Banks was like Sir Walter Scott: a writer able to present a new image of Scotland to the wider world, says Rory Olcayto
I was gutted when Iain Banks died in June this year. Gutted because he seemed like a friend, in that what he wrote about was so familiar to me, it felt as if we must have seen and felt the same things.
Banks wrote about politics, culture and technology, stuff I was interested in when I first picked up one of his novels (Walking on Glass, in 1988) and which I’m still interested in today, but the twist was that he set his stories in places I knew well, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and even, on a couple of occasions, my own home town.
I can still remember my surprise when I began 2002’s Dead Air, (admittedly not one of his best) and read that the rather unpleasant lead character ‘grew up in the prim grid of sunny, south-aspected Helensburgh’, because Banks had already trodden this ground in a previous novel. The Gonzo hack in 1993’s Complicity kicks off that fearsome thriller watching CND protesters launch speedboat attacks on the Trident nuclear submarines (pictured) arriving at the naval base at nearby Faslane.
‘I’m standing on the roof of an empty freight container on a bit of waste ground near the shore in a village called Rosneath, looking out over the Gare Loch, watching Vanguard arrive,’ he wrote, a paragraph or so after his journalist anti-hero peers through binoculars ‘towards the shallow slant of Helensburgh’s grid-patterned streets’. Clearly Banks, who captures the Clydeside town’s sense of place with casual ease, took a fancy to its charms. But then Banks took a fancy to many Scottish places, none more so than the Forth Rail Bridge, which loomed over his childhood in North Queensferry. It was immortalised in his 1986 novel The Bridge as a giant version of itself, a city-sized construction with its own government, streets and weird, inscrutable citizens. The book’s protagonist is actually comatose - following a car crash on the Forth Road Bridge - and his vision a complex fever dream.
In this way Banks was like Sir Walter Scott: a writer able to present a new image of Scotland to the wider world that has relevance and resonates far beyond the shores of the Clyde and Forth (Like Scott, Banks really was an ‘international best seller’). Indeed, because Banks was nerdy and liked in-jokes, and continuity too, Complicity begins in Rosneath, which is where Scott’s Heart of Midlothian ends, and both spin webs of intrigue between the Scottish west coast, east coast Edinburgh and Sassenach London.
By showing his characters using new technologies, engaging in politics, and making witty insights, Banks made Scotland feel central to an emergent global culture. And he showed that the goings-on in the Central Belt were just as relevant, maybe more so, than those of north-west London and the Home Counties.
Yet, like his contemporaries who set stories in those places, most of Banks’s plots centre on the lives of the middle classes, office managers, media folk, trendspotters, lighting designers, who live in boutique crash pads with secured lobbies and suburban villas with gravel driveways. This in itself is a worthy achievement, given most new Scottish fiction by the likes of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh dwells exclusively on working-class life.
Banks’s greatest skill, however, which I’ve touched on already, was his ability to conjure the genius loci, as in this simple sentence from 1999’s The Business: ‘The Lexus hummed its way through the mirror-wet streets of Glasgow, heading east’. Mirror-wet streets? Only Banks could make Glasgow’s incessant rain feel so vital, sexy and damn futuristic.