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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred