Walking west on Argyle Street, I once enjoyed a fleeting, one-sided exchange with a man slumped against a bin. Crossing the road at the Park Bar, I stepped onto the pavement at the other side and, as I passed him, the man shouted: ‘Hey you, ya cunt, Ah cin smell the fuckin spunk on yer troosers.’ I stopped, laughing a bit, but also in the back of my mind hoping this wild-bearded, elaborately drunk, old man wouldn’t find a sudden reservoir of co-ordination and leap up to stab me. And then it was over. I carried on to the part-time job I had while at university, and the man returned to his silence, a squalid sidewalk ornament for folk to swerve around.
This little incident, which might’ve lasted 20 seconds, came into my mind recently as I read William McIlvanney’s first two Laidlaw novels. The old guy on Argyll Street is kin to Eck Adamson and the various other street dwellers that Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw sometimes encounters on his Glasgow perambulations. But he’s kin to the rest of us too, and the fact that Laidlaw respects that kinship is what makes him something of a pariah in the police department he works in. There’s no them-and-us for Laidlaw; no division between us – the policeman, the readers of the novel – and the people who might make us cross the street with distaste. There is a code to be respected for Laidlaw, especially when it comes to the real criminals, but the goodies and the baddies in the novels are all part of the same Mobius strip. Laidlaw’s real nemesis is his career-driven, uncaring colleague, Ernie Milligan. Milligan sees crime and punishment straightforwardly, with the George W. Bush attitude of if you’re not with us you’re against us. For Milligan, the game is cowboys and indians. Laidlaw knows John Rhodes and the other underworld figures in the novels are bad men, but he respects them too, just as they respect him. Laidlaw’s ultimate respect, though, is for the poor and the disadvantaged, for people who have made the best they could of the circumstances they find themselves in. In The Papers of Tony Veitch, Laidlaw visits a poor woman in Anderston. As they speak, McIlvanney shows us what she means for the detective:
Laidlaw was reminded that he didn’t want the heaven of the holy or the Utopia of the idealists. He wanted the scuffle of living now every day as well as he could manage without the exclusive air-conditioning of creeds and, after it, just the right to lie down with all those others who had settled for the same. It seemed to him the hardest thing to do.
Most of the people in McIlvanney’s novels are never given a chance to transcend the circumstances they inherit. There is, though, a nobility in surviving the struggle. It’s easy to demonise folk who have less than we do, but McIlvanney reminds us that we’re all part of the same community. Sometimes, as is his wont, Laidlaw takes this to the extreme, and we begin to wonder if he cares more about the murderer than the murdered. But this question misses the point, because what makes Laidlaw so complex and compelling is that he is willing to let a killer still be a human being. The old man I met on Argyle Street probably didn’t have a happy life, and my relatively comfortable life experience can’t really give me any perspective on what put him under the bridge, but, looking back at our exchange, at some level we were simply two people who, for a moment, were thrown together by the city. We shared a place in time as two human beings. I know that sounds naïve – what do writerly types, who are usually university-educated and middle-class have in common with folk who eat out of bins? – but, as Laidlaw knows, we should remember that we share a common humanity with people who haven’t ended up in good places, even if they accuse us of having spermy trousers.
It’s getting harder to find the sense of shared humanity that Laidlaw respects. The coalition government, with the Tory right yearning for a lurch even further into UKIP territory, seems to spend much of its time trying to obliterate any sense that we are the same as them; that people who want to, in George Osborne’s words, ‘work hard and get on’ have anything in common with ‘their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The key word here, though – and it is one Osborne doesn’t respect – is ‘neighbour’. Most of the time we live next to people who look much like we do. It’s a shock when we’re tipped into the same place as someone who doesn’t. We should try and get past this shock, not make it worse.
Part of what McIlvanney is getting at in these novels is the fact that seemingly disparate members of society aren’t so different after all. The novels are gripping, like any good thriller should be, but the ideas in them address serious concerns about society, and about the ways we should think about folk who have it worse than we do. So why, then, are most of his books out of print? And why is it, as reported in the Herald of 15 August 2011, that McIlvanney couldn’t find a publisher for his latest book? Canongate are going to republish him this year, and I hope that is the success it deserves to be, but is it the case that McIlvanney’s stock has fallen because he believes so firmly in the shared humanity that seems to be more and more under threat? Has that seemingly self-evident idea become unfashionable? David Cameron’s recent speech about cracking down on immigrants claiming benefits (there aren’t, in reality, that many) was a particularly rancid example of a politician stigmatising a minority. Sadly, there are many more examples. Cameron, Osborne and their pals would no doubt sneer at the idea that a wino next to an Argyle Street bin had anything in common with them. But perhaps if they saw disadvantaged people as human beings rather than problems or political opportunities, they might have some chance of making things better. Like Laidlaw looking at Ernie Milligan, though, you can’t see them changing anytime soon.