Monday, 10 June 2013

Iain Banks: RIP

It's perhaps a tad unusual for a poetry blogger to be writing a memorial to the life of one of the UK's most unusual prose writers. But the sad loss of Iain Banks, who died on 9th June aged 59, has got me thinking about why the poetry I write sounds the way it does. The man's influence got into my writing, I think, more deeply than I ever realised.

I've been obsessed with stories and storytelling all my life, from long before I ever started writing poetry. There was a rather fantastical element to my favourite reading matter – fairy tales, Victorian novels, and Tolkien – and I have to confess that when I was younger I pretty much avoided contemporary fiction altogether. I was writing, all this time: fairy stories of my own, some of them of epic proportion. I used them as allegories – spaces where I could get to grips with the darker aspects of the world around me, to try to make sense of the struggles of the people I loved. I've always believed, as Tolkien did, that mythic storytelling is anything but escapism. It is full of symbolism, allusion and metaphor, a way of looking slant-wise at the world and of setting its tragedies and pains in a wider, more universal context.

It was rather a shock to the system to discover a contemporary writer who set his tales in the modern world, but had a way of telling them that was utterly faithful to the tradition of mythic storytelling with which I'd fallen in love. The BBC dramatisation of The Crow Road in the 1990s was my first encounter with Banks's quirky storytelling (I still maintain that “It was the day my grandmother exploded” is the greatest opening line in English literature), and I was captivated from the outset. There was an epic quality, not just about the sweeping Scottish landscapes of the story, but about the young hero's classic quest (in this case, to uncover the truth about the mysterious disappearance of his uncle some years before, opening up all kinds of dark family secrets on the way). The mixture of folklore and pop-culture which seasoned the story was an intoxicating combination for me. And for the first time, it made me realise that it was possible to tell a timeless tale in entirely modern language.

And that, really, is what I've been trying to do in my writing ever since.

Iain Banks was more than a cracking good storyteller, though. His descriptive writing was some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, in prose or poetry. There was something of the nature poet in Banks’s writing, a knack of capturing a place in a way that engages every sense. The opening paragraphs of Espedair Street, his roller-coaster faux-biography of an ageing, forgotten rock star, have haunted me for years:

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. I would walk and hitch and sail away from this dark city to the bright spaces of the wet west coast, and there throw myself into the tall, glittering seas beyond Iona (with its cargo of mouldering kings) to let the gulls and seals and tides have their way with my remains... or be borne north, to where the white sands sing and coral hides, pink-fingered and hard-soft, beneath the ocean swell, and the rampart cliffs climb thousand-foot above the seething acres of milky foam, rainbow-buttressed.

“Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is... just to try and explain.”

My own nature writing harks back to similar scenes – the shore, the deep ocean, even the Corryvreckan whirlpool (which also makes an appearance in that first paragraph) – and I've always tried, like Banks, to convey a sense that my reader is right there in that place, in the snapshot moment, smelling and tasting the tang of wind and sea-spray. I'm surprised now, when I revisit his prose, just how many echoes of him I find in my most recent poetry.

Tastes and tangs and the crazy soundscapes of life infuse Banks's descriptive writing. It's hardly a surprise. Banks was a malt whisky enthusiast of the highest order. He knew the spirit's capacity to surprise and astonish with its spectrum of flavours and fragrances. He also knew the futility of trying to pin down the character of a malt whisky. His non-fiction bestseller Raw Spirit wasn't really a "search for the perfect dram", despite the advertising slogan: it was an autobiographical road trip, a journey of self-discovery. That heightened capacity for sensory detail, honed through a finely trained whisky palate, was a gift that any poet would envy.

There's a Gothic aspect to Banks's novels which made it very easy for me to fall in love with them after an upbringing on fairy tales and Victoriana. The macabre murders in Complicity (the first Banks novel I read cover-to-cover) almost have something of the Brothers Grimm about them; the islands and open spaces and creaking ancient buildings where his stories are set could easily belong in the work of the Bront√ęs or Bram Stoker. Banks's characters have secrets, personal tragedies, enormous unspoken sadness, which make them grotesque and compelling at the same time. They are the sort of characters I have been trying to fathom out in all my writing, from my first teenage epics to my most recent prize winning poems. But it's his eye for the small details which make their awful dramas resonate. In The Steep Approach to Garbadale, a dream-like fixation with the description of an old coat becomes a chilling foreshadowing of the wearer's suicide:

“The coat is too big for her, drowning her; she has to double back the cuffs of the sleeves twice, and the shoulders droop and the hem reaches to within millimetres of the flagstones. She rubs her hands over the waxy rectangles of the flapped external pockets... The door slams shut behind her, leaving him where he's been for some time now, screaming unheard at her, silently and hopelessly, begging her not to leave.”

What I love most of all about Banks, though, is that his writing bursts with an unstoppable compulsion to tell stories; and it's that compulsion that makes the tales so vibrant, so addictive. The plots may be fantastical, the settings might read like something from Robert Louis Stevenson or Daphne du Maurier, but they're infused with satire and social comment which brings a realness to them despite the preposterous excesses of their characters. If Banks ever guest-featured in one of his own novels, for my money it was in the guise of Kenneth McHoan, the storytelling father of The Crow Road – the curmudgeon with a romantic streak, blasted off the face of the earth by a lightning bolt on a church roof, leaving the memory of endless tall tales behind:

“ 'The rich merchant was very powerful, and he came to control things in the city, and he made everybody do as he thought they ought to do; snowball-throwing was made illegal, and children had to eat up all their food. Leaves were forbidden to fall from the trees because they made a mess, and when the trees took no notice of this they had the leaves glued onto their branches... but that didn't work, so they were fined; every time they dropped leaves, they had twigs and then branches sawn off. And so eventually, of course, they had no twigs left, then no branches left, and in the end the trees were cut right down... Some people kept little trees in secret courtyards, and flowers in their houses, but they weren't supposed to, and if their neighbours reported them to the police the people would have their trees chopped down and the flowers taken away and they would be fined or put in prison, where they had to work very hard, rubbing out writing on bits of paper so they could be used again.'

“ 'Is this story pretend, dad?'

“ 'Yes. It's not real. I made it up.'

“ 'Who makes up real things, dad?'

“ 'Nobody and everybody; they make themselves up. The thing is that because the real stories just happen, they don't always tell you very much. Sometimes they do, but usually they're too... messy.' ”

I have to leave this tribute on that thought – and with the awareness that the world has lost one of its most original and idiosyncratic storytellers, a poet in his own outlandish way. The great man is away the Crow Road; and may the journey ahead be a bright one.

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