In His Sunday Suit
- All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney
Faber, 329 pp, £12.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23983 2
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.
Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010
From Martin Sanderson
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.