William McIlvanney is accustomed to hearing his work described as 'ahead of its time' . He was writing tough vernacular novels of working-class Scottish life before Irvine Welsh was old enough to shave. Then in the early '80s he branched out brilliantly into noir crime fiction with his Laidlaw novels, but at a time when hardly anyone was taking the genre seriously (though among the people who did were the creators of Taggart, who borrowed liberally from his books). He even prefigured the new breed of thinking football writers, with a a great series of articles on following the Scottish football team to successive World Cups.
Five years ago it was all beginning to get to him, admits McIlvanney, a lean black-haired gent with a trim moustache and sharp blue eyes. We were talking over lunch, drinks, and more drinks on one of his infrequent visits to London. Back in 1991 he'd just written the third of his Laidlaw books, Strange Loyalties, a fine, angry detective novel in which the real crime turns out not to be a murder but a generation's loss of belief in the future.
"Strange Loyalties was for me the most disappointing book I've written", he recalls. "I felt I'd arrived at a destination I'd been trying to get to for years with my writing, but nobody appeared to notice my arrival. And I realised that going into detective fiction and doing something different with it didn't please a lot of readers. So I had to take a serious pause for thought after that, because I realised that the more I do this the more I'll be operating in a limbo which neither straight novel readers or genre readers will appreciate. So I decided to do something different. "
That something different has been five years in the making and is a novel called The Kiln. In a sense it"s a follow-up to Strange Loyalties in that that book looks around at life in Glasgow at the end of the '80s and poses the question - how the hell did things end up like this? The Kiln is in part an attempt to answer that question. But rather than write a panoramic social novel, McIlvanney has chosen to dig deep into himself and his own past, and focus on the year 1955, the year he changed and the world changed. The year he was seventeen and about to leave the mining town he grew up in behind, the year rock'n roll came to the Mecca ballrooms.
"I think the fifties get an unjustifiably bad press, " comments Mcilvanney. "The surface greyness of the fifties was like a patina on good metal: if you polish it, you'll see there's something there. The sixties broke the continuity that there was in working-class traditions. If you can kid yourself that all you need is love you're in deep trouble. In the fifties you still had a sense that you moved forward as a community."
The Kiln is a coming of age novel written by someone old enough to know what's going to happen next.. It also shows McIlvanney breaking new gound. For a start it's very funny book , not a quality one has always associated with his novels. It's also his most distinctively modern work to date, in the way that he playfully blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography. The narrator, Tom Docherty, turns out to be a writer almost indistinguishable from McIlvanney in age and background. .At one point Docherty even quotes one of McIlvanney's essays as his own. So, I wonder, is The Kiln essentially a canny attempt to write autobiography without attracting the attentions of libel lawyers?
."No," laughs McIlvanney. "Tom Docherty shares aspects of my life but is certainly not me. For a start the family history is not mine. But I took a deliberate risk, I suppose, in fictionalising my own life. Poeple will draw their own conclusions, but I felt as a writer if I sould take liberties with other people"s life stories, I should be able to take liberties with my own!
If The Kiln compares to anything in the recent cultural catalogue it's probably Peter Flannery's epic TV series Our Friends In The North. There's the same sense of surprise on encountering it, of thinking they didn't make them like that any more - serious stories of working-class life and history, that have not given up on the idea that things could have been different.
And there's same sense of relief that such works do exist. The eighties may have been a hard time for writers like McIlvanney but in the disillusioned nineties he looks more relevant than ever. There may be flashier and more extensively hyped novels to come out of Scotland ths year, but there's unlikely to be a better one than The Kiln.