to Eastern Europe; the necessity for teachers and pupils to reach a meeting place; the challenge both to the cosy detective novel and also to the dismissal of a fiction if it can be labelled genre that his novel Laidlaw represented; the defining characteristic of the Glaswegian (humane irreverence); cultural elitism in T S Eliot’s poetry criticism, and more generally; the manifold losses – not just of jobs and worthwhile lives – that monetarism inflicted on Scotland; the genesis of his novel Docherty in the lack of presence of working people in literature.
In Gulliver’s Last Voyage McIlvanney essays a Swiftian look at Scotland’s attitude to its history, a series of forgettings and inventions underlain by the fact that, at some time in the past, the country was sold against the will of its people.
Notable insights were:-
(We have) “a society where the government is dedicated to ignoring the damage its policies inflict on ordinary lives.”
“Everybody can understand selfishness and greed, and Thatcherism has constructed what passes for its political philosophy out of these two brute instincts. The dignity of just complaint must never be lost. Without it, we accept what we shouldn’t accept.”
“The greater radicalism that has at least nominally persisted in Scotland may be partly attributable to the fact that the country (was) virtually powerless. It is easier to have noble ideals when you are not obliged to live according to their terms day by day. But that greater radicalism is also partly attributable to a tradition of taking ideas seriously. We must not lose that. Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous but not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.”
“The policies of this government resolve themselves into one basic premise: they are a licence issued to the wealthy to exploit the poor… Margaret Thatcher is a cultural vandal. She takes the axe of her own simplicity to the complexities of Scottish life. She has no understanding of the hard-earned traditions she is destroying. And if we allow her to continue she will remove from the word “Scottish” any meaning other than geographical. (There will be) incalculable damage to the future – the loss of belief in society, the anti-social tendencies encouraged, the lesson branded on thousands of minds that you are alone and your society doesn’t care.”
These criticisms are still relevant I fear.
Pedant’s corner:- they didn’t use to be there (the phrase is “used to be”) and that bad (badly)