|Image: East Ayrshire Council|
Trying to work in my day job yesterday morning was nigh impossible. I simply could not keep my mind from drifting away from the book festival event with William McIlvanney that I was to attend at 3pm. Time dragged, the clocked ticked slowly, and my nerves grew jangly. Why? I have no idea. I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of “famous” people—writers and musicians mostly—but for some reason meeting this great man was making me nervous.
After a slow morning and enjoying a healthy salad for lunch, I left work at 1.45pm and made my way up to the Edinburgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square. It had been raining earlier but the sun was doing its best to come out and warm the place up, and doing not too bad a job about it. I arrived earlier than intended so took a slow walk around the grounds, inside and out, and bought myself a copy of McIlvanney’s award winning novel, The Kiln.
I forewent my usual seat in the RBS Main Tent, choosing instead to take advantage of what I hoped wouldn’t be the last time I would see McIlvanney at the book festival. Centre back row, the exact same seat I took when I saw Sean Connery in 2008.
McIlvanney strolled into the tent with becalmed confidence and took his seat alongside Stuart Kelly, literary editor of the Scotsman on Sunday. Wearing all black and still with a full head of black hair , I could still make out his thin silver moustache and blue eyes from the back of the tent. For a 73-year old he looks damn good for his age.
The event, which was recorded for BBC Radio Scotland’s Radio Café programme, saw McIlvanney do several readings, one from a new anthology about Scotland’s future called Headshook, as well as engage in some thought-provoking debate about Scotland and the future of its literature.
He was on top form, mixing perfectly a blend of serious thought and discussion with humour, and a passion for his country and the literature it has produced. When asked about his own place within Scotland’s legacy, McIlvanney said he was “wary of posterity; this is posterity for a lot of dead writers and now we can’t even remember their names.”
The topic of Al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, just released the same day came up, to which McIlvanney responded he was more likely to take his measure of the situation from one of the victims fathers rather than the Justice Minister. “If Jim Swire, who has stood tall and dignified throughout it all, if he senses something is wrong, Then I’ll take his word for it.”
In typical McIlvanney fashion, and by that I mean humble, he explained why he had turned down his OBE. “It just didn’t fit,” he said. “There are plenty more people than me that deserve one—charity workers, people who help others—for me to accept it… no… it didn’t feel right. Besides—” he continued, “—my big brother already has one so it would just be greedy,” referring to sports writer, Hugh McIlvanney.
In truth, I could have listened to him talk all day, but there was still one thing to do. I joined the queue in the signing tent, which in all truth wasn’t that long but was made worse by all the fanatics with ten books in their bags they wanted signed. Nevertheless, I stood with my copy of The Kiln and waited for my moment.
Eventually it was my turn and I strolled up to the table where he was sitting with his glass of wine and pen.
“Hi there,” he said, smiling. “What’s your name?”
“Colin,” I said.
“How are you today?” he said, and opening the book to sign it.
“Well, I don’t know if you remember, but I’m the guy who put you in touch with your cousin in Australia.”
He stopped writing, cocked his head.
“We spoke on the phone last year.”
“You’re Colin Galbraith?”
And he shook me hand, smiled widely and chuckled. “I can’t believe you came down here—I’m so happy you did.”
We talked about all that had happened and he thanked me several times, apologising for not calling me back but assuring me it was only because of his legendary disorganisation—he had lost my telephone number!
On the inside of my newly purchased copy of The Kiln, he wrote: “For Colin—Thanks for reconnecting the clan. I owe you. Willie McIlvanney.”
I wished I could have spent more time talking to him, learning from him and getting more into creative writing, but alas there was no time after the event, and still a queue of people behind me. But I got to meet him and talk to him, and I got closure on the matter I had helped start with him last year.
I never stopped smiling for the rest of the day.
Finally, linking my love of books to my love of music, my old mate Suggs has a book out: Suggs and the City: My Journeys Through Disappearing London was released yesterday. The book is based on Suggs’ TV show Disappearing London, and is a guided tour of some of the sides of London that are less well known than some of the more popular sites, but in most cases just as fascinating. Suggs’ love for the city is already well known, which is what makes this book such a tantalising read. (ISBN: 0755319257) Buy it at Amazon