GFF15: William McIlvanney, Living With Words review Pat Byrne
Very sad news that William McIlvanney has died today – 5 December, 2015
An absolute triumph for GFF15 – the world premiere was produced by Gill Parry and filmed and directed by Maurice O’Brien. A documentary about William McIlvanney, Kilmarnock writer and vanguard of Scotland’s Tartan Noir.
Only half an hour long, the film captured the spirit of McIlvanney, his background in Ayrshire, the rich communication he was steeped in as a child surrounded by kin plus his route into writing via Kilmarnock Library. It shows his love of Glasgow, its night and shade, reflected in his novels such as Docherty and Laidlaw.
McIlvanney embraced the city and its people when he went to study at Glasgow University and ‘realised it was really special.’ We also learn something of his work as a teacher and the start of his writing career, which he celebrated by following the Tartan Army to the world cup in Argentina – perhaps not the best plan!
The film’s movement over different periods and different experiences is wide sweeping and includes his contemporaries, friends and family. This includes his nephew, whose class he visits at a local school, a detective, Robbie McInnes, a useful source of information for books such as ‘Laidlaw’ and ‘Docherty’. There are also a number of humourous scenes with his brother Hugh, the sports journalist, where the affinity between the brothers is tangible, as they mull over their lives and finish each others’ sentences. There are also scenes with the actor David Hayman and the writer Ali Smith.
We learn something of McIlvanney’s Socialist leanings and his joy in the tremendous engagement of so many young people during the Scottish Referendum. The scenes shot in George Square on the evening prior to the Referendum capture the amazing atmosphere. (Here I got a bit more than I’d expected when I saw myself among the crowd. :))
The remarkable success of McIlvanney’s work is conveyed through his appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is very emotional with the announcement that his novel Docherty was named as one of the top ten Scottish Novels of all time. And the icing on the cake, Cannongate bringing back all his out of print novels.
It’s a truly extraordinary and very clever documentary. In his introduction of the film Maurice O’Brien explained that there was not a lot of money to make the movie. Nonetheless, he has created something magical and as he said – he even got McIlvanney to sing – and he sounded pretty good. The director also spoke of the real love for William McIlvanney that he encountered in the hours spent filming many different people.
The music in the film was another bonus – particularly atmospheric was Kris Kristoffereson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down – who’d have thought this song could capture the atmosphere of Glasgow’s streets so well.
Question and Answer Session with William MacIlvanney and Allan Hunter
Applause for the film was rapturous, and then followed a Question / Answer Session with William McIlvanney and Allan Hunter, Director of Glasgow Film Festival. A perfect ending to a great night out – there was no need to fire a multitude of questions at the author as he responded to those asked so effortlessly and comprehensivley. McIlvanney’s anecdotes were an absolute treat:
He spoke of the ‘street reviews’ he so often received in Glasgow, when people would approach him in the street or in a pub and praise him in a style that he describes as ‘so frontal.’
‘A wee woman’ telling him that she had been a groupie ‘when they were both young.’
One story was particularly hilarious: About a man telling him about when he and his friends would hang out, ‘smoking spliffs’ and discussing ‘what Laidlaw would have have done in certain situations.’
McIlvanney is an excellent raconteur and his ability to laugh at himself is an endearing trait. We laughed with him when he described his time living in Edinburgh – including when a man in a pub handed him a folded piece of paper on which he had written ‘Thanks for the books.’ Somewhat in contrast to the mopre flamboyant Glaswegian approach.
The city of Glasgow and its people seem to be his first love and he describes them as having ‘a transformative power in any situation.’ His story of an impromptu concert on the train home from Edinburgh was wonderful – starting with a woman inviting a young girl with a violin case to come into her carriage: ‘come with me they’re aw snobs in here.’
In answering Allan Hunter’s questions about what writers he admired, who influenced him and what writers in Scotland he saw as important for the future – he named a few writers that he admired but said that he ‘wouldn’t presume to answer that particular question.’
He spoke about the books he read as a youngster, including The Three Muskateers, and how as he developed his writing he fancied himself as William Saroyan, ‘becoming even more Saroyan than he was’ – and then ‘I progressed to being Hemingway.’
He also enjoyed the movies and such actors as John Garfield, ‘small and dark like his father’, and Marlon Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’ – he laughed as he remembered how he’d tried to emulate Brando’s walk. He explained that it took him till he was in his 20s to find his own voice.
McIlvanney was superbly entertaining and the way he spoke of his mother, for whom he had immense love and admiration, was very moving. He finished the night off reciting a beautiful poem he had written for her one Mother’s Day. He was emphatic in making the point that the film was ‘as much about the whole team I come from as about me.’
He also thanked the audience, ‘for saving his ego’ and his joy in the occasion was palpable – the film played to a full house and such was the demand for tickets that it had been switched to the large cinema upstairs at GFT.
We couldn’t have asked for a better seat, near the front with Janette and Tom Ferguson, up from Stevenson for the event on our left. It was their first time in the GFT. Tom told me that his mother was a McIlvanney and that they’d known William all his life. On our right sat Peter MacDougall, the award winning playwright. I saw some other Glaswegian writers in the audience, including Denise Mina and Peter Gilmour, no doubt there were many more.
Mcilvanney said that he had ‘an amazing empathy with the whole Glasgow spirit’
– this feeling seemed to be reciprocated when every member of the audience rose to their feet in spontaneous applause.
I suspect that William McIlvanney, ‘Living With Words’, will be one of the major triumphs, if not the triumph, of the festival.
Pat Byrne, 23 February, 2015
This section: Cinema, Glasgow Film Festival 2015
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- Young Films Foundation, CCA
- Loveless, GFT
- UKJF Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, CCA
- Sound and Vision Strand, Glasgow Film Festival 2018