Friday, 1 September 2017

The great Scottish writer, Gordon Williams, has died - and I want to know where all my copies of his books went!

Gordon Williams is one of the great neglected novelists of our time. Go on - admit it - you've never heard of him, and it's not your fault. To show just how neglected he was, this is from his obituary in today's Telegraph:
In 1998, when the Guardian included [Williams] in a piece about neglected writers, along with the question “Where is he now?”, Williams recalled that the paper had asked the same question five years earlier while he was actually doing research in its newsroom: “I’d even been out for a drink with the arts editor who wrote the piece.”
The reasons for his lack of celebrity are complex, but I can demonstrate the main one... listing the Gordon Williams novels I used to own - every one of which has disappeared off my shelves during the last 35 years, despite my not having donated or thrown out any of them!

The Camp (1966): A tough, serious novel about a conscript's experiences in an RAF camp in Germany in the mid-1950s.

From Scenes Like These (1969): The unrelentingly grim tale of a young man working on an unrelentingly grim Scottish farm after WWII - drunkenness, violence and loveless sex abound. Believe it or not, it's a masterpiece. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Williams was so convinced it would win that he and his wife had already spent the £5,000 on a new bathroom: he was mortified when it lost - "When my name wasn’t read out I was bloody pissed off.”

The Siege of Trencher's Farm (1969): Later adapted as the film, Straw Dogs. Williams wrote it in nine days, just for the money. It's brilliant. (There's no rape scene, and Williams hated Peckinpah's film version.)

Walk, Don't Walk (1973): A very funny novel about a British author doing a publicity tour of the States.

Big Morning Blues (1974): A superb semi-comic novel set in the sleazy, boozy literary, journalistic, criminal milieu of early '70s Soho. A real delight.

Hazell and the Three Card Trick (1977): Written as P. B. Yuill, this was one of four very readable collaborations with the footballer Terry Venables, about a London private eye, which were later turned into a successful TV series.

To lose track of one of these could be dismissed as carelessness - but all six? Sinister, I call it.

Now you can see the main problem - sheer variety. Williams also ghosted a number of soccer books (with Bobby Moore and Denis Law, among others), and even wrote three science fiction novels for my old employer and publisher, New English Library. Williams was a restless, gregarious chap, a boozer (although he eventually gave up the drink) who hated the loneliness of writing. A hard-nosed, working-class Scot with a background as a journalist on provincial newspapers, he simply didn't fit in with London's elite literary set (his father was a Glasgow police constable, for God's sake!). In the '80's, tired of writing novels, he turned his hand to television drama, adapting other writer's novels, and scripting a drama-documentary, in which he played a journalist researching the death of the boxer, Randolph Turpin (which I'd love to see).

I remember a TV documentary about Williams in the early '80s, which showed him working with Terry Venables (who supplied background detail and, surprisingly, came up with most of their plots), tapping away at a TV adaptation of a Gerald Durrell novel (I think), and getting entertainingly pissed with other Scotsmen on the sleeper back home from London. I can't find any reference to it in the obits, but I remember it vividly - I even recall him ticking off a restaurateur for getting the title of Big Morning Blues wrong. It might have been a South Bank Show, because Melvyn Bragg was a great admirer - Bragg praised the "“tremendously fierce truthfulness” of Williams's fiction, and I'd certainly go along with that. Here's an example, quoted in the Telegraph:
'In an article in the Glasgow Herald in 1982, [Williams] observed that the “little quirks” of the Scottish character, “namely obsessiveness, megalomania, suicidal guilt, paranoia, cowardice when sober, and loudmouth hostility in drink, a fetish for minutiae and unquestioning drudgery as a defence against headaches from using our brains, and a belief that conversation is a series of interruptions, are exactly those required for novels”.'
I see that the Telegraph obit is hidden behind a pay-wall, but there's another good one in The Guardian. I'm delighted to report that several Gordon Williams novels are available on Amazon, including The Camp and Big Morning Blues (they weren't the last time I checked), both of which I'd strongly recommend.

The book which actually won the Booker Prize in 1969 was P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For, which I haven't read. But here's the book which, I suspect, should have paid for Mr. and Mrs. Williams's bathroom. (In case I forgot to mention the fact, it's unrelentingly grim.):

And if you happen to be the blighter who half-inched or was leant any of my Gordon Williams novels - could I have them back? Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. When I was a boy I had a close friend called Aitken Hutchison. When Aitken was about 14 years old his father was appointed to the post of CEO of Raleigh Industries, then a listed company, and the family moved from Scotland to Nottingham. Aitken was then sent to an extremely minor public school called Whittlebury .

    Aitken, whose name was later abbreviated to Ken for the purposes of advancing his acting career, got his first movie role in the film of the Gordon Williams book, 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm'. He had to pretend to enjoy, under the direction of Mr Sam Peckinpah, the rape of Susan George.