When I’m asked who my favourite author is, I also tend to consider who my favourite writers have been at various stages of my life. When I was very young, Roald Dahl could not be beaten. Like many children, I found his sense of mischief combined with superlative storytelling and Quentin Blake’s glorious illustrations irresistible. In my angsty teenage years, I must have re-read JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye about 20 times, dreaming of leaving boarding school and running off to the States with just a rucksack on my back (which I actually did for a year when I was 17. I wasn’t quite as rebellious as Holden Caulfield though. It was all above board.)
But the writer who has stood the test of time with me most, and was taken from us far too soon, is Iain Banks. I love the twisty intrigue of Complicity, in which my hometown of Langholm has an early cameo. I adore the assault on the hypocrisies of organised religion that lie at the heart of Whit. In my teens, I was traumatised in a can’t-put-it-down sort of a way by The Wasp Factory.
But, as I alluded to in yesterday’s post, the book that has captured my imagination and inspired my own aspirations as an author more than any other is what I regard as Banks’s masterpiece: The Crow Road. Growing up in Argyll, the sense of place he established was tangible. His portrayal of complicated family dynamics was almost awkwardly on point. And at the heart of it all was an antihero who, like Salinger’s Caulfield, I saw a lot of myself in. Prentice McHoan is the archetypal struggling student, preoccupied by drinking, partying and sex. His relationship with his father is strained due to their diametrically opposing views on crucial subjects. He’s seeking a greater meaning in life but struggling to find one. And yet he’s loved by many despite his manifold faults. Through Prentice, I felt that I could be flawed but not unsalvageable. And so it proved when, after dropping out of my undergraduate degree two years in, I returned five years later (and infinitely more mature) to gain a postgraduate degree in Journalism with distinction. My acceptance on the course was based purely on the university of life I’d attended in those intervening years.
What I love most about Banks’s work is his subtle but unshakeable celebration and scrutiny of all things Scottish. I’ve never read any of his novels written as Iain M Banks because, while science fiction may serve as escapism to some, what I look for in a book (other than a rollicking read) are themes I can instantly relate to. The Crow Road serves up so many such themes in a setting I can instantly visualise that I still get goose pimples when I pick it up today. When I eventually get around to writing a “grownup” book (and I’m sure the Great Scottish Novel is a mere couple of decades away), I want to infuse my outpourings with Banks’s innate understanding and conveyance of people and place. The politics of Scotland may have moved on since Banks completed The Crow Road in the early nineties and the sense of division built along class lines has probably only intensified. His characters speak in that passive-aggressive “let’s agree to disagree” way that makes me feel nostalgic for the days before all-out factional war on social media. But some things remain the same, as outlined by Prentice’s father Kenneth in probably my favourite quote from the book:
People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots. In fact I think they have to be. A genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots. It is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.
While my first book that launches tomorrow (Eeek!!) serves as a child’s introduction to Scotland, I long for the day when I can offer the insight someone such as Iain Banks managed to provide into our beautiful, awe-inspiring but ultimately complicated country – and indeed our wider world.