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Ayrshire Romantic

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The great wave of Romanticism that swept over Scottish literature from the mid-Victorian era onwards was always going to have its answering cry. This tendency was particularly marked among the group of twentieth-century writers who had grown up in its paralysing shadow. There you were, in your draughty schoolroom somewhere near Inverness, being lectured about Queen Victoria’s ‘Jacobite moods’ and having it dinned into your head that Waverley was the greatest novel ever written north of the Tweed, while outside the window the unemployment queues grew longer and the winds swept in from continental Europe.

In these circumstances a work like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932–4), whose lyrical treatment of life in Kincardineshire is always undercut by a kind of bedrock realism, was perfectly understandable reaction to what had gone before. But one curious aspect of the dozens of novels written in almost conscious opposition to Sir Walter Scott, kailyards and stickit ministers was how closely they began to resemble the thing they were rebelling against. And so Gordon Williams’s From Scenes Like These, though set on the most dismal Ayrshire farmstead known to Scottish agriculture and featuring a fine old collection of toughs, seducers and misanthropes, soon reveals itself as a deeply romantic book.

Published in the autumn of 1968 and included on the followingyear’s inaugural Booker shortlist alongside Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, Scenes should ideally have propelled Gordon, or Gordon M., or G. M. Williams (the title-page rubric varies) firmly towards the summit of literature’s Mount Olympus. As it was, he opted to follow its delicately ground-down realism with a pot-boiling thriller – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969) – written in the space of a fortnight.

This, it turns out, was entirely characteristic of Williams’s no-nonsense approach to the business of making a liv

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The great wave of Romanticism that swept over Scottish literature from the mid-Victorian era onwards was always going to have its answering cry. This tendency was particularly marked among the group of twentieth-century writers who had grown up in its paralysing shadow. There you were, in your draughty schoolroom somewhere near Inverness, being lectured about Queen Victoria’s ‘Jacobite moods’ and having it dinned into your head that Waverley was the greatest novel ever written north of the Tweed, while outside the window the unemployment queues grew longer and the winds swept in from continental Europe.

