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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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