Yesterday we lost one of our greatest writers, but also a great man, one who met success and failure, the best and worst of times, with the same self-deprecating sense of humour and quizzical mind. He refused to take himself too seriously, and was wary of others who did just that. I heard him speak many times, and he was always happiest telling anecdotes and tall tales. He wanted to entertain as he could leave it to the books themselves to inform.
When the chat turned to more serious and probing questions about his work he would usually deflect it with a one-liner, before returning to talk about the things which were interesting him at the time. It was like being in the pub with a wise and witty uncle who had thought more deeply about life than you would ever manage. He sometimes came across as world weary, but I’m sure that was at least partly a pose. He found wonder in the everyday, and in people, and refused to give up on human nature despite the barrage of evidence to prove otherwise. Although at times it was close.
I once asked him about having a ‘strong moral centre to his novels which is based in a non-theistic belief system’. He replied, ‘I have no idea about that, but it sounds like it would make a great PhD thesis’. Thankfully I took him seriously, whether he meant it or not, and followed his advice.
What did I conclude? That all you need to know about Iain Banks can be found in his novels. There are few writers who wear their heart on the page as he does. His books are full of political rants, explosions of anger, declarations of love, crippling regret, moments of enlightenment, and some spectacular violence. In that sense all his books are fantasy, as he admitted that such actions are what he would have done if he wasn’t the gentle and caring man he so obviously was. You can read his state of mind, and what was on his mind, at specific times depending on which novel you pick up.
If you read Complicity for instance, it is a brutal novel, with a serial killer disposing of the great and the not so good in the most imaginative and gruesome fashions. This was a time when Banks was disillusioned with the whole political process. It was written in 1994, just after the Tories were voted in to power for the fourth consecutive term. Banks, like most of Scotland, was devastated by this result. But instead of tuning out, dropping out, and giving up politically, as many of his contemporaries did after ’93, at least in their fiction, Banks got angry. Furious, actually, and Complicity is seething. When interviewed about the violence in the novel by Spike Magazine, he said:
‘There’s a moral point to that ghastliness, pain and anguish. Which is why I would absolutely defend Complicity’s extreme violence, because it was supposed to be a metaphor for what the Tories have done to this country.’
That novel saw Banks at his most cynical, but it still had a moral point. Most of his novels deal with exposing hypocrisy, greed and deception, but they also have an individual at their heart finding their own truth, and that is where the hope lies. Banks had little time for the big institutions of political parties, organised religion or large corporations, and he attacked them on a regular basis, but he remained inspired by the ability of the individual soul to survive and thrive. People just had to make their own path.
This is how Banks saw life; a journey where responsibility for an individual’s actions lie solely with themselves. There are always reasons and situations why people may act as they do, but he believed that you can always choose to be your own person, an individual who can make a stand, no matter how circumstances conspire against you. Your life is not pre-ordained, you can always change it. That is never more clear than in The Wasp Factory, but this idea is to be found throughout his novels. Such a life is a struggle, at times a lonely one, but worth it every time. On almost every subject on which he spoke, or wrote, Banks did so for himself, never simply parroting a party line, even if there was a party he believed in at the time. Morality, individuality and responsibility. That’s what he believed in, and it’s in every novel he ever wrote.
As Neil Gaiman said in today’s Guardian about Banks’ books, ‘Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing’. Banks was a man who always trying to be better, as a writer, but more importantly as a human being. The moral centre that I asked about in his fiction was a reflection of his own. His atheism was humanist and understanding. He may have disagreed with you, but his mind was never closed. I argue in that PhD thesis that Banks could be described as an ‘engaged’ writer, as he knowingly wrote politically about the here and now. He engaged with his culture, as well as ‘the culture’, in a manner which few other writers manage; directly, passionately and rigorously. He caused readers to think, and think again. He will be sorely missed.
Two years ago, when we had just started recording the Scots Whay Hae! podcasts, Chris Ward and I spoke for well over an hour, with the noted help of Alex Scroggie, about our love for Iain Banks and his work. You can listen to that here as a tribute to him, one which is a celebration of a great man and his work.