In these circumstances a work like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932–4), whose lyrical treatment of life in Kincardineshire is always undercut by a kind of bedrock realism, was perfectly understandable reaction to what had gone before. But one curious aspect of the dozens of novels written in almost conscious opposition to Sir Walter Scott, kailyards and stickit ministers was how closely they began to resemble the thing they were rebelling against. And so Gordon Williams’s From Scenes Like These, though set on the most dismal Ayrshire farmstead known to Scottish agriculture and featuring a fine old collection of toughs, seducers and misanthropes, soon reveals itself as a deeply romantic book. Published in the autumn of 1968 and included on the followingyear’s inaugural Booker shortlist alongside Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, Scenes should ideally have propelled Gordon, or Gordon M., or G. M. Williams (the title-page rubric varies) firmly towards the summit of literature’s Mount Olympus. As it was, he opted to follow its delicately ground-down realism with a pot-boiling thriller – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969) – written in the space of a fortnight. This, it turns out, was entirely characteristic of Williams’s no-nonsense approach to the business of making a living. Even by the standards of a literary generation that prided itself on its versatility, there is something altogether prodigious about the range of his output and the half-dozen professional worlds he inhabited: not many Grub Street irregulars could boast, as he was able to do in the half-decade between 1966 and 1971, of having had one novel shortlisted for the Booker and another filmed by Hollywood while carrying out ghost-writing assignments for an England football captain. (The football captain was Bobby Moore. The film director was Sam Peckinpah, who turned The Siege of Trencher’s Farm into the voyeuristic bloodbath that is Straw Dogs.) On the other hand, the career that followed these early triumphs is so tantalizingly undocumented that you sometimes feel that what their author really needs is one of those ‘in search of . . .’ biographers, fixated and intrepid and willing to dedicate years of his or her life to the task of – say – tracking down some of the 28 separate addresses that Williams claimed to have lived at before the age of 23. What is indisputably known about him is that he was a policeman’s son from Paisley who broke into journalism in the early 1960s by way of a feature writer’s job on the Daily Mail-sponsored Weekend magazine. By the end of the decade he was making huge amounts of money out of fiction (the film rights for his 1967 novel, The Man Who Had Power over Women, went to Paramount for £27,000 – about a quarter of a million pounds today). As for what happened in the 1980s when he veered off into screen-writing, beyond some mid- decade documentary work and a Channel 4 adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s Tree of Hands (1989), the trail soon winds away into desert. If all Williams’s novels are worth reading, then From Scenes Like These is his masterpiece: one of those raw, intensely felt books whose themes and preoccupations look as if they were chosen with the deliberate aim of parading the writer’s gifts and with a prefatory paragraph that, rather like the quick-fire impressionism of Dickens’s early work, instantly betrays its author’s training as a journalist:
It was still dark, that Monday in January, when the boy, Dunky Logan, and the man, Blackie McCann, came to feed and water the horses, quarter after seven on a cold Monday morning in January, damn near as chill as an Englishman’s heart, said McCann, stamping his hobnail boots on the stable cobbles.
Craig’s Farm, where these two unfortunates have fetched up – sometime in the mid-1950s to judge from the references to Eden, Macmillan and Attlee – is an environment in flux, its once rolling acres giving way to the expanding township nearby and a succession crisis looming as son and potential heir Willie schemes to succeed his ailing octogenarian father. While there are several different points of focus, including a sub-plot involving a newly arrived housekeeper pregnant by her last employer and scheming for a husband, most of the action revolves around Dunky and what Williams clearly regards as his principal subject: his teenage hero’s wholesale corruption by the society of which he is a part. Going on 16, living in the family home with his mother, sister and grim, bed-bound Logan senior, Dunky spends the majority of the book’s 300 or so pages quietly turning from one kind of person into another. Almost before you can say ‘Two pints of heavy and a couple of chasers’ the vaguely well-meaning, rabbit-breeding, ‘nice-girl’ courting boy with ambitions to play professional football or emigrate to Canada has warped into a cynical drunk, of whose outlook his former schoolteacher remarks: ‘I pity Logan and envy him at the same time. I know his life’s being wasted, but he doesn’t, he’ll just sail along, sex, booze and football, thinking he’s having a great time.’ There is a rather awful scene, early on, in which Dunky recalls his individualistic grandfather, who registered as a conscientious objector during the Great War, and wonders ‘Maybe he was a nutcase throwback . . . ? That wasn’t a very cheery prospect, all he wanted to be was like everybody else.’ Yet for all the vigour of its attack on Scottish ideas of masculinity, and its attempt to locate within that behavioural template what the Guardian reviewer of 1968 called ‘the springs of violence’, Scenes is still an intensely romantic work, full of idealistic daydreaming, starry-eyed attempts to block out the realities that lie to hand or weld personal mythologizing on to a world of ‘tattie-howking’ (potato-picking) and back-breaking labour. I first came across the London Library’s battered hardback copy in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, I was ready to track its author down. Curiously, older literary friends, so helpful if one wanted anecdotes about Philip Larkin or Kingsley Amis, could remember almost nothing about Gordon Williams. In fact, the only eyewitness I could turn up was Melvyn Bragg, who recalled an epic early 1970s pub crawl along the Thames, the night coming to a belated end at the Williams home in Notting Hill where both men were righteously bawled out by Williams’s wife, Claerwen. Interestingly, there are several references to Williams in Venables (1994), the autobiography of the former England football manager Terry Venables, with whom he collaborated on They Used to Play on Grass (1972) and the Hazell detective series, later televised, but these too tend to be face-down-in-the-vichysoisse moments. ‘Gordon obviously had a bit of an alcohol problem,’ Venables concludes at the end of a story in which his helpmate has come to blows with the sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney at Bobby Moore’s testimonial dinner, ‘but to his credit he went on to beat it and has not had a drink in a long time.’ Years passed. One millennium yielded to another, but still Williams remained out of reach, like some mysterious sybil obstinately concealing herself from the public gaze. There was no word of any future projects. And then, in 2003, after the censors had finally agreed to award a DVD certificate to Straw Dogs, came the news that Blooms-bury were reissuing The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and that the author was willing to do a little publicity. We met in a Soho café not far from Private Eye’s offices in Carlisle Street with the aim of constructing a Guardian profile. Williams, then not far off 70, was affable but cagey. Although he claimed to be writing fiction again, and at one point presented me with a scrap of paper bearing wholly unintelligible lines from a work in progress, he would say nothing about the intervening twenty years. Intrigued but baffled, I soon beat a retreat. Gordon Williams died in 2017 at the age of 83, leaving a set of obituaries high on praise but notably short on detail. Readers keen to know what kind of man he was, or imagined himself to be, are invited to grub for clues in what, for my money, is one of the finest Scottish novels of the twentieth century.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © D. J. Taylor 2019


About the contributor

D. J. Taylor’s books include Orwell: The Life, which won the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize, and The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918. Of his dozen novels, the most recent is Rock and Roll Is Life: The True Story of the Helium Kids by One Who Was There (2018).

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