All The Colours Of The Town
by Liam McIlvanney
John Self positively reviewed this début novel from LRB and TLS contributor McIlvanney but was surprised that the book hadn't been reviewed in the press in the first couple of weeks of its release. It has since been reviewed in The Scotsman but that seems to be about it. The only other area in which it is receiving attention is on Amazon, where publishers Faber have made it available to reviewers who are part of the Vine programme. There has been a generally positive response and I'm happy to add my own voice to that, especially as a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Troubles couldn't really have been further away from my radar. I'm being immediately unfair in describing it in those terms, I don't mean to suggest that this is genre fiction, merely that if it hadn't been for John or Vine I wouldn't have been likely to pick it up and I'm glad I did.
There are a few elements to this book which feel so close to cliché that I was a little worried when I began. Gerry Conway is a newspaper man in Glasgow, writing for the Tribune on Sunday, and fulfils many of the criteria you might expect: divorce, drink problem, unsatisfying career; check, check and check. McIlvanney's treatment of some of these manages to lift them away from being standard tropes of the format. Conway is on the wagon for instance, something we don't know until a lunchtime drink suddenly becomes significant, and the slow accumulation of alcohol and the ease with which he slips back into his addictive behaviour is well handled, keeping pace with the descent into the murkier reaches of the plot.
So what of that plot? It begins, as it always should in a newsroom, with a phone call. For Conway, a few days away from a short holiday with his sons, work is something to be avoided, not to mention the apathy that comes from experience.
Every day they plagued you. Cranks and timewasters, slanderers and fantasists. Breathless grievance merchants. Whispering grasses. People with the inside dope, the horse's mouth, on various ministers and mandarins. Rumours and smears and did-you-hear-the-one-abouts so-and-so. They floated this stuff on blogs, but it wasn't enough. They need the validation of a forty-point head-line, the tangible tarnish of newsprint.
But the tip when he finally opens his eyes to it is potentially huge. A politician on the way up would create huge headlines if he was to be brought down, and the combination of politics and sectarian violence makes the revelations potentially explosive. The close connections between Scotland and Ireland are particularly well rendered. Sometimes this is in the complex web of political and social ties, sometimes it is the simple proximity of the two nations. One character is described as slipping 'back and forth between Ireland and Scotland like the phantom 'e' in whisky', such a clever and evocative sentence. There is also a touching moment where Conway whilst in Ireland is able to talk to his son on the phone, the 'block of mauve' that he thinks might be Scotland in his sights. His boy of course wants to know if his dad saw him waving from the window.
'Of course I did.'
'Are you waving back?'
'Yeah. I'm waving.'
'I didn't see you.'
'Of course you didn't. That's because it's foggy over here.'
This is a small moment of light in what is naturally a fairly dingy book. What I found very convincing was the subtle change of perspective for Conway. It begins with a certain misty-eyed respect for what divides religious observance or football supporters in his hometown, as he watches Scotland's Orangemen march.
I like the Walk. I know you're not supposed to. I know it's a throwback, a discharge of hate, a line of orange pus clogging the streets of central Scotland. But I like it anyway. I like the cheap music, its belligerent jauntiness. I like the crisp gunfire of the snares. I like the band uniforms and the hats and the apocalyptic names stencilled on the Lambeg drums: Craigside Truth defenders; Denfield Martyrs Memorial Band; Pride of Glengarnock Fifes and Drums...It's a carnival of restraint, a flaunting of continence...All except for the drum major, who dances enough for everyone. He takes up the shortfall, whirling and spinning, knocking himself out. All their sinful urges, all the demons of the tribe: he takes them into himself and dances them out.
When this same event erupts into violence it is the first of many such encounters for Conway which bring him face to face with the brutal reality of sectarian hatred, a shocking wake up call which he not only feels personally but is also made personal by McIlvanney's insistence on keeping it specific rather than general, which would have been an easy trap to fall into with such a long burning issue at the book's heart. A slightly tougher editor could have got rid of the constant use of brand names, wine types and street locations (some of which I accept are integral and loaded with meaning, but many of which just felt like a tic) and some lengthy list-like descriptions. But in a strong début McIlvanney has tapped right into the power games that typify politics, media and violence; creating an atmosphere similar to that showcased in The Wire's final season; a male dominated world of intimidation, violence and secrecy where the thing that becomes most powerful is the truth.