Away the Crow Road

Remembering Iain Banks, an intensely political writer.

The title of Iain Banks’s 1992 novel The Crow Road comes from a Glasgow expression: its hero tries to work out if his uncle Rory has merely vanished temporarily, or if he has gone “away the Crow Road”. It is a book preoccupied with death right from its showstopping first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (They forgot to remove her pacemaker before cremating her.) It is also, for my money, the best of Banks’s novels: warm, funny, dark and intoxicatingly imaginative.

Like many of the best sciencefiction writers, Banks – who died on 9 June from gall bladder cancer at the age of 59 – was intensely political. Unlike many of his peers, however, he dared to imagine utopias as well as dystopias. In his “Culture” series, he imagined a universe of superabundance, patrolled by infinitely wise artificial intelligences. There were no laws, no money and no death, unless you were tired of life. The recurrent question was: how would such a liberal, socialist society respond when it encountered others that didn’t share its values?

In Banks’s vision, the Culture developed a special taskforce to carry out “secular evangelism”, benignly meddling in the affairs of other, less evolved civilisations. The highbrow citizens of the Culture never had to get their hands dirty.

In real life, sadly, intervening in another society is neither that simple nor that innately benevolent. In 2004, Banks tore up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair to protest against the Iraq war (handily, this also allowed him to get out of foreign book tours). It was the culmination of three years of politicisation; unfortunately, this did not make for better art. Dead Air (2002) seems desperate to say something about 9/11 but never manages it; then it took Banks an unprecedented five years before his next book, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is marred by a multi-page slab of diatribe from the protagonist along these lines: “The US is a great country full of great people . . . It’s just their propensity as a whole for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the utmost depravity that I object to.” It carries on in this vein for several pages, and although it might have made a bearable newspaper op-ed, it doesn’t really belong in a novel about a family that invented a board game.

So, what will remain of Iain Banks? His science fiction, undoubtedly, for its scope and humour. And his three best literary works: The Bridge (1986), a multi-stranded hallucinatory narrative; Walking on Glass (1985), which is – and I use the technical literary term here – bonkers, albeit in a good way; and my own favourite, The Crow Road. This last book showed that even when Banks wasn’t in fantastical mode, telling a story set among spaceships or never-ending bridges, even when he was writing about the mundane, he could still make his subject feel magical.

Iain Banks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Leader: Brexit and the future of the UK

The UK is worth preserving, yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served.

The economic consequences of the Leave vote are becoming ever more severe. Rising prices, deferred investment and reduced vacancies all threaten prosperity and growth. The Conservative government’s signal that the United Kingdom may leave the single market has had the chilling effect that many warned of.

England and Wales can at least reflect that they voted for Brexit, but Scotland and Northern Ireland did not. By 62-38 and 56-44 respectively, both nations voted to remain in the EU. Now they face the prospect of a long, painful withdrawal. After the narrow vote against independence two years ago, Holyrood is understandably assessing its options. At the Scottish National Party’s conference in Glasgow, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to publish a draft bill for a second referendum on independence. “Hear this: if you think for one single second that I’m not serious about doing what it takes to protect Scotland’s interests, then think again,” she declared.

When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK, David Cameron had already promised to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that the vote would be won. The ensuing result and the UK’s likely withdrawal from the single market entitle the SNP to hold a second referendum. Should Britain leave the EU without having secured a new trade agreement with its former partners, Scotland’s economy would inevitably suffer.

Senior SNP figures are considering a pre-Brexit referendum in the hope that they would inherit the UK’s vacated seat in the bloc. That might be wishful thinking. “Twenty-seven [member states] would become 28 again,” said Mike Russell, the SNP’s Europe minister. A vote could be staged in the two years between the government invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the UK’s anticipated withdrawal.

As well as the Scottish Question, there is the Irish Question to consider. The risks posed to Northern Ireland and the republic by Brexit are greater than those facing Scotland. The UK is one of the republic’s largest export markets, with €1.5bn of transactions each week. However, it is the political fallout on the island of Ireland, rather than the economic consequences, that should trouble us most.

Although the prime ministers of both countries have ruled out the return of a hard border between the north and south, the Leave vote has undermined the peace settlement. The principle that no change should be made to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people has also been imperilled. In Northern Ireland as in Scotland, the problem remains a UK that exaggerates the power of an overmighty England.

For Theresa May, the disunities within the kingdom are a threat and an opportunity. We have long argued that the UK, the most centralised state in Europe, should fully embrace federalism, with far greater powers devolved from Westminster. The UK, perhaps the most successful multinational state in modern history, is worth preserving. Yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served. Brexit makes this task not merely desirable, but essential. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood