Iain Banks died today and the world lost a good man and a great writer.
You can read lots about his death on news websites right now and the papers tomorrow. You can read about the last few months of his life on Banksophilia. You can read about what his death and, more importantly, life meant to people on Twitter via the hash tag #IainBanks, which I’m pleased to say is trending worldwide.
Given all that print that’s available and much better written than anything I can produce, you must wonder why I’m adding to it. The best answer that I can give you is because he matters to me and I’m upset by his death.
I first came across Iain Banks in a bookshop, where else. I regularly used to slope off to Paddington Station as a disaffected teen and spend time wondering around the book aisles in the WH Smith there. Sometimes I would even buy a book or lift one. I looked at the names and titles, picked them up and read the puff on the back cover. I kept coming back to two books that had black and white covers – the Wasp Factory and Walking on Glass. See, I like covers, whether it’s on books, albums or comics. I’ve bought various items over the years based on the strength of the cover, such as the first issue of Sandman or the Rice and Bean Orchestra’s self-titled début. They give you your first impression, the artistic equivalent of the first mouthful. These two were intriguing, simple but made me what to read them and learn more. After a few weeks I decided which one to try out, Walking on Glass. With hindsight that was a mistake because I didn’t enjoy it and walked away from this Banks fellie.
Eventually, I came back and gave him another try having read and re-read the back cover of Espedair Street several times, unsure whether it would fail to satisfy me. Maybe it was the subject matter – a rock’n’roll band. And drugs. And sex. Well, what could appeal to a seventeen-year-old laddie more than that? OK, experiencing them yourself would but this was the next best thing. I loved it. In fact I devoured it, finishing it in a couple of days. Every chance I had I was turning another page, learning more about the Weird and his wonderful life. I loved his idea of creating a new musical language using colours, it really appealed to me as I had struggled with reading music as a very mediocre piano player. That wasn’t just it though. Banks started the story in the middle, with the main character hiding from the world after his musical career had come to an end, living inside a Glaswegian folly. How cool is that? Living in a fake church, drinking Russian beer and filling your days any way you choose. I was hooked and wanted more, reading the two books of his I had missed out on. Then I found out he wrote science fiction too and as a good geek I was very excited. Consider Phlebas is a wonderful space opera and the first to to feature the Culture, the weirdo, smug, drug-taking, gender-swapping, irrelevant, anarchic and utopian society. They also have some of the most wonderful spaceships in literature, machine intelligences called Minds that have creative names that they choose themselves and, usually, express something about their attitude, character or aims in their life. Warship names are similar in retaining the whimsical nature, although the humour is very dark and verging on threatening. The title of this piece is lifted from one of the minds, a General Contact Unit from the State of the Art. I thought it was an appropriate title and I hope Banksie (as I’ve always thought of him) would as well.
A couple of years later, I actually met Iain Banks while I was at Stirling University. Unbeknownst to me when I accepted their offer, he had studied there as well in Seventies. In fact, while he was there a certain little incident happened where a rich woman from another world was almost hit by an egg. Believe it or not, that made the papers around the world. Anyway, at the time I was part of a creative writing group and Iain Banks was kind enough to give us some of his time. We asked him about the incident and, in typical forthright fashion, he told the truth about what he was doing rather than retconning it to gain some credibility. He explained he was playing table tennis instead of attending a demo about library funds getting spent on carpet for a visiting nobody. How can you not love a man who tells you the truth rather than make himself look edgy?
Afterwards, we all went to one of the Student Union’s bar and chatted some more. As a paid up geek I asked him about the science fiction half of his writing. Or skiffy as he called it, to stop any pretentiousness on the part of himself or the genre. He regaled us with a many stories, including one about how he was almost thrown out of a Brighton hotel that was housing people from 1987’s Wolrdcon – the very Banksian titled Conspiracy ’87. Why? Well, you see at the time he had a habit of climbing the outside of buildings after a few drinks. Of course, he never started at the bottom of the building but instead a few floors up. Supposedly the night porter didn’t take kindly to this strange beardy, Scottish man endangering himself during his shift.
I wish I could remember more about that night but a fair few beers were consumed and I’m sure we ended up on whiskey. He was generous throughout with his time, his views on our writing (or scribblings in my case) and his money. He wanted to buy his own drinks but none of us would let him. In fact, as the night went on, I joined him in his choice of beer, Old Peculier. Trust me, it is far better than the old Alloa 70/ that Maisies used to serve at the time.
We met again a couple of time over the years, twice at book signings including one I hitched from Stirling to Edinburgh to go to, plus having bumped into each other in Edinburgh. Or rather I bumped into him and asked if I could buy him a drink. He declined although thanking me for the kind offer. Kind? After all he gave me over the years, it was the least I could do. One thing always came across though, apart from his generosity, was his humour and playfulness. Like most men, he was still a daft wee laddie who amused himself and sought to do likewise to others. He enjoyed company and always seemed to have a playful grin on his coupon.
Tonight the world is a sadder place in my opinion with the loss of Iain Banks. I’m looking forward to reading Quarry when it comes out and finally getting round to Matter and the Hydrogen Sonata. I’m looking forward to handing my favourites to my bairns when they’re teenagers. His books were gripping, compulsive, angry at times but always well-written and highly enjoyable. His skiffy was pointed, political and showed us how far humanity has to go before it is humane, evolved and compassionate. That’s what I try to teach my bairns, that we must strive to make ourselves and the world around us a better place. Iain Banks showed us the way. I hope we measure up.
Goodbye kind sir and thank you for everything. Here’s an Old Peculier to enjoy as you stroll along the Crow Road. Slan. xXx