Iain Banks, 1954-2013

The Bridge


      ‘You know,’ he said, ‘if I had my way I wouldn’t let anybody who believed in star signs or the Bible or faith healing or anything like that use electric power, or ride in cars and buses and trains and aircraft, or use anything made of plastic. They want to believe the universe works according to their crazy little rules? OK, let them live that way, but why should they be allowed to use the fruits of sheer fucking human genius and hard work, things produced only because people better than them once had the sense and the hope to – will you stop laughing at me?’ He glared at her. She was shaking with silent laughter, her pinkly quivering tongue poised to lick another paper. She turned to him, eyes glistening, and held out a hand.

      ‘You’re just so funny, sometimes,’ she said.

– Iain Banks, The Bridge


But the conclusion [of The Bridge] has more coherence and commitment than [Alasdair Gray’s] Lanark; and precisely here lies the significance as an example of dystopia struggling to become a more positive vision. Alex comes out from coma, months later; Andrea sits by his side; ‘Welcome back,’ she says, and Alex, perhaps now changed, more assertive about his life and his roots, less willing to be detached, simply and laconically answers, ‘Oh Yeah?’. Is this cautious optimism; will Alex find life worth living in Scotland, but now on his own more confident terms? What Banks suggests, as so often with his protagonists at the end of their stories, is that they stand on a threshold in a new Scotland; a sign of the times. Lanark and The Bridge are important markers of a move towards cautious optimism.

– Douglas Gifford, “Scottish Fiction Since 1945 II”, Scottish Literature


      Elvis Presley died, but he cared more that Groucho Marx died in the same week. He bought albums by the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Damned, glad that something different and anarchic was happening at last, even if he listened to the Jam, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen more. He still knew some people at the university besides Stewart, including some in a couple of small revolutionary parties. They’d stopped trying to get him to join after he’d explained he was utterly incapable of following a party line. When China invaded Vietnam and they had to try and prove that at least one of them wasn’t a socialist he found the resulting theological contortions wildly amusing.

– Iain Banks, The Bridge


The system we have at the moment does not reflect the way Scots really feel. It does sometimes come down to very specific issues: I’ve talked to a number of Scottish writers in particular, and we all felt that we would vote for independence purely never to be part of any more unnecessary illegal, immoral wars.

The question of independence only really became germane with the end of one-nation Conservatism and the Labour party stopping being the Labour party when it became New Labour and pro-privatisation. A lot of Scots would vote for nationalism just to save our already semi-independent version of the National Health Service.

– Iain Banks, “Scottish independence: divorce makes sense for both parties”, The Guardian, 17/05/2013


      They went to bed, drank the last of the Laphroaig she’d brought, and sat up singing songs like Wichita Lineman and Ode to Billy Joe, with the lines changed – regardless of whether they scanned or not – to make them Scottish (‘I am a lineman for the County-Counsell…’, ‘…and throw them in the muddy waters off the Forth Road Bridge…’).

– Iain Banks, The Bridge


– Off The Page, STV, 1989


      Was Fergus Urvill anywhere, still? Apart from the body – whatever was left of him physically, down there in that dark, cold pressure – was there anything else? Was his personality intact somehow, somewhere?

      I found that I couldn’t believe that it was. Neither was dad’s, neither was Rory’s, nor Aunt Fiona’s, nor Darren Watt’s. There was no such continuation; it just didn’t work that way, and there should even be a relief in the comprehension that it didn’t. We continue in our children, and in our works and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash. To want more was not just childish, but cowardly, and somehow constipatory, too. Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.

      The belief that we somehow moved on to something else – whether still recognisably ourselves, or quite thoroughly changed – might be a tribute to our evolutionary tenacity and our animal thirst for life, but not to our wisdom. That saw a value beyond itself; in intelligence, knowledge and wit as concepts – wherever and by whoever expressed – not just in its own personal manifestation of those qualities, and so could contemplate its own annihilation with equanimity, and suffer it with grace; it was only a sort of sad selfishness that demanded the continuation of the individual spirit in the vanity and frivolity of heaven.

– Iain Banks, The Crow Road


When my gran died in late 2011, it was the first death of an immediate family member – anyone I’d ever been close to, in fact – of which I’d been conscious, the last such death in my lifetime having been that of my other gran, when I was little over a year old. It came at the end of an emotionally gruelling three months of, aptly enough given the circumstances in which I write this, cancer treatment, which obviously proved unsuccessful.

Never having had to deal with this kind of situation before, or knowing what my role in the proceedings was supposed to be, my immediate reaction was to turn to The Crow Road, one of the greatest books ever written in Scotland on death, and what it means for our own awareness of our place in the universe, and how the here and now and family and friends are the things that matter.

I printed out some of the section excerpted above (none of the stuff about there not being a heaven or anything – that was not the time to have that conversation with my Catholic family) and stuck it in a photo frame alongside a picture of me and my gran at my graduation from the Scottish Literature department of the University of Glasgow, where the attainment of my undergraduate degree was aided in no small part by my having written my Honours dissertation on Banks, and presented it to my mum the day before the funeral. It was all I could think to do.

Were relations with my family considerably more strained than they are, I’m sure I would have thought of Banks as a kind of father figure, one who sent dispatches on How To Be Good roughly once per year. From first reading The Wasp Factory in high school after trading a teacher’s copy for the first season of Six Feet Under on DVD, through to binging on his collected works over the course of one long summer to write the aforementioned dissertation, Banks was very much a guide to young adulthood for myself and, I’m sure, a vast number of other young Scots.

Given some of the sentiments expressed above by Banks himself, I’m sure you’ll understand if I seem reluctant to break out platitudes like ‘rest in peace’ or ‘he’s gone to a better place’. What I will encourage you to do is devour any and all of his work that you can get your hands on. I’ve leaned heavily on The Bridge and The Crow Road above, but that’s only because they’ve had such a particular impact on me. There is an embarrassment of riches in Banks’ prolificacy, and it is through that work’s continued reading that a great man will live on.