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In memoriam: Iain Banks

June 10, 2013

IainBanksIain Banks (1954-2013)

In 1988 or thereabouts I won an impromptu Iain Banks lookalike contest. Then, as now, I was bespectacled and bearded, so there was some slight resemblance. However, the best thing about this name-droppy anecdote is that Iain Banks himself took second place. That’s right: I beat Iain Banks in an Iain Banks lookalike contest.

No one found this more amusing than the man himself, who died yesterday aged only 59.

I didn’t know him well. I’d read The Wasp Factory shortly after its paperback publication, and became a big fan after reading The Bridge. Our paths crossed a year or two later because of my involvement with the Edinburgh University Science Fiction & Fantasy Society. One of our members recognised Iain in the street (he had recently moved back to Scotland from London) and actually followed him home. Then he told me. So I sent Iain a letter on behalf of the society, something along the lines of: “We know where you live. If you want to know how we know, be at the Greenmantle pub at such-and-such a time on such-and-such a date.” To his credit, instead of calling the police, Iain turned up at the pub at the appointed hour to meet a small bunch of studenty strangers. Once we had allayed his suspicions by buying him a few beers, he was tremendously good company: smart, funny and friendly. My friends and I were star-struck to begin with, though we tried (probably over-hard) not to be – one of my companions even pretended to be Alasdair Gray – but Iain’s warmth and conviviality dispelled any awkwardness. After a few more drinks, he agreed to appear at a meeting of the society. He came along on a Thursday night and read the story “Road of Skulls” (which later became the “opening track” of his collection The State of the Art) to a rapt audience of fans packed into a cramped seminar room. He answered questions thoughtfully and entertainingly. He came to the pub with us afterwards, where it was made clear that he was welcome to drop by any time. From time to time he did so, to the delight of us all. On one of those occasions the aforementioned lookalike contest took place. He was, as ever, a good sport, and bore his defeat with dignity and good humour.

Those days are a quarter of a century gone – lost in time, indeed. In 1992 I left Scotland for what was supposed to be one year but turned out to be ten. I didn’t keep in touch with Iain, nor indeed with most of my erstwhile Edinburgh friends and acquaintances. Nevertheless, I continued to read Iain’s books. I don’t rate them all equally highly, but the best are marvellous. If anyone out there hasn’t read a Banks novel, start with The Wasp Factory, or maybe The Crow Road, and then turn off all your twittering devices and give The Bridge your undivided attention. For the SF, there’s no better place to go than the wide-screen literary pyrotechnics of Consider Phlebas.

But I’m not a reviewer, and this post isn’t really about Banks the writer; it’s about me recalling my youth, and in particular remembering the good times my friends and I spent drinking and conversing with Iain the man. It seems every tribute I’ve read in the last 24 hours says what a “good bloke” he was. Well, it’s true; he was.

Two things I’m going to do right now. First, pour myself a dram. Looking in the whisky cupboard, I see I have a bottle of 10-year-old Isle of Jura. That will do. Second, I’m going to fire up some Dr Feelgood. For those who don’t know, Dr Feelgood’s legendary guitarist Wilko Johnson is another splendid gentleman (whom I’ve sadly never had the pleasure of meeting) who’s facing the end, as Iain did, with inspiring humour and spirit.

Cheers, Banksie. Cheers, Wilko. Slàinte mhath, everyone. Remember to live every day as if it’s your last.

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