All the Colours of the Town 
by Liam McIlvanney.
Faber, 329 pp., £12.99, August 2009, 978 0 571 23983 2
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Sectarianism seldom plays any part in Scottish writing. One of the few exceptions – and the most pertinent to Liam McIlvanney’s novel – comes in Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes (1994), the sixth in his bestselling Rebus series, whose plot hinges on the victim’s association with extreme Protestant groups. Mortal Causes was written in the run-up to the IRA ceasefire and set before the Shankill Road bombing, and there is a palpable sense that, while a political solution may be on the horizon, terrorism quickly mutates into gangsterism. The twist in the novel is the unideological nature of the young Scottish sectarian thug: he is an impoverished, disaffected, prospectless victim of a wider class battle. The fissiparous nature of Ulster Protestant militias – ‘UDA, UVF, UFF, UR’, as Rebus reels them off – doesn’t stop the excluded hooligan’s yearning to find in them a galvanising identity. Having a side in a fight is what matters.

McIlvanney’s hidden bigot is not a product of a sink-estate, but a man at the heart of government. Gerry Conway is the political editor of the fictitious but credible Tribune on Sunday. As a Scottish journalist, he is predictably disillusioned, divorced, prone to excessive drinking and an unrepentant smoker (of cheroots, cigarillos and cigars: the smoking ban has had some effect). He dismisses, at first, what seems to be a crank call offering a scoop about Peter Lyons, the Labour justice minister at Holyrood and a man widely seen as heir apparent to the party’s leader. But this story isn’t about fumbling with a diary secretary, subletting a tax-subsidised constituency office or even setting fire to curtains at a jolly. Conway is given an old photograph showing Lyons holding a UVF flag, surrounded by men in balaclavas. This presents Conway with a dilemma. Lyons’s sectarian past is already known; he had been an Orangeman in his youth, and has made much of his transformation: ‘He’d come to see that there were bigger ambitions, wider dreams … the story became one of triumph over circumstance, the bright boy rising above the meanness of his origins.’ The new revelation is of a different order of magnitude, but part of the same narrative. More significantly, Conway has been assiduously cultivating Lyons, and has been surreptitiously cultivated by him. They have developed an arrangement: inside information in exchange for positive coverage. Now Conway’s source hints at Lyons’s involvement with an embryonic Scottish terrorist group, the New Covenanters – it’s even possible that he was complicit in certain murders that took place during the Troubles in Ulster. ‘It was my job to know the dirt,’ Conway reflects as he considers his own divorce. ‘But I couldn’t do the same for my own house.’ It begins to seem as if this blindness extends beyond his personal life.

Conway’s investigation into Lyons’s suggested links to Loyalist terror groups takes him out of Glasgow (‘Harthill. Larkhall. Crosskirk. Even the names had a spondaic bluntness, a fearsome Prod foursquareness’) into a bruising encounter with an Orange Order march, then over to Belfast. The ‘post-apocalypse ghost town’ is supposedly ‘all gone now, a bad dream’, though the murals remain and the wounds are newly plastered over. Conway meets the bereaved and the guilty, the upholders of the law and the bearers of grievances – all of whom provide ample opportunity for meditating on the nature of the new Ulster. McIlvanney never lets the characters sound as if they’re sermonising or spelling things out to the reader; rather, the diatribes emerge naturally from the characters and their situation. They balance indignation and acuity, outspokenness and insight. In one a fellow journalist laments:

‘If we could have taken the prisoners, shipped them all to Greenland, we might have had a shot. We might have turned this place into somewhere halfway normal. But after Good Friday here they all come. These raging fucking egos. They’ve got no trade, no skills. They’ve never worked a day in their life, most of them. And they think they’re owed, for the time they spent in jail. Me, I think jail time’s what you pay for the stuff you’ve already done, but they see it different. So who pays them?’ He tapped himself on the chest. ‘We pay them. You and me. All these grants and subventions. Funding schemes for community projects. Let’s call it what it is. It’s a bribe: we’ll give you money if you keep on not killing people.’

A former RUC officer discusses the RUC’s change of name:

‘Some people have taken offence.’

He frowned, his brow pursed with concentration.

  ‘And who’s upset again? Right, it’s the people who were trying to kill us. The people who shot and bombed us for 25 years. These crybabies. They’re big enough to put a pipe bomb under your car, but they faint away at the sight of a cap badge.’

In keeping with the rules of the genre, there’s a cul-de-sac inquiry, and a volte-face that is almost but not quite a resolution. The plot creaks slightly towards the end, only just shying away from introducing a deus ex machina. What lifts McIlvanney’s novel above the run-of-the-mill is his taut, lean, elegant prose. In a flashback at the start of the book, he writes: ‘A book of matches. The slim glossy packet swelling to its jerky spine, its cover tucked snugly into the jutting lip with its cold smudgy strip where the matches sparked.’ It’s an unobtrusive moment, but the horror of what is unfolding is already present in the rhythm of the sentence. Everything in the novel is carefully observed: blood is ‘cola-coloured’; a block of mauve on the horizon is ‘either Ayrshire or a stand of cumulo-stratus’. He and his father, the novelist William McIlvanney, share some concerns: the contest between morality and honour, strength and toughness; the pressures of very masculine societies; an affection for Glasgow, a city where ‘even the Catholics … are Calvinist’ – though these aren’t topics monopolised by the McIlvanneys. There are also set-piece descriptions of sport – boxing, bowling, golf, football, fishing – that bear comparison with the journalism of his uncle Hugh McIlvanney.

McIlvanney’s Lyons – ‘in a parliament of cloggers, he was Georgie Best’ – is an accomplished orator, ruthless operator and formidable presence. The novel is purportedly set during the second term of a devolved administration, yet it is emphatically not a roman à clef, though there are a few archly sketched background characters: a former Scotsman editor and stalwart of the Scottish Arts Council, wealthy siblings with media interests and so on. Lyons himself is, in some ways, too clearly fictional. It is also odd to read the novel after the SNP election victory of 2007, which has, if anything, further complicated the relationship between Ulster and Scotland. When Alex Salmond and Ian Paisley met at Stormont, to discuss co-operation between the devolved areas, it was ironic to see a politician committed to breaking up the United Kingdom beaming alongside another committed to preserving it at any cost.

The final scenes enact a piece of legerdemain revealing Scotland’s problematic relationship to its own sectarianism and the situation in Ireland. Scotland, as Conway notes, was ‘insulated from Semtex’; some people even

rued a little the ceasefires’ durability, the Armalite’s silence. We had followed the Troubles so closely for so long. There is something narcotic in watching a war unfold on your doorstep, knowing all the while it can’t harm you. It’s like taking in one of those fabled childhood mismatches – bear against wolverine, crocodile and shark – from behind a Plexiglas screen.

As he uncovers Lyons’s past, Conway uncovers a resentment of Scottish Loyalists: ‘He kind of annoyed folk, tell you the truth. This attitude. Bit of a know-all. The Jocks are like that sometimes, no offence. They think they know the score but they’ve no idea. Here’s this guy from Glasgow telling us what’s what and the most action he’s seen is a fight at the football.’ Lyons’s ultimate exposure is not motivated by a concern for the truth to be known or by ideology; rather, as in Mortal Causes, expedient criminality trumps terrorist commitment. Ireland collapses back into a sealed internecine war and Scotland remains a complicit bystander.

On either side of the sectarian divide, the idea of specifically Scottish paramilitary groups is deeply unconvincing. Ireland has the Easter Rising; Scotland has the theft of the Stone of Destiny. My own family myths (despite being called Kelly, I grew up a Protestant in the Scottish Borders, where the rivalry between Hawick and Gala transcended any knowledge of Rangers and Celtic) include a story about one Nationalist relative sent out to blow up pillar boxes with EIIR on them who met the Berwick rugby team by chance, got drunk with them instead and dropped the explosives down a drain. Early members of the National Party of Scotland included both Compton Mackenzie, a Catholic, Jacobite fantasist, and Hugh MacDiarmid, a Protestant, Communist atheist. Their Scotland did not feel besieged; it felt slighted.

Yet sectarianism was, and is, a lived reality: anyone who doubts it should look at the comments posted at the end of any account of an Old Firm game on a newspaper website. No one has written about the days of Clydeside factories and their production lines adorned with pictures of either King William III or the pope, when football supporting was encouraged by management, in the hope that it would substitute for the effective unionisation of the workforce. No one has unpicked the banal sociology of division – the etiquette of fish and chips and given names, the algebra of hooligan loyalties. Worst of all, Scotland’s masochistic fixation with sectarian concerns has enabled it to avoid thinking about racism, anti-semitism, the treatment of asylum seekers, poverty, homophobia and sexism. Scotland, as McIlvanney describes it, is still watching the Orangemen:

In most parades, the participants take their cue from the bands; you think of Rio, its swirl of sequins and ostrich feathers, the bobbing phalanxes of militant Sowetans, Pamplona’s neckerchiefed riau-riau dancers. And then there’s Scotland’s Orangemen. Here they come, in their Sunday suits, dark, with just that grudging flash of colour at the shoulders, step by dispassionate step, Bibles closed, umbrellas rolled. Lenten faces and tight, teetotal lips. It’s a carnival of restraint, a flaunting of continence. The music rolls past, sends out its invitation to swagger and reel. But the marchers step carefully on, unmoved, without the least roll of the hips.

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Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010

Stuart Kelly (LRB, 3 December 2009) describes Liam McIlvanney’s prose as ‘taut, lean, elegant’, those stock adjectives of contemporary critical praise. (When was the last time someone stuck their neck out to admire a bit of exuberant, extravagant, elegant writing?) It may be a fair assessment of McIlvanney’s style in general – I haven’t read the novel so I wouldn’t know – but if so, the sentence Kelly quotes can’t be typical: a lengthy, apparently superfluous description of an everyday object, thick with adjectives, adverbs and participles, and not a main verb in sight. I’ll take Kelly’s word for it that ‘the horror of what is unfolding is already present in the rhythm of the sentence.’ It may also tell us something about the quality of attention that the novel’s protagonist pays to things that most people overlook or take for granted. So it’s not a bad sentence. But the ‘taut, lean, elegant’ thing to have written would have been ‘a book of matches’, and to have left it at that.

Martin Sanderson

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London Review of Books
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