Gordon Williams, formerly Gordon M. Williams: born 1934, educated at the John Neilson Institution in Paisley. Worked in Scotland as a farm labourer and newspaper reporter before undergoing National Service in Germany with the RAF. Has worked as a novelist for 16 years, based mainly in Soho but with a spell of rural isolation on the edge of Dartmoor. Two of his novels have been filmed, one of them netting big money. Hobbies: drinking, day-dreaming (Scottish style) and soccer …
Thus Gordon Williams’s biographical dossier up until a year or so ago, and the point of listing it in this bald way is that almost no part of it could not be deduced from a reading of his novels. Williams treats his life as a kindly doctor might treat an incurable disease: there is nothing to be done about it, but science, humanity, other sufferers lucky enough to be caught in the early stages, might well benefit from an exhaustive study. Episode by episode, Williams has chronicled the ailment’s deadly progress. We get farm-labouring in From Scenes Like These, newspapers in The Upper Pleasure Garden, National Service in The Camp, Soho low-life in Big Morning Blues, Dartmoor in The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, Hollywood big money in Walk Don’t Walk. We are never allowed to lose sight of the unifying symptom – what it’s like to be like Gordon Williams:
In the adjoining bathroom the face in the mirror was the familiar lump of pale disorder. Each day the daft drunkard wakes in dread of fearful punishment for unremembered crimes. Nobody with a face like that is destined to make a hundred thousand dollars. It’s the soiled face of a fish-and-chip eater, of a nicotine-fingered, beer-breathing waster, a back-street basement face, ferrety and Celtic, shifty and cowardly.
This is hangover talk, of course, rock-bottom. In a short while, the Williams hero will start getting his act together, an act borrowed, to be sure, from books and movies, an act dreamed up in some back-street Glasgow basement, but nonetheless an act that has been known to work: smart-talking hard man, laconic debunker, creative but not wet, worldly but not stingy, tough but feelingful, randy but only when it suits him, big drinker but have you ever seen him drunk, etc, etc. Is the true curse of the Scot that this is the act he is brought up to revere, or would his essential melancholia disable him whatever act he tried to pull? Time and again in Williams’s novels, the task of the Scots hero is to assemble one or another of these masks out of the ruins of the night before – invariably with the help of a few trusty Dewars. And the secret always is, of course, that only he knows that they are masks. For the Williams persona, other people come into the world ready-made: the phoneys, the drips, the toffs, the English – the thing about them is that they are simply like that. Only he (and those who suffer from his special curse) is dramatically other than he seems, and this is the uniquely Scottish boast, the Scottish burden:
As he stood at the bar, he could feel his ears red with shame. He bought himself an extra beer, which he drank at the bar. The truth was that he was a bigmouth liar, a coward, a virgin, a spotty nineteen year old who tried to make out he was a hard man but didn’t have the guts to fight: a gawky streak of wind and water, feeble when sober, slobbering after a few beers. He lived in a dream world where he was bigtime. If he saw a cowboy picture he was Alan Ladd until the next picture, then he was Jack Palance or Gary Cooper or whoever the hell. He decided he would never speak to anyone at the table again, not a word. He would be vicious about it. They’d had their chance. He sank back in his chair, mouth twisted tight, and willed on a black depression.
This is from the National Service novel, The Camp, in which the would-be Glasgow hard man encounters a barracks load of actual Glasgow hard men. Williams’s ambivalence here reminds me of what happened to my own patriotism on my first visit to a Rangers/Celtic game. At some level, Williams keeps hinting that if you are Scots you will never be ‘big-time’: a fatal provincialism, a second-rateness has been bred into your bones. His portrait, in Big Morning Blues, of an internationally famous Scots playwright (now hopelessly boozed up, and blitzed by his inability to find a real style to go with his success) is perhaps his most complicatedly self-lacerating: there is a clear suggestion that the man’s downfall has more to do with Scotland than with him.
But then, on the other hand, who’d want to be an English pouf? There is no figure in Williams’s books who is both big-time and likeable: indeed, the plan in most of his novels is to surround the central Scot with caricatures whom he either (rightly) despises and makes mock of or (wrongly) has some fleeting envy for. Many of these are brilliantly drawn and quite a few even come close to drawing breath (I particularly like the Soho mob in Big Morning Blues, and some of the bleak rustics in From Scenes Like These; and the National Service novel has some walk-on parts that are blood-chillingly spot-on); for a writer who seems to travel past his minor characters at speed, Williams sees more of, and in, them than one might expect – but never quite enough, or never with quite enough patient curiosity to rescue them from the cartoon. They are there to measure the predicament of the man who really matters.
Similarly, although there is variety in his locations, Williams is nowhere as absorbed in what a place looks and feels like as he is in some stretches of From Scenes Like These – perhaps the one novel in which Scotland is made to seem worth visiting. Soho and New York are mainly viewed from the interiors of bars, and Germany has kraut bints and rock apes instead of trees and mountains. But then the Scottish curse, again, is to direct its victims towards other or inner worlds. Self-consciousness of this huge debilitating order will always assimilate nature to symbolic functions: is there such a thing as misanthropomorphism?
Where Williams is dense and detailed is in matters of culture: admittedly, a very specific early-Fifties, Scots-based culture, but his strength is that he makes no effort to spell any of it out. If you don’t know about the Broons or the three-Willies Rangers team, or whatever pop song held Glasgow adolescents in its grip, he’s not going to help you out. Similarly, there is a richness, a lack of concession, in his portrait of a lower-genteel Glasgow childhood: a weirdly crippling amalgam of snobbishness and brutality – or, looked at from a different angle, a two-way estrangement from both upward-striving parents and determinedly downward-striving schoolmates. From Scenes Like These explores this territory at length, but it is there in all his books – and it doesn’t always need a hangover to bring it flooding back:
Feeling frightened and stupid I was looking up at the slice of grey sky just visible above the Rookery rooftops when I became a child again in that one-roomed house in the tenement. I could never sleep well, not really sleep, not the way other people sleep and need an alarm clock, always awake and restless at the first noise or chink of daylight, never drowsy from the moment my eyes opened. Every second in bed after wakening was torture. I felt my bare feet on cold linoleum, aching to be out and doing something. My mother’s heavy bed, feeling my way round the kitchen table, teeth chattering if it was cold (I couldn’t remember any warm mornings), tugging at her bedclothes, moaning at the mysterious shape under the jumbled blankets until the shape finally stirs: the frightening smell of her.
In a recent Time Out, Gordon Williams announced that he was off the booze, and gave the familiar AA run-down on all the terrible things drink had done to him. It couldn’t have been easy for a hard man to do, but Williams did it with style (‘It has to be said that the bladder can only take so much bloody Perrier’). This is the one bit of his biography that has not yet been transmuted into fiction. No doubt it will be, but I hope his new resolve won’t lead him to renounce his drink-soaked early novels. It shouldn’t: for all their faults (and many of these faults are the result of racing against deadlines, I suspect), they are among the most genuine and entertaining British fiction to have appeared in the last couple of decades. Full marks to Allison and Busby for these three reissues: perhaps they will follow them with those others which have been allowed to go out of print.