There is a Light That Never Goes Out: Ian Bell, Willie McIlvanney and the Power of the Word

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 6th 2016

Scotland values words. It has always had a place in its heart for wordsmiths and for those who powerfully combine language with a sense of some higher calling – from religion, to morality, to various causes for a better world.

In the weeks running up to Christmas, within a matter of days of each other, we lost two of our most celebrated public figures who expertly used words – William McIlvanney and Ian Bell.

Sometimes, words – written or spoken – just don’t convey the full feeling of something. That’s true of so much, but with McIlvanney and Bell there is a sense in different, but complimentary ways, that they contributed significantly to how Scotland saw itself in recent decades and how it has changed, and were influencers and interpreters in the work in progress that is modern Scotland.

McIlvanney’s fictional writing came at a time when Scotland was on the cusp of dramatic change and dislocation – where generations of built-up assumptions, of ways of working, and of what were seen as long established communities, were being challenged and dismantled as an elemental economic storm was blowing and gathering force.

Docherty, Laidlaw, The Big Man and others described in a fading glory and romantic yearning something lost, with an acute eye for detail, and provided a chronicle of lives and social assumptions turned upside down in the ensuing turbulence.

For all the veneration and cheaper imitations of this passing, Scotland hasn’t had many potent interpreters who have made sense of these changes. McIlvanney was a pioneer in giving voice and expression to this; which put fragility and strength, and the constant balancing act between the two, centrestage.

Bell wrote like a poet, with an old-fashioned lyricism and flow. There was idealism, impatience with the absurdity of much of the world, and belief that through collective action and enlightenment, a better humanity was possible.

Bell wrote an insightful tribute to the late McIlvanney, parts of which can now be read as fitting for both. Bell tells of Willie asking a French writer – who boasted of producing 5,000 words in an instant – penetratingly, ‘were they good words?’ Bell reflected on Willie, ‘Words were the contest, the contest his vocation’, sentiment that also seems appropriate to him as well.

Despite difference in age, McIlvanney was 79 and Bell was 59 when each died, there was a host of common threads which unite them. One is a contribution to the post-war generational story of working class advancement, educational opportunity, and sense of hope which came with it.

It is a collective story I and many others know well personally. My own parents, born in Dundee, and getting on with life in the 1960s and 1970s, innately embodied and personified it. There was a lack of obvious anxiety about money, an absence of visible poverty, a tangible feeling of security, and above all, an intrinsic belief that the future was going to be something better than today.

McIlvanney and Bell voiced something profoundly Scottish and universal (or at least universal in the developed world): an almost religious or faith based certainty that there is a moral connectedness and obligation which holds all of us together which matters. It isn’t simple, has to be constantly remade, but is a damn sight, more humane and championing of liberty than the narrow minded cost-accountants who have come to dominate public life.

The word that comes to my mind is ‘soul’ – something beyond the immediate and the material, which often cannot be put into words or political slogans, but is almost psychic. The great French writer Ernest Renan in the 1880s wrote a wonderful essay ‘what is a nation?’ and after rejecting nearly every conventional definition: race, ethnicity, history, tradition and geography, came up with the view that it was something connected to ‘a soul, a spiritual principle’ linked to the past, present and collective memories, if that doesn’t sound too essentialist. McIlvanney and Bell offered an insight into the collective world of the Scottish soul.

Many of the displaced people of recent decades were working class men, and they are the main subjects of McIlvanney’s writings. Both men captured a masculine melancholy which held deep pain and hurt, which so many in our country have battled with and endured demons over.  They dwelt on the loss, on the shipwrecks and the wounded, but in other ways, Scotland became lighter in ways that still need to be celebrated more: it slowly became less masculinist, more feminine, and more easy about different sexualities and expressions of gender.

Thinking about Bell and McIlvanney in the weeks before Christmas, the issue of voice came up and with it, presence. Both men undoubtedly had the latter, but the differences on the former are revealing. McIlvanney spoke with a power of a passionate orator, his words and timbre flowing into a captivating flow which could mesmerise and hold an audience.

I remember that cold December 1992 day in Edinburgh, when Europe came to our capital city, and people turned out in their thousands for the biggest pro-democracy rally in our history. Labour and SNP were as usual playing silly buggers. The Tories had just won an unexpected election. Little change there. McIlvanney got up on the top deck of the bus and gave voice to the Scotland that didn’t want division, didn’t want pettiness, and wanted to express our values for a different country. He did that and more that day, and gave hope to many of us that, yes, at times we could dare to be more than the smallest differences between us.

Bell’s story is different. His spoken voice was mostly missing from the radio and TV of our nation. The avenue he most comfortably expressed himself was via his newspaper columns. I used to think there was something sad in that, but there is also something delightfully focused and of an earlier age. It is anchored. It is about purpose. And there is a complex relationship between Ian’s powerful voice in print and its absence from radio and TV.

This connects to the missing voices of present day Scotland. It strikes me that there is too much hyperbole about of either ‘we are all doomed’ or ‘we are all saved’ persuasions. Some think the democratic intellect has been crowded out by the siren voices of social media; others that the whole nation is engaged in one long conversation post-referendum as a diverse assembly.

McIlvanney and Bell tried to challenge the complacencies and omissions of an earlier establishment Scotland. That is the sort of project which never reaches complete fruition because so far humankind hasn’t abolished elites. Yesterday’s radical ideas become the conventional wisdom of today.

Both men came from a working class socialist culture which articulated itself in being pro-independence. Bell wrote a piece the day before the big vote in ‘The Herald’ which talked about the strange condition of Scottish ‘statelessness’. While sharing Ian’s political position, I don’t see that living in a developed ‘stateless nation’ is that insurmountable if the people want to maintain this non-state; Iain saw it as comparable to being ‘homeless’  (the artist Ross Sinclair, in a different tack and tongue in check, invited us to ‘embrace statelessness’).

McIlvanney engaged in a reflective exchange of words with writer Alan Massie for the Saltire Society at the same time. He saw Thatcherism and Blairism as the equivalent to something degenerative and morally corrosive. This taps a powerful Scottish sentiment: the big picture, the embrace of the abstract, and a defiant, decent moralism.

I do think Scotland has changed fundamentally and irreversibly and that the old order and ancien regime of the elder men can’t be put back together again. Ian’s son, Sean, in a human and loving piece that his dad would have adored, wrote that what this was all about – his dad’s writing and the big changes was the rise of ‘a republic of the mind’.

Those words jumped out at me immediately because I had been mulling over the exact same words in the weeks before Christmas, trying to describe the place our nation and society sits in. Power has shifted in Scotland: there is a popular, egalitarian republicanism, which is not exclusively owned by anyone.

Bell and McIllvanney spoke the truth as they saw it, anchored in their lived experiences, and in the not so distant days of the 1980s were ahead of the groupthink and orthodoxies that dominated our land. A similar spirit is needed in these turbulent times. We need voices which provoke and challenge the conceits and establishments, both old and new, of the present.

Susan Flockhart in the ‘Sunday Herald’ asked after Bell’s death: ‘What will we do now that the light has gone out?’ Avoiding the key cultural battlelines of Bob Dylan (Bell) versus Leonard Cohen (McIlvanney), I would cite the more recent Morrissey when he said: ‘There is a light that never goes out.’ Willie and Ian’s legacy will endure, in part because they contributed so successfully to shining a light where once there was only darkness. A fitting tribute would be to carry it forward to future generations